Digital Life: Mobile broadband gets up to speed -- when you can pick up the signal
The boys in the marketing departments of the mobile networks love to play with words. They like to trumpet such things as "UNLIMITED blah blah" when really they mean "actually, quite limited". Or that other hilarious mobile broadband joke, "UP TO 2 megabits yada yada" when in fact what they intended to say was "NOWHERE NEAR that speed".
But the networks have been working to improve speeds for mobile broadband to the point where they can seriously challenge landline or cable, even though reliability remains a significant issue.
Vodafone can now offer theoretical rates of 42Mbps -- that's screamingly fast, songs in seconds, movies in minutes -- with its new Performance Pro service via a USB dongle. But even Voda confesses in the small print that real-world speeds will be at best 27Mbps and "on average" 10Mbps.
Now 10Mbps is not to be sneezed at and it still feels akin to voodoo when you sit on a moving train or bus and watch YouTube streaming in high-definition.
But the other hidden factor is the thin coverage nationwide, limited strictly to urban areas.
Even in the major cities, there are plenty of blind spots where speeds drop precipitously. Sitting by a window at my city-centre office in Dublin, 6Mbps was the maximum the dongle could manage.
You pay a stiff price for these higher speeds, too, with Vodafone charging €35 a month plus a paltry 10GB download cap.
O2, meanwhile, has upgraded its mobile WiFi hotspot product to handle theoretical (there's that word again) speeds of 21Mbps via the Broadband Plus tariff. The O2 Hotshot never topped 10Mbps for me, though, and again the coverage map even for Dublin looks like Swiss cheese.
The Broadband Plus service costs €20 a month while the Hotshot itself will set you back €50.
When phone makers hit on a popular design, they often milk it for every last drop. Motorola made that mistake with its innovative Razr, churning out endless variations.
Let's hope Sony Ericsson won't do the same with its elegant Xperia Arc design, a beautifully thin Android smartphone. The first of several clones has already emerged in the Xperia Ray. Sony Ericsson has mimicked the look and feel of the Arc but at a reduced size.
That's great because it inherits the elder sibling's goodies -- great camera, fast operation -- but not so great because the smaller display makes it much less usable as a touchscreen.
But for the petite-fingered user, the Xperia Ray is an attractive option. It costs €150 on the cheapest O2 contract or €400 on pre-pay.
Gears of War 3
Could we have reasonably expected the final part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy to reveal the hobbits were all sex-mad alcoholics? No, the Return of the King had to fit in with the rest of Tolkien's bucolic fiction.
So it would be unfair to complain that the conclusion of the Gears trilogy fails to address the shortcomings of the first two best-sellers in terms of narrative, characterisation and gameplay. Don't mess with success, obviously.
But you're left with a faint sense of disappointment that this sci-fi shooter, so polished in many new ways, frequently falls back on tried-and-trusted cover-based firefights.
Yes, you'll applaud the crackling banter amid the carnage and spend weeks in the gloriously fun multiplayer.
But will you ever be surprised? No.
Starfox 64 3D
Nintendo's raiding of the vaults continues apace and the latest exhumation for your 3D pleasure is the venerable aerial dogfighter with the wacky characters.
With a heavy coat of Mr Sheen applied to graphics and a half-baked multiplayer mode (local, no online), it's the original gameplay that keeps this slice of nostalgia flying.
But please, Nintendo, make some new games.
Crazy Machines Elements
If you remember The Incredible Machine, you'll know where CME got its inspiration for wacky contraptions that need gears, pulleys and widgets added to make them form chain reactions.
The puzzles require much trial and error and there's a smug sense of satisfaction from solving the more fiendish ones but, even for a cheap download, CME is more suited to a mobile app than full game.
The trailer for Dead Island went viral when it emerged earlier this year. But it bears little resemblance to the finished product, a slightly wonky effort to transplant Dead Rising to a tropical paradise.
As one of the survivors of the apocalypse, you'll craft weapons and watch lots of histrionic cut-scenes. But mostly you're battering the undead with sharp implements. Co-op play makes Dead Island much more interesting but too many technical glitches spoil the party.
Bits and Bytes
Facebook wheeled out its most ambitious redesign last week with the introduction of its new timeline and ticker functions.
The features, which won't go live until early next month, mark a significant departure from the old news feed noting friends' activities.
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerbeg described the new timeline -- which showcases month by month what you've been up to, including friends made, photos uploaded, etc -- as "the story of your life".
The ticker sounds like a privacy nightmare for the shy -- showing minute-by-minute what you've been doing on the site.
Facebook has inked deals with movie and music firms (US-only so far) to enable you to listen to songs and watch films on the site.
Naturally, you'll be able to turn off most options to share what you're up to -- but will most people bother?