Broadband Genie Road Trip 2009 provider round-ups

Editors note: We recently published the outcome of our latest Road Trip, a test of the UK’s mobile broadband providers which aims to put mobile internet under scrutiny in real-world conditions.

Virgin Media

2009 Awards: Overall Dongle on the Move Winner, Best Downloader Winner, Best Software Winner & Best Coverage runner-up

The Huawei E160 provided to us by Virgin Media was almost identical to the E160s provided by Orange and O2 (except for the software and colour scheme), while the company uses the T-Mobile network for its mobile broadband connection - so why did the Virgin Media dongle comfortably outperform all three? Perhaps its rivals will blame the wrong type of leaves being on the line.

The E160 is a sleek, classy looking dongle and Virgin Media's choice of a silver and matt black finish adds to the effect. Once popped into a USB socket the software installs immediately and we were ready to get online in just a couple of minutes, completely fuss free.

While the connection console won't win any cutting edge design awards, it displays everything you need in an uncluttered and easy to understand fashion. There's no need to mess around with any settings - there are techy options available for those that want them, but the average user can just click 'connect' and off you go. The main screen shows you upload and download speeds, both in numbers and via a graph, while daily, monthly and yearly usage is also displayed.

The Virgin Media dongle completed all but one of the Mobile Broadband Genie speed tests throughout the trip, and while its performance for uploads was average at best (including failing to upload an image to Facebook) its download performance was the best by some distance. It easily handled streaming video and audio, plus downloading podcasts, and consistently returned the top speed test results: its average was a third better than closest rival Vodafone, while being more than fifty per cent quicker than all the other dongles tested on this trip.

Virgin's E160 completed all the download and streaming tests either quickest or within a few seconds of its closest rival, walking away with the Best Coverage runner up award along the way. However, we did receive a high number of disconnections, which can be frustrating, especially in rural areas and through tunnels. That said, it had the speed to recover from these pitfalls even when downloads had to be restarted, still coming in faster than some of the slower dongles that managed to hold their signal. Overall, a very impressive performance and on this evidence clearly ahead of the field.


Vodafone

2009 Awards: Overall Dongle on the move runner-up, Best Coverage Winner, Best Uploader Winner & Best Downloader runner-up

Vodafone supplied us with the Huawei E172, notable for having a piece of string 'handily' attached to the cap. Attaching it the other end would seem far more sensible, as has been proven by the two we've had both having the string rendered useless by coming away from the cap, so that it just gets in the way. A nice idea, but badly executed. However, style aside, with Voda confidently advertising speeds of up to 7.2Mb, the quickest on the market at this time, we were expecting fireworks on our road trip.

When inserted into a laptop USB slot, the E172's software runs without any fuss and we were ready to get surfing within a couple of minutes. However, on subsequent uses it seemed a little temperamental to start up and had to be run by double-clicking the icon via 'my computer' – it didn't appear in the start menu either, or place a desktop icon, unlike the others we used.

Once you've got the user interface up and running, the software isn't the best on show either; we much preferred the software from T-Mobile, Virgin Media and Orange. For example, the front page wasted about 50 per cent of the available space with, well, nothing – just a big blank space. This area is used for a snazzy graph by Virgin Media and T-Mobile, who also do a much better job of displaying speeds and usage. The 'view usage' tab is nice though, letting you set your own limits by time or volume.


O2

2009 Awards: Most Stable Winner & Best Uploader runner-up

Three of the six mobile broadband providers supplied us with the popular Huawei E160 dongle, including O2. Maybe it's a male thing, but we certainly preferred the cool matt black finish of the Virgin Mobile and Orange models, compared to the glossy white of O2. Overall we had high hopes for O2 on this trip, as it seems to have one of the stronger reputations in mobile broadband.

The E160 is a sleek and stylish dongle, even in white. Once popped into a USB socket the software installs immediately and we were ready to get online in just a couple of minutes, despite a couple of erroneous messages from Windows advising us to restart the laptop.

As you'd expect from O2, the dongle software interface was simple, modern and attractive. But while it was the most visually pleasing of the six interfaces on show, it didn't really tell you an awful lot on the front end. For example, it was not clear which kind of connection you were currently connected with (3G, HSPA etc) and there was no obvious indication of top speeds.

Overall, O2's coverage fell quite a way short of some of its competitors, as it failed to complete a number of our Mobile Broadband Genie speed tests. However, the speed tests the E160 did complete returned relatively strong results, coming in third overall for downloads (which included streaming video and audio and downloading podcasts) and runner up in the Downloader category. However, for downloading, it was a long way behind the eventual winners.

While coverage was disappointing, stability was quite the opposite, seeing O2 walk away with the Road Trip's Most Stable award. The dongle held its connection excellently, even when there was no data transfer. It was nice not to be continually disconnected in the countryside and through tunnels, although speeds were a way off the top contenders, Virgin Media and Vodafone. However, if you just want to sit back and let your laptop download some data while you do something else, this could be the choice for you.


