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Posts Tagged ‘iPhone’

The Lowdown on the UK Mobile Networks

May 13th, 2011 4 comments

In the UK, we have 5 main mobile network providers (others simply piggy-back on one of these networks):

I’ve recently spend some time considering which network to move to next and thought i’d share my thoughts and experience.

Background:

For many years (probably approaching 10 at a guess), I stuck with Orange – upgrading to a new handset each year in exchange for signing another 12 month contract. Once I got married and moved, the signal where we lived was poor and I eventually left Orange for 3UK, who I used for several years until 2009 when I moved to O2 to get an iPhone, as they had the exclusive supply in the UK. At that time, I had the choice of an 18 month or 24 month contract and I opted for the 24 month to keep the cost down and keep in-sync with the iPhone release schedule. In 2010, with the release of the iPhone 4, I sold my iPhone 3GS and bought a sim-free, unlocked iPhone direct from Apple and continued with the O2 contract. In this time i’ve also had various other, secondary devices on various networks for various purposes or to take advantage of certain deals.

This brings us up to today, where I soon enter the last month of the O2 contract and I am keen to move away from O2 to another network. The reason for this is almost purely their (lack of) 3G network. As far as coverage goes, they are excellent – it’s very unusual for my phone to be out of service, anywhere. The problem is, I use my phone a lot for data and it’s almost a bit unusual to see a 3G signal unless i’m in a big city – and even then, i’ve been in both London and Middlesbrough and not had a 3G signal indoors. The other minor consideration is they changed their tarrifs last year and removed unlimited data and started charging for MMS (Picture/Video) Messages, which were previously charged at 4x text messages taken from the available allowance.

My thinking is as follows – i’ll do some testing with Vodafone and 3UK (it’ll become apparent below why these are my choices) using Pay-As-You-Go SIM cards and sign a rolling 1-Month SIM Only contract with my preferred choice. I’ll use the period until the next iPhone is released to fully evaluate the network to ensure i’m happy before committing to a 24 month contract in exchange for the latest iPhone. There are a lot of rumours around this year that the tradition of a new iPhone every June will be broken and it will be somewhere around September this year, so I may have plenty of time to evaluate my decision!

For the past few weeks, i’ve been carrying two Nokia 6120 Classic phones, one with a Vodafone sim and the other with a 3UK sim, in addition to my iPhone on O2 and comparing signal. I’ve compared signal across my own area of Teesside but also on a weekend trip to Worcester in the Midlands and another weekend trip up to Hexham in order to gauge the relative signal strengths in different places.

Firstly, a look at the different networks:

O2:

O2 (formally Cellnet, or BT Cellnet), along with Vodafone are the oldest of the UK networks. They transmit on 900Mhz (GSM) for their 2G network and as with all of the UK networks, 2100Mhz for 3G. As i’ve already covered, their 2G network is excellent and covers pretty much all of the UK but as you see on the 2009 Ofcom Report, their 3G coverage is the worst of all of the providers and is largely focused on cities and large population areas. Being on 900Mhz for 2G coverage means they are able to get greater range so can have fewer, more spread out masts to achieve good coverage, as opposed to Orange and T-Mobile who use the 1800Mhz (PCN) band and require cell sites closer together. 900Mhz also by nature gives better penetration through walls and buildings than 1800Mhz (PCN) and 2100Mhz (3G).

Orange:

Orange run a 2G network on 1800Mhz (PCN) and a 3G network on the standard 2100Mhz. Looking at the coverage maps, they would appear to have the 2nd best 3G coverage, behind 3UK. However, my wife has a HTC Desire on Orange and quite regularly she will have a good 3G signal but is unable to get any kind of data connection – a great source of frustration. At first, I wasn’t sure whether this was the network, phone or settings, but several other Orange users i’ve spoken to have exactly the same problem, which seems to be caused by network overloading. Reading around various forums, lots of people round the country seem to have the same problem and some describe the Orange data network as ‘on it’s knees’.

In 2010, Orange purchased T-Mobile and they have joined forces under the banner of ‘Everything Everywhere‘. Shortly after this, they announced that they had enabled roaming between their 2G networks. This means that Orange customers will roam onto T-Mobile’s 2G network if they are outside of Orange coverage and T-Mobile customers will roam onto Orange’s 2G network if they are outside of T-Mobile coverage. I also believe that Orange Mobile Broadband dongles now use the T-Mobile 3G network and backhaul rather than Orange’s. They have announced that a full network share (which will include 3G and allow connection to the strongest available signal rather than roaming when out of service) will come later. This latter part is interesting, as I will cover under T-Mobile below.

