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Long-term Road Test: 3’s X-Series in the UK

SMS Text News regular (and world-renowned foosball player) Ben Smith has been living with 3’s X-Series in the UK and his travels for just over six months. It’s been his ‘regular drive’ – his everyday handset and a home for his main work and personal number. What does he think about it? Here’s his long-term road test of the service.

So now we’ve got to know each other properly it’s time to step away, kick the tyres a bit and look back at how we’ve got on. Before I begin properly I should point out that I’ve been a proper paying customer… handing over a wedge of my hard-earned every month. I ported in my regular number to 3 at the outset and we’ve been together through thick and thin on the ‘silver’ X-Series tariff ever since. 3 have also lent Ewan a handset on the ‘gold’ tariff and I’ve put in a few laps round the test track on that over the last fortnight. This is my look back… (cue slow fade and uplifting soft-rock).
[OK, I’m going to stop the weak motoring-show metaphors now…]

Launched in November 2006, X-Series is an add-on to any standard consumer pay-monthly voice and text plan from 3. It comes in three flavours:

Unlimited Internet: For any handset and tariff combination available in the 3 range this option adds unlimited data usage for £5 a month. This can be used for web browsing, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo searching, downloading podcasts and accessing Ebay (as long as the handset supports them).

Silver tariff: For a smaller range of X-Series compatible handsets (all Nokia at this point) a number of additional applications are available including Skype, push e-mail and the Yahoo! Go suite, also for £5 per month.

Gold tariff: For £10 a month this adds unlimited media streaming from your home PC or home TV (with the right software and hardware) to the Silver tariff’s applications.

As with other networks ‘unlimited’ is qualified in the small print, but in this case it means a reasonable 1GB of downloaded data per month which can be used for anything plus 80 hours of streamed media for ‘gold’ users. Comparisons with other networks are a little tricky, but T-Mobile gets closest with their ‘web n walk’ package which also gives 1GB of data downloads per month but for £7.50. However, this specifically excludes instant messaging and voice over IP – two of the key technologies promoted by X-Series. Vodafone offer 120 MB per month, also for £7.50, with the same restrictions and the rest seem still to exist in the dark ages (yes, I’m looking at you Orange and O2) offering 30 MB and 4 MB for £8 and £5 per month respectively. To be fair though, O2 do generously give 100 KB free per month on some tariffs… No really… 100KB. I didn’t even know you could measure amounts that small.

In use the service is fast and reliable – I wasn’t much of a fan of 3’s service in the early days. Poor selection of handsets, dropped calls, poor coverage and grim customer service experiences put me off and I was a vocal critic to anyone who’d listen (not that many people to be honest but that didn’t stop me). I certainly wasn’t the only one and it seems that 3 have listened. Voice calls are crisp and reliable and since January coverage for areas where 3’s coverage is lacking is provided by Orange’s network (it was O2 before) which appears to be up to the job. Handovers between the networks appear reliable and the dual coverage meant I wasn’t able to find any areas where coverage was significantly lacking. I certainly didn’t expect it to be this good having come from Vodafone previously – a place I laboured for some time under the misapprehension that I was paying a premium for superior coverage. Data is similarly reliable – just how it should be really – it just works whenever I’ve needed it. So far, very much so good.

As ever with 3, the voice tariffs are some of the best on the market and look competitive across the range. I opted for one costing around £40 per month (including X-Series charge) which has all the voice and texts I could ever want. However, on current pricing X-Series is available from as low as £20 per month. Also worthy of note is 3’s ‘3 Like Home’ roaming charging – the most sensible approach to international roaming anyone’s come up with for a long time in my opinion (and I’m going to ask you to pretend that matters for a little longer). For countries where 3 has a network (Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Hong Kong, Australia and Ireland) charges for calls and data are exactly as they would be in the UK including any bundled elements. For X-Series customers that means up to a gigabyte of roaming data per month for no extra cost and it works… brilliantly. On a number of trips to Ireland data and calls worked well and the only annoyance was explaining to concerned hosts that, no, I wasn’t bankrupting myself in roaming fees looking up flight times on my phone. To be fair, roaming costs to other countries aren’t quite as outstanding, but have reduced in line with the recent EU ruling.

