This is getting repetitive. Every time we review a wireless broadband dongle we begin by pointing out the fact that this new modem is actually exactly the same as the last modem we reviewed from one of the competing carriers. It was the same with the last generation of "soap-on-a-rope" styled broadband dongles, and guess what? It's the same story here now: this new Optus USB modem is exactly the same as the modem currently offered by Vodafone and 3 Mobile bundles with their wireless broadband plans.
Aside from the advantage of a slimmer, more attractive design, one of the major differences over the previous generation USB modems is the inclusion of a microSD card reader on the side. So obviously, you will need to buy a microSD card to make use of this feature, but on the upside you won't be restricted to a static capacity, instead you will be able to "hot-swap" these cards.
The Optus wireless modem also comes bundled with a USB extension cable. In a way, using the extension cable defeats the purpose of buying this modem over the previous generation as the new slim design removes the need for a short-wired connection. However, during our review it became obvious that people who intend to move their PC frequently, for example those who schlep their laptops around the house, may want to use the laptop to save the USB connection snapping off after being accidentally bumped.
If all the available wireless broadband modems are the same then it is surely the network performance that separates them. The trouble is that this is such a contentious feature to test, as there are dozens of variables that could negatively impact performance.
In an effort to be as thorough as time would permit, we took the Optus USB modem on a short road trip around a selection of Sydney suburbs. Beginning in the CBD we drove into the Inner West and then out to the beach at Bondi, stopping roadside to perform speed tests. We then headed north, across the Harbour Bridge to Naremburn where we had heard reports of poor Optus network reception using last generation's USB broadband modem.
All in all the modem performed well, but not exceptionally. We saw wide fluctuations in the results of each test, the slowest result being 100Kbps in Naremburn and the fastest being 2Mbps in the city. However, we also saw speeds spike to 1.6Mbps in Naremburn within a 10-minute period of testing in the area, showing us the inconsistency that Optus customers experience.
The user interface is simple to navigate and displays all the important information like strength of the network signal and the amount of data transferred. Users can also send SMS messages from this window and view contacts stored on the SIM card.
Installation of the Optus software is as easy as can be, with the necessary drivers and programs automatically installing from the USB thumb-drive. We did encounter a small problem on one system that had McAfee antivirus software installed, which didn't automatically give internet traffic permission to the Optus software and blocked inbound traffic at the firewall. This is an easy problem to fix, we simply opened the McAfee software and added the Optus executable file to the current list of software with permission, but it may be something to watch for if you don't immediately connect to the Web.
We also encountered a few hiccups with our connection during the tests and received messages informing us that we had run out of credit when we knew we had nearly 2GB of data remaining. The short-term fix was to reset the software and to remove and re-insert the modem into the USB port, but hopefully Optus smooths out the bugs at the back-end before this sort of issue affects too many people.
Before making a purchasing decision check out the Optus 3G coverage maps to make sure your area receives a strong 3G signal.