Girls, games and goals

We trial a 3G phone and give our feedback.

Like all new toys, 3G benefits from its novelty factor, and having trialled one for two days, I can say that it generates a lot of curiosity from people around you - especially when you are in the middle of a videophone conversation or are watching goals from the English premiership.

The service has just been launched in Hong Kong by Hutchison Whampoa and so far only one handset model (by NEC) is available.

The NEC handset is an attractive piece of kit in its own right, and has a clam-shell design that is satisfying to use and also has a very clear colour screen. It also comes with several batteries, which underlines the fact that the phone is basically a miniature laptop and sucks in power. Used at full efficiency - ie videophoning and downloading video continuously - the battery life is not much more than two hours.

Aside from videophoning, the video-downloads are what really differentiates 3G from the 2G phone you are probably currently using. Hutchison has lined up a suite of video that it thinks Hong Kong's population will want to watch. Top of the list are probably the goals from the English premiership - you are able to download match highlights from all the major games. The clarity is surprisingly good and they come with the original English commentaries.

On top of football, you can also download news clips (from Reuters and CNN), fashion shows (this is Hong Kong after all), pop videos and the like. Normally, the clips are between two to three minutes long. You can also watch movie trailers and then buy cinema tickets directly using your phone. It is also possible to access traffic cameras around Hong Kong (potentially useful before setting out on a journey), and connect to security cameras you may have in your apartment, if you are worried about home security.

You can also download pornographic content (hence 3G's moniker 'girls, games and goals') but that facility was not authorised on my trial phone. The brochure promises "fascinating adult content of gorgeous girls from Asia". The games referrerd to in the moniker are java-based Gameboy-style games, and as we have reported on FinanceAsia already this is something of a growth industry. Certainly the screen is almost the same size as a Gameboy, so it beats a 2G phone in this respect.

Other than video you can get stock quotes - and historical price charts - for Hong Kong and US stocks and also a variety of breaking news (text-based).

Clearly 3G offers a lot for the upwardly mobile professional so prevalent in Hong Kong. But how good is it?

My experiencing of using it was generally good, but not without criticism - some of which will be ironed out in the coming months I am told.

I had several videophone calls, and the image was generally good, even at night. However, on one occasion I called someone who was in a restaurant and the result was not good, since the background noise drowned out my voice and the person did not have an earpiece connected. The volume of the phone's audio is an issue, making the earpiece essential if you are using it in the street or a Cantonese restaurant.

The other bigger question is whether people - once the novelty has worn off - want to use a videophone. When I had a videophone call with Agnes Nardi, who runs Hutchison Telecom she told me that Hutch thought working mothers would find the videophone very useful, as a way to see their kids during the working day. There may be something in this. For expatriates from the UK who live in Hong Kong, the 'killer app' could be to keep in touch with family members who likewise use Hutch's 3G service in Britain. Letting grandparents talk to their ever-changing grandchildren clearly has a lot of potential.

The jury is out on videophoning's usefulness, but I am not convinced it will supplant normal voicecalls in the general scheme of things. I found that when making a videophone call the average connection time was around 15 seconds (as it synchs the two phones etc), and this makes it less convenient than 2G voice, which is practically instant.

Then again, you can still use your 3G phone to make normal 2G voice calls too.

And what of the video downloads? These are good and have ready application - ideally they can be watched when you are travelling to and from work or are stuck in a taxi between meetings. The content is reasonably rich, and if you like English football and pop music you will like the service. When and where exactly people will watch porn on a 3G phone is more of a mystery to me. It doesn't seem like the sort of thing suitable for the MTR.

The big issue in respect to the video is network coverage. I experienced problems with downloading video when moving and at times could not connect at all. Hutchison says the network coverage issue will improve and promises a marked improvement within three months as they add more and more base stations.

One thing I would say is the phone is quite complex and takes a while to get used to. I am normally reasonably good with new gadgets, but I have to confess that I couldn't even figure out how to retrieve missed calls on this phone. The navigation method (which uses a 'back' and 'forward' principle like on a web browser) is a little slow and clunky too and this can also lead to poor results for the impatient (and who in Hong Kong has any patience?)

Hutch is offering the service in three packages, with the basic one costing HK$263 per month and the top package priced at HK$533. The latter offers 3000 voice minutes, 500 minutes of videophoning and 600 video downloads. The phone itself costs HK$3980.

The deluxe package is priced very aggressively in my view. As things stand, I spend over HK$500 a month on my Blackberry and that just has a single functionality (email), which makes 3G look cheap to me. Indeed, this package would represent good value even if you were only to use the 2G voice functionality and watch all the goals every week and make one to two family-oriented videophone calls per week.

However, there is no immediate rush to buy a 3G phone. The network coverage and the hours of handset battery life should improve over the coming months, and so it might be worth waiting six to nine months before taking the plunge. Hutch's pricing definitely makes it very competitive with 2G, and if the battery life improves it is difficult to see why anyone wouldn't make the switch as you get 2G functionality (ie cheap voice calls) plus much much more. In that respect one plus one definitely equals Three.

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