The Web Cube from Three is a bit of an odd idea to think about at first. It is a bit like the MiFi, a device used to get access to the Internet through the mobile phone network. Where it differs from the mobile, and most products offered by mobile phone companies is that it is not mobile. This is a device that needs to be plugged into the mains. However many homes have non mobile routers plugged into the mains to set them up with web access. The Web Cube is intended to be a replacement for that device, ending the need for ADSL and the fixed telephone line that always comes with it that many do not use anymore. The Web Cube is only available in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Leeds at the moment, but I've been taking one for a test drive in Milton Keynes.
Three UK's third generation MiFi has slightly more refined looks than its predecessor, but it doesn't feature "go faster" stripes which is curious as the inclusion of HSPA+ technology promises a turbo boosted Internet connection with speeds theoretically up to 21 Mbps - enough to put many landline broadband connections to shame. I attended the launch event for the new MiFi (also known as the Huawei E586) and have been trying one out. How does it perform? How easy is it to use? Plus, with the increasing number of mobile phones that are capable of tethering (sharing their mobile broadband connection with another device through WiFi) is it still a compelling product?
There's nothing like the expression of mild surprise to confirm that a radical change in the technological landscape is taking place. While showing people the latest phone I've on review, the ZTE Racer (a £99 pay as you go Android phone from 3 UK) I was struck by how many times I heard things like “Oh, that's actually alright, isn't it?”, maybe a realisation that smart phones are arriving for the masses and not just people who are prepared for spend hefty sums on the latest shiny gadget. This isn't a unique offer either, other networks are offering budget Android smartphones (notably Orange with the San Francisco) so now many people who might not have considered owning a smart phone could now do so leading to some interesting changes and new opportunities.
Back in June I attended an event where the new version of 3's MiFi was shown off publicly for the first time. I was impressed then with it and the improvements over the original version and have now, thanks to ThreeMobileBuzz had the chance to trial one of these, putting it through its paces in a variety of situations. The device did not disappoint and proved useful in many situations and easy for people to use. The MiFi 2 feels a lot easier to use than its predecessor. This is perhaps odd as the MiFi 1 was not very difficult to use, but never really felt responsive. The lights on the front of the original unit sometimes didn't help much and when starting up the device, if you are in impatient type, it was easy to think that it was not working. The one button design of the MiFi 2 and the informative screen solve all of this by providing a very obvious visual indication of what the device is doing. It is really easy to tell when it is starting up, or ready to use and the availability of this information greatly enhances the user experience. You get help cards and a set up guide to help you on your way too.
Art students are sometimes thought of as being "a bit different", often with a distinctive look and a flair for the visual unmatched by their peers. If the INQ Chat 3G was a person it would be an art student with its distinctive visual identity that sets it apart from other mobile phones. Like an art student it has to achieve this style without breaking the bank making it suitable for people who might want a stylish mobile phone but do not want to pay smartphone prices. The INQ Chat 3G comes with a physical keyboard and its functionality revolves around the idea of keeping people in touch through a range of services such as email, SMS, Twitter and Facebook so it may well appeal to the multiplatform chatterboxes amongst you. It also has some surprising features like GPS.
Smartphones are computers that happen to be able to make phone calls, and that leads to some interesting possibilities. I've been trying out the new HTC Hero thanks to the lovely folk at 3MobileBuzz who sent me one to have a look at for a week. The Hero uses Google's open source operating system Android, which is based on Linux and is optimised for smaller devices. HTC mobiles are available on many of the mobile phone networks, and they are not alone in using the Android operating system on certain models, manufacturers such as Motorola have recently joined them. The Hero is 3's first Android device and the model I looked at also has a bundled Spotify subscription (worth £9.99 per month), it currently costs £97.86 upfront with a two year contract that will cost you £35 per month, so this is toward the premium end of their range. Quite a bit of cash to hand over, but what do you get for your money?
