At the Mobile World Congress today, T-Mobile introduced the first device that can take full advantage of the carrier’s HSPA+ network. The webConnect Rocket USB Laptop Stick is aptly named because it’s a mobile broadband missile. On the outside, it offers a similar appearance to the current 3G webConnect USB adapter that T-Mobile sells — a USB interface, software included on the device for plug-and-play installation, and a microSD memory card slot. It’s what’s on the inside that shoots you to the moon — a 3.5G radio that maximizes bandwidth on T-Mobile’s upcoming 21 Mbps network.
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What do all these letters and number mean?
Let’s step off the launching pad for a second and backtrack to fully understand what that means. Today in most areas of the U.S. the 3G HSPA networks from both T-Mobile and AT&T offer theoretical maximum download speeds of 3.6 Mbps. That’s likely the network you’re using if you own a Google Nexus One or Apple iPhone like I do. Some areas of T-Mobile’s HSPA network are now ready for 7.2 Mbps and full deployment across the entire network is expected by the middle of this year. The good news is that many T-Mobile customers can take advantage of this throughput doubling as 10 devices already support the 7.2 Mbps network. And when T-Mo fully deploys the 21 Mbps HSPA+ network, devices will see up to another tripling of broadband speeds. Bear in mind that all of the numbers used are theoretical speeds — typically, a device will see half of the theoretical speed in a best-case scenario.
So how did the webConnect Rocket work?
Armed with that baseline and expectations, I got a chance to test the new webConnect Rocket USB Laptop Stick on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ test network, just like I did in December with less-capable devices. Guess what? That “half the theoretical speed” concept panned out quite nicely. I ran several speed tests hoping to see a best case of 10.5 Mbps — or half of the 21 Mbps theoretical speeds — and saw one test top out at 9.11 Mbps. Bear in mind that the network I used isn’t optimized, so I was pretty impressed with the results. Here’s a quick chart of five tests that represent the total variance of my effort, along with the average speeds. Latency averaged just under 70 milliseconds while downloads and uploads averaged 8.26 Mbps and nearly 2.5 Mbps, respectively.
Speed tests only tell a partial story, though. Mobile broadband users aren’t paying carriers to do speed tests; they’re paying to do things on the Internet, right? People do activities on the go like surf the web, watch video and download content. I did all that and more in during my limited testing using the webConnect Rocket USB stick. While it doesn’t rival my home FiOS connection — which is a real-world 20 Mbps both up and down — this was the fastest mobile broadband experience I’ve had so far. In fact, the wireless download experience is roughly half that of my wired fiber connection at home.
Words and numbers can only describe the experience so much, so here’s a brief video showing a few activities using the HSPA+ product. Aside from a basic speed test, I downloaded a 33 MB podcast and watched a 720p YouTube video with the webConnect Rocket. You’ll notice that the video playback shows stutter, but that’s due to the notebook I used, not the T-Mobile connection. Who would have thought that a relatively modern notebook — and not the mobile broadband connection — would be a bottleneck?
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If you watch the video to the end, you’ll see one additional test I did. Since I don’t often get access to the T-Mobile HSPA+ network, I ran a speed test on my Google Nexus One handset. Why would I do that? Because of those devices I mentioned prior that are already capable of using a 7.2 Mbps network. Although the Nexus One can’t take full advantage of the HSPA+ speeds offered by the Rocket, it does get a huge throughput boost on such a network. Obviously, it will never be see more than 7.2 Mbps, but the increase I saw was dramatic — over 4 Mbps down and 1.3 Mbps back up on the phone.
Although you’ll see that I tested the webConnect Rocket on a Microsoft Windows notebook, the T-Mobile webConnect software also supports the Mac OS X operating system. I found the software intuitive and easy to use. And like competing products from other carriers, you can use the webConnect software to manage both your mobile broadband and your Wi-Fi connections, which is a nice feature.
How does this compare to WiMAX?
One has to ask about the competing 4G network offered by Sprint and Clearwire since this T-Mobile network is really 3.5G. Although mobile broadband performance varies due to a number of factors like location, signal strength and equipment used, the T-Mobile test network wins out by quite a bit. In fairness, WiMAX is here now in a number of areas, while the HSPA+ network I used isn’t commercially available just yet, nor is the webConnect Rocket — T-Mobile will introduce pricing and availability of the USB Laptop Stick next month. That timing could jive with HSPA+ deployments on the two U.S. coasts. Availability aside, the raw speeds of HSPA+ easily trump WiMAX test results.
My colleague Stacey over at GigaOM just put WiMAX through the paces down in Austin and noted best speeds of 4 Mbps down and 500 kbps up. She expressed disappointment in the uploads and found out that Clearwire limits the upload throughput to 1 Mbps in order to allocate more resources for downloads. That makes sense as mobile users download more than they upload. But as we create more content, I expect that ratio to slowly change. Even if it doesn’t, my upload tests on HSPA+ were five times faster than what Stacey experienced on WiMAX. Again, there are many factors involved, so this shouldn’t be a straight comparison, but one of overall trends and impressions of the two services.
[digg=http://digg.com/gadgets/Hands_on_with_T_Mobile_s_21_Mbps_network_FAAAST_3_5G]No doubt about it — when paired with a capable network, the 21 Mbps webConnect Rocket USB Latpop Stick offers a fast mobile pipe to the web. I’d like to see faster uploads for pictures, videos and such, but I may be in the minority on that request. Uploading on the go at over 2 Mbps is plenty fast enough for most people. And although the webConnect Rocket is in the news at Mobile World Congress, the real story is the network it connects to — at the end of the year, I’m wondering if T-Mobile will indeed have leapfrogged the competition. The carrier was among the last to make the move to 3G, but it continues to quickly march towards the fastest mobile broadband service in the U.S. in 2010.
Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):