review Telstra’s Mobile Wi-Fi 4G device does just one thing, as its name makes clear: It’s a portable router which provides 4G mobile broadband connectivity to devices which consume that connectivity via Wi-Fi. It should be a relatively simple task. But does the device do that straightforward job well?
With the exception of a few standout devices, such as iiNet’s BoB series, router design has always tended more towards the functional than the beautiful; these are network tools, after all, not devices which you spend all day browsing the Internet on. Telstra’s Mobile Wi-Fi 4G is no exception to this rule.
The device is a little larger than credit-card sized, with soft black matte plastic on its back and hard glossy black and grey plastic on its front. The back cover is removable, providing removable access to a 2000mAh battery and the unit’s standard-sized SIM card. On the front is a small, primitive LED display (no touchscreen) and two buttons — one one/off switch and another navigation key. On the bottom of the device is a micro-USB port for connecting the device to a small power block for recharging.
On top of the device is a small ‘WPS’-enabled button, which the manual says is for connecting ‘WPS-enabled devices’ to the unit without a keyboard, and there are two small plugs for antennas on the bottom of the unit. On the bottom it also has an unobtrusive slot for a microSD card. The Mobile Wi-Fi 4G is manufactured by Sierra Wireless but Telstra-branded. Overall the unit feels very nice in the hand, and it would fit comfortably into a pocket or even a very small handbag. Its soft plastic backing has a tendency to make you want to fondle it, like some smartphones also do. It weighs a mere 100 grams.
The Mobile Wi-Fi 4G is surprisingly full-featured for what it does. Its main feature is connecting to Telstra’s fledgling 4G network, which is operational in certain areas such as capital city CBDs and airports, as well as more than 80 more regional and metropolitan areas. In these areas it allows users to access download broadband speeds of between 2Mbps and 40Mbps, with upload speed of between 1Mbps and 10Mbps.
Outside these areas, it will connect to Telstra’s normal Next G (3G) network, using the Dual-Channel HSPA+ technology which represents the current pinnacle of 3G speeds. Telstra’s infrastructure in a wide range of areas in metropolitan and regional areas supports speeds using the DC-HSPA+ standard of between 1.1Mbps to 20Mbps. Outside these areas (and here we’re normally talking fairly remote locations), speeds will be lower on average. The device allows customers to connect up to five devices simultaneously to its Wi-Fi signal, supporting 802.11n and below speeds, and it features a four hour battery life (or, up to 100 hours on standby).
The LED screen on the device does feature colour, but it’s pretty primitive. It displays a handful of useful status icons, such as how many bars of coverage are available, what type of connection the user currently has (4G, DC-HPSPA+, 3G or other), the number of devices, the battery level and the security key for logging on, which can be changed manually. It also shows the amount of time it has been connected and the amount of data trafficked. And there’s a little mail alert icon from Telstra as well, and the device’s name.
To test the performance of the Telstra Mobile Wi-Fi 4G, we fully charged it and took it out on the road, connecting an iPhone 4 to it to test its speeds. We hopped on a bus in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, headed into the central business district, changed to a train, and then headed out to Sydney’s North Shore and to North Ryde, where the city’s technology park hosts major corporations such as Microsoft, CSC and Optus. On the way we periodically hit up the Speedtest.net site via our iPhone, connected to the Mobile Wi-Fi 4G.
The performance we achieved over that route varied wildly. However, in general, we found several key characteristics of the device’s performance.
Firstly, the fastest speeds we achieved on the device tended to be in areas such as the Sydney or North Sydney CBDs, where we anticipated Telstra’s 4G network would be active. In these areas, we regularly achieved speeds of 15Mbps — pretty decent. Upload speeds in these areas, however, were less than expected — usually below 2Mbps, with some outliers. In other areas, typically where we were able to get a ‘DC’ connection on the device (referring to a DC-HSPA+ link), we got results that were still pretty good — up around 7 to 8Mbps, and typically with better upload speeds; in fact, the upload speeds often exceeded the download speeds.
Generally, outside these areas (in Telstra’s normal 3G network), download speeds of up to 5Mbps were pretty much to be expected, with substantially slower upload speeds. We did also have a handful of abysmal results, typically between train stations or walking around areas outside CBDs or train stations — with results as bad as 0.7Mbps at times, although these were extreme outliers. Surprisingly, the coverage in most underground train stations, such as Wynyard, was actually pretty good, although we had signal loss in several long tunnels.
