Like most router manufacturers, NetComm uses a standard body for its routers across most lines, so it should come as no shock that externally, you'd have a hard time picking this from the PCMCIA-based N3G001W unit. It's a small, light unit (129.1x124.3x32mm, 500g) in white and silver plastic with basic indicator lights on the front and four basic ports on the rear — one each for LAN and WAN access (so you could also use it with an external ADSL modem), as well as power and USB. USB in this case is used as the 3G modem connection point. A single standard antenna socket and reset button completes the rear of the unit.
Within the box, NetComm also bundles a standard antenna, installation CD, quick-start guide, length of Ethernet cable and a cradle to sit the router in sideways. Despite our best efforts, we could never get the router to sit comfortably within the cradle, as it always felt loose and tended to bump out very easily.
If you were just assessing the N3G005W on its basic Wi-Fi specifications, you'd come away very unimpressed; it's a basic 802.11g router with a very standard set of application support features, from VPN to WPA2 security, based around a web configuration interface. In other words, exactly the same thing that everyone's been doing in the wireless space for years now.
Where the N3G005W marks itself out is by integrating 3G wireless capability, specifically via connecting a USB-based 3G modem to the rear of the unit. All of the current wireless providers are supported, as long as (essentially) you know your username and password. The N3G005W defaults to thinking that 3G is the way you'll supply internet access, although a WAN port is on-board for those who may wish to swap between 3G and other forms of connectivity.
As mentioned, the size of the unit means that it's really only practical to have a single wired Ethernet port, which might be limiting depending on how you plan to use the N3G005W.
Set-up with a 3G USB modem is relatively simple. To NetComm's credit, the wizard-based interface includes all the standard APN details for each of the major wireless providers, so all you should need is your username and password.
We tested with a Telstra Bigpond 7.2 Sierra Wireless USB modem, and had some difficulty getting a connection working, although whether this was at Telstra's end (authenticating our modem) or NetComm's (getting the router to send the right signals) is rather difficult to say.
It also took us some time to work out that, daftly, the wizard continually felt it hadn't been completed (although we were already online) and so kept wanting to be run each time we logged into the router interface. Eventually we worked out how to bypass it by just clicking on the "Advanced Setup" button at the top of the screen, rather than the "Advanced Setup" radio box in the middle. No, that doesn't make any logical sense, but when did routers ever do what you wanted them to?
Once we were past our initial set-up hiccups, we were mostly pleased with the N3G005W's performance, within certain limitations. Connection speed over 3G is always going to be dependent on signal quality — ours wavered between 50-70 per cent signal for the majority of our testing period, which equated to a rough line speed of around 2.8Mbps — but when you combine that with a relatively weak 802.11g signal, it's possible to hit dead spots every once in a while. The flip side of that weaker signal should be slightly improved security. If your signal doesn't go so far, fewer unwanted systems should be able to catch wind of it, which is an important consideration given that while wireless data prices have tumbled recently, they're still comparatively very expensive.
The router does measure the throughput of the 3G modem in bytes, but for most users that's going to be tough to reconcile back into accurate data usage figures, which could lead to some sticker shock when the 3G data bill comes in.
Full wireless security is naturally a better way to keep your wireless data for your own personal use. Here NetComm's done something that we wish every wireless manufacturer would make mandatory, namely pre-configuring wireless security as active from the moment the unit's plugged in. While the default password isn't the most complex in the world, it's a good step for reminding router buyers to configure their own wireless security afterwards.
If you're already using a USB data modem and want to share it easily, the N3G005W is a solid choice, although those in congested 802.11g wireless areas might find it a bit of a struggle getting signal through, and those with more than a single wired Ethernet device might want to look elsewhere.