If you can't get ADSL or cable or NBN internet at home, or if you don't need that much data per month over the 'net, and you live relatively close to a city or metropolitan area, a 4G mobile broadband device might suit your needs very well. These usually come in the form of a Wi-Fi hotspot, portable and battery-powered, but this Huawei Wi-Fi Cube is designed to live in your home and connect everything in it wirelessly to the internet through Vodafone 4G.
What Is It?
- Wi-Fi Performance: 150Mbps
- Wi-Fi Type: 2.4GHz 802.11n
- USB Ports: No
- Mobile Data: Yes, LTE 850/1800/2600MHz, GSM 850/900/1900/2100MHz, 150Mbps Category 4 max.
- Ethernet Ports: 1 LAN
- Warranty: 1 Year
The Wi-Fi Cube 4G, available only on a plan for as little as $25 per month for 2.5GB all the way up to $90 for ten times the data, is halfway between a 4G mobile broadband hotspot and a home Wi-Fi router — it can handle your (small) house or apartment's Wi-Fi and networking needs, but it doesn't connect to an ASDL2+ or cable internet modem to do so.
Because of that, Vodafone's Wi-Fi Cube 4G is made to suit those users that either can't or don't want to use ADSL or cable. That means no phone lines, no technician call-outs, and no installation process. Just plug in the Cube's power, hook up to its Wi-Fi network, and you're online. As with any mobile broadband service you'll pay a comparatively large amount for the bandwidth you're using, but gosh is it straightforward. This is the kind of device you tell your parents to buy and install for when they want Wi-Fi and internet at home.
The Wi-Fi Cube 4G has a little microSIM card slot in the base, hidden under a protective door, that you'll be supplied a Vodafone SIM with when you buy it on a plan. There's one other little protective door on the Wi-Fi Cube 4G, and that covers the two Cube's TS9 miniature antenna sockets to which you can add an external antenna or antennae. You'll get a stronger mobile data connection if you do that — but you'll need an antenna tuned to the Cube 4G's 850Mhz, 1800MHz and 2600MHz 4G LTE frequency bands.
Crucially, that 850MHz band is the important inclusion in the Huawei Wi-Fi Cube 4G, because Vodafone is in the process of switching on that frequency for high-speed, low-band 4G. It means greater coverage, potentially faster download speeds and more reliable network penetration indoors, where you're almost certain to be using a non-portable device like the Cube.
Huawei's model number for the Cube is E5180, like the Pocket Wi-Fi 4G based on the Huawei E5372T. It's a very similar device in terms of the hardware inside and the bands supported. The Wi-Fi Cube 4G is exclusively sold in Australia through Vodafone, so you also might see it called the Vodafone Wi-Fi Cube 4G or similar.
What's It Good At?
This really is a set and forget piece of hardware. Mobile broadband devices are notoriously finicky, and home routers can have a whole range of settings to be tweaked before they work correctly, but the Huawei Wi-Fi Cube 4G only needs a SIM card and a power cable and it's off and racing. It's stable, too — I haven't experienced any untoward power outages or noticeable loss of Wi-Fi or mobile network connectivity in the fortnight that I've been using it.
The Wi-Fi Cube 4G can connect up to 32 Wi-Fi users simultaneously, far eclipsing the 10 or 15 users that most other mobile broadband devices can handle. Of course, more powerful infrastructure Wi-Fi routers have no limit, and are significantly more powerful in other areas (you're only limited by the number of IP addresses it can allocate) — but they don't have the integrated 4G of the Huawei.
The Wi-Fi Cube 4G isn't just for Wi-Fi use, although it may as well be for any average user's needs. It has a single 10/100MBps Ethernet port, so you could connect it to a single PC in your home — maybe a desktop that doesn't have inbuilt Wi-Fi — or to a home router that can distribute the Internet connection over a greater wireless range or to a network of multiple wired PCs. Having the external antenna ports means the Cube can be tucked away in a networking cabinet or office cupboard somewhere and connected to an optimally positioned receiver.
