The reality of 3G broadband

Back when 3G was being deployed, the massive investment some communications companies made in constructing their next generation networks seemed ludicrous. Now, with the advent of useful smartphones becoming integrated into mainstream society, this provision for a higher speed packet-switched network has become the backbone of non-voice mobile communications.

I’m always a skeptic when new technologies and products are floated – they have to prove themseleves before I will accept them. Thus I am mostly immune to hype, and can normally see through the misleading marketing. So, I have held off buying the latest mobile phones and switching completely to 3G broadband.

3G is seen by many as a replacement for fixed line broadband. At the moment I’m between fixed-line broadband providers (for the past 2 weeks) and have had the choice of no internet, digging out my 56k modem and paying per minute, or giving 3G a try. While no ‘net access would possibly have been good for me, the addict inside me and the coinciding offer of voucher double-up at Tesco led me to purchasing a T-Mobile 3G Broadband giftpack.

T-Mobile seem to be the only provider offering time-based services at a reasonable cost, instead of traffic-based services (pay per GB). 3 months comes bundled with the ~£35 cost of the package, which is pretty attractive for the freedom and backup service it should offer.

However, it seems there is a reason that such offers don’t run the risk of you abusing the essentially unlimited traffic allowance – it’s near impossible to maintain a connection unless you take abnormal measures to keep it alive. Due to the way 3G and most packet-switched/virtual connection networks operate, and to avoid cells becoming unnecessarily busy, connections are only kept alive so long as they are active. If network access is required after an idle period where the connection is ‘dropped’, it transparently reconnects itself. At least this is the theory.

In practice, possibly due to the proliferation of 3G-enabeld devices it’s very hit or miss as to whether I get a live connection in the first place or manage to keep alive one long enough for it to be useful.

To get around this problem as best as possible (it’s still not 100%) I’m using my fileserver as a temporary router, with the dongle plugged into that. A basic firewall interface got the thing working without too much work. With my fileserver being Linux-based, there is one extra step needed – installing usb_modeswitch. This package is available in Ubuntu and once installed ensures that the dongle is placed in modem mode instead of storage mode. To keep the connection alive, I set ping running in continuous mode against a server I run.

After using this for 2 weeks, I can report back a few observations:

  • Multi-tasking is near impossible, so make sure you’re only loading one site at once
  • Images are automatically reprocessed to far lower quality where possible, which is actually a good thing as it makes sites just as quick as normal
  • It is just about possible to play games, in my case L4D2; however don’t expect low pings (200-300 seemed common)
  • Don’t ever consider it as a full-time replacement for a proper fixed line, however as a backup it beats 56k when you’re used to higher speeds
  • By default, certain content is blocked; I’ve not been able to get Windows Live Messenger working despite removing the filtering

I hope this is helpful for anyone who is contemplating doing something along the same lines.

Acer Aspire One L150 mini-review

Acer Aspire One L150

A few months ago we were given a couple of old laptops by some relatives. I cleaned both of them up, gave one a fresh install of XP Home and the other Ubuntu. The former has now become the family PC and the latter is sitting on top of some draws in my room unused because the power supply connector is nearly unusable.

Being the lazy person I am, wanting to be able to watch TV and surf from the comfort of my bed, I decided I needed a laptop that actually works. When someone on the UKHA mailing list pointed to an offer on Amazon for an Acer Aspire One L150 (white) for 199, I decided I had to go for it. I wasn’t too keen on the white netbook though, so I paid a little more for a lovely blue number.

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The iPod Touch

As mentioned a short while ago, I have managed to get my hands on an iPod Touch. Wow, it’s nice!

Apple have once again put a lot of work into their interface design and made the touchscreen work quite well. One odd thing though is the home button is a tactile one situated on the front surface at the bottom – I kept expecting to find some sort of ‘Home’ button on the touchscreen interface. You get used to it though.

We don’t have wifi at work at the moment, so I borrowed it for an evening to test it out on my connection at home. To start with I experienced quite a problem with dropped connections. The first time I tried to connect it was successful, but not long after that the connection dropped and the AP was not listed in the list of available networks. My brother, the only wifi user in the house, only occaisionally has problems with the wifi network so I didn’t think it was a problem with the trusty Linksys box but just in case I checked the cables and rebooted the access point. Got it working again in the end.

When I first turned on the iPod, having removed it from it’s elegant packaging, I went through the apps that were included. I had assumed that the latest software update would be installed as standard, but it turns out (unless I just received stale stock) that you have to pay for the latest version with the extra apps regardless of whether you’ve got a recent model or not. I wasnt going to pay the £12 for something that work owns, so I made do with trying out the basic apps – Safari, iTunes and YouTube.

For me, Safari is the most important app on the device. It’s what opens up the mini-tablet-PC to a world of possibilities. By playing with it I managed to get a feel for how pages are rendered, which plugins are supported (Flash isn’t, unfortunately, but QuickTime is) and how people have implemented web apps designed for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Some sites have trouble with javascript in the portable version of Safari which results in the site being slow to respond to clicks. This may be due to intensive processing or a limitation of the browser. There are also occaisionally problems with zoomed rendering of pages that have complex styles such as flexible rounded-corner designs, but it’s nothing serious.
Scrolling is pretty slick, using both drag and ‘flick’ gestures, though zooming can be tricky sometimes as it requires you to use an ‘expansion’ gesture which is a little difficult with one hand (the other hand holding the device).

iTunes is slightly more limited in terms of features than I expected, but it’s still quite a slick app. I think the emphasis will continue to be on using iTunes on a Mac/PC, but for quick purchases the iPod version is perfect.

The YouTube app is a great way to waste time watching random stuff, and it demonstrates how streaming video can be used on the iPod. When using Safari I discovered that you don’t need a native app to stream video – the built-in mini-version of QuickTime does the job.

I really like the iPod Touch, and as soon as I can justify the expense (considering I got my 40GB iPod Video – now called classic – in July last year) I will get one for myself and pay for the extra apps. It will also be used for my remote control project.

Infernal

Not long ago I bought a pack of games on Steam for quite a big discount, but I’ve only got around to playing two of them so far. I’m currently stuck at the T-Rex part of Tomb Raider: Anniversary, but on Sunday I made my way through almost all of Infernal and have just spent a few minutes completing it.

The storyline has several twists, one from the start being that you’re playing the part of an ‘evil’ force which battles against ‘angels’, though it’s not the deepest plot I’ve encountered in a game. The best part about this game though is the graphics. The levels are stunning, and judging from the detail that has gone into them I would say that a significant part of the development of the game was dedicated to the level graphic design. It’s all accomplished without resorting to DX10 and shaders that require a graphics card from 2009 to run – I managed to run it at the highest settings with the top AA that it supports for the most part, only having to remove the AA for the last mission. They must have pulled some trickery to make the game look so good without causing the problems that plague Crysis (which is still on hold until I can beef my computer up enough).

It took most of the day on Sunday to complete, so there’s probably a good 8-9 hrs gameplay there, and I played it on easy cos I prefer enjoying the scenery and storyline to facing frustratingly difficult challenges.

The other games in the pack are: Just Cause, Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, Project: Snowblind, Rogue Trooper.