Handset selection across the whole range is still more limited that many other networks and people who want the full X-Series experience will need to opt for a Nokia Series 60 smartphone: the 6120, N73, E65 or (added this weekend) top-of-the-line N95 phone, camera, music player, GPS gizmo and cappuccino machine. I was initially a little disappointed at this and the continued absence of the Sony Ericsson W950i promised at launch is obviously still frustrating some. Whilst, in use, the Nokia handsets’ reliability and versatility have shown why they suit X-Series so well (and would now be my preference) the absence of other smart phones, including any from the Windows Mobile stable seems odd. This coupled with the relatively slow time to launch new handsets is definitely an area for improvement.

What marks X-Series out particularly from any other offering available is the inclusion of the applications and services element in addition to the data service and it’s worth taking a look at each one:

Skype: Based on the iSkoot solution the client surprised me in its elegance. Skype calls are made and received as normal phone calls to 3’s server which in turn connects too your contacts and updates their status to your handset. This is particularly smart as it ensures calls are not interrupted by other downloads and even uses the standard 3 voicemail if calls are missed. Call quality was indistinguishable from normal mobile calls and only the absence of the Skype chat functionality gave any cause for complaint.

MobileMail: Another 3rd party solution (this time provided by Seven), push e-mail also works smoothly – coupled with my IMAP account updates and deletions happened quickly and, most importantly, in the background making use a much more pleasant experience than the phone’s native mail client. Strangely some of the advanced features (particularly around IMAP mail) are disabled (including copying of sent items to the correct folder on the server) which is a shame, but it otherwise works well. As an aside, I supplemented MobileMail with Dataviz’s Roadsync product to synchronise my corporate e-mail from an Exchange server to another mailbox and they co-exist very happily.

Ebay: This is provided by a customised interface which is accessed by the web browser. It provides an excellent mobile buying interface and also allows tracking of watched items. Some of the detail of listing is lost in the small screen version, but once you have found and ‘watched’ an item it’s a slick process – I even bought a few things on the train on the way home one night…. Ooooo get me.

Mobilecast: This is the podcasting application and of those offered I think this is the least successful. The idea is sound – the ability to download podcasts on the move is an excellent one, but this is a poor implementation with a strange interface that doesn’t always behave consistently with other applications. The built in directory is very limited and feels especially so if you’re familiar with using iTunes to search and subscribe to podcasts from. Worst of all, however, is that the audio is streamed ‘on demand’ which makes for frustrating delays between clicking ‘play’ and anything happening. It also means use on the move can be interrupted by tunnels/going underground, of which there is just enough on my run into work to cause annoyance. Playback is also interrupted if the network or host server can’t keep up and the audio doesn’t always recover quite in the right place. Although relying on external directories rather than a built-in directory, I vastly prefer Nokia’s Podcasting application which is improving all the time and has a ‘background download’ feature to fill a memory card with podcasts in advance to avoid all the delays and interruptions. Of course the great thing about this tariff is that I can swap…

Windows Live Messenger: This worked well, without serious problems or hiccup. I occasionally missed incoming messages, but this was normally down to my lack of attention as far as I can tell. Personally, I am so used to using multi-network clients such as the excellent web-based Meebo I found the restriction of just being able to contact people on one network too limiting and after a while resorted to the excellent Agile Messenger instead which covers the lot.

Yahoo! Go: Probably the hardest to describe of all the applications I’m going to wimp out and suggest if you don’t know that you should read up here , but as expected the portal element worked well and the mail, contacts, calendar and photo sync also worked well too. It is a bit if a hog in some respects – demanding a lot of memory and requiring the use of its own interface to access some of the features. However, if you’re already a Yahoo user this is the closest to a free consumer ‘blackberry’ solution I’ve seen to-date. It’s a shame Yahoo’s desktop synchronisation doesn’t match up to complete the picture (it’s completely unusable).