This week I have been lucky enough to be one of the first people in the UK to have a play with a product that 3 are bringing out today (Friday 18th September): the MiFi. What on earth is a "MiFi" you might ask? It is a small device that combines a mobile broadband modem, a WiFi router and a battery. You can easily carry it around with you, and connecting to it is no more complicated than connecting to any other WiFi hotspot. Up to five devices can be connected to it, you won't need any extra drivers or configuration packages and yes it works on Ubuntu. You can also connect devices to it that can't use a mobile broadband dongle, like iPod Touches and Internet radio devices and locked down corporate laptops that you can't install software on to. I was invited to an event in London on Monday by the folk at 3MobileBuzz and got to find out about the device, as well as be loaned one to try it out.
*** Please note this is not required for Ubuntu 10.04 onwards - extra software is only needed for versions of Ubuntu before this ***
Recently a good friend of mine, Georgina Parsons, was lucky enough to win a brand new mobile internet dongle courtesy of 3 UK. Like myself she is an Ubuntu user but sadly found that the unit she won, a ZTE MF627, isn't currently supported out of the box on Ubuntu, unlike the Huawei models. She did find a method to make it work though on the Ubuntu Forums at: http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?p=6509188. The problem the unit had was similar to the Huawei E169G, when first plugged in it functions as a USB memory stick containing the driver software (for Windows) and has to be told to switch mode to being a modem. Using the workaround she got her modem working perfectly, but challenged me to make a package to install the files needed automatically.
A few days ago a man wrote into The Guardian's technology help column Ask Jack to ask for help getting a Huawei E160G mobile internet modem working with his son's Asus EEE PC 901 complaining that "Nobody seems willing or able to assist". Jack Schofield, the Jack of Ask Jack, thoughtfully smoked his pipe (possibly) and suggested that "You can try reading Dale Lane's blog post and 138 comments, but frankly it would be easier to change the modem or install Windows XP, which works fine". Within hours, 3 Mobile Buzz, a blog from 3 that covers posts about their products from the blogosphere rounding up the information that they have. They didn't have a definitive answer on the E160G though, and later I twittered that I'd have a look to see if it is possible to get it working in a similar way to the E169G, another model of mobile internet modem. 3 Mobile Buzz took me up on the idea, and lent me an E160G to what was possible. The news so far is that it works perfectly on Ubuntu 8.10 (including the 64 bit version) and Easy Peasy (a version of Ubuntu targeted at netbooks, including the EEE) without any additional software. I've not managed to get it fully working on a Xandros powered EEE PC yet though, so if you want to use this modem with your EEE it might be a good idea to switch to using Easy Peasy. It is possible to the use the modem on Ubuntu, and with a little bit of fiddling about the built in micro-SD card reader as well.
Note to Ubuntu and Easy Peasy users: Your Huawei E169G should now work out-of-the box with later versions of Ubuntu (8.10 onwards) and derivatives. Lots of other modems work too, like the E160G.
Update: I've attempted to automate the steps above by using a package, have a look at: Huawei E169G - the easy way
Yesterday I treated myself to a new mobile internet "dongle" to go with my Asus EEE PC. I decided to go for the Huawei E169G usb modem as it matches my black EEE, however there is a small problem with getting this device to work straight away. The problem is that the E169G is a composite device, which basically means that it will ask as a USB memory stick until it is sent a command to tell it to be a modem. The EEE doesn't know about this so you can't use it straight away as a 3G modem in the connection wizard. Fortunatelty, back in April Dale Lane documented in his blog how to send the modem the right command to be able to use it wil the EEE, his blog post on the topic is worth reading as it explains the background to the issue. After experimenting with my friend Keren Mills' E169G (thanks Keren!) to check that I could get this method to work I took the plunge and got my own one. Following the instructions on Dale Lane's blog I was able to send some commands manually to the unit to get it to switch but what I really wanted to do was to get the EEE to recognise the device automatically so I can start a 3G connection without having to run any commands in the terminal. Fortunately this is possible.