BigPond Ultimate Mobile Broadband USB
Fast connection; sturdy hardware
Relatively expensive; lengthy contracts; occasional dropped connections
$299 outright or free on contracts
Thanks to Telstra’s BigPond Ultimate USB modem, wireless internet is finally becoming a fast and viable alternative to wired ADSL and cable connections – but there are a few caveats. The increased speed isn’t available everywhere, most options involve signing up for 24 months, and the cost can be significantly more than ADSL (especially if you’re a heavy downloader). But all that aside, how does the Ultimate modem perform? Pretty bloody well.
Getting up and running
Intalling the modem is simple. Plug it in to your Mac, run an installer, and you’re ready to go. The connection is handled by an application called Mobile Broadband Manager, which looks purposely un-Mac (the top of the window is white rather than OS X grey, for no apparent reason), but does the job pretty well. There’s a connect/disconnect button at the top, and links to Telstra web properties like BigPond home, Citysearch, Yellow Pages and White Pages.
Unfortunately, you need to keep the Mobile Broadband Manager open whenever you’re using the connection, so it’ll always be in the dock if it’s your primary connection. And if you do close it, there’s a good chance it won’t recognise the modem once you re-open the application; you’ll need to unplug it and plug it back in. (Sometimes it even says it’s unable to detect the device, but the connect button will work perfectly.)
It’s the speed that counts
The biggest benefit of the Ultimate USB modem over other 3G modems is the speed it gives you. In our testing in South Yarra (just a few kilometres from the Melbourne CBD) speedtest.net showed consistent download speeds of around 5.5Mbps (and up to 7Mbps), though uploads were less consistent, generally sitting around 0.3Mbps but fluctuating up to 2.5Mbps. Ping time was generally around 30-50ms.
While those figures don’t compare particularly well to my ADSL speeds of 11Mbps downloads, there are good gains over other 3G connections. When tethered to my iPhone 4 (also on Telstra, and with full reception), I got a mere 1.2Mbps download and 0.04Mbps upload with a ping time of 239ms.
Results will obviously vary depending on local coverage, but for a 3G connection, the Ultimate seems to be pretty solid. It boasts speeds up to 20Mbps, so if you live in the right spot, it will be as fast as, if not faster than, some ADSL and cable connections. Even in areas with poor reception, the Ultimate USB will be as good as it gets for 3G.
While the speed is impressive, it’s worth noting that occasionally during our testing, the connection would be lost and need to be re-established manually before internet access would be available again. It’s an annoying occurrence, but it’s quick to re-connect, so it wasn’t a big deal.
It must be really expensive, right?
Pricing is trickier to look at than speed – especially because broadband prices typically vary hugely depending on length of contract and data usage. Given that it might be quick enough for some to replace a wired connection, how does it compare to ADSL prices?
My ADSL is with iiNet, where I get 100GB (50GB peak and 50GB offpeak) for $59.95 on a Naked DSL plan (meaning I don’t pay line rental but cannot use my line for phone calls). For $69.95 with Telstra, you’d get only 12GB of 3G data per month (and that’s if you have a Telstra landline – without it, you’ll be paying $89.95). So it’s much more expensive. That said, I rarely get close to my 100GB quota, and I’m a fairly heavy internet user. Light users might get by with only a couple of GB a month, which can be as cheap as $30.
Another consideration is the setup costs of an internet service. I recently moved into an apartment without an installed phone line. To get ADSL set up cost me in excess of $300, which is a fair cost in anyone’s book. If you’re happy to sign up for a 24 month contract, you can get the Ultimate USB modem for free (it costs $299 without a contract).
Plus, there’s the possibility that your local telephone exchange will be full up, with no DSLAMs available for you to connect up another ADSL connection. In this case, wireless might be your best option.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice
As a backup internet option, I find tethering to my iPhone is perfectly adequate, and other 3G options from VHA (Vodafone and Three) or Optus can be cheaper than Telstra’s network. But if you’re looking for an alternative to ADSL in terms of speed, the Ultimate USB might be the way to go. Just check your area’s network capabilities before you sign up for 24 months.
This is certainly the fastest 3G modem on the market, and is a well built device. It works perfectly with your Mac, and although relatively expensive, you get what you pay for in terms of speed.
Anthony Caruana recently Lab Tested a range of other 3G modems and routers. Check the results here to see what other options are available.