China's home-grown 3G standard, TD-SCDMA (Time Division Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access), received a limited trial during the Olympics, and is now undergoing a final, broader test before China Mobile officially launches it by the end of this year. To see how it performs I took a couple of the first handsets out onto the streets of Beijing and liked their performance -- it's the network that seems to be the problem.
First-generation TD-SCDMA is designed to offer top speeds of 384k bps which, if attained, would be as fast as a typical ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line) connection in China. However, the TD-SCDMA USIM cards issued so far have "128k" stamped on them, which points to lower speeds on the trial service.
I tested it out using two handsets: one from Samsung and one from Chinese maker Longcheer, which China Mobile distributed to participants in its final round of testing.
Samsung's SGH-i688 is a candybar-style smartphone with a 2.8-inch touchscreen, a 3.0-megapixel camera with a micro SD card, and runs Windows Mobile. Along with TD-SCDMA, it supports GSM (Global Standard for Mobile Communication) and EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution). This handset was used during the Olympics, and came preloaded with applications for the games' communication systems. For test purposes, Internet Explorer was the main application.
The SGH-i688's biggest drawback is its touchscreen, which requires a stylus. Tapping in a URL took an almost extreme level of concentration -- writing an e-mail would be impossible. The characters are too small to be thumbed and the screen's accuracy was hit or miss. Network aside, only browsing and reading would work well on this handset.
At my home south of Beijing's central business district, I tested out the loading speeds of two different sites: Google China and PC World on both the handset and my China Unicom ADSL service. When they were activated at about the same moment, the Google page loaded at a similar speed on both connections.
The mobile network fared poorly when accessing PC World. When TD-SCDMA doesn't get a clear signal, it defaults to the 2.5G EDGE network. What took seconds on my PC required about two minutes on the phone when it defaulted to the EDGE network. Clearly low-graphics Web sites will fare better for heavy users.
In Beijing's business district, the "T" flashed up, indicating that TD-SCDMA service was available. However, the results were on-par with the EDGE network. It took well over two minutes for that PC World's site to load. On the positive side, call quality was good throughout.
This emerged as TD-SCDMA's greatest challenge -- finding a signal. During a ride from northeast Beijing south along the Third Ring Road, which cuts through the city's most important commercial area, the "T" never appeared once. The world's largest operator is apparently not overexerting itself to give the capital full coverage.
Chinese handset manufacturer Longcheer's TD290 is also a candybar-style handset with GSM support. It has a smaller screen, measuring only 2.1 inches. It too uses a stylus, but its touchscreen has greater accuracy than Samsung's. Its camera takes photos up to 1600 X 1200 resolution, also storing to a micro SD card.
The Longcheer design is somewhat flimsy. The USIM card seemed barely held in by its holder and the battery, alternately indicating that the card was or wasn't inside.
Longcheer delivered better performance. Google's Chinese site loaded in a few seconds. PC World, on the other hand, took only about 30 seconds, although the phone's small screen mashed the text together and made it difficult to navigate. Longcheer uses the NetFront browser, which needs improvement, especially if the network and the handset can offer decent speed. That said, it also later failed to connect entirely for no apparent reason. Call quality was fine although I found the sound to be slightly tinny.
Both phones offer video calling, and the experience was similar for both -- Webcam quality (or slightly less) picture, somewhat jumpy, voice quality fine. This application has proven popular with Chinese users.
Overall, I liked the speed of the network -- on the occasions when it worked -- for local sites, although coverage is clearly an issue and overseas sites with graphics load slowly. At 800 yuan (US$116) for an all-you-can-use data and voice trial plan, TD-SCDMA may have a temporary spike in use, but it's unlikely users will stick around long-term unless the network and handsets improve. Hopefully 4G isn't too far off.