Gadget speak

In our Gadget section this week: Cable broadband versus ADSL; buying and selling second-hand software; and our technology clinic is ready to see you now...

Separated at birth

Cable broadband versus ADSL

On the surface, the type of broadband offered up by the UK's biggest cable provider, Virgin Media, and the UK's main wholesale broadband provider, BT, are very much the same. Both offer an asynchronous broadband connection - selling the service mainly on the huge download speeds

There has always been a fierce battle between cable broadband and ADSL broadband. However, in the last 12 months the battle has reached new heights, particularly when Virgin Media announced in July last year that it was to commence rolling out 50Mbps broadband to its cable broadband customers - free of any traffic management whatsoever.

Soon after, BT said it would be deploying fibre-optic connections in a handful of exchanges in suburban London and Cardiff on a trial basis - offering connection speeds of up to 100Mbps with the prospect of most of its network fibred up by 2012.

More recently, Virgin Media announced that it is to trial a new 200Mb connection among 100 Kent-based employees and that it intends to widen this network coverage to more than 50,000 homes before the end of 2009.

Virgin Media is looking to extend its broadband coverage to a further 500,000 households. The group said it had identified about half a million homes which were close enough to its present network to make them a “commercially attractive opportunity” to extend its customer base. The provider currently has about 3.7 million broadband customers in the UK, while around 12.5 million households have access to its cable network.

“Major investment in our new DOCSIS 3.0 network is enabling all Virgin Media customers to enjoy the best of today's Web, whether viewing full-screen HD video on a PC or unlimited downloads,” says Jon James, executive director of broadband at Virgin Media.

Last month, Virgin Media signed an agreement with Motorola which could boost its selection of Internet connections. The deal will see quicker implementation of new broadband cable standards, including channel bonding and DOCSIS 3.0 providing higher levels of bandwith, increased online security, and next-generation rich content services.

But BT clearly does not want to be seen trailing in Virgin Media's wake. It recently announced that it is set to double the pace of its next-generation fibre-optic broadband rollout - potentially bringing up to 100Mbps broadband within reach of more than a million premises as early as 2010.

“We will examine doubling the pace of the rollout of super-fast broadband next year within existing capital expenditure plans, bringing fibre based services within the reach of more than a million homes and businesses and securing the jobs of a thousand BT people,” says Ian Livingston, BT's CEO.

Not wanting to be left behind, ISP O2 Broadband has announced plans to lay fibre to UK homes, but only on the proviso that Ofcom guarantee that networks are not opened up under any local-loop unbundling programme.

But the main battle will still be between BT's ADSL and Virgin's DOCSIS networks. However, BT has recently remonstrated with the UK industry regulator, OFcom about the regulatory framework that sets the price at which BT sells its wholesale and local-loop unbundling packages to other ISPs.

BT is said to want a more liberalised framework to set its own price in order to compete “on a fairer basis” with Virgin Media. In fact, Ofcom is planning to review its regulatory policy towards BT in light of recent financial events so that BT can maintain its obligations to final salary pension holders.

The megabit war may seem perverse to the three million UK broadband customers who cannot even receive any broadband.

Research commissioned by the BBC suggests that these homes have speeds of less than 2Mbps - leaving the UK government with a problem as it has promised to provide all homes in the UK with speeds of at least 2Mbps by 2012.

The research revealed that this is not limited to rural communities, with instances in suburban areas and streets in major towns.

This week buying and selling second-hand software

Software is a significant cost to the consumer and its price in relation to hardware is rising - following the trend of software and licensing costs to enterprises.

One alternative to mitigate this cost is to buy the software second-hand, but buying used software can sometimes backfire, especially if you are not sure what to do.

Therefore, there is a vibrant market in second-hand software packages being sold on. For the seller, they get to recoup some of the money on their investment when they no longer require a particular software application.

