Telstra 4G Pre-Paid Hotspot Review: Contract-Free 4G Brings Battery Bothers

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.

What's Good?

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.

What's Bad?

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.



    My 3G (Virgin/Optus) modem has the same behaviour where it seems connected by just won't load pages. It happens to me several times a day and requires the modem to be rebooted.

      Yeah, my Vodafone 3G portable hotspot (manufactured by HTC I believe) does the same thing, requiring either power cycling or dis/reconnecting to get going again.

        If it's the Vodafone Australia version than it'd be made by Huawei not HTC.

    So you get 4 hours of battery life out of a 4G device and your complaining? Obviously you have no understanding of technology or how much of a battery sucker 3G/4G modems are, I think that to be able to obtain 4-5 hours out of a wifi hotspot modem is fantastic. I actually own one of these and I sit it in my window at work for all my personal devices and I can get a full 8-hour day out of the battery, this is will burst of usage and not full on downloading of whatever.

    I don't see a time where someone will be more than 4 hours away from a power source with this. I'm always near a desktop or laptop where I can easily plug it it, let alone an actual power point. I would go back and rethink your theory on this device because the speed, battery life and everything else about it is actually rather good. I've had no problems at all with mine.

      Thanks for skimming the story, but if you re-read it in detail, I've actually said the battery is very forgivable, simply because it's going to be a battery sucker because of the 4G/3G radio. Here's a direct quote.

      "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."

      I'm saying that it'd nice if it were better, but it's not the end of the world.

        And yet you made it a dealbreaker? I'm sorry but $169 for a 4G prepaid device I don't exactly see what the breaker on this awesome deal is. I find mine to be extremely reliable, easy to use and faster than any ADSL2+ connection anyone can get.

          More skimming. He said it 'might be a dealbreaker'. Four hours away from a power source is not that uncommon for some of us that get out a bit.

          I think the point Luke was making was that we'd all like it to last longer., but realistically we know we're not there yet.
          I bought this when it came out. Ideally I'd love something that I could just switch on and put in my bag in the morning and know that it works all day. It doesn't last that long, so I do spend a fair bit of time during the day turning the thing on and off. Do I blame Telstra or ZTE? Not at all. We can be realistic about what to expect with these things but still wish we had something better. Definitely a first world problem.
          That's all. Not a deal breaker but still not perfect.

        Talk for being an arrogant twat, Luke.

        Last edited 05/02/13 12:55 pm

    People should invest on a battery bank. It has been a life saver for me since smartphone and pocket broadband do not last long at all. Aldi has them for sale on $30 and it's worth the investment!!

    I bought one of these on a whim when they first came out, I've been using 3G sticks for ages and an old Telstra hotspot as well and they've all had their downfalls. The sticks have crap software, the older Wi-Fi points took forever to connect to the network.

    This one is great and I can use it on my iPad, 3DS, Macbook Air everything. I'm still on my $50 of data as well, love how fast the 4G is.

    The battery usually requires me to charge it every second day, I only use it for a 30 minute commute twice a day... I just sometimes leave it on in my bag too.

    Great little device.

    Is it easy to swap the sim card in and out? Might be useful for overseas travel if so.

      It's DEAD EASY to swap the SIM card in and out, but beware, because it's a Telstra pre-paid device, there's a solid chance it's network locked, which means a fee.

        Yeah, the fee for unlocking a pre-paid device within the first year is around $100. After a year it's free though!

    Nice bum. Lol.

    I assume that by using a USB to mUSB connector from your notebook/laptop/tablet to the device, you can keep the device at full charge all the time. So no need to carry more than one charger.

    I purchased one a couple of weeks back and haven't looked back since. Battery is a little bit shorter than i would have liked but I'm not going to be happy until it lasts all day. I purchase an external USB battery pack and now it lasts all day and then some. 3 hours a day on a train, intermittent use by three devices while at work and it's still got plenty when I get home.

    FYI, check your tablet's for "Sync when on wifi" as i did about 3GB of pod casts in the first 12 hours, great setting for home/work ADSL... very expensive over 4G.

    Hmm, I wonder what this would be like for online gaming via a Vita? Particularly in the Brisbane area.

    I've read that this device may, or may not, do DC-HSDPA. Anyone know if it does? What's the 3G performance like?
    Primarily I'd be looking to use this on the train, as the 3G network is ultra congested during peak times, I know that 4G is a heap better, but I'll only get 4G for about 1/2 the train ride (coming from Eastern Melbourne burbs).

      It does DC-HSPDA, not much of a speed difference I can tell anyways mine usually sits on full 4G where it craps over the standard Australian ADSL2+ speed at 4MB/s, yes MEGABYTES!

    Looks like a positive upgrade to replace the 3G mf60.

    I love mine. Works a treat. Very fast - even in 3G only locales. Agree on the weird - has happened a couple of times.

    Is the pre-paid costs the same as the business ones? They are the first cheap Telstra offering I've ever seen.. and a bit hard to believe you can get such large amounts of data for the price..

    answer not in article: does it charge via USB?

    I have one of these devices and it's great.
    I have an external battery which can connect to the ipad, iphone or this device and I only have a a problem if I forget to turn it off.
    I was originally on the Ultimate USB dongle and I connected it to the Netcomm WiFi router which had a 3.5 hour battery life but I bought a spare battery for it.
    Main problem with the Ultimate is that it's a plan at 4Gb for $49 a month an I didn't use it every month and this prepaid device can let me not use it for a few months.
    Remember that if you dont put some money in a prepaid device in six months, it becomes inactive and you'll have to buy a new SIM.

    Are we talking minimum 2 megaBYTES a second or 2 megaBITS?

      This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

        Why thanks. It's funny how patronizing people can be on the internet. Not all of us are computer know it alls mate. You sir, are rude

    I am interested in one of these for overseas travel. I don't mind paying the unlock fee. Does anyone know where I can find out what countries it is compatible with?

    How do I recharge the jolly thing

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