Gizmodo has also done some testing of the Mobile Wi-Fi 4G, achieving results that were overall much better in terms of the device’s upload capacity — often much better than its download capacity. But again, the results seemed to vary wildly depending on where the tests were done.
The download results largely mirror the results of separate tests we carried out a few months ago with the HTC Velocity 4G handset in the Sydney CBD, in terms of sheer speeds. However, the upload speeds when tested on the Mobile Wi-Fi 4G didn’t appear to be any great shakes. It’s not clear why this happened during out tests, but we consider the HTC Velocity 4G upload speeds — ranging from 9Mbps to 12Mbps — more representative overall of the upload speeds generally possible through the 4G areas of Next G. This is what the HTC Velocity 4G tests showed (note the much better upload speeds):
The Galaxy Nexus results were fairly consistent with the speeds we got from the Mobile Wi-Fi 4G when we were outside 4G or DC-HSPA+ areas.
Now, to be honest, this wasn’t the most precise test we could have conducted. It wasn’t scientific; we didn’t go to each location on a precise map, test out the Mobile Wi-Fi 4G with several different devices and plot that location on a map with Telstra’s 4G coverage highlighted in a different colour. For the purposes of this review we merely left the device on in our bag, made sure our iPhone 4 was connected to it via Wi-Fi, and went on a trip from Sydney’s eastern suburbs though the Sydney and North Sydney CBDs to North Ryde and back.
However, we tested the Mobile Wi-Fi 4G this way because this represents real-world usage. This is a device which is designed to be able to get the best speeds out of Telstra’s network wherever the user is. It is designed to be turned on, thrown in your bag and then used, without any extra tinkering or interference.
Throughout our trip, we were also browsing the web, emailing, Twittering and so on. It’s fair to say that the speed of network access just felt quite a bit faster for these kind of everyday activities. The extra 4G connectivity didn’t really seem to impact on the latency we were getting from our iPhone (ping time was consistently around 130ms no matter where were), but if we started downloading a large file over email, after a couple of seconds to get things started, the download came down much faster than we’re used to.
The other element that we examined during our travels was battery life. Before we set out, we fully charged the Mobile Wi-Fi 4G, which took a few hours.
We had no problems on this round trip of several hours with the battery; it ended up after the trip about half-full, according to the meter. However, 24 hours later, when we checked the device (not having used it in the meantime), it was dead and needed to be recharged. What this indicates is that Telstra’s estimate of four hours of connectivity is pretty accurate. This is a device which will need to be charged every time it gets back into the house or office, and which will only be good for half a day of work, if that. We’re sure the battery life would be even shorter if we’d had multiple users accessing the device at the same time.
According to Telstra, The BigPond Mobile Wi-Fi 4G for consumer customers is be available on a range of 24-month plans, including $59.95 per month for 24 months with 8GB of monthly data plus $49 upfront (min cost $1,487.80). For business customers, the device is available on plans including $0 upfront on the $49.95 Telstra Mobile Broadband Standard Plan over 24 months (min total cost $1198.80) which includes a monthly data pack of 8GB of monthly data. It doesn’t appear to be available on prepaid plans.
Telstra’s Mobile Wi-Fi 4G does what it says on the box; it takes a 4G (or, if 4G isn’t available, 3G) mobile broadband signal and converts it into Wi-Fi signals which are consumable by smartphones, tablets, laptops and other mobile devices. It provides more than acceptable speeds for working or entertaining yourself on the road.
However, its battery life is fairly abysmal, and our testing didn’t display great upload speeds from the device either. This is fairly typical behaviour from a first-generation device; about what we expected, given that 4G networks are very new in Australia. We’d recommend holding off on buying the Mobile Wi-Fi 4G for now; if you really need the 4G speeds, perhaps it might be better to look at a USB dongle or 4G-enabled smartphone instead. In a year’s time, we’re sure there will be better devices with more battery longevity than this first try from Telstra. Or, if you do decide to pick this svelte little 4G router up, be prepared to keep it near a power source; it might be small, but it does get hungry.
Image credit: Telstra