Vodafone is late to the 4G mobile broadband game. After having the network available to smartphone and tablet users for six months initially, it opened up to data-hungry mobile broadband devices in January this year. It can boast to being Australia's fastest 4G network in the capital cities, where it has the largest allocation of spectrum — a full 20MHz allowance that gives it a theoretical technical advantage over Telstra and Optus.
The Pocket WiFi 4G is Vodafone's first mobile broadband device that can take full advantage of its high-speed metropolitan network. Released alongside a broadly similar USB dongle, the Pocket WiFi 4G has a Category 4 LTE modem inside, and a 1780mAh battery capable of around six hours of constant usage.
The Pocket WiFi 4G is actually pretty attractive device, as mobile data hotspots go (and yes, we know that's not a high standard). The satin black finish on front and back does a good job of hiding fingerprints and scratches, while the Vodafone logo and Pocket WiFi branding in white are a nice contrast.
There's a small, concave power button on the hotspot's front, and a 1-inch monochrome LCD screen that displays signal strength, Wi-Fi status, data usage and network information. Down on the lower bezel there's a microUSB port for charging and connecting directly to a PC, and two external antenna ports for hooking up a larger and more powerful antenna.
Inside the Pocket WiFi 4G's removable rear cover, you'll find the removable battery. It's a relatively small 1780mAh unit, which should provide around six hours of active use. With extremely light usage from a single smartphone or tablet — just using the hotspot to automatically update your email and social networks, for example — you might be able to eke another hour out of it, but it's not enough battery capacity to survive for an entire day's usage.
Vodafone does note that the Pocket WiFi 4G has some smart battery-saving features, though; if there are no devices connected, it will turn off the cellular data link after 10 minutes and Wi-Fi after an hour. If there are devices connected but not consuming data, it won't disable Wi-Fi, but will suspend cellular service after an hour. The same policy applies when the hotspot is charging or connected to a USB device like a PC; it doesn't simply dumbly continue to connect to a mobile network unless it has to. These are smart features, but they're necessary to get the best life out of the Pocket WiFi 4G's battery.
Underneath the battery pack, there's a standard-size mini-SIM slot, alongside a microSD card slot. The Pocket WiFi 4G can share the contents of this card with any device connected to it, with a rudimentary file explorer available in its Web interface — don't expect transfer speeds to be great, though. The hotspot's Wi-Fi details are printed on its battery cover for an easy initial setup, although these can be changed if necessary.
When you first connect to the Pocket WiFi 4G with your smartphone, you're greeted with a Web interface pointing you to the Vodafone Pocket WiFi Monitor app, which is available on both Android and iOS. You can also use the Web interface, but the app is more convenient.
The app does a good job of quickly showcasing your connection strength and quality, giving you a simple signal bar graph and battery life remaining. Battery life is only reported in 20 per cent increments, though, so there's no great indication of exactly how long the device will last. There's also a live counter for data usage which updates every few seconds, but there's no tie-in with Vodafone's account system.
In central Sydney, we recorded download speeds of around 4-6Mbps and upload speeds of around 0.5-1.2Mbps over a full-strength HSPA+ 3G connection. In a full-strength 4G LTE coverage area in the Inner West, we hit download speeds of 33Mbps and upload speeds of nearly 32Mbps — a far better result that's more in keeping with Vodafone's super-fast claims.
A Speedtest.net result on full-strength 4G, the Vodafone Pocket WiFi Monitor app, and the Pocket WiFi 4G's Web interface.
The modem takes around 20 seconds to start up, and then in a few more seconds its Wi-Fi starts broadcasting. In its Quick Start mode, which consumes a little battery power in standby to keep the important bits and pieces inside active, the Pocket WiFi 4G can be ready in as little as 10 seconds. It's extremely simple to use — just switch it on and you're ready to go.
Vodafone's 3G HSPA+ performance isn't so stellar, especially indoors.
Here's the main problem with the Pocket WiFi 4G, though. It's the Telstra WiFi 4G. It's actually exactly the same device inside, with twice the battery capacity. Telstra's Prepaid data rates may be much more expensive than Vodafone's (around $80 for 4GB of data, where Vodafone charges you $30 for the same data on a plan), but the outright price for the Telstra dongle is $99 compared to $169 for the Vodafone Pocket WiFi 4G, which sways the result back in Telstra's favour a little.
Moreso than data rates, though, is the extra capacity available from the Telstra dongle's double-size battery. There's more than enough juice for that device to last an entire day of use, while the Vodafone dongle is dead by lunch. We really think Vodafone should have opted for the extra battery life in this particular hotspot.
Vodafone's Pocket WiFi 4G is a pretty good hotspot — it can download and upload data at a rapid rate when you're in 4G coverage, and it's very simple to set up and use. We don't like the mediocre battery life, and we don't like the relatively high overall price for the device itself. It's a perfectly usable mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, but it just isn't excellent.