Mobile broadband – the verdict

Britain has finally fallen in love with mobile broadband. A recent (slightly over-excitable) report from Top 10 claimed that if sales of mobile broadband continued at their current explosive rate of growth, it would overtake home connections by 2010.

Mobile broadband - the verdict

Read our reviews of the five networks below:

It’s not hard to see why it’s suddenly popular. After years of suffering from an ugly marriage of desperately slow connections and ludicrous tariffs, Britain’s mobile networks have finally delivered on the promise of affordable, high-speed data on the move – from as little as £10 per month.

With all five of Britain’s mobile phone networks now offering mobile broadband services, PC Pro decided to explore how their services work in the real world. Can you hold a connection on the train on the way to work? What are speeds like when you’re outside the “high-speed” 3G regions? And how fast do they upload as well as download data?

We’ll also reveal the hidden snags, and show how some mobile networks cheat on their connection speeds by compressing images – and how to turn this off. And we’ll also expose the punative penalties for stepping over the limited data caps imposed by the networks.

If you’re considering mobile broadband, make sure you read this feature to get a true picture of the joys – and nasty surprises – that lie ahead.

The first time you plug one of the USB dongles into your PC, it takes about a minute to realise you’re dealing with an unarguably ground-breaking piece of technology – as that’s precisely how long it takes most of these devices to install and connect to the internet. From opening the box to surfing the web in less time than it takes to boil a kettle. Incredible.

Unlike a home ADSL setup, there’s no barrage of ISP settings to enter into your router’s configuration menus. There’s no setting up of usernames and passwords or fiddling with security settings. You simply pop the provided SIM card into the device, slot it into your PC and off you go. All of the device drivers and associated client software are stored on the USB sticks themselves, and as soon as you’ve plugged it into your PC they set about automatically installing themselves.

With the exception of the Orange Business Everywhere software, all of them are ready to go straight after installation. Orange combines the most tortuous installation process of all (which still only takes around five minutes) with a need to restart the PC before you can head online. Yet, even this is a relatively modest cross to bear – you only need go through the installation process once on each PC, after all.

Another advantage of this truly plug-and-play technology is that you can use your broadband stick on however many PCs you please. You could slot the dongle into your work laptop for the daily commute, and then pop it into the laptop at home while you surf the web with a beer on the patio after a hectic day. It’s also a brilliantly effective backup for when your home broadband connection takes a tumble: instead of badgering the ISP’s helpline desperately trying to find out when the line’s going to be fixed, you can simply slot in your USB dongle and wait for normal service to resume.

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