Telstra Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III: Australian Review

Since it launched a year ago, Telstra's 4GX network has been getting a lot faster. First, Telstra switched on carrier aggregation, which tied two frequency bands together and tripled download speeds. Then, it upgraded its carrier aggregation to three frequency bands, and tripled those data speeds. Telstra's Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III is the first device that takes full advantage of the company's latest fastest Category 11 mobile data network, and it promises 600Mbps download speeds. Step aside, NBN. This is how you get the fastest 'net connection in Australia, right now.

What Is It?

The Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III is a LTE Category 11-capable mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, with an internal microSIM slot for a Telstra data SIM — no other carrier's SIM will work in this network-locked device. At the moment, Telstra is only selling the hotspot on its Mobile Broadband Explorer plans, starting at $0 extra per month on the $35 Mobile Broadband Explorer plan with 4GB of data to use per month on a 24 month contract. Previous Telstra Wi-Fi hotspots have cost around $250 off contract, so if you're able to buy one outright it's a much cheaper alternative to other triple-band carrier aggregation devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+ if you just want to share a data connection.

The new hotspot is built by Netgear; officially referred to as the AirCard 810S, it’s the successor to the AirCard 785S that Telstra previously sold as the 4G Wi-Fi My Pocket Ultimate. It’s a 111x68x15mm device, with integrated 802.11b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi router inside, and an internal removeable 2930mAh battery on top of its microSIM slot. Apart from a top-mounted power button, there’s a single microUSB 3.0 port on the base as well as dual TS9 micro-antenna connectors.

The front of the Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III is mostly taken up by its 2.4-inch colour touchscreen LCD — Telstra's own company and 4GX logos are in the corners — and you'll also find a couple of capacitive touch-sensitive buttons for navigating around the portable router's simple menu interface. Like previous Netgear mobile broadband hotspots, the interface lets you change a few settings without admin access as long as you have the device in your possession and can actually touch it. Around the back, that battery and microSIM are both hidden away behind a rubberised plastic cover that comes off once you dig a fingernail into one of its corners.

Because there’s only one tactile button, you’ll need to tap that before you use the 2-inch colour touchscreen on the hotspot’s front; that’s where you’ll find the currently broadcasting Wi-Fi network name and password, as well as to view any messages you’ve received (like data usage, or SMSes to your mobile broadband number) and adjust a range of settings. You can muck with a variety of things — turn Wi-Fi on and off, connect or disconnect to mobile networks — but for anything more serious you’re better off logging into the web admin, which you’ll find at http://192.168.1.1 or http://m.home.

What's It Good At?

This is one fast mobile broadband device. It has 802.11ac Wi-Fi integrated, which means that a similarly modern smartphone or tablet or laptop will connect at 300Mbps-plus speeds, which is useful for transferring files between different devices on the network and isnecessary for getting the best possible transfer rates when you're downloading from the 'net. What that means is that the Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III's mobile broadband connection isn't faster than its local Wi-Fi connection, which would have been a pretty serious oversight on Netgear and Telstra's part.

You can get pretty damn amazing Speedtest.net results from this modem, too. In an area where I'd regularly recorded 155Mbps download and 35Mbps upload speeds from a two-frequency carrier aggregation device — the previous Wi-Fi 4G Advanced II — I managed to get a transfer rate result of 254Mbps download and 35Mbps upload from the III. That is stupidly fast. You have to be in very specific rollout areas for these speeds at the moment — I only know of a couple of three-kilometre-square areas in Sydney, for example — but the network capacity and speed will improve as Telstra upgrades its towers around Australia's state capital cities and major areas.

On this topic, Telstra says: "The early Cat 11 enabled footprint is concentrated on the CBD’s of Eastern Seaboard capital cities; initially Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, and in selected popular holiday locations. The network reach supporting these Cat 11 speeds will also continue to expand in line with growing mobile data demand." Chances are that some part of your city, if you live in a metropolitan area, is already built to support two-frequency carrier aggregation, so you'll get those 15Mbps-ish speeds I was talking about earlier, but 250Mbps-ish Category 11 speeds are still on the way.

