Mobile Internet

Access to the World Wide Web anywhere, anytime?

Having internet connectivity without being bound to a modem or telephone jack is the new freedom discussed in detail within this article. Development, technology, hardware, and comparitive tests will provide suggestions, hints, and tips for choosing notebooks and notebook accessories for internet connectivity via GPRS/UMTS.

Development

56k modems and ISDN cards won our love as they obediently performed their duties, and are not so quick to leave our memories. The beginning of our internet experience was spending all night surfing the World Wide Web on our Bondi-blue iMac using AOL. Those were the good old days, and hard to imagine today.

It is 2009, and amazingly fast broadband connections at low costs are no longer a dream. WLAN, Bluetooth, wireless peripherals all add to the comfort of a home office and dealing with cables has become a thing of the past.

The progress that mobile internet access has made is easy to see. Our dependence on mobile technology has given way to revolutionary, quick, and sensational possibilities. Cell phones had access to the World Wide Web since the beginning of the 90s, however the existence was easily eclipsed by high costs and low speeds. The consistent evolution of GSM technology included intermediary steps like HSCSD, GPRS, EGPRS. Today it is UMTS with HSDPA and HSUPA, which has achieved the performance of and can be considered the first real competition for established broadband landline connections - particularly in rural areas, which do not have access to broadband lines and use the UMTS connection to access and enjoy the internet.

The steady development of the networks continues to make mobile internet  (usable at any place and at any time) access interesting. Fast speed, relatively quick fallback networks, if UMTS is not available, and falling costs, rise the potential interest in Internet access via these technologies.

Mobile Technology Development

GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) packet oriented transmission method - provides a maximum speed of 56 kbit/s, which reminds on the modem-era.

EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates For GSM Evolution) – a further development of GPRS technology, which offers a speed of 220 kbit/s (higher speeds possible depending on the network). EDGE was advertised and expanded by T-Mobile and offers a considerably fast connection if UMTS is not available.

UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Systems)

HSDPA (Highspeed Downlink Packet Access)

HSUPA (Highspeed Uplink Packet Access)

UMTS can reach a transfer rate of up to 384 kbits/s (download) and 384 kbits/s (upload). HSDPA has considerably faster speeds of 1200 kbit/s, 3600 kbits/s, and 7200 kbit/s in Downlink and up to 2000 kbit/s in Uplink. However, the higher speeds are only possible in some areas such as convention centers and selected downtown cities.

However, the next levels of HSPA are already being planned. The download speeds are going to be accelerated from 14.4 Mbit/s to 84 Mbit/s, and upload from 5.7 Mbit/s to 11.5 Mbit/s.

Theoretical Bitrates
Technology Download Upload
GPRS 53 kbit/s 26 kbit/s
EGPRS (EDGE) 236 kbit/s 236 kbit/s
UMTS 384 kbit/s 64 - 384 kbit/s
HSDPA 1800 kbit/s 384 kbit/s
  3600 kbit/s 384 kbit/s
  7200 kbit/s 384 kbit/s
HSDPA/ HSUPA 7200 kbit/s 1400 - 2000 kbit/s

Reception Quality

The bitrate is dependent on personal location and the quality of the connection. Walls, wireless (Dect, WLAN, etc) networks, large quantities of metal are the main factors. Operating system, firmware version, and other system components are important as well. There are consequences if a radio tower is used up to capacity. With higher traffic, the maximum capacity could be exceeded, and the bandwidth will be redistributed causing each user to be throttled. Maximum bandwidth is theoretically possible at 7.2 Mbit/s for downloading and 2 Mbit/s for uploading, but only when the radio towers have that bandwidth available, i.e. they support the bitrate. Currently, this applies only to a few metro areas and convention centers in Germany. The network expansion in Austria is more advanced. Exact availability should be requested from every provider.

What we experienced in our test scenarios could be read at our Test Results.