T-Mobile:

T-Mobile run a 2G network in the 1800Mhz (PCN) band. For their 3G network, they jointly own (50/50) a company called MBNL (Mobile Broadband Network Ltd) with 3UK. Under this agreement, they share cell sites, towers and (I think) antenna’s using something called RAN (Radio Access Network) but then have their own backhaul connectivity – either via fibre or using directional microwave links daisy chain on to another, nearby cell tower. They therefore have pretty much the same 3G coverage as 3UK (although I believe that 3UK’s backhaul is faster, giving better data speeds, but this will of course vary depending on location).

What’s interesting here though is that as I mentioned above, T-Mobile is now owned by Orange, who are looking to merge their 3G networks. How I believe this will work is that the MBNL sites will be enabled as part of the Orange network, they will shut off all of the Orange sites which are the same as or close to MBNL sites and will contribute their remaining (around 3,000 I believe) sites to the MBNL network. This means 3UK will have the option of running their backhaul links to those sites and gain the additional benefit of those sites on their network. Once all completed and enabled, these sites will transmit Orange, T-Mobile and 3UK signal through common antenna’s (but with their own equipment and backhaul). This will mean that in theory, all 3 networks should have the same coverage.

Three (or 3UK):

3UK is ran by Hutchinson Telecommunications who used to own Orange, before it was sold to France Telecom. As they are a newer company compared to the other networks, they decided to only build a 3G network and they utilised this early on by pushing ‘video calling’ as their unique selling point, as well as offering very generous call and text allowances. As I covered above, their 3G sites are deployed by MBNL which is jointly owned with T-Mobile but I believe they do deploy some of their own, 3-only sites to increase capacity (more than coverage) in certain areas.

As they don’t have their own 2G network and because of the higher frequency of 3G, it’s much harder to get complete coverage because masts have to be closer together and 3G also requires faster data connectivity which I assume will be tricky in rural areas. To ensure good coverage, they agreed a roaming agreement with O2. In 2006, a deal was done with Orange and 2G roaming migrated from O2 to Orange (although for a while it worked on both at the same time!). What this means is that if the phone is unable to obtain a 3UK (3G) signal, it will use Orange (or originally O2′s) 2G network. This 2G roaming is generally a good thing because it gives you the ability to make and receive calls and text messages (and very slow data) while you would otherwise be out of service. However, there is a few quirk’s with this. Firstly, if you are in an area that has a very weak 3 (3G) signal but a strong Orange (or previously O2) 2G signal, the phone will prefer and stick to the 3G signal – so at times you actually got a better signal for calls by going (further) inside, covering the phone or doing other things which would usually reduce the signal because it caused it to lose the weak 3G signal and use the stronger 2G signal. Phones also only re-scan the available signals every so often (usually after a few minutes inactivity) so it’s possible that if you lose 3G signal momentarily and it picks up the 2G network (especially as it will scan in sequence so it depends where in the sequence you catch it), it will hold on to it until the next check. This and people who disable 3G on the phones will mean that there are a lot of unnecessary calls going through the 2G network while in 3G coverage areas and that will obviously come at a cost to 3UK as they will have to pay Orange for the calls through their network. For these reasons, they have started to turn off the Orange roaming in certain areas which they believe will have adequate 3G coverage.

Vodafone:

Vodafone’s network is very similar to O2′s (in fact, I believe they do share some cell sites). They have an excellent 2G network on 900Mhz (GSM) and according to the coverage maps, they have a better 3G coverage than O2 (but not as good as 3UK or Orange).

My Conclusions:

For the reasons I outlined above, my choice was to move to either Vodafone or 3UK. In my testing with the Nokia 6120 Classic’s on 3UK and Vodafone, the Vodafone signal was good, but it was still on 2G at times – whereas the 3UK signal was excellent. The 3UK phone was always in 3G coverage and quite often had a full signal so was a clear winner on signal strength.

3UK were also a long way ahead in terms of the package – for £25/month on a 1-Month SIM-Only deal or £35 with an iPhone, you can get their “One Plan”. This includes 2,000 cross network minutes, 5,000 text messages, 5,000 3-3 minutes and unlimited data. Unusually, the unlimited data doesn’t have a fair usage limit and they make a big deal out of the fact that it is truly unlimited. They also allow the use of tethering and use of the “Personal Hotspot” feature in the latest iPhone software. Vodafone on the other hand are the same price, but for £25 on a 1-Month SIM Only deal, you only get 600 minutes, unlimited texts and 1GB data and on an iPhone contract, £35 gets you the same but with 500Mb data. Vodafone do include BT OpenZone Wifi usage when near a hotspot but they charge extra for tethering and personal hotspot which is a shame.

