Mobile Connect is Vodafone's offering in the 3G data stick market. The package comprises the black 3G stick itself plus a CD containing the Mobile Connect software; there's also a handy USB extension cable which is useful both for those whose laptop cases are too chunky to accept the data stick itself and for anyone who's nervous that someone will walk by on the train and break off the stick with their hip.

Installation is very simple since in addition to the CD, the software resides on a lump of memory on the stick itself too. So you plug it in and everything springs to life and installs the Mobile Connect software for you. Once connected it'll find a network (assuming there's one there to be found, of course!) and getting online is a simple case of hitting "Connect". The stick itself has a little LED on the side which flashes different patterns and colours to indicate status - so solid red means it's disconnected, flashing blue means it's found a 3G network but isn't connected, solid green means it's connected to a GPRS network, and so on. Sounds a bit tedious, but in fact it's absolutely fine and you soon get used to what the lights mean.

All fine and dandy so far, and indeed when I first ran the package the service was excellent. Although I was roaming (I had a Vodafone UK SIM, but was sitting in Jersey at the time) I was able to download at several hundred megabits per second. I tried it from a number of locations and was very impressed with the way it worked - it "felt" fast and even fairly bandwidth-hungry applications such as Lotus Domino replication ran speedily. It also made a reasonable job of figuring out which connection to use (most of the time it would choose 3G over GPRS, for instance) and I was also very impressed when I chose the wrong service provider name in the setup wizard - it basically said: "Ah, I've checked and you picked the wrong provider - would you like me to use Vodafone UK instead?"

As you might already have guessed from the tone of what I've written, though, my experience wasn't entirely positive. The first oddity was that when I got home on the evening of day one, I plugged in the stick and it went through the driver installation all over again; after a bit of experimentation it turned out that if you connect the device to a different USB port, it seems to think it's an entirely new entity and installs the driver afresh. This is OK in theory but in practice it's a pain because it forces you to go into the configuration screen and specify which device you want to use. Next is the fact that the stick's in-built memory seemed to wipe itself after the first installation, so when I removed and reinstalled the software (an exercise I tried whilst trying to figure out why it wouldn't work having plugged the module into a different USB port) I had to get out the CD in order to reinstall the Mobile Connect application.

The second oddity was that it doesn't matter how swish the application is, if you've got a cack signal then you won't be able to do data transfer and your connection will keep dying. On my usual London-Norwich trip I had a connection for maybe 50 percent of the time, and I lost count of the number of reconnections I had to make - much of which is presumably down to lousy network coverage, since with GPRS on my Orange phone I tend to get 80%+ connection performance on the same trip.

Connection death is inelegant and badly handled - there seems to be no resilience or spoofing, which makes it a complete balls-ache if, like me, you dial into the office network using a VPN package. When your connection dies you have to tell the VPN software to quit, then wait for the signal to reappear, then reconnect Mobile Connect, then reconnect the VPN client, and then resume your application. To be fair to Vodafone you can point it at your VPN client and have the latter run as a post-connect task, but it's far from seamless. Hint to Vodafone: talk to the guys at Brand Communications - they've been doing connection spoofing on cellular technology since the mid 1990s, yet you guys don't seem to have heard of the concept.

For what I need, Vodafone Mobile connect is perfect: these days I don't sit on trains much but I do go from place to place and sit still for a while, and if the wheels fall of something at work (I manage the global network for a multi-national organisation) I need a fast connection that I know will work. It means that when the shared Broadband in my apartment block dies, or I find myself in a bit of the world where there isn't a public hotspot with iPass access, I can be pretty sure I can get connected at a decent speed.

Once you've figured that you should always connect the module into the same USB port, then, Vodafone Mobile Connect is excellent. Unless, that is, you insist on using it at 100mph; in this situation you're at the mercy of Vodafone's mobile network which, from my recent experience, is rubbish.


Despite the shortcomings, I found the product usable and speedy - and the price isn't exorbitant either, though check the website if you're thinking of roaming like I was, as I wasn't paying the bill! The software reinstallation quirk isn't that big a deal, and if you don't live your entire life on a train you won't get too upset with the redialling problem.