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A trade journal of a still-emerging field, written by Adam Tinworth.

A very long time ago, I accepted a Three mobile broadband dongle for review. The experience was something of a mixed bag, with it rapidly proving useless once I travelled beyond major urban centres. Seven years is a long time in technology, though, and mobile broadband is now an essential part of my life – enough that I get a data connection for my iPhone AND my iPad as soon as I go abroad these days.

A few weeks ago, I was approached by Three again, this time to review one of their portable wifi hotspots the Huawei E5330. Now, I must confess in advance that in the years between the two review opportunities, I’ve become a Three customer, using their service for both my iPhone and my iPad. I no longer have any serious concerns about their network coverage.

Two things tickled my curiosity this time around:

  1. I’ve been wondering for a while if I really needed to be buying a 4G-capable version of the iPad (especially with the iPad Pro now on sale…). Could I save myself a bunch of cash next time around and just use a WiFi version with tethering from a MiFi-like device?
  2. While I often tether off my phone to give my laptop connection on the move, that has some very serious consequences for the battery life of the phone. And as any regular iPhone user knows, you don’t want to be eroding that battery faster than your have to.

The WiFi hub in your pocket

And you know what, technology really moves on, doesn’t it? All the faff of plugging a dongle in and connecting using specialist software is a thing of the past. Once your tiny ( and really pocketable) hub is charged up, you hit the on switch, and within a few seconds, you’re online. Apple’s habit of sharing your credentials between devices automatically meant that I didn’t even have to think about it, once I’d manually connected one device (although this was to have consequences, too…). My iPad happily grabbed the signal, but my phone did, too, unless I manually intervened. Open my laptop, and it was online, too.

Three mobile broadband in use

Despite my joy at the lack of dialler software, it’s well worth grabbing and downloading the phone app that supports the hub. It gives a bunch of extra control over the device – and a quick way of checking your allowance. And that, it transpired, is something that I should have done more quickly…

The connection speed was OK, without being remarkable. I’m spoiled by having 4G on all my devices, and the hub is restricted to 3G speeds – something I could distinctly feel on occasion. But on the coastway to London route I used the hub the most, I was able to get a reliable connection for most of the journey, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Well, until it all stopped working, that is.

One man’s insatiable appetite for data

Perhaps I should have restricted my use of the hub to my iPad – but no, I couldn’t resist using it to get my laptop online on my commutes into London (1¼ hours either way – but I normally get a table, so can get loads of work done.) And so I killed the 1GB allowance – in a week. It’s easy to forget how fast laptops can eat data, and that’s exactly what I did. Idiotically, I didn’t realise that the promised “massive” 12Gb of data allowance meant 1Gb per month, and that was that.

And I have to confess that I haven’t rushed to top it up, either. Once you move off contract, the data rates are actually pretty spicy. Certainly enough that I held back from buying more data that month, and slunk back to tethering from my phone, sucking up the battery hit, but enjoying the 4G speeds again.

Do I miss it? Yes. It was nice being able to just click the hotspot on and have working WiFi anywhere. Will I stay with the hub? No – not this one. If I’m going to pay for broadband like this, I’ll certainly go for 4G. 3G is yesterday’s tech, and access speed is important enough to me that I’ll pay a little more for it.

Conclusions

  1. Skip the Huawei E5330. Get the 4G capable E5573.
  2. Buy a more generous data plan if you plan on working with your laptop as well as your tablet.
  3. Actually, maybe the SIM-enabled iPad isn’t worth the money after all…