On the strength of the above, and the fact that i’d had a good experience with them for several years in the past, I went ahead and ordered the 3UK SIM Only deal (through Quidco to get £50 cashback). This is however where things get a little strange. When the Microsim arrived for the iPhone 4, the number of bars on the iPhone was clearly no where near that of the Nokia. I tried it for a few days and where the Nokia was often full signal, the iPhone was rarely full signal. It wasn’t that the iPhone was bad at receiving a signal because it was as good as the Nokia at picking up a very weak signal. There is a good article here about why bar’s don’t really matter – the bars are just a visual representation of the actual signal strength reading and there is no standard for this between manufacturers, but it just wasn’t right. The iPhone was quite often 1 or 2 bars and speed tests varied a lot. This also confirmed experience some friends have using iPhones on 3UK.

Another consideration was that Vodafone is the only network that seems to work well in our house. Coverage on the other networks is patchy, until you walk out and off down the street where it jumps in signal.

The above problems and the fact that 3UK are withdrawing the 2G roaming coverage which can easily create gaps in the coverage has led me to go with Vodafone. The 3G coverage might not be as comprehensive, the deal not as good and no tethering/personal hotspot without paying extra, but at least I know I should (just about) always have at least a 2G signal for calls and texts, even if I can’t get a 3G signal for data.

I’ve also already got a 3UK Mifi (Mobile Wifi) which I can continue to use for data as a backup so going with a different provider it saves me from finding an alternative to that, which I would have if i’d gone with 3UK for the iPhone. Also, it’s only on a 1-month contract (and I got the 1st 2 months free) so i’ve got between now and when the next iPhone comes out evaluate and change my mind…..

Categories: Phones Tags: , ,

Apple Announces the iPad 2, iOS 4.3, Photobooth, iMovie and GarageBand

March 3rd, 2011 No comments

Yesterday (2nd March 2011), Apple announced the 2nd generation of their groundbreaking tablet device, the iPad 2.

The first surprise of the day was that Steve Jobs took the stage at the event. Steve is currently on health related leave and although there was rumours of his attendance, he wasn’t expected to be there. His entry was accompanied by cheers and applause.

As usual, the first order of the day was some updates and statistics:

  • There are now 2,500 books in the iBookstore and since opening, there have been over 100 million downloads.
  • There is a new addition, Random House with 17,000 books
  • There are now over 200 million iTunes accounts
  • $2,000,000,000 has been paid to developers
  • 100 million iPhones have been sold
  • Steve then proceeded to announce the iPad 2 and the following features:

  • New Apple A5 Chip – Dual Core, 2x faster CPU, 9x faster graphics and same low power usage as the current, single core A4 chip
  • Front and rear cameras
  • Gyroscope
  • 33% thinner (13.4mm down to 8.8mm)
  • Black and White versions available
  • Available on AT&T and Verizon (GSM and CDMA)
  • Same 10 hour battery life
  • Same pricing (starting from $499)
  • Available 11th March in the US and 25th March in 25 other countries, including the UK
  • To accompany the new iPad, the following new accessories were announced:

  • HDMI Video Adapter ($39) – this gives a 1080p mirrored video output which supports rotation and works with all applications
  • Smart Covers – these are a new cover which doubles up as a stand. Included are magnets which grasp and auto align, adds minimal weight and thickness, micro-fibre lining cleans screen, wake on open & sleep on close, easy to remove or change and available in polyurethane ($39) or leather ($69).
  • The new wasn’t just about the iPad, Apple also announced the release of iOS 4.3, including:

  • Safari performance improvements – Nitro JavaScript engine
  • iTunes Home Sharing Improvements
  • AirPlay Improvements
  • Preference for iPad switch (mute or rotation selection)
  • Personal Hotspot (iPhone 4)
  • New Photo Booth Software
  • Available 11th March for iPad, iPhone (GSM) and ipod touch (3rd and 4th gen)
  • Alongside the iPad 2 and iOS 4.3, Apple have been working on some new applications both available on the 11th March priced at $4.99 each:

  • iMovie
  • Garageband
  • Sadly, despite the rumours, there was no mention of changes to Mobile Me or any mention of iOS 5.

    Categories: Apple Tags: , , ,

    iPhone 3G S

    June 9th, 2009 No comments

    Apple just announced the new ‘iPhone 3G S’ at it’s WWDC 2009 conference.

