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

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