Up until now, Telstra's been the one hold-out on a portable MiFi style router product. This portable Wi-Fi router redresses that balance, but curiously Telstra's opted to offer it as a prepaid product offering.
The router itself is a rebadged ZTE MF30 heavy on the Telstra branding. It's nice and light to hold, but that's also because it's made out of very thin plastic indeed. This gives the impression of being rather flimsy, with clicky buttons and a simple light up LED interface. Compared to the competition offered by Virgin and Vodafone particularly, the Telstra product does come off as second best. Like most portable routers, the included buttons are kept to a minimum, with an on/off switch and WPS button separated by a slot for a microSD card. Charging is via mini-USB at the base, and out of our review box, the SIM was already pre-inserted, but oddly the battery wasn't. The rear cover is of a similar cheap and light plastic to the rest of the construction, and we'd be wary of popping it on or off too quickly in any case.
For lovers of technical specifications, the Prepaid Mobile Broadband Hotspot is a 7.2Mbps HSUPA tri-band (850/1900/2100MHz) modem with 802.11b/g WiFi compatibility.
Telstra sells the device on a prepaid basis upfront for AU$149 with 5GB of included data to use within 90 days of activation. The 5GB of data really makes most of the value proposition for the system, as a similar amount of data (technically up to 6GB, depending on other recharge variables that frankly, make our heads hurt) by itself will cost you AU$100. This is, in essence, the razorblades model applied to mobile data, as even a moderate amount of recharge data will quickly outpace the cost of the device itself. It's locked to the Telstra network with an unlocking fee applicable if you want to use it with other networks.
One nice factor with the Prepaid Mobile Broadband Hotspot is that it comes pre-secured with a WPA2 passphrase that's printed on a card for you to keep. If the device is factory reset (by holding down the power and WPA buttons for more than five seconds), it'll default back to these values, so losing the card would be a very bad idea indeed.
Telstra's confirmed to us that if you've got a NextG Mobile Phone SIM with a browsing pack or a Telstra Business Mobile Broadband SIM, you can drop those into the Prepaid Mobile Broadband Hotspot and merrily work away. Those with a post-paid BigPond Mobile Broadband SIM will have to look elsewhere, however. According to Telstra, the post-paid Mobile Broadband SIM simply won't work with the Hotspot at all.
Most portable Wi-Fi routers are built around simplicity, and in this aspect the Prepaid Mobile Broadband Hotspot is no different. The most complex bit of set-up involves registering the service over the phone. As with registering any mobile service, there's a certain amount of automated phone service and a certain quantity of script-led call centre hoops to leap through before you're done, but it's nothing that's markedly better or worse than any other similar service. We were advised when setting up our review unit that it could take up to four hours to activate the service, but about two minutes after our call concluded, the SIM was working fine.
We've been a bit spoilt when it comes to router web pages for portable routers; both Vodafone's Pocket WiFi and Netcomm's MyZone feature easy to access interfaces that are simple to configure. So the Prepaid Mobile Broadband Hotspot's rather rudimentary interface was something of a shock to encounter. There's not too much you can tweak given it's a locked down system in any case.
The router had few problems accommodating multiple devices without problem, but we did notice it getting increasingly warm when using it over a longer period of time. Most portable routers can be carried in the pocket for on-the-go broadband access, but in the case of the Telstra Wi-Fi, be prepared for extra-warm legs if you do this. That could be nice in winter, we guess.
Data throughput speeds varied, as they always do with mobile broadband devices, but the Prepaid Mobile Broadband Hotspot did hit a high peak of around 5.1Mbps down and 2.145Mbps up working from a single device. Up to five devices are supported, and we had no problems connecting a variety of mobiles, tablets and laptops to the device.
Telstra's late entry into the market isn't hugely helped by bringing a unit that doesn't compare all that favourably to the competition. Vodafone's Pocket WiFi has a better interface, but it's markedly slower and, like the Telstra unit, locked to a single vendor. If we were buying a portable router right now, we'd pick up Netcomm's MyZone, which is available in several outlets for AU$199. It's a touch more than the locked options, but at either prepaid or post-paid data rates you'll burn through the difference quickly anyway, and benefit from an unlocked unit with excellent build quality.