Hands On With Telstra's Ultimate USB

At the briefing for Telstra's Ultimate USB Modem on Monday, company representatives handed me a modem for review.

This isn't that review.

Sure, there have been some online "reviews" pop up, but frankly, I think they're a bit of a farce. Four days, and all too often a single location aren't anywhere near enough to come up with a comprehensive review.

The big dial behind the Telstra executives was flickering between 20-30Mbps as they demonstrated the Ultimate USB in Telstra's Sydney offices. But I don't entirely trust that, either; I've no way of checking if that isn't just an animation playing, and if there's one spot you'd expect good Telstra reception, it's in Telstra's main city offices.

What four days has given me is enough time for a hands-on appraisal and a little light, to and fro reception checking. Mobile broadband is notoriously erratic, which is why this particular modem, even though it's technically running at "up to" 42Mbps speeds, is only rated for real-world performance of between 1-20Mbps. I've plugged it in wherever I've been able to over the past four days. Simultaneously, over at Lifehacker Gus has been testing it in a wider radius, including checking how the coverage runs in Dubbo.

What's to like:

The general speed. Telstra's best selling point for NextG remains the coverage rather than the speed, but it's also impressively quick in the right places. Testing on a train travelling through North Sydney, I managed a peak of 11.54Mbps download (testing with Speedtest.net). For a moving target that was intermittently in tunnels while testing, it's impressive. I've also hit some lows, but they're really only comparative lows within the HSPA+ coverage map, going down to 4.44Mbps while on the same train at St Leonards. Indoors at the Microsoft Open House, I managed a still healthy 4.61Mbps down. For the purposes of comparison, the signal coming from a Vodafone Pocket WiFi in the same location gave me 2.21Mbps.

The client software I tested the Ultimate USB on a MSI Wind U100 Netbook and a 2006-era Macbook. The Wind (running Windows 7 Starter) had no problems, but I expected woes with the Macbook, which has previously spat the dummy rather unceremoniously with previous Sierra Wireless software. That wasn't the case, and aside from having to annoyingly reboot, it all works fine and detects the device the first time I plug it in.

The coverage Telstra's claim is that they're going to hit 50% of the population with Dual HSPA+, and to an extent they've put their money where their mouth is, releasing the locations where you should be able to get such a signal. It's a huge list which I won't repeat here; instead here's a link to the PDF showing the claimed coverage areas.

What's not to like:

It's FAT It's a chunky little modem, much moreso than anything else currently on the market. On most notebooks that's going to mean it does eat up two USB ports by blocking the second. A USB extension cable is provided in the box, but then you've got a large chunk of expensive modem flapping in the wind.

The image below shows off the last three generations of Telstra modems, but they've shot it from the side to try to hide just how wide the Ultimate USB actually is.

The price and availability issue Not so much the $299 asking price, which can be more or less wiped out by a contract. Why would you buy the modem and then not use it?

Still, $299 is a fair chunk of change for a USB modem. And it's made worse by the fact that the modem this replaces, the Elite, isn't dropping in price.

The Elite is, for the time being, the modem that Telstra's going to try to sell you if you're a consumer at exactly the same asking price as the Ultimate USB. Yep, that's right — unless you're a business (for now), you'll pay the same amount for a technically slower modem. I've got to qualify that by saying technically as I've personally managed some decent speeds with the Elite in previous tests for PC Authority, but why buy a model with less potential upside?

Telstra said that the Ultimate USB would go to the wider consumer market by the end of the year, so if you're in an area not well served by Telstra's competitors, it may well be worth holding off on a new modem purchase until that happens — or applying for an ABN right now.

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