Orb: Only available for gold subscribers this is really just an additional mobile interface for the existing Orb home media streaming product. The Orb Server installs on your home PC (only a PC with XP or Vista at the moment) and it indexes the media content stored on it. Then, as long as the PC’s on, the handset can access the Orb interface via the web browser and can view pictures or stream music and video via the phone’s RealPlayer application. Pictures and audio worked well for me, but in video playback colours were corrupted. All the characters in the Simpsons Movie trailer, for example, where purple. Whilst the functionality is appealing I’m excluded from using it long-term as I’m primarily a Mac user at home and if I did have a PC on all the time I don’t think the current quality warrants the additional monthly cost.

Slingcast: Without a Slingbox I didn’t test this, but the concept is similar to the Orb player – albeit with a hardware device streaming TV from home. I expect the remote viewing functionality may be the most compelling part of the gold tariff for people on the move or away from home a lot, but with the increasing availability of internet-based video services, including mobile versions such as m.youtube.com I’m not 100% sold on this. I guess it may be different if you were already an owner and user of this technology.

…and in reality it is these few criticisms of the X-Series applications that are the only real complaints I can level at the service. I think 3 are probably faced with a dilemma – to stick with the recognisable brand names like Microsoft and Yahoo for the X-Series applications or move to sometimes incorporate more rounded applications from smaller vendors. However, I think they’ve cracked this though with the 3neXt initiative – a directory of mobile apps that can work on X-Series so that users can discover and use those that suit them best. It also allows for users to expand the range of applications to fill any gaps – perhaps like the omission of a photo or blogging tool such as Shozu [news just in – they added it to X-Series at the same time as launching the N95 ] or a mapping tool such as Google Maps (my choice) or Map24. A review feature also allows applications to be rated and recommended.

As a tariff, I love X-Series – it’s a mobile network with performance as good as any I’ve used in recent years and with unlimited data at these prices it’s excellent value for money, even before ‘3 Like Home’ which should be like a kick up the backside to other operators (and no, Vodafone, Passport does not come anywhere even close…). The whole approach is unusually fair and rooted in common sense… and it feels nice. There’s not going to be any surprises in my next bill and the small print doesn’t hide a ton of restrictions on what I use my data for – for that alone someone needs a medal. Sure, there’s room for improvement, but there’s a real sense that 3 aren’t going to rest on their laurels quite yet. They’re actively engaged with users through the official X-Series blog and there’s a beta programme for new offerings. It’s good to know from time to time I’m going to wake up in the morning and X-Series will have got just a little bit better… And whilst the gold tariff isn’t for me yet, I’ve no doubt it will be added to and extended over time, and |’m just waiting to be tempted by some new shiny extra.

In all it’s good. Bloody good. So good, in fact, they’ll be getting my money for some time to come…

Related: Put some questions to 3UK’s Head of Handsets

By Ben Smith

Ben is an expert on enterprise mobility and wireless data products. He has been a regular contributor to Mobile Industry Review since 2007 and is also editor of Wireless Worker.

29 replies on “Long-term Road Test: 3’s X-Series in the UK”

Just to fill in a blank on Ben’s excellent overview, I use a Slingbox with my X-Series Gold tariff and I have to say it’s one of the more compelling features. For that tenner a month I can call up my Sky+ box and watch any channel live (useful for keeping up with the news for someone in the PR biz), view stuff stored on my disk or just set the planner for Dance X because the wife forgot to do it before we left home. That alone has to be worth the subs. The experience isn’t faultless but dropped connections, freezing and other predictable issues on the mobile client are at an absolute minimum – at least on my N73.

Another nice feature of X-Series is that the data isn’t ringfenced (or walled-gardened, or whatever). There was some debate on this when it first launched, but now it’s all clear that you can use it where you want (Widsets, Flurry, Zyb.com, etc, etc, etc).

