The USB modems appear very similar in design and in the case of the Optus and Virgin models actually use the same internal chipset (Virgin is a subsidiary of Optus) so we didn’t find huge differences in performance across the board. What we did find, however, is differences in installation and ease of use, particularly with software.
We found that installing the SIM card was a little finicky. The SIM card holder sits in a small slot near the USB connector, and is tricky to get out (we used a fingernail). Inserting the SIM card into the holder was difficult. It was such a tight fit that the clips on the side stripped some plastic away from the SIM card.
Registering and activation takes over 30 minutes, including waiting. The user interface is pretty simple, though sparse. The only tool available for checking personal data usage is via the member’s section on the Optus website. Sending SMS is very easy though and the software supports contact listing.
The SIM card was already pre-installed and the dongle also has provision for a micro SD card for data storage. We recommend using the USB extension cable with this device as the USB connector is movable and feels a little flimsy.
Support is excellent, with help available within the software, plus phone support and a troubleshooting section in the quick reference guide. The Telstra website also has a more extensive troubleshooting section with links to download newer versions of the connection manager. Activation of the SIM card was a little harder than expected and this was the only unit on test us to contact the provider to activate the SIM. All the others on test allowed activation to be completed online.
It was very difficult to plug in an external antenna. A small plastic cover flap tends to get in the way, preventing the antenna being inserted properly.
This was the same type of SIM installation as the Optus device on test, but the SIM card slid in freely and didn’t require extra pressure. The software setup process is simple and activating the SIM is done via the 3 website. The software is very simple and easy to use and gives an excellent breakdown of stats for data usage, with download and upload speeds plus daily, monthly and yearly usage. We couldn’t get the external antenna to sit in correctly, however, and had to hold it in by hand to complete testing.
This unit has the same type of SIM card installation as the Optus and 3 models and is easy to install. Activation is quite straightforward and the Help menu links to the user manual located on the hard drive, which is excellent. The troubleshooting section doesn’t offer much information though.
The diagnostic tool provided does little more than give details about the device and the software. Additional support is via phone support, website FAQs, email and Twitter. However, the included user guide is quite helpful in setting up both the hardware and software.
Installation is similar to the Optus, 3 and Virgin devices and the SIM card was easy to install. The quick start guide is excellent, and the built-in help for the connection manager and SMS software is quite good. Vodafone provides links to update the software and drivers. Additional support is available via the Vodafone site and by phone. The connection software is also included on a CD-ROM; the only modem on test to do so.
However, the activation process is slightly intrusive, requiring 60 points of authentication (ID check) via passport or driver’s license. The data usage tool is very good, with a breakdown of the current and previous month available in a volume or time-based view. SMSs are sent and received via stand-alone software and a contacts listing.
Unwired uses its own proprietary network rather than 3G so no SIM card is required. The software doesn’t offer a help menu, so you must go to the Unwired website, where the FAQ section is quite extensive. The software wasn’t easy to install, despite the connection assistant, as the unwired modem needs a good signal strength before installing the software. Coverage is very patchy, which is easy to see on the coverage maps on the Unwired website. We had to move to a few different locations before being able to maintain a good connection with the Unwired servers. The software interface is easy to use, however. SMS sending is not enabled by default (therefore there’s no SMS contacts phonebook) but can be had for an extra $6 per month, while faxing is also available but at an extra $10 per month.
An LCD readout on the front of the modem, underneath the swingable antenna, provides details on signal strength, quality and the status of the connection.