Telstra USB 4G Pre-Paid modem Review

Update: Additional speedtests have been included.

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Ah mobile broadband. We love you so but we hate paying the megabucks for the experience, (especially when we are currently paying the megabucks for your previously fastest experience on contract) so it was with much jubilation that Telstra announced yesterday the release of their first 4G Pre-Paid modem. At $129.00 with 3GB of data to use in the first 30 days, it pretty much echoes Telstra’s previous Pre-Paid offerings.

Accessing the 4G network without having to commit to either a pricey upfront cost or a lengthy contract is of course every iBrother’s dream. It’s especially apparent when you only need mobile broadband some of the time making a recharge a better option than a rolling contract. We picked one up this morning to see if the cheaper hardware keeps up with the more expensive sierra wireless option.

The USB modem is the ZTE MF821 which offers a decent selection of mobile frequencies (LTE 1800, 2100, 2600 MHz – UMTS 850, 900, 2100 MHz) should you eventually get it unlocked from Telstra and decide to try a different provider. Why you would do this considering that you would lose the main appeal of this unit – 4G connectivity – would be baffling but we know there are people out there who may want this option up their sleeve. The modem also supports a microSD(HC) up to 32GB.

Full specifications can be found here.

Unboxing

In the box you will find the modem (SIM already inserted), USB extension cable, obligatory Telstra welcome manuals and a piece of velcro with double sided tape should you wish to uglify your notebook (I am guessing).

Physical Characteristics

The modem is quite large but I does need to accomodate the dual antennas. ZTE opted for a long look as opposed to sierra wireless’ flat, fat look. Despite not being as wide, on a unibody Macbook Pro you will still lose the second USB port if you don’t use the extension cable.

The USB connection flips out the front and allows you to sit the modem in your USB slot at 45, 90, 135 and 180 degree angles. ZTE would have to be a contender for stupidest design of the year award for their chosen method of making you drag your finger over the hinge point to move the USB connection from the “stored” position which is awkward for the most part but I am sure they trust you will eventually learn to get the right position to apply pressure to make it swing open.

Sliding the front cover off exposes the SIM and microSD slots.

Installation

Installing the modem to our 2011 Macbook Pro (running 10.7 Lion) was pretty simple. Insert the modem and it will launch the installer. Follow the bouncy ball until you are told to restart. Upon reboot, you will be prompted to install a new network location and be presented with the Telstra Mobile Broadband Connection Manager.

We asked for our modem to be activated at the store and it took about an hour before we could connect. This is somewhat of an improvement over the 48 hours we had to wait the last time we activated a Telstra mobile broadband Pre-Paid product.

Speed tests

As we had a job on in Sunbury this morning, we took a couple of speedtests early on.

Sunbury is in standard 3G zone offering nothing special in terms of speed. The modem was showing three (out of five) bars.

Sunbury

Modem

Connection Type

Download (Mbps)

Upload (Mbps)

Ping (ms)

Telstra USB 4G Pre-Paid

nextG

2.39

1.24

40

Most notable though is the low ping.

The next stop was at one of the viewing areas near the Melbourne Airport. Here we were able to see two bars of 4G reception.

Melbourne Airport viewing area

Modem

Connection Type

Download (Mbps)

Upload (Mbps)

Ping (ms)

Telstra USB 4G Pre-Paid

4G

11.6

1.87

44

At this point we decided it was probably worth seeing how the modem compared to our trusty and reliable Bigpond Ultimate WiFi broadband hotspot,  which is capable of HSPA+ (or DC). We headed out to a couple of tried and tested locations.

McDonald’s Gladstone Park

Modem

Connection Type

Download (Mbps)

Upload (Mbps)

Ping (ms)

Telstra USB 4G Pre-Paid

4G

13.12

2.39

35

Bigpond Ultimate Wifi

DC

14.88

0.72

51

Considering iBrothers are not really fans of the restaurant chain, we really need to find a better location.

With 2 bars of 4G coverage, the speedtest ran fairly similar to the previous one, gaining slightly overall. What was interesting is that as far as raw speed for download is concerned, the Ultimate WiFi proved quicker although showed slower uploads and a slightly higher ping.

DFO Essendon

Modem

Connection Type

Download (Mbps)

Upload (Mbps)

Ping (ms)

Telstra USB 4G Pre-Paid

DC

18.84

1.25

96

Bigpond Ultimate Wifi

DC

21.47

1.17

64

An interesting result here seeing the Ultimate WiFi beating the 4G USB on it’s own turf when both are using the DC network.

West Brunswick

Modem

Connection Type

Download (Mbps)

Upload (Mbps)

Ping (ms)

Telstra USB 4G Pre-Paid

4G

39.67

17.49

43

Bigpond Ultimate Wifi

DC

14.10

3.51

80

Finally, we get to see the modem performing in it’s full capacity with 5 bars of reception in a known strong 4G area. It’s good to see the ZTE modem doing as well (in fact better) as the Sierra modem here. It shows that either we got Telstra on a really good day or they are improving their network as time goes on.

Brooklyn

Modem

Connection Type

Download (Mbps)

Upload (Mbps)

Ping (ms)

Telstra USB 4G Pre-Paid

4G

21.59

13.39

40

Bigpond Ultimate Wifi

DC

13.22

0.46

63

What were we doing in Brooklyn you may ask? Well we weren’t exactly there to take in the scenery although a client visit did allow for a quick speed test.

On to Fitzroy, we found ourselves with the opportunity to test against the Sierra Wireless 320U (Telstra’s Post-Paid offering).

Fitzroy

Modem

Connection Type

Download (Mbps)

Upload (Mbps)

Ping (ms)

Telstra USB 4G Pre-Paid

4G

28.69

16.63

30

Telstra USB 4G (Sierra 320U)

4G

31.6

12.48

34

Bigpond Ultimate Wifi

DC

8.11

2.6

86

There really isn’t much in it showing that the Pre-Paid and Post-Paid options both present a good internet experience. There are several factors that can influence an individual test so the minor discrepancy between the two isn’t something we would be too concerned about.

Drawbacks

The drawbacks are pretty much the same as the ones we listed in our review of the Sierra 320U 4G modem. It’s a USB only affair and (we presume) being so new would encounter the same lack of router support.

What interests us is the announcement from Sierra Wireless of the new 76x range of wireless hotspots supporting LTE (4G). Now THAT would possibly encourage us to renew a contract and recommit to spending the megabucks.

Edit: Looks like Telstra will be supplying this model.

Conclusion

If you are currently after a Pre-Paid USB modem, are looking for the fastest possible connection and presently have no major gripes with Telstra, the Pre-Paid Telstra USB 4G modem is the one to go for. Even though Telstra sell their older modems, and they are cheaper, it makes little sense to invest in older technology unless you live in an area that will never receive a DC or 4G upgrade in the near future.

Most notable is the lower ping times on the 4G service over the DC service. This would present a better experience for gamers or people looking to leverage other low latency services over their mobile broadband connection.

Other links

Coverage maps: http://goo.gl/V4gXm

For pricing and more information: http://goo.gl/N0t0C

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