Network Availability

Concerning network coverage, T-Mobile is clearly in the lead. EDGE, UMTS, HSDPA, and HSUPA are all supported and continually being expanded. EDGE has nearly the whole country covered, and UMTS is accessible in many regions [2][3]

On the other hand, concerning EDGE Vodafone and O2 are limiting the expansion to only areas that are out of range of UMTS. In regards of UMTS O2 has a lot of catching up to do, but with big steps they can make up leeway. [5][6]

E-Plus has announced to hold back HSDPA expansion and continue to work towards full coverage of EGDE, the GPRS-accelerator, until the end of 2009 (90%) [1][4].

Austria has these network providers to choose from: Drei, T-Mobile, Orange, and A1 [3][7][8][9]. 

Sources (German articles):

[1] Meldung Heise EDGE und UMTS Ausbau E-Plus [2] Netzausbau T-Mobile Deutschland [3] Netzausbau T-Mobile Österreich [4] Netzausbau e-Plus Deutschland [5] Netzausbau Vodafone Deutschland [6] UMTS Verfügbarkeit O2 Deutschland [7] Netzausbau Drei [8] Netzausbau A1 [9] Netzausbau Orange

Rates

Mobile providers offer different kinds of prices, including price per data (cost/MB), daily flat rate (with a data limit), and true flat rates. Which version is best for what person depends heavily on demand, usage, and budget.
Additional features for contract customers are sometimes a cost-attractive alternative to an additional contract. Price and performance strongly differentiate and require the knowledge of an expert: Welcome to the Price Jungle. 

A short overview of the different price models are displayed together in the following table.

Rate Models (Example List)

Rate Price Features
Cost / MB starts at approx. 24 cent/MB (simyo) No collective bargaining coverage/ higher cost with longer use
Daily rate(Prepaid) from 2.50 (Fonic) to 4.90 (T-Mobile/ Vodafone) Reducing speed if included transfer volume is exceeded (usually 1 GB). Sticks start at 69.95€ (T-Mobile)/ 89.95€ (Fonic)
30 day flat rate (Prepaid) starts at 9.90 (Simyo) Reducing speed if included transfer volume is exceeded (usually 1 GB)
Data rates for existing mobile contracts 25 €/ Month (O2 Active Data) 10 GB/month included, after that throttling of surf sticks; starts at 1€
Data Rates (as alternative to DSL) 30 €/ Month web`n`walk@home100 4.95 for web`n`walk Card Compact III/ 100 hours included
Flat rates starts at 25€ (Base,Mobilcom) 5GB included, then throttling.
Flat rates without time or volume limit starts at 29.95 euro/month Moobicent mobile DSL Flat 24 month contract/ Vodafone net

Rate Brainstorming

  1. Additional fees sometimes need to be kept in mind with regard to some of the data rates: basic fees, activation fees, SIM card cost, telephone rates.
  2. Many companies offer their customers compatible connection hardware, such as USB-sticks and data cards (for example T-Mobile's Web'n'walk stick HSDPA 7.2 Mbit/s bought with Xtra Pac DayFlat costs 69€), at discounted rates.
  3. Those who consider adding data options to their existing phone contract, should make sure that their SIM card already supports UMTS. Otherwise he/she has bear costs incurred by a new or second SIM card.
  4. A second SIM card is not such a bad idea after all, if the same contract is being used for both talking and surfing. That way one can keep one of the SIM cards in the existing phone and the other in the notebook or stick. So, one does not have to take a single SIM card from one device to the other all the time. A second SIM card is however unnecessary if the phone is being used as a modem.

Hardware

Huawei E160 USB with microSDHC and antenna connection
Sony Ericsson W880i UMTS
Dell E6500 with UMTS-Modul, however not available at the time of our test.
GT Max option; very compact PCMCIA-Card with a small protrusion.
Huawei E870; ExpressCard with an adapter for PCMCIA-Slots (Adapter is not always available for shipment)

All types of hardware is available in the different performance categories: UMTS, UMTS with HSDPA 1.8/ 3.6/ 7.2 Mbit/s and UMTS with HSDPA 7.2 Mbit/s, and HSUPA 2-5 Mbit/s.