For the buyer, this could be a very cost-effective way to get some top notch professional software at a fraction of the price had they bought it off-the-shelf from a retailer or from the software company itself.

Unsurprisingly, software manufacturers have created a few hoops to go through before you can legally use second-hand software - and every company has its own labyrinthine rules on how to transfer ownership.

But a good place to start for both seller and buyer would be the terms and conditions of the particular license version of software on offer.

As a rule of thumb, be very careful when buying used software separately. Make sure you have the original installation discs with the manufacturer's label and the hard-copy license with a copy of the actual license number.

Be wary when buying second-hand software from unofficial channels - such as small ads and eBay. There are a few things to consider to ensure that what you are buying is genuine.

Firstly, never buy or use software that has been copied onto a blank disc. It's possible that the seller has kept the original disc, along with the software license. Also make sure that it comes with the original retail literature or the credentials to register the product. This won't guarantee that it is bona fide, but will allay some of the obvious fears.

Also, some software is only licensed to run on a particular machine - this is known as OEM (original equipment manufacturer) software and is rarely allowed to be transferred to another computer.

Additionally, buyers and sellers need to check that the software is not part of a volume license package. Usually, the individual licenses cannot be sold separately. This would be akin to going into a supermarket and snapping off one can of beer sold in a six-pack.

Before the license is transferred, the original owner should complete a Software License Transfer. You may have to pay a software transfer fee. This will be a legal obligation.

As the seller, you should reveal the software vendor's transfer policy. For buyers, once you have the license number or the key's serial number, call the manufacturer and make sure the seller actually has the license to the software and is allowed to transfer.

Make a note of the version number and make certain that the software vendor still supports it. If so, the support contract may also be transferable.

Technology clinic

Neat and tidy handheld

I have used the handheld Psions since 1992. I currently have the 5MX but worry that one day it'll go 'pop' and so feel that I need something more up-to-date. I'd like something as neat and portable as the Psion with a querty keyboard.

Eric Earnshaw, I Eng MIET (by email)

The Psion 5MX was an amazing product in its day and was the last major consumer product that Psion manufactured in 1999. I'm very impressed that you have managed to make yours last ten years.

Unfortunately, the market for PDAs have pretty much been superseded by smart phones - they combine the functionality of a PDA with the convenience of a mobile phone. There are two major routes you can go down in replacing your device.

Firstly, you could purchase a netbook - basically, a cut-down version of a laptop which typically run on an energy-efficient Intel Atom processor (ARM-based netbooks will be available shortly) and is approximately the width and length of an A4 sheet of paper. These currently run Windows XP and later this year will also run Windows 7.

Expect to pay anywhere in the region of £200 to £400 for a netbook. There are literally hundreds now on the market.

The other choice would be to purchase a Symbian-based smart phone. Remember, the operating system for the original Psion, EPOC, is the foundation for the Symbian operating system. Therefore, much of it may be already familiar to you.

I would recommend the Nokia E75, which has a slide-out full keyboard that's simple to use. It costs about £350 with no contract.

Fast transfer

I have my desktop PC connected directly to the router which I use to access a shared drive located on another computer. However, the speed is never faster than 11Mbps, which is even slower than Wi-Fi in my household. Is there a way for me to get a faster transfer speed?

 Keith Bridges (by email)

The 100Mbps speed is the theoretical maximum that can go through your wired Ethernet connection. However, in reality, the actual speed will only be a fraction of this as you have found out.

The best way to overcome the limitation would be upgrade to gigabit Ethernet speeds. But this could be costly. Firstly, you would have to ensure you have a gigabit network adaptor connected to both computers. Then you would have to invest in a gigabit Ethernet switch. Additionally, all of your cabling would have to be category 5e or category 6 which is able to support faster transfer speeds.

To connect it together, connect the switch to the router and cable both computers to the switch (which is unmanaged, by the way). Having done all that, don't expect to get anywhere near gigabit transfer rates! Remember that this is also a theoretical maximum speed.

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