That admin user interface lets you choose 2.4GHz or 5GHz for your primary Wi-Fi network, and lets you set up a secondary network on the other band simultaneously. You can lock the device to 4G (LTE) or 3G (CDMA) only, although there’s no way to see whether you’re connected to a dual- or triple-carrier aggregation set of network bands — and it’s that triple band that’ll let you hit that theoretical max 600Mbps download speed. (Move over, NBN!) Netgear and Telstra promise 11 hours of continuous-use battery life, and in practice that's entirely possible; I've clocked it getting over 10 hours in more than a couple of instances.

What's It Not Good At?

You can also use the hotspot as a portable battery, sharing its charge with any USB-connected smartphone or tablet. Don’t expect a huge recharge, since it barely has 3000mAh of its own, but it might just be enough to get your smartphone charged enough to make an emergency phone call. In practice, you won't want to use it in anything other than an emergency; jump-boosting a Galaxy Note 5 saw the Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III's battery drop basically in real-time, cutting its effective battery life as a hotspot down to under an hour as it did double duty charging the phone (from 10 per cent to 35 per cent) and broadcasting Wi-Fi. It's a good feature to have, just not especially useful.

That full-plastic face of this portable hotspot picks up scratches like nothing else. If you're planning on keeping your Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III for more than the couple of years that it's contracted for, you're going to have to take extra special care of it — maybe hide it away in a sock or something? I treated my review unit well, but it's already covered with a dozen tiny scratches across its face after barely a month of regular use. The device certainly feels sturdy, and I'm confident that it won't fall to pieces in my bag unless I manage to throw it under a truck, but it's just not impervious to cosmetic damage.

Telstra boasts that the Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III is capable of 600Mbps download speeds. The reality is that you're never even going to get close to those speeds. In the real world, at what I thought would be the time of lowest network congestion and data contention, around 3AM in the morning, that 254Mbps download speed was the best that I achieved. During a busy morning, when you're waiting for a bus in the middle of the city, you'll likely not even see those kind of speeds; the 150Mbps range is a sure thing as long as your Wi-Fi hotspot is connecting to more than one frequency band simultaneously.

That points to my main contention with the Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III — it's extremely fast, but you're not going to get the best possible speeds out of it unless you're smack bang in the middle of the currently available coverage area. A lot of Australia's metropolitan areas are already well served with twin-frequency carrier aggregation, and that is more than fast enough for the vast majority of users, but if you're buying this because you need the fastest possible speeds, you're going to be annoyed that you're not actually getting those speeds for the vast majority of the time that you're using it.

I haven't touched on the price of Telstra's mobile broadband data earlier on in the review, because it's not relevant to the performance of the Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III, but it is relevant to your buying decision. It is expensive. 8GB will cost you $55 per month, 15GB will cost you $105 per month, 25GB will cost you $165 per month. If you want the absolute best download speeds — faster than even the NBN can manage, under theoretical lab test conditions at least — then this is the price you have to pay to play. But you can get the same quantity of data for a lower price if you choose to purchase your mobile data from Optus or Vodafone.

Should You Buy It?

As long as you're in an appropriately fast network coverage area, the Telstra Wi-Fi 4GX Advanced III is the easiest way to get ridiculously fast, blazingly fast download speeds. Don't worry about download quotas — that's another expense that's separate to the technological prowess that the Wi-Fi 4GX Advanced III demonstrates. When it's possible to get downloads literally twice as fast as the National Broadband Network's fibre wired connection to your home, you can't help but be impressed by what Telstra is doing here with its national mobile network.

Battery life is good, Wi-Fi coverage and speed is good, mobile network performance is excellent — as a hotspot, the Telstra Wi-Fi 4GX Advanced III excels in just about every way. It's not exactly covered in Gorilla Glass, and it'll pick up scuffs and scratches more easily than you might expect, but for the purpose of channeling a ridiculously fast mobile data connection from the thin air to your laptop or your mobile device, it does a very good job — as long as you can afford the data, that is. As the network rolls out further around Australia, it'll be even better.

We tested this device and wrote this review on Gizmodo's 2016 gaming PC: a machine built with the help of ASUS, Intel and Corsair. The PC runs on an Asus Maximus VIII Gene motherboard, an Intel Core i7-6700K CPU, Corsair Ballistix DDR4 memory and a Samsung 950 Pro solid-state drive.

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