PCMCIA/ ExpressCard

Pros: If only a few or cramped USB ports are available these are kept free and are not occupied. So, other USB-peripherals can use them. And high load does not have an impact on other USB-devices.
With an appropriate adapter Expresscards can also be used in PCMCIA-slots. So also old notebooks can make use of them.

Cons: Drivers and software installation are done through a CD (problematic for notebooks without an optical drive), Before transportation the card should be removed in order to avoid damage.

USB-Sticks

Pros: Flexible and also usable on desktop computers, accessible drivers and software are on the stick and installation is automatic, models with microSDHC can also be used as a removable storage device and comes up as a separate drive when plugged in.

Cons: Partly thick case, blocks ports located near each other, must be disconnected to be transported, possibility of breaking.

Notebook with integrated UMTS-Hardware

Pros: everything is integrated, no transportation problems, built-in antennas inside the casing, one-piece solution

Cons: Access is bound to a notebook, additional charges from manufacturers

Cell phone as UMTS Modem

Pros: Generally always available as a makeshift solution

Cons: Quickly drains the cell phone battery, comparatively slower data rates, connection with Bluetooth 2.0 allows for a maximum rate of 2.1 Mbit/s, cell phones with HSDPA/HSUPA are expensive.

Examples for alternative Connection Hardware

Hardware type Provider Bitrate in kbit/s
Huawei E620 PCMCIA Vodafone Mobile Connect Card 1800 (D) 384 (U)
Novatel XU870 [1] Express [2] T-Mobile ExpressCard I 3600 (D) 384 (U)
Option GE0301 Express [2] Vodafone/ T-Mobile 7200 (D) 1450 (U)
Huawei E176 USB T-Mobile Stick IV 7200 (D) 2000 (U)
Novatel MC950D USB Vodafone Mobile Connect 7200 (D) 2000 (U)
Samsung SGH Z810 USB ePlus SGH-Z810 7200 (D) 384 (U)
Sony X1 Xperia Cell Phone   7200 (D) 2000 (U)
Samsung I8510Innov8 Cellphone   7200 (D) 384 (U)

[1] up to 7200 kbit/s possible with a Firmware update.
[2] Possible to use them in PCMCIA-slots by means of an adapter.

Notebooks with UMTS

Notebooks with UMTS are offered by most manufacturers. An unworthy exception to this rule is Apple. Their notebooks are unavailable with UMTS configuration. If you are interested in UMTS you need to rely on third party solutions here. Apart from that, UMTS options are pretty much standard for business models, subnotebooks, ultraportables, and netbooks. The prices vary greatly between manufacturers and range from a few euros (for example Lenovo’s Thinkpad SL300) to over 100 euros (Dell Latitude series).

Examples of Notebooks with integrated UMTS-module

Manufacturer Series
Acer Aspire One, Travelmate 6293,6493
Asus U3S, Eee 1000H Go, Eee 901 Go, V2S
Dell Latitude, Vostro, XPS usw.
Fujitsu Siemens Lifebook, Esprimo, Celsius
Hewlett Packard HP 6730, 6735, 25xxp, 85xx,
Lenovo Thinkpads SL-,X-, R-, T-, W-Series
Samsung NC10, Q1
Sony SZ, Z, TT, TZ
Toshiba Portegé R-,M-,A- Series, Tecra, Satellite Pro

Also take a look at our purchase guide and in our comprehensive test library.

Test

We exemplarily tested different devices of the following hardware categories for establishing access to the Internet: USB-stick, PCMCIA/ExpressCard, and mobile phone. We measured the performance in different networks and in different areas. Each measurement was repeated seven times in order to get a reasonably representative average despite of partly extremely fluctuating transfer rates. Furthermore, we list the highest and the lowest value we recorded. The tests of mobiles phones were all done via USB cable and not via Bluetooth in order to eliminate one source of error. You should be aware that with Bluetooth the maximum bitrate is currently limited to 2.1 Mbit/s.

