Like other mobile operators, Vodafone has for some time offered PC Card-based products that deliver 3G connectivity on the move. The new Vodafone Mobile Connect USB Modem takes things a step further: it's smaller and lighter than a PC Card and it self-installs on Windows PCs.
Available online and through selected Vodafone business stores, there are three tariffs: Data 250 (£25 a month, £99 for the modem, 250MB usage limit, £1 per MB over-limit charge, roaming at £3.50 or £8.75 per MB on preferred or other networks); Data Unlimited (£45 a month, £49 for the modem, no usage limit, roaming at £3.50 or £8.75 per MB); and Data Travel (£95 a month, £49 for the modem, no usage limit, 100MB free roaming on preferred networks, then £2 per MB, £8.75 per MB roaming on other networks).
The Vodafone Mobile Connect USB Modem is somewhat larger than a standard USB key: we measured it at 42mm wide, 88mm tall and 15mm thick. The oblong-shaped device is coloured bright white apart from Vodafone's silver and red logo and badge. An LED on the front glows in various green and blue configurations to indicate connection status: it blinks green and then remains on when the device finds and then connects to GPRS; the same pattern in blue tells you the 3G connection status.
There is a slot on one long edge for your SIM card, and a mini-USB connector on one short edge. The modem connects to your computer via a USB cable.
A cabled connection might seem fiddly, but in fact it's very practical, as the modem is too large to attach directly to a USB port without it preventing access to neighbouring ports. And if you should want to use the modem with a desktop computer, whose USB ports are often hidden away at the back, a cable will be welcome.
The Vodafone Mobile Connect USB Modem is in fact supplied with two cables. One is a shade under 200mm long and can be used with a USB port that can supply power to the modem. The other is longer -- roughly 900mm -- and double-ended at the computer end. This can be used if you are working with a self-powered USB hub that doesn't provide the modem with enough power through a single port.
The modem comes with a printed user manual and is supplied in a DVD-style case.
Features and performance
The Vodafone Mobile Connect USB Modem provides tri-band GSM, GPRS, EDGE and 3G wide-area wireless connectivity. It is also HSDPA compliant, and therefore capable of delivering up to 1.8Mbps in suitable conditions.
When used with supported versions of Microsoft Windows, it has a complete self-install system. The modem can also be used with Mac OS X 10.3.9 or higher, but you'll have to install it manually from a CD in this case. We understand that Windows Vista compatibility will be provided via a download from Vodafone's Web site.
We used a laptop running Windows XP to test the modem. We followed the instructions in the user guide, plugging the modem in and waiting for its software to install. The process took just 2 minutes on our test system.
When the installation had completed, the Vodafone Mobile Connect software ran automatically and informed us that Vodafone's 3G network was available. After hitting the Connect button we were online. If the system works as smoothly on every laptop as it did on our test system, installation requires absolutely no technical capability.
There are a few settings available: you can instruct the software to connect automatically whenever you attach the modem to your computer, and set the Vodafone Mobile Connect USB Modem as your default modem. There's a built-in usage monitor that can display both the time spent online and the amount of data accessed by the device, for the current and previous months.
Having set the software up to connect to the Internet automatically whenever the modem is plugged in, subsequent online sessions on our test system were initiated in around a minute if we had previously connected during a single computing session. Connections took around 90 seconds if we rebooted the machine between connections. Note that these timings will vary, depending on factors such as processor speed and other software running when you plug the modem in.
We completed a number of speed checks and found that we were able to consistently connect to the Internet at speeds of over 1.0Mbps. Of course, throughput will vary depending on local signal quality and the number of other users online at the time.
We found the single-ended cable a little short for our liking. The USB ports are on the back of our test laptop and the cable didn't stretch far enough for us to easily see the modem's flashing lights. This is a minor gripe, however, and easily solved by using the longer double-headed cable.
We are very impressed with the Vodafone Mobile Connect USB Modem. It couldn't be easier to install, delivers solid 3G data communications and is straightforward to configure. It's also smaller and easier to carry than a PC Card, and requires minimal technical competence to use.
Edited by Charles McLellan
Additional editing by Nick Hide