Mobile broadband (3G) is very handy for phones, but hasn’t really taken off as an alternative to ADSL except where there’s no other choice. This is partly because of the flaky coverage, but also due to a lack of affordable 3G routers. An increasing number of mainstream routers (such as the Fritz!Box Fon WLAN 7390) support USB 3G dongles, as do a clutch of low-cost mini-routers (like the Solwise 3G11nMRW), but dongle cost and compatibility is a big headache with both these approaches.
Enter the Solwise NET-3G-434T. This ugly little black router features a four-port 10/100Mbps switch, 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi and an embedded 3G modem, so all you need is a suitable 3G SIM. The cheapest alternative we could find with a similar spec – the Billion 7800GZ – costs over £350, and that only has 11g Wi-Fi.
So on the face of it, just over £120 is a blinding bargain. We can live with ugly plastic and a budget feel, as long as the product works. The 434T certainly works, although with its bright blue, red and purple status lights, at times it looks more like a 70s disco accessory. Manufactured by Hame (www.hametech.com), it uses a Ralink RT2880 system-on-a-chip and BusyBox embedded Linux.
After connecting the large 3G antenna at the rear (the twin Wi-Fi antennas are internal), setup is simply a matter of popping a SIM card into the slot at the side and turning it on. We were impressed that the auto-APN feature correctly sorted out connection details for our 3 SIM with no need for us to enter any settings; no other 3G router we’ve tried has ever managed that.
The four LAN ports can be re-configured as one WAN plus three LAN ports, so we connected our cable broadband to try out the automatic 3G failover feature. Try as we may we couldn’t get failover to work, even with the assistance of the helpful bods at Solwise and a replacement unit. Solwise claims it uses this router successfully as 3G failover for some of its own systems, so our best guess is a bug that didn’t like something in our setup.
‘Lacks polish’ would be a polite way to describe the web interface: it gets the job done, but that’s about it. Poorly translated help text and a quirky 3-frame interface make configuration a frustrating task at times. It also had a habit of losing the connection to the web interface when the WAN went down. Some effort is definitely needed to tidy up the numerous rough edges; although cheap for what it does, for £120 you would expect something a little less tacky. Having said that, once connected to a WAN it worked with hardly a glitch.
The Passmark wireless network throughput result wasn’t too impressive, although it does support up to seven separate SSIDs. In 11n mode it struggled to achieve 40Mbps at close range, and returned a paltry 3Mbps at 25m.
One unique and very handy feature that does work well is the phone port; plug any ordinary analogue phone in and (if your SIM provider allows it) you can make cellular phone calls. For those in poor coverage area, a £3 SMA adapter is available to connect a high-gain external 3G antenna.
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