Next we watched the impacts on the battery life and ran respective tests with the Battery Eater test. We decided to use the Reader's test, because the differences were rather small under high load, simulated in the Classic mode. Furthermore, high load is not really typical for Internet applications. In addition we measured the actual energy demand with a wattmeter (type: Voltcraft Energy3000). The test results can be seen further below. The mobile phone was not tested with Bluetooth, but, instead with a cable in order to not increase the power consumption even more by enabling Bluetooth.

Mobile Partner from Huawei with statistical display of the data speeds.
Sony W880i Status display
Globetrotter connection software; containing only the most important data
T-Mobile Web`n`walk manager: Only works with T-Mobile SIM

Reception Quality of the networks and differences in test area

Our tests were carried out on three different networks: E-Plus, O2 and T-Mobile. The test area was greater Bonn (downtown, outside the city/business district, and the rural area). While being within city limits always grants full signal quality, in rural areas we faced depending on the location connection problems and switching between GPRS, EDGE, and UMTS.

When surveying the E-Plus network, we quickly approached the maximum bitrate of 384 kbit/s (down- and upload), which was also reached without problem by the other participants. So we decided not to provide a separate table for the individual measurements for the E-Plus network.

We recorded a speed boost in the O2 network, which allowed all devices expect of the W880i to more than double their transfer rates with up to about 1000 kbit/s in Downlink. However, the uplink-performance did not differ much from ePlus', and also reached with 380 kbit/s UMTS level without HSUPA.

The T-Mobile network proved to be even better. With a transfer rate of up to 2174 kbit/s in downlink and up to 1414 kbit/s in uplink we observed a significant speed increase.

In all networks we observed clear differences in performance depending on the time of day. Early in the morning or late in the evening we recorded the best results. During the day it was considerably (about 40-50%) worse. However, the absolutely worst time turned out to be saturday afternoons between 14.00 and 18.00 when it rains. At that time also in the T-Mobile network top speeds of only up to 500 kbit/s were possible.

City Measurements (O2)

Test hardware City Value/ Download (kbit/s) City Value/ Upload (kbit/s)
Huawei E160 min. 88/ max. 212/ average 169 min. 148/ max. 389/ average 304
Option GT Max PCMCIA min. 147/ max. 412/ average 228 min. 192/ max. 378/ average 309
Huawei E870 Express min. 131/ max. 232/ average 199 min. 367/ max. 375/ average371
Sony Ericsson W880i min. 66/ max. 200/ average 126 min. 62/ max. 164/ average 113

Measured Value City (T-Mobile)

Test Hardware City Value/ Download(kbit/s) City Value/ Upload (kbit/s)
Huawei E160 Stick min. 386/ max. 1867/ average 1102 min. 304/ max. 389/ average 348
Option GT Max PCMCIA min. 307/ max. 1698/ average 989 min. 376/ max. 382/ average 379
Huawei E870 Express min. 289/ max. 2000/ average 1062 min. 681/ max. 1414/ average 969
Sony Ericsson W880i not tested not tested

Measured Value City Edge UMTS (O2)

Test Hardware City Value/ Download(kbit/s) City Value/ Upload (kbit/s)
Huawei E160 min. 426/ max. 992/ average 793 min. 366/ max. 373/ average 370
Option GT Max min. 406/ max. 998/ average 784 min. 366/ max. 376/ average 372
Huawei E870 min. 460/ max. 1064/ average 803 min. 361/ max. 376/ average 371
Sony Ericsson W880i min. 224/ max. 392/ average 344 min. 189/ max. 370/ average 261

Measured Value City Outskirts UMTS (T-Mobile)

