Virgin Mobile's battery-powered Wi-Fi Modem allows up to three devices to connect to it wirelessly for shared mobile broadband access. The flaky Optus network may be an issue for some, but this is still a very nifty device that's convenient and portable.
Virgin Mobile's Wi-Fi modem is a tiny device considering its capabilities — it's smaller than a mobile phone. Manufactured by Huawei, the Wi-Fi modem has a status screen on the front with five LEDs: signal strength, roaming status, Wi-Fi status, network service (GSM, 2G, 3G) and battery power. On the right side, three small buttons power the unit on and off, turn Wi-Fi on and off and connect to the Optus network (used by Virgin Mobile). A microSD slot on the left supports memory cards of up to 32GB in capacity; when connected over Wi-Fi multiple computers can access the content of the microSD card. One missing feature is the external antenna jack to boost reception found on regular USB modems.
Supporting the 802.11b/g Wi-Fi standards, the Virgin Mobile Wi-Fi Modem has a wireless range of up to 15 metres. We found the signal strength started to rapidly deteriorate after about 10 metres. It worked fine up to this distance through the internal walls of an office.
Using the Virgin Mobile Wi-Fi Modem via Wi-Fi requires no installation and we were up and running in less than a few minutes (though you'll need to register and activate your SIM card through the Virgin Mobile Web site). A wired connection requires the installation of software but this available on the modem itself and it works in both Windows and Mac OS X. When connected via USB, the modem's built-in battery will be charged (while still allowing Wi-Fi access).
Up to three devices can connect simultaneously to the Internet on the Virgin (Optus) network. Technically, the device is capable of more simultaneous connections, but Virgin's software only allows three — most likely due to the flaky Optus network.
In fairness, at both our offices and at home, we found the coverage excellent — provided you're in a 3G zone, speeds are stable and quite fast. On the other hand, we saw the worst of the Optus network when travelling from Sydney to the Western Suburbs by train: 3G coverage tended to come and go, and at various points of our journey the modem was unusable. If possible, check Virgin's network coverage before you buy.
The Virgin Mobile Wi-Fi Modem is simple to set up. Its default SSID and WEP key are printed on the label under the battery. You can change these settings later through the built-in Web interface, which is available by typing the unit's IP address into your browser. WEP, WPA and WPA2 encryption are all supported and you can also choose whether or not you wish to broadcast the SSID.
Using our Broadband Speed Test, the Virgin Mobile Wi-Fi Modem managed to achieve download speeds of up to 2.1 megabits per second, but it regularly hovered around 1.6-1.8Mbps provided we were in a full 3G zone. Upload speeds were also stable at around 1.1Mbps, but did hover around 1.5Mbps on occasions. We didn't find much difference in speed between a wired and a wireless connection, provided the modem was situated less than 10 metres from our test notebook. The speed does suffer if all three connected devices are downloading files at once, but this will probably be rare; for most part, there is no real impact on the speed if you're just doing basic Web browsing.
The Virgin Mobile Wi-Fi modem managed to download a 89.9 megabyte iTunes installation package in 5min 58sec — an average speed of 246 kilobytes per second. This is an excellent result, particularly as it managed to beat Telstra's Turbo Pre-Paid USB Modem.
Virgin claims the modem has a battery life of up to four hours, but we managed almost a full day's use (primarily conducting basic Web browsing) before the battery needed recharging.
The Virgin Mobile Wi-Fi modem is available exclusively through Dick Smith until 30 November. The $199 initial outlay gets you the modem and 1GB of prepaid mobile broadband (which expires after 30 days). Top-up pricing is in line with Virgin Mobile's standard prepaid broadband options, ranging from $15 for 500MB over 30 days to $100 for 6GB over 90 days. DSE stores will also offer 10GB of data for $149 (with a 365-day expiration), but this special offer is only available until 30 November.
The Virgin Mobile Wi-Fi Modem is locked to Virgin's broadband service, but can be unlocked for use with another network after spending a total of $80 on data (it doesn't support the 850MHz band used by Telstra's Next G network).
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