T-Mobile

2009 Awards: Best Software Winner

The T-Mobile 'web'n'walk Stick III' (otherwise known as the Huawei E170) we were sent looked like the runt of the litter when lined up against the competition, and sadly never really got out of the blocks in the testing either. This must be particularly galling for T-Mobile, seeing as the eventual winner (Virgin Media) piggybacks on its network.

The E170 is a real step down in the looks department from the E160, with the gloss finish making it look tacky into the bargain. There is a loop on the lid, presumably for a tie to be attached, but this is on the cap: seeing as the cap has a far from firm fit, this is a pretty pointless and ugly addition to an already plain looking dongle. On the plus side, once popped into a USB socket the software installs immediately and we were ready to get online in just a couple of minutes, completely fuss free.

While the connection console won't win any cutting edge design awards, it displays everything you need in an uncluttered and easy to understand fashion. There's no need to mess around with any settings - there are techy options available for those that want them, but the average user can just click 'connect' and off you go. The main screen shows you upload and download speeds, both in numbers and via a graph, while daily, monthly and yearly usage is also displayed.

As we mentioned earlier, T-Mobile never really got going in the testing. Both download and upload speeds were disappointing throughout the Mobile Broadband Genie speed tests, finishing mid table for download speeds (including streaming both audio and video, and downloading podcasts) and a distant last for uploads, although it did manage a reasonable time when uploading an image to Facebook. This included testing on the move, as well as at Bournemouth and London King's Cross. We were so surprised we checked the dongle in another laptop and got the same results.

The E170 from T-Mobile completed the majority of the streaming and download tests, but again overall speeds were poor. Both coverage and stability were average at best during the trip, and it struggled to recover from disconnects, leaving only the interface to write home about from this particular road trip.


Orange

2009 Awards: Most Stable runner-up

Orange provided us with a Huawei E160 dongle for our road trip – the same model as we were sent by overall road test winners Virgin Media, as well as O2. As you would expect from Orange there was plenty of black and orange packaging, as well as an “I am...” advert on the inside packaging, talking of illicit emails being sent on trains. Let's hope they didn't need to download any attachments...

This is a handsome looking dongle: sleek, matt black finish and orange detail make it look the business. Once popped into a USB socket the software installs immediately and we were ready to get online in just a couple of minutes, completely fuss free.

The Orange console that is automatically installed works fine, although doesn't quite match the one used by T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile. There isn't an awful lot in it, but we found having the connect button on a separate page from the other information you may want to keep an eye on (connection speed/type etc) was an annoyance. However, this is only a minor point in an otherwise thoroughly adequate and reliable piece of software.

But a pretty dongle and nice software do not good broadband make. While the Orange dongle managed to complete a good number of the Mobile Broadband Genie speed tests, it was in the bottom two of the six for every single one. In fact, in half the speed tests it completed, the upload speed was faster than the download speed. That said, it faired better in the practical tests, streaming and downloading well in two thirds of the trials we set out which included the use of YouTube, Spotify and downloading podcasts.

Even though the upload speeds doubled the download speeds, it still slipped behind Vodafone and O2 for a creditable third place. Coverage was also an issue, with several of the tests failed due to time outs or failures to load pages. However, it held its connection very well, being narrowly beaten into runners up spot by O2 for the Most Stable award. This combination of stability and coverage will certainly appeal to some, as on this evidence those needing a steady connection with reasonable upload times over a long journey should be reasonably satisfied with what Orange's E160 has to offer.


3

2009 Awards: none

We spend a lot of time at Mobile Broadband Genie moderating comments made by our users about their experiences with mobile broadband, and it's fair to say we weren't expecting too much from the Huawei E169G dongle 3 popped into the post to us. It arrived in a nice DVD-style box, well packaged and with some funky stick-on skins thrown in for good measure. So far, so good.

The dongle itself looks good too, being as sleek and stylish as its brother the E160 (sent to us by O2, Orange and Virgin Media) with a matt black finish. All you need to do is pop off the cap and install the dongle into a free USB port on the laptop and away you go.

Installation was straightforward and the interface was OK, without ever threatening to win any awards. But as 3 offers the cheapest deals around, no one is going to expect cutting edge software design. It really does look a bit eighties, but shows the relevant stats such as speed and what type of connection you have (3G, HSPA etc), even putting a little message up front in a separate window when the service disconnects, which some others don't.

The early stages of our road trip testing started out OK for 3, as the E169G picked up some reasonably average upload and download results from our Mobile Broadband Genie speed tests: nothing to write home about, but it certainly held its own with the other average performers - in fact it was only beaten by clear winner Virgin Mobile when we ran the speed tests at King's Cross station for download speed. However, in the practical tests (such as streaming audio and video content and downloading podcasts) it repeatedly failed to finish, and performing poorly when it did complete a task.

While the 3 dongle held its connection reasonably well through tunnels, generally coverage wasn't great and there were a disappointing number of disconnects. The relatively low price of the 3 service means many will still opt for it, but consumers should expect to get what they pay for. The provider didn't pick up any gongs in our road trip awards and on this evidence is hard to recommend on anything but price (for a travelling user) in its current incarnation.

Originally published on www.mobilecomputermag.co.uk, now incorporated into Broadband Genie
© Dennis Publishing

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