Test Hardware Value City Outskirts / Download (kbit/s) Value City Outskirts / Upload (kbit/s)
Huawei E160 Stick min. 876/ max. 2161/ average 1195 min. 368/ max. 376/ average373
Option GT Max PCMCIA min. 406/ max. 998/ average 784 min. 371/ max. 376/ average 374
Huawei E870 ExpressCard min. 800/ max. 2174/ average 1189 min. 937/ max. 1312/ average 1119
Sony Ericsson W880i not tested not tested

Measurements, Rural EDGE (T-Mobile)

Test Hardware Value Rural Area /Download EDGE in kbit/s Value Rural Area /Upload EDGE in kbit/s
Huawei E160 Stick min. 42/ max. 222/ average 158 min. 16/ max. 114/ average 86
Option GT Max PCMCIA min. 28/ max. 236/ average 176 min. 1/ max. 95/ average 72
Huawei E870 ExpressCard min. 30/ max. 232/ average 164 min.12/max. 112/ average 89
Sony Ericsson W880i not tested not tested

Summary of Connection Speed Test Results

The Sony Ericsson W880i (having the UMTS-Standard but no HSDPA support) was quickly being pushed to the limit of its efficiency. While it still had passable data rates if the signal was low, it could not keep up with the competitors because it does not support HSDPA (max. 392 kbit/s) under better conditions and is obviously losing ground. Here the selected network did not have an observable impact.

It took significantly longer to drive GT Max (T-Mobile Web`n`walk Card Compact), which offers a maximum rate of 1.8 Mbit in downlink, at its limits. But, 1741 kbit/s downlink speed could not be exceeded with this card. Furthermore, this was only possible in the T-Mobile network and during reasonable times and under optimal conditions. So, it got close to the maximum possible transfer rate of the specification and was easily outperformed by the following devices. There was no difference in terms of uplink speed with about 380 kbit/s in three networks. Here the hardware limit got obvious.

Saturday morning between 06.00 and 10.00 the best data rates of above 2000 kbit/s were reached. At this time, the Huawei E870 (ExpressCard) achieved with a maximum of 2174 kbit/s the best performance, followed closely by the Huawei E160 USB stick with a maximum of 2161 kbit/s. The very close victory lies less on technology and more on the random high one-time measurement, which could have equally likely been recorded for the E160. This is also proved by the very similar average values, where the E160 is even slightly better. We were not able to take full advantage of the technical possibilities in downloading (3.6 mbit/s stick and 7.2 mbit/s Express card) with either one of these. In the uplink-test the measurements did not differ that much. With the Huawei E870 card we happily reached 1414 kbit/s, and sometimes even the maximum possible bitrate. Here the stick performed clearly worse. With about 380 kbit/s it provides about the level of the GT Max solution.

Edge could only be tested in the T-Mobile network, because the EDGE signal for E-Plus or O2 was either not present or too weak in our test area. We recorded relatively constant transfer rates, with maxima of 236 kbit/s in downlink and 114 kbit/s in uplink. If these rates are available nationwide (as T-Mobile promises), than this is in fact a good fall-back network in case UMTS is not available.

Regarding GPRS we decided to not perform comprehensive measurements, but only do some measurements for comparison. Because the transfer rates are low and connection problems are frequent, this alternative appears to be only reasonable for e-mail traffic in practice. Surfing via such a connection should be definitely left to users with a lot of time.

Summary Test results for Power Use/Battery Eater

To our surprise, we must note that despite having its own power supply, a cell phone is not the most energy efficient method to connect to a network. With a total of 17.7 W consumption, we concluded that it uses 0.8 W more than the compact GT Max option in conjunction with the Tecra A2. This results in a 9 minutes shorter runtime measured with the Battery Eater Reader's test. A reason for this is that the cell phone immediately initiates charging mode when connected by USB, even when the battery is fully charged. The most power-hungry was the Huawei E160 surf stick, which needed 19.6 W of system power and only achieved a runtime of 91 minutes. This even exceeds the wattage of the already not really energy-saving Huawei E870 Expresscard by 0.8 Watt and results in 5 minutes shorter battery life. (All measurements are listed in the table below).