Thanks for the info on the Slingbox Mark – I have suggested to Ewan we look at this for a separate mini-review. Unlike the software offerings, the SlingPlayer needs a reasonable outlay on a SlingBox (or for 3 to offer a free one which I don’t think they do any more) just to try the technology out which may be a bit much to justify as a speculative purchase (you super-minted PR-types aside!) so user feedback is really useful.

I’ve been living with the X-Series (silver) since December on an N73. I’ve got a couple of issues with the review:

Skype: It does work well, although it crashes fairly often without any notification so you’re often not online when you think you are.

Messenger: It’s not you missing notifications I don’t think, when the app is minimised the messages aren’t shown after you get the alert – plenty of people have mentioned this on the X-Series blog and with customer support it seems, but no fix as yet.

Mobile Mail: I use GMail and despite it being advertised as working with GMail it doesn’t – the US firm say a fix may come in January 08, but as of now 3 are still advertising it as compatible – it isn’t.

Whether it’s the handset or the service (I’ve had a replacement handset, but same model) all of the apps do crash fairly often.

[…] Here is a great review of 3 X-Series services from SMS Text News. The service is made of smartphones bundled with mobile applications that use data. 3 is a European operator running 3G only wireless network. […]

This got me interested in 3 again after hearing about X series despite my by being seriously put off them some time back for less than stellar practices.

They introduced a £25 admin fee each time I want to make changes to my contract even though there was no such fee in the terms and condition when I signed up. So in effect I ended up paying more than I would have expected because I could not easily switch to the cheaper tariff I intended as permitted under the original terms we agreed without forking out another £50. It could easily have been alot more (you can only switch down 1 tariff level at a time and pay £25 each time).

Apparenly it came under the “we can change our terms whenever we like” clause in the contract. And I notice that that is still in there… Most providers don’t try it on though unlike 3.

Actually, writing this down has reminded me how annoyed I am with them. Watcg out for them pulling more stunts like that…

Getting to the point, I don’t think it allows you to use your phone as a modem with your PC. So you can’t do real surfing when you have your laptop and are away from home. Can someone confirm this ?

Zuber

Zuber, you’re right about not being able to use the phone as a modem. This is pretty annoying, although from a personal POV I’m happy to pay the tenner for the rest of the benefits. If you want to use the phone as a modem you have to buy another add-on, which is nowhere near as competitively priced as X-Series.

@Zuber: Mark beat me to the response… so yes… what he said 🙂 However, looking at 3’s Irish pricing for HSDPA (http://www.three.ie/broadband/index.htm) and a USB modem I’d say they may well rectify this gap as they roll it out across the UK.

@bounder: Thanks for the additional info. Have to say am a very heavy user of MobileMail (less so the other stuff) and it’s been rock solid on 3 different handsets all the time although I would like the disabled features switched on…

I agree with the review. The main reason I went with 3 was the fact i travel to S ireland a lot and it’s included in my tarrif. I have just returned from a weeks holiday in Italy and again – -it’s fab not to have to worry about call costs. When I was in Italy, I noticed that 3 Italy had the N95 so I will go and check out tomorrow.
Incidentally, I bought a 3 data card in Ireland and this gives me a whopping 10Gb of data a month fo €19.99 / month (UK=£14.50) It means I can use it at work and not have to worry about the companys firewall. I use the data maodem with laptop and a recently acquired Samsung Q1 UMPC – -but hey , I am digressing. My youngest lad is about to change his contract from T-Mobile (well, I pay the bill) and tomorrow I am going to the 3 shop in trafford Centre and will get him (me) an N95.
I am also a fee paying punter of three and have no connection with the company

FINALLY, bounder, I use mobile with gmail and have never had a problem.

Paul, Colwyn Bay

They seem to have launched Google Maps for this now (well, Google launched it and 3 have plugged it on their mobile-based home page – though interestingly not on their PC visible site) which is a separate download and is excellent to use, especially when you have such a big allowance of bandwidth.

I’m looking to upgrade my phone and there’s still a few niggles I’m not understanding and which 3 tech support seem ambivalent about. What exactly does unlimited internet mean? I get that it’s 1GB of data but does that include ssh access or irc use, because that’s a massive draw for me if it is and I’ve heard good things about putty on an e65, otherwise I consider it massively false advertising.

