Tuesday, August 10, 2004

To 3, or not to 3?

James Pearce: ZDNet Australia: News: Communications
May 26, 2003
URL: http://www.zdnet.com.au/news/communications/0,2000061791,20274365,00.htm

Hutchison has the only 'true 3G' network available in Australia, which they have imaginatively named '3'. Every phone company -- including Hutchison -- are adamant that people don't want to buy technology, but services. So we've put 3 through its paces.

The network has a theoretical speed of 386 kbps, which currently runs at between 200-300 kbps. This is at least twice as fast as the optimum speed of Telstra's Mobile Loop service, and around 10 times faster than the old 2G phones.

We found the network coverage around Sydney to be reasonably good, although there are a few blackspots and some areas lost their 3G coverage occasionally. When this happens the phone switches to roam on Vodafone's 2G network.

A couple of files we tried to download weren't there, similar to a broken link on a Web site.

The NEC e606 has a hot-button straight to the 3 network, and the icon-based menu pops up about as quickly as the menu on the phone does. However, despite the fact the nine icons are set in a square, you can only move the highlighted selection up or down, which effectively doubles the number of keystrokes you have to do to get to a particular icon.

Hutchison have leveraged its higher speed network to ensure that most services it offers for download are videos. The videos range in quality from acceptable to amazing, depending on the content. For instance, most news videos had good quality, but nowhere near TV grade, while movie trailers had amazing quality.

The videos are preceded by a text description, with the option to download the videos if you wish - a good way to save on data costs. If you download a video it is saved to your phone, and you have the option of viewing it then or later.

The news section offers six daily stories, most of them video based. The news comes from Australian Associated Press (AAP), and range in length up to about one minute long. The sports section is similar, offering four stories up to a minute long, but also includes the scores for AFL, NRL, Rugby Union and Cricket.

The weather is available for all Australian capital cities up to four days in ahead, and the finance section has the ASX market wrap and the Wall St Report, both from AAP. This doesn't include stock prices -- indeed, that service didn’t appear to be available -- just winners, losers and a summary of the day's action.

The comedy section of the menu is funny, both ha-ha funny and 'weird' funny. When we looked at it over a couple of days it tended to include a couple of minute-long clips from the Footy Show, as well as a couple of serials. 'Ovos' creates 60 second short films in the ironic documentary style - for instance one film was about an office worker settling office tensions with a pillowcase full of oranges: You can guess the rest.

Another serial is "Star Flat", which involves three guys in a flat who look like Sylvester Stallone, Prince and Tom Hanks. This is 60 secs based around a "joke" -- to be honest we weren't impressed. Or more importantly, amused. Ovos and Star Flat appear to be from the US, and we're not sure the humour transfers to the local market.

The best offerings are the short grabs of stand-up comedy that are intermittently offered. These are usually Australian made and genuinely funny. We understand the difficulties involved with creating funny 60-second sketches, but we suggest Hutchison (and all other providers of this sort of service) look to areas that traditionally provide it. Comedy sketch shows on TV immediately spring to mind. Admittedly the comedy on these are often quite dire, but surely finding seven funny 60-second sketches from a weekly one hour show wouldn't be too hard.

The 'What's On' section contains a brief outline of events in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. We assume Adelaide and Perth will follow as the service becomes available in those cities. The Sydney section contained six movie previews, which were of pretty good quality but for foreign films we found the sub-titles too small to read. The obligatory nude scenes came through clearly, though.

Some events for that night are advertised, for example a band playing at the Basement and a play at the Sydney Opera House, as well as other bands and plays. Times, locations and a phone number for bookings are provided. There are also a couple of venue reviews, brief descriptions of pubs or cafes and why you should go there.

The top 'stories' from each section are gathered under a section called 'today', although until the amount of content increases we think people would be better served going to each individual section.

There are currently only seven games offered on the 3 network, and we hope this will increase over time. The games are Java applications that are downloaded to the phone. There is a fair variety of games: Alien Swarm, a plane shoot-em-down; Frog Solitaire, Klondike and Poker Squares, all forms of solitaire; Play Golf; Scrambled Eggs, a memory game where you remember a number sequence corresponding to dancing eggs, and Word Target, which involves making as many words as possible from nine letters.

There are more services, which are listed in a text menu. Ironically, one of the most useful services on offer -- Find + Guide -- is in this section. This service allows you to bring up a map on your screen, with roads, post offices, parks and even Pizza Huts marked. The resolution goes from 10 kms to about 8 metres, although at the small end of town all you can see is grey areas denoting "residential". Still, a portable street directory is incredibly useful.

Other services available in this section are astrological star charts, the messaging functions of your phone, and five ringtones and five pictures to download and use.

The services on offer from 3 are very reasonably priced, 50 cents for downloads (AU$1.50 for ringtones). There are also a number of maximum caps (subject to fair use rules) so that if you download 60 items in a month you only pay AU$25. We're not sure how long these prices will remain. Hutchison claims they are set at a profitable level, while other telcos say they are an introductory offer to grab marketshare, and the prices will soon rise. Consumers may have to just wait and see.

Taken as a whole, the services offered on 3 are quite broad, but not very deep. If Hutchison continues to add content over time to build up the catalogue, three will become a will be very compelling offering indeed.

Company: Hutchison
Price: Depends on plan
Distributor: 3 Australia

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