Virgin's latest offering in the ultra-competitive mobile broadband space is, it has to be said, not much of a looker. It rather resembles the much older Huawei "Soap On A Rope" style USB modems hat used to permeate the non-Telstra wireless broadband space, and indeed with the supplied mini USB cable, you could use it in exactly that way.
That's not the point of the Mobile WiFi modem, which could more accurately be labelled as a Mobile WiFi modem/router. It's designed to run off what is essentially a mobile phone battery, and provide up to three Wi-Fi clients with 3G broadband access. The front of the modem bears Virgin Mobile branding and a small display with four indicator lights, for power, mobile signal strength, Wi-Fi and connection status. The right-hand side of the modem has buttons for power, Wi-Fi/WPS and mobile connection, while the left-hand side houses a microSD card slot. The modem can take up to 32GB microSD cards when connected via USB if you wanted it to double as a portable flash drive.
While it's prominently Virgin Mobile branded, the modem itself is a Huawei E5832 providing a top download speed of 7.2Mbps over HSUPA/HSDPA/UMTS 2100/900MHz and EDGE/GPRS/GSM 1900/1800/900/850MHz frequencies. On the wireless front it's an 802.11b/g critter only — it'd be hoping for a bit too much to expect 802.11n, we guess. The internal battery is rated at a 1500mAh, which is rated for continuous operation of four to five hours.
Set-up of the WiFi modem was mostly hassle free, although you do have to make sure that the SIM within the modem is already activated, or sit through a rather lengthy online sign-up process from another net-connected machine. One nice aspect of the modem is that it comes with wireless security pre-enabled via a randomly printed SSID and WEP key printed on the modem body itself, underneath the battery. WEP's not terribly secure, of course, and mobile bandwidth is rather expensive, so we'd suggest using WEP only to set up the modem, and then switching to WPA/WPA2, which the modem supports from a web interface.
By default the modem's meant to attempt to connect automatically as soon as it has signal, but in our tests we found it often struggled with that step unless we manually hit the dial button. Speaking of buttons, we quickly came to the conclusion that it was a pity there wasn't a dedicated on/off switch, rather than a button. To conserve battery power the display switches itself off pretty quickly, which sounds sensible, but the only way to bring it back up without disconnecting either wireless broadband or Wi-Fi is to hit the power button. It's pretty easy to leave the unit on (or fail to switch it off correctly) and more than once we went to use it only to find it was flat because we'd only had the screen off, not the whole modem.
There's an obvious comparison point between the WiFi modem and a more conventional USB Wireless Broadband modem, but what we quickly worked out — beyond the obvious three-client nature of the modem — were the peculiar little advantages that having the modem gave us.
For a start, if you're using a USB modem in any public place, and especially on public transport, it's always at risk of breakage if somebody bumps into it. We could place the WiFi modem into a pocket and it still worked comfortably with a variety of laptops. It also sneakily enabled us to use theoretically 3G-only applications, such as Skype, on an iPhone 3GS connected via Wi-Fi. Just to make your head hurt, that's using a 3G phone connected via Wi-Fi to a 3G Wireless broadband service to perform functions that are technically prohibited from working on 3G.
The real bugbear for this particular product still lies in the somewhat flaky nature of the Virgin Mobile Broadband network. Virgin's an Optus subsidiary, and anyone with an iPhone would be familiar with how variable the Optus network can be. We certainly hit that with the WiFi modem, which lurched from a top download speed of around 2Mbps at peak to a low of around 150Kbps at worst, sometimes dropping out in-between. For what it's worth, Virgin Mobile says it'll unlock the modem once an initial AU$80 recharge is paid out, so there's scope there for usage on other networks, at least potentially speaking.
The Mobile WiFi modem will initially only be available through Dick Smith Stores with a variety of prepaid options. At the base line these are fairly ordinary — AU$15 buys you 500MB to use within 30 days, for example — but there's one deal that did catch our attention. AU$149 will buy you 10GB usage, which doesn't sound great, but you'll have 365 days to use it. Breaking that down into a per-month usage as long as your needs were modest, you could get wireless broadband access for a super-cheap AU$12.41 per month, with 833MB to use each month. That's very affordable for wireless broadband — as long as it works.