To summarize, the power consumption with different UMTS hardware is pretty different. Those relying on mobile computing and data connection should consider this when choosing the hardware in order not to unnecessarily reduce the battery life. Unfortunately, we could not test the notebooks' integrated solutions in this aspect. Once test results are available, we will add the corresponding data.

Battery Eater Reader; everything off
Battery Eater Reader; Surf Stick
Battery Eater Reader; W880i
Battery Eater Reader; Option GT Max Compact Card
Battery Eater Reader; Huawei E870 ExpressCard
Power Consumption
Inactive Desktop 15W 160 min
Hardware with UMTS BE Reader
Surf Stick 19.6W 91 min
Compact 16.9W 111 min
Express 18.8 96 min
W880i 17.7W 102 min

Conclusion

Those searching for a notebook with an unbound connection to the World Wide Web have a lot of opportunities available to them these days. Stick, Express card, PCMCIA card, an integrated laptop solution, or a cell phone, for everyone there is something out there to fulfill his/her preferences and wishes.

The hardware solutions available today provide much more potential than today’s networks are capable of implementing. When purchasing a new laptop, you can do little wrong and just let your demands run free.

Sticks are particularly easy and flexible in use and really cheap. The disadvantage is the hardware sticking out of the laptop and the increased need for power.

PCMCIA and Expresscards have the advantage of not occupying any USB-ports and not being that big (compact versions like the GT Max option are, in fact, very small). Depending on the model they use very little power and perform just as good as USB-sticks. The disadvantages are that they are limited to laptops, the higher price, and a difficult software installation if an optical drive is not integrated.

Cell phones are an alternative if you want to avoid additional hardware and already possess an HSPA ready cell phone. But keep in mind that some of them have a cumbersome installation process and are quick to deplete battery life.

To be ready for future network development, it does not matter what you get so long as it is a model with 7.2 Mbit HSDPA and/or HSUPA support. However, this does not get important until the network providers provide the according infrastructure.

Currently, the most important deciding factor is the right network choice. While E-Plus users are blessed with particularly low prices, the users can only expect basic UMTS speeds. The better choice would be O2, which has HSDPA support and can still offer cheaper rates. Finally, T-Mobile is the best network, according to our tests, but costs correspondingly.

IM Test: UMTS Connection Hardware

Hardware of the past

Modem connection on the left; even though it is hardly used it is still found in new notebooks
ISDN Hardware park; Today mostly replaced with DSL, Cabel or UMTS

Hardware Compilation

Test ensemble: Cell phone, Stick, PCMCIA-Card, ExpressCard
Foreign body; UMTS USB-Stick sticking out far
Cell phone operation; Flexible but bulky !?
Compact Giant; with folding antenna for improved reception
Compact even from the side
Faster Express; bold but with Turbo (7.2 Mbit HSDPA/ 2 Mbit HSUPA)
...and folded out
Our two biggest
...And once more from top
Sim Kart cabel; easy and quick switching
Sim card Option GT Max
Sim card Huawei E870
Dell E6500 with integrated UMTS-module

Test System

Notebook

Toshiba Tecra A2
Celeron M320 1,4 Ghz
768 MB RAM
15” 4:3 XGA Display
2x USB
1x PCMCIA
Windows XP Home SP 3

UMTS Stick

Huawei E160

PCMCIA Compact

Option GT Max 

ExpressCard\34

Huawei E870

Cell phone

Sony W880i

Performance measuring devices

Voltcraft 3000; measuring the power consumption with and without UMTS hardware.
> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > Reviews > Archive of our own reviews > Mobile Internet - online, anywhere? everywhere?
Author: Tobias Winkler, 2009-05- 4 (Update: 2013-06- 6)