What O2 has announced essentially is a portable 3G hotspot - a small device that will allow a user (or a group of users) to connect up to 5 devices simultaneously to O2's 3G mobile data network, without having to sign up to a long term contract.
Users pay £59.99 for the portable hotspot, about the size of a small feature phone, which then comes in a pay daily (200MB), 1GB (£10.21) or 2GB (£15.32) per month configuration, which can be recharged instantly over the phone or web.
The device is rechargeable (lithium ion batteries), is turned on with a single press of the power button, and appears to other devices as a simple Wi-Fi hotspot. Users then enter the password supplied. Completely idiot-proof, so well done O2. It is also platform agnostic - any device can connect to it, regardless of whether they are an O2 customer or not.
O2's Pocket Hotspot
The O2 Pocket Hotspot is a full HSPA+ device (which has earned the moniker 3.5G in the UK), which runs at 21.1Mbps downstream (5.76mbps up), a big jump from the existing 14.4Mbit/s 3G network. These are headline speeds, so no single user will get that performance - it depends on the network load at your base station and other environmental and infrastructural factors.
CBR tested the product with a iPad 3 configured in two ways:
1) Connected to the hotspot directly
2) Tethered to an iPhone 3GS (note: the 3GS is only capable of 7.2mbps downstream)
Friday 3 August, and Saturday 4 August. Each set of figures is the best out of six tests.
NOTE: O2 is still rolling out HSPA+, so some areas will not be getting the full throttle speed. O2 wouldn't offer its rollout schedule to CBR - so it is not entirely clear whether the above tests were utilising HSPA+ properly or not.
As you can see, either way, the results are actually quite impressive. At 3-4mbps most forms of low intensity internet usage is very doable - I wouldn't want to be uploading 20MP images, or streaming HD video, but perfectly functional for day to day usage, such as email, Google Docs, Facebook and Twitter. Skype worked (barely) in video mode, perfectly with just audio. Downloading big updates or mobile apps would not be recommended.
It is worth remembering that the average broadband speed (cable, wireless etc.) across the whole of London is only 5.8mbps, so this may well be a usable proposition for those doing work on the go, such as on an iPad or laptop. It is most certainly not for power users, such as those in the creative industries.
Laptop users I suspect will stick to 3G dongles, this is a product that definitely appears aimed at tablet owners.
Battery life is another issue this is another gadget that needs to charge. Having said that, its battery life is pretty impressive - and will outlast any device that can be connected to it. It has averaged 1.5-2 days between charges so far, with moderate usage and 2-3 devices connected to it, the aforementioned iPad 3, a Dell laptop and my iPhone 3GS - all of which ran out of battery before the hotspot did.
The main problems with such a product remain with the medium - this remains reliant on a cell phone network rather than Wi-Fi, and is subject to the same pressures as using data on your phone. Cell phone towers can be overloaded (i.e. at major events), the UK's 3G networks are all already at capacity, so achieving consistent speeds at any time of the day is near impossible, and network coverage is extremely poor.
London's 3G coverage especially is a problem. As a user, you quite simply never know if taking your iPad down to the local park is going to give you any kind of decent reception. It is doable on a bus, but again, this saw reception bars constantly fluctuating between 1 bar and 5 - which became quite frustrating, as inconsistent load times and drop offs became quite jarring. The train isn't much better. Driving on the M1 was even worse (as a passenger of course).
So the O2 Pocket Hotspot remains an interesting proposition. What initially seems like a pretty expensive data deal, may well work out to be cheaper for those that don't want or need home broadband (which costs around £30-60 per month), but just want to check Facebook and email.
Also, when you think of the average smartphone bill (£30-50) it isn't as expensive as you think. The data purchased lasts for 30 days, so there's no rush to get through it all.
For enterprise, it remains probably still too risky. It would work as a supplementary tool (i.e. for a businessman to carry around in the briefcase), but basing your business on 3G is not safe - as O2 themselves demonstrated a few weeks ago.
I do however, find it quite pleasurable to simply take my tablet out into the garden just out of reach of the Wi-Fi router to sit in the sun, I imagine the same could be said for anyone who wants to sit in the park during a lunch break and get respectable speeds.
Students I suspect could make use of it - five to a flat would give them about 1Mbps each, enough for email or school work, for a few pounds each. Although given the next generation's propensity for high data usage, I doubt this somehow.
Where it really shines is for iPad Wi-Fi only and Google Nexus 7 tablet purchasers. Put simply, spending the extra £100 to buy an iPad Wifi+3G (or indeed any 3G tablet) now makes no sense. While tethering iPads to iPhones has been available for a while, it hasn't been possible at this speed.
Most importantly, Google Nexus 7 purchasers also now have a dead simple way of turning their Wi-Fi only tablet into a 3G compatible one - which I could argue is an essential update which boosts the product's usefulness.
If you are a tablet owner, who regrets not buying a 3G SIM card version of your tablet device - this is the instant solution, and I'd say go buy one now. It fixes a major whole in the product.
If you are considering buying an iPad+3G (or any other tablet variant), don't bother - save yourself the £100 mark up, the required SIM card purchase and the 2 year mobile data plan subscriptions right here.
It comes back to the upfront cost - £59.95 is steep. You could buy a high end smartphone on a plan for that much - say an iPhone 4S with HSPA+ and tether to it - if you wanted to commit to a 2 year plan.
I would've liked to have seen £19.95-£29.95 maximum - which would also make sense for targeting the aforementioned student demographic.
In conclusion, the O2 Hotspot falls into the 'nice to have' category - good for a tablet lunch in the park.
When 4G comes along and these kinds of hotspot devices are made available (hopefully with decent network coverage) then I'd say this kind of device would be a killer app for any mobile device user. Until then, we remain at the mercy of the UK's dicey 3G networks.
As such, the O2 Hotspot remains extremely niche -for those that want a bit of pre-pay data without being attached to a plan, or non-3G tablet owners - the rest of us will probably stick to tethering.