It seems to be a full internet connection to the phone to do whatever you like with other than use the phone as an external modem. I’ve run ssh on my N73 without problem (other than typing of course…).

I’ve just had the internet unlimited add-on activated and nothing outside of port 80 works. I just called three uk tech support and they claim that the entire internet is open to me except things not on port 80 and that no plan I get from them will allow me other ports. Apparently their x-series help desk isn’t open right now so I’ll have to call back tomorrow to get a more authoritative statement on that, but it’s certainly a worry

I wouldn’t worry, Shadebug, it’s probably a glitch somewhere — I’m sure Three’s data network is entirely open.

I have to agree with shadebug. With X-Series Silver, I have found only ports 25, 80 and 100 to be open. I even tried to get it fixed by deactivating X-Series and having it reactivated. I am in the unfortunate position of having just signed up to an 18 month contract with a N95 which (I believe) cannot connect to the Nokia Positioning Server as that uses port 7275. How do you contact the X-Series help desk?

If all the ports were opened, X-Series would be great as I could use ssh, telnet and even Fring and Truphone over 3G.

It’s still rather confusing with the x-series & having just been into one of the ‘superdrug’ mini stores (UK) the young lass seemed to have less of a clue than me on how things work.

Could anyone tell me if I need both ‘x-series silver’ @ £5 & ‘unlimited internet’ @ £5? Or will the ‘x-series silver’ on a compatible mobile (i.e. nokia 8120) work OK?

thanks, nicki

@nicki:

Assuming you mean a Nokia 6120 then you only need ‘X-Series Silver’ which includes unlimited data and use of the ‘silver’ applications. ‘Unlimited data’ (for the same price) is what you’d go for on a non X-series phone where you couldn’t have the apps.

@DaveB:

Sorry – a bit trigger happy there… What I meant to say was that I’d tested random ports 1 – 999 plus 8080 and Truphone over 3G using port 5062 (TCP and UDP) and itr all works fine for me on Silver so I don’t think they do filter.

Hi there,
given the x-series prices, I am thinking about moving to 3 when I return to the UK in Jan. Just a couple of questions though…
If i buy X-Series SIlver for £20 on the nokia 6, does that include the £15 talker call plan too? I assume so, but it is rathe rconfusing.
And, I know you guys have said that the full internet is accessible through x-series, but why does it list internet access as “Web surfing with Yahoo! Search and Yahoo! Go”? Surely you can just type in a web address and go directly to it?Thanks for your help

Tony

@Tony: Yes, the £20 is for the call package and the X-series silver add-on (£15 + £5). The Yahoo references are either ‘marketing’ or ‘to point out there’s a handy on-phone way to do web searches’ – you decide 🙂 but yes, you can just fire up a browser and surf.

Ben: I’ve heard a lot of fuss on not being able to force 3UK onto the roaming 2g network.. How have you managed to force onto 2G in cental london (to do that data speed test)? I’d also like to be able to do this on 3UK to stop calls dropping. Have you used a seperate application, or debranded your ‘three’ phone? Thanks.

@Timmy:

If you use a non-Three phone or an Three phone flashed with generic firmware the option (on Nokia S60 handsets at least) is available to you. Be aware though that whilst it is OK to use a non-Three phone it is against the T&Cs to force your phone to 2G only and if you do this you will begin to get some stern warning texts after a while.

I did it for the tests and switched back, but never have a problem with dropped calls anyway so there’s little incentive.

hi all!
is there anyone out there that’s using 3 in australia that can give me any info please? i’m new to all this. i’d like to get rid of my landline (i’m sick of paying through the nose to the big corps. yes i’ve had it with optus & telstra’s over priced “service”!) i’m thinking of getting wireless broadband & a mobile phone with 3, maybe the x series. how easy is it to use the handset as the modem? can i recieve or make calls while on the internet? is it preferable to get the usb modem rather than use my mobile ph as the modem? thanks for any help.
lisa

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