    The S stands for ‘Speed’ and the new iPhone will contain the following new features:

    • Faster
    • 3 mega-pixel camera with auto focus and auto macro
    • Video recording and editing
    • Voice commands
    • A digital compass
    • Improved battery life

    The exterior of the device will be the same as the current iPhone 3G.

    Categories: iPhone Tags: , , ,

    iPhone / iPod Touch version 3.0

    June 8th, 2009 No comments

    Apple today confirmed, at it’s WWDC 2009 conference that the previously announced 3.0 firmware that has been in beta for the last few months will be released on June 17th.

    The update contains many big features such as Copy & Paste and MMS but also includes 100 updates and 1000 new API calls.

    Categories: iPhone Tags: , , , ,

    New iPhone Spec Rumours

    May 19th, 2009 2 comments

    There have been several rumours recently about the spec of the next, rumoured iPhone.

    The Apple iPhone Apps site has given a good roundup and review of them – see here. All sounds plausible to me – certainly along the lines of what I was thinking!

    * 32GB and 16GB to replace current capacities
    * $199 and $299 price-points to be maintained
    * 3.2 Megapixel camera
    * Video recording & editing capabilities
    * Ability to send a picture & video via MMS
    * Discontinuation of the metal band surrounding the edge of the device
    * OLED screen
    * 1.5X The battery life
    * Double the RAM and processing power
    * Built-in FM transmitter
    * Apple logo on the back to light up
    * Rubber-tread backing
    * Sleeker design
    * Built-in compass
    * Revolutionary combination of the camera, GPS, compass, and Google maps to identify photo and inform about photo locations.
    * Turn by turn directions
    * July 17th, 2009 release date

    The article also

    Categories: iPhone Tags: , , ,

    Sling Got Greedy?

    April 3rd, 2009 No comments

    There has been talk (and demo videos) for a long time about SlingPlayer on the iPhone (and iPod Touch). It was reported last week that it was finished and had been submitted to the app store for approval.

    Now it’s reported that the SlingPlayer for the iPhone will only work on the newer Slingbox models.

    What’s more is that apparently it did work in the beta versions and it’s not a hardware thing but a greedy move by Sling to get people to purchase new hardware.

    I always did find it frustrating that after buying the device you had to pay for the mobile version of SlingPlayer – but I did buy it for Pocket PC and Symbian as it wasn’t too expensive.

    However, I certainly wont be buying new hardware just to get it on the iPhone / iPod and I certainly wont be recommending Slingbox to anyone if they are going to do that :(

    http://www.tuaw.com/2009/04/02/sling-rains-on-its-own-parade/

    http://www.theiphoneblog.com/2009/04/02/slingplayer/

    Categories: iPhone Tags: , ,

    Microsoft Office on the iPhone?

    April 3rd, 2009 No comments

    Well that’s something you never thought would happen – Microsoft are working on Office for the iPhone.

    They are also apparently releasing a web based version which will work on both the iPhone and Linux.

    Categories: iPhone Tags: , , ,

    New iPhone Rumours

    April 1st, 2009 No comments

    Now that a lot of my software wishlist has been answered in the iPhone and iPod Touch 3.0 firmware, i’m now excited to hear what they are going to add to the next hardware version of the iPhone which will likely be announced at the WWDC in June and I am madly hoping will be out shortly after that.

    My wishlist would be:

    Relistic additions:

    • Better camera
    • Flash
    • Video recording
    • Faster processor
    • More memory
    • 3G optimisations for better signal and faster data

    Ideals:

    • Bigger, higher resolution screen
    • Removable battery
    • SD Card slot for extra memory

    It’s good to see that the latest rumours are at least pointing to some of them becoming reality:

    http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/09/03/31/report_two_distinct_iphone_models_nearing_production.html

    Categories: iPhone Tags: , ,

    Apple has increased the “9 pages of apps” limit on the iPhone / iPod Touch

    April 1st, 2009 No comments

    Finally! – Apple has increased the “9 pages of applications” limit (148 apps) on the latest iPhone / iPod Touch 3.0 beta to 11 pages (180 apps) – still not ideal but at least a little more ability to install new apps without removing old ones.

    Categories: iPhone Tags: , , ,

    Apple Released 2nd beta of iPhone / iPod Touch 3.0

    April 1st, 2009 No comments

    Apple have released a 2nd beta of the iPhone / iPod Touch 3.0 firmware to developers:

    http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/09/03/31/apple_releases_second_beta_of_iphone_3_0_software_to_developers.html

    Categories: iPhone Tags: , , ,