What difference does the dongle make?

It isn’t only the speed of the network that determines how fast your connection will be – your choice of modem can also make a big difference.

What difference does the dongle make?

The vast majority of the dongles supplied by the UK networks come from just one company – Huawei. In fact, O2 is the only Huawei hold-out, sticking instead to the single Ovation MC930D modem. Yet even the various Huawei models offer different levels of performance.

3, for example, provides the Huawei E160G and E156G USB modems for free on many of its contracts, but charges customers a £10 one-off fee for the E169G. When we asked 3 why it charged extra for that particular modem, it told us that the “E169G is capable of a higher throughput rate. Typical downlink rates would tend to be about 30-50% higher than with the E160G”.

Faced with the option of paying £10 extra for a 50% faster connection, most people would surely opt for the E169G. However, our real-world tests found that the E160G outperformed the more expensive E169G: the E160G was about 20% faster in our speed tests, racking up an average download speed of 2.3Mbits/sec compared with 1.9Mbits/sec on the E169G. Oddly, the E169G also had terrible trouble with 3’s wireless router, while the E160G performed superbly.

However, a look at the specs of the various Huawei modems reveals why that £10 extra for the E169G might be money well spent in the long-term. The E169G offers support for 7.2Mbits/sec HSDPA services, whereas the E160G is limited to 3.6Mbits/sec. While 3’s network currently runs at only 3.6Mbits/sec, planned improvements should see that speed increase over the next 12 to 18 months.

The E160 is currently the only choice of modem available on Virgin Mobile, while BT and T-Mobile both supply the E170, which is capable of 7.2Mbits/sec. Vodafone’s USB Modem Stick Pro (a rebadged Option K3760) supports up to 7.2Mbits/sec, while the Original USB Modem Stick (a Huawei E172) supports only 3.6Mbits/sec, which is slower than the headline speed of Vodafone’s existing 7.2Mbits/sec network.

Hockey-puck dongles

The USB stick modems have only really burst on to the scene in the past year. Previously, the networks supplied “hockey-puck” style dongles that connected to the PC via a USB lead. Are these older modems slower than the USB sticks? Yes, according to our tests. The E160G USB modem achieved an average download speed of 2.3Mbits/sec on the 3 network in our central London offices, compared with 1.5Mbits/sec on the older, external ZTE MF622 model. If you’re still using one of the external models, you should consider an upgrade when your contract next expires. Likewise, if you’re using a PCI data card.

Integrated modems

Many laptop and netbooks now come with integrated 3G modems, but how do these compare with the dedicated USB devices? In our tests of the Vodafone E172, compared with a Vodafone SIM in two different laptops, we found the USB modem still had the slight edge.

However, our anecdotal evidence is that it’s sometimes easier to get a connection in weak signal areas with an integrated modem, because the antennas are usually spread across the back of the screen on a laptop, as opposed to the limited surface area afforded by the USB modem.

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