Huawei's interface is straightforward, but doesn't shy away from presenting the in-depth or complicated features that you'll need one day if you want to delve into the settings of your Wi-Fi or mobile internet data. It has a little bit of room to move in terms of setting Wi-Fi channels, changing mobile data APNs for different network providers, and so on.This is the home screen of the Huawei Wi-Fi Cube, and an example of the detail that you can drill down to — not to the extent of a proper router, but more than enough for the average user:
I'm not going to supply any kind of scientific speed test results for the Wi-Fi Cube 4G, but I can say that in the middle of my house in Burwood in Sydney's inner west — not on Vodafone 850MHz 4G, though — I measured 12Mbps download and 4.5Mbps upload on a three-bar 4G connection. In the Gizmodo offices in the middle of Sydney city, on four bars of 850MHz 4G, I clocked an average of 16Mbps down and 13.4Mbps up.
All the tests were run on Ookla's Speedtest.net and using Vodafone's server, but congestion both of Speedtest and of the Vodafone network can be a deleterious factor and you should always be wary of these kind of results. They're solid numbers, though, at least anecdotally. The Wi-Fi Cube 4G supports LTE Category 4, which is the current state of the art unless you're on Telstra.
What's It Not Good At?
Despite it being a modern modem chipset inside, the Wi-Fi Cube 4G seems to have been made specifically for Vodafone in Australia and as such there's no support for the new 700MHz frequency bands used by Optus and Telstra. Similarly, there's no 2300MHz support which Vodafone's competitors are using in rural areas. Given Vodafone's quickly growing but still comparatively limited next-gen 4G network coverage, this is a device for big-city and suburban users only — at least at the moment.
Huawei also says the Wi-Fi Cube 4G's effective network range is 200 metres, but I think that's extremely optimistic. Maybe in an open field with no obstacles between the receiver and the transmitter, but in the real world its small size, relatively low transmission power and the lack of any positionable or upgradeable external antennas mean it's midrange at best. In testing, I found that I could just connect to it on the other size of a pretty standard 2-storey Australian suburban house. It's definitely nothing special in this department.
In addition to that, the Huawei Wi-Fi Cube 4G's best Wi-Fi networking standard is its 2.4GHz 802.11n, and the only option available is a channel bandwidth of 20MHz, meaning you'll only get a maximum Wi-Fi connection speed of 72Mbps. No wireless-AC to be found here. 72Mbps is more than enough to hit the effective top speed of Vodafone's mobile data network (although the Cube's theoretical maximum 150Mbps network support is higher), but your wireless home networking device-to-device communication will be slower than it otherwise could be as a result.
There's a button on the top, too, which lights up with a bright blue LED — but what does it do? (It only turns on and off the "decorative" lights, actually, which is a bit of an anticlimax — I was hoping it could be used to toggle the mobile data connection, or to disable Wi-Fi.) Vodafone's documentation for the Huawei Wi-Fi Cube 4G is mediocre at best, and if you're a bit new to the world of mobile data or wireless networking you might find yourself a bit up the creek without a paddle.
Should You Buy It?
As a mobile broadband modem, the Huawei Cube 4G is great. It's straightforward, connects quickly and with zero unnecessary fuss, and is the first non-phone 4G device sold by Vodafone that supports its latest mobile network frequency. It's nice to see Vodafone committed to broadening the reach of its 4G mobile network, too, and that is part and parcel of the Wi-Fi Cube 4G's potential success.
If you need a Wi-Fi router for your house, the Huawei Wi-Fi Cube 4G is simple and powerful enough, but doesn't have quite the latest wireless networking standards of its wireless-AC competitors or quite the range that it purports to. It'll suit any apartment or a small house, but if you're in a large dwelling you'll need to attach a larger and gutsier Wi-Fi router for full coverage (but remember that 100Mbps Ethernet port maximum).
For serious users, the Huawei Wi-Fi Cube 4G won't replace a dedicated 3G/4G home Wi-Fi router like those available from Dovado and TP-Link and a dedicated 3G/4G mobile broadband dongle. For the more mainstream market, though — people that might want Wi-Fi and 'net access in their houses without the hassle of a landline Internet connection — it is a great choice. Vodafone's mobile data is relatively cheap, too, although like any other network it's not best for those who use dozens of gigabytes per month.