Wireless access anywhere: That's the promise of 3G broadband data connections. And in most areas, that's what I enjoyed with the T-Mobile WebConnect USB Laptop Stick. The device is $50, after a $200 discount as of 5/11/09; the discount requires a two-year service contract, and monthly service is $60.
The WebConnect is the first data device for T-Mobile's nascent 3G HSDPA network. I have to say it's one of the most svelte USB data sticks I've seen. Manufactured for T-Mobile by Huawei Technologies, the WebConnect is slim and lightweight; it barely made a bulge in my laptop's neoprene sleeve. It's also among the few designs I've seen with a hinged USB connector that tucks away inside the stick. When I used the device, I appreciated that design elegance--unlike other wireless broadband devices I've used, this one didn't weigh down my laptop, nor did it cause any imbalance or awkwardness. The stick also offers 8GB of storage, so I could use it for transporting data, too. Installation was as simple as sliding my SIM card into the WebConnect and then plugging it into my PC. At that point the stick automatically began to install the T-Mobile Connection Manager software.
My experience with the software was mixed, though. The launcher is handy, and not nearly as obtrusive as some of the others I've tried. But I was disappointed to see that it initially defaulted to connecting to Wi-Fi (for hotspots or any Wi-Fi connection); I had to manually select the Broadband setting each time I launched the Connection Manager, and I often experienced a delay before it would connect to the 3G network. A recent firmware update improved things but only slightly.
The software also stumbled when I wandered afield from a metropolitan area with T-Mobile's data network. I had no issues with the WebConnect in San Francisco, Dallas, or New York; but, in Lincoln, Nebraska, I found that the device refused to connect to either a 3G or T-Mobile EDGE network (it's supposed to step down to EDGE automatically in the absence of 3G, but it didn't even do that in Lincoln). My lack of connection was a network problem, but the software simply hung while continuing to search for a connection for 5 minutes, and it didn't alert me that it was unable to find a 3G or EDGE network.
Aside from the connection glitches, I also achieved mixed broadband speeds. In San Francisco, I routinely measured about 550 kbps for download speed and about 330 kbps for upload speed (using Speakeasy's broadband speed test). While those speeds match what I've seen for my AT&T Wireless 3G iPhone, they're not as fast as 3G purportedly can be.
One neat--and extremely convenient--aspect of the connection software is that, if I kept Connection Manager open, it would resume my previous connection action after a short delay, no intervention needed. If I resumed the connection after bringing my laptop out of standby, for instance, or if I detached the WebConnect and then reattached it later, the Connection Manager would automatically rediscover the broadband connection I'd been using. That almost, but not quite, makes up for its initial lethargy.
All of the nits I point out here boil down to one reality: If you're in a region covered by T-Mobile's 3G broadband service, the WebConnect will serve you well, in spite of its small annoyances.
This story, "T-Mobile WebConnect USB Laptop Stick" was originally published by PCWorld.