Telstra has been trumpeting its 4G/LTE network for some time now. Very recently we learned that the network now has over 1000 base stations around the country that support around 375,000 different tablets, smartphones and modems. Now that network has become accessible to pre-paid customers, too, thanks to the 4G hotspot. How does it compare to the 4G hotspot on post-paid plans, and is it something you should buy right now?
What Is It?
As we mentioned above, this is the first pre-paid mobile hotspot to be offered by Telstra. Right now, it's also the only pre-paid 4G hotspot to be offered by any carrier in Australia, seeing as how Optus' offerings are still — at the time of writing — for business users on contract only.
It weighs just north of 100 grams and will lighten your wallet by $169 from Telstra Stores and resellers — an amount that will also get you 5GB worth of free data to use in the first 30 days.
The device is made by ZTE as opposed to Sierra Wireless who manufacture the 4G hotspot on post-paid plans.
There's a lot to like about this device.
First of all, it's fast. Really fast. My testing areas included around the Sydney CBD and in the greater Mascot area, all of which are drenched in the carrier's 4G signal.
Speeds in the Sydney area ranged from (at worst) 2Mbps on 4G up to 9Mbps on 4G, with the all-important upload speeds ranging from 2Mbps to 6Mbps.
The only thing faster than the network when it comes to this device is just how fast it boots up. Provided you're in a coverage area, you'll be connected to a network and ready to tether over Wi-Fi within 20 seconds. That's seriously impressive. The next fastest thing is its failover to 3G networks. When the device does stray out of a 4G network, you won't notice it failing over to 3G. It just gets on with the job.
The best thing is that you're not paying premium prices for these premium speeds. All the recharge rates are exactly the same on 3G as they are on 4G, and as Lifehacker's Planhacker points out, you're not paying much of a premium for pre-paid, either.
Incidentally, the 5GB worth of free data you're getting out of the box is normally worth around $90. That's not a bad deal, but the only catch to the deal is that it expires after 30 days.
The device itself is also really impressive. It's a stylish, little rectangle drenched in white and broken up by a tiny 1.5-inch colour screen on the front. It sports a removable battery — a real plus for repairability — and two additional antenna points for those serious about amping up their coverage. You'll also be getting a slot for a microSD card which allows you to use this thing as a tiny, ultra-connected vault for all your portable data.
It traditionally pairs over Wi-Fi, but if you really want to you can connect it to your PC or Mac via an (included) USB cable. The first time you do it you're invited to install the pre-paid helper application for your desktop before you can see the microSD card, but unlike previous generations — most notably from Sierra Wireless — the software isn't awful. It's essentially a browser-based configuration pane that can either give you a brief overview of the device or let you customise how it works. That's going to solve a lot of cross-platform issues.
The worst thing about the device is the battery. You'll get about four hours of solid connectivity before you need to start looking for a charger.
You won't be told it has a low battery either via some blinking light or on-screen notification. You'll just have to keep turning the screen on and guessing how much time you have left on the unintelligible battery indicator.
The battery issues are forgivable though, considering its a tiny device that's powering a 4G radio and a Wi-Fi connection non-stop. The saving grace of the battery is its ability to fast charge. You'll be ready to go again (albeit not fully charged) within half an hour.
The screen size is also a bit of a problem especially when you want to get the security key. It ticks along the screen really slowly. I think I celebrated a birthday while waiting to read the security key out to someone who wanted to connect. If the screen was a little bit bigger, perhaps we wouldn't have to put up with this ticking because, frankly, it's obnoxious and slows the whole process down.
Unsurprisingly, it gets really hot as time connected goes on. It's not something that's going to burn your leg when pocketed or spontaneously combust if stored in your bag, but it's not going to be pleasant in the Australian summer. Great pocket warmer in winter, though.
This Is Weird...
Every so often, despite the fact that the device had full 4G connectivity, full battery and only one user connected, the device would fail to load a page for minutes at a time. Only a reboot would solve it (a process that is actually pretty painless thanks to the fast booting). Now of course I'm not expecting this thing to be perfect for $169, but that can be problematic when you need to refill your entire form full of data.
Should You Buy One?
This is a curious little device then. Because of the less than stellar battery life, it's designed for people who can work offline for a certain amount of time before turning on a device, connecting it to their device and uploading it to the web in one fell swoop. It's not designed for someone who wants to turn it on and keep it in their gadget bag all day for when you need it. We're not there yet.
This is for people who want to mind their usage each month or use a 4G hotspot for a few devices or friends or co-workers every once in a while.
The perfect customer for this device is someone who's completely gadget obsessed. Someone who walks around with a tablet, a laptop, a smartphone and another piece of smart tech in their bag and wants to stay connected. It's reasonably priced, well-built and even looks like something that would fit into your existing swathe of gadgets perfectly.
On the flipside, the battery life might be a dealbreaker for these gadget lovers. It's going to be interesting to see if battery life gets better in later iterations of these Wi-Fi hotspot devices.