I've been fooling around this afternoon with Telecom's new T-Stick, an 8cm long 3G cellular broadband modem that looks like a fat thumb drive and plugs into your laptop's USB port. (It's official name is the Sierra 597 Wireless Compass USB Card; as a useful bonus, it'll also work as a straight 1GB memory stick.) All necessary driver and connection software is on the T-Stick and self-installs within a couple of minutes. Literally, all you have to do is jam the thing into the side of your notebook and wait. A simple software screen lets you connect or disconnect with a click.
The T-Stick's rated download speed is 800Kbit/s*, and using the broadband speed test on Consumer's website I repeatedly clocked around 660Kbit/s. That's pretty good, at least in terms of doing what it says on the packet (rated download speeds are usually fanciful maximums, usually only achievable at an off-peak time, with still weather, while standing directly underneath a transmission tower during the right stage of the lunar cycle).
660Kbit/s is still pretty modest next to my DSL account however, which, despite me living in a street serviced by crummy landlines, usually hits over 3Mbit/s. Yet it was still reasonably snappy for web-surfing, and played YouTube videos smoothly. Unless you want to chug down major chunks of data, or do something interactive like online gaming, the speed's fine for most mobile use.
With upload speed, I topped out at 511Kbit/s - interestingly, well above Telecom's rated 300Kbit/s. Bear in mind that any kind of broadband speed testing is something of a dark art. Your experience will depend on how close you are to the nearest 3G-capable cell tower, the weather, and how busy the network. But again, it's good to see a telco being conservative and realistic in its product rating.
The T-Stick costs $49 if you sign-up for a two-year, 1GB a month data plan, you pay $1 a day for your first six months, and for the remaining 18 months you pay $56 a month. A no-term 1GB plan costs $67 a month from the get-go (see the official guff, plus a 3G coverage map, here).
Vodafone's equivalent product - the Vodem - which more or less shares all the strengths and weaknesses of the T-Stick - is cheaper to run, and free if you sign on to a $49-a-month two-year term contract with a 1GB cap. But if you opt for the freedom of a no-term 1GB plan, your Vodem will set you back a steep $299 (see all Vodem plans here).
Stuck with the Stick
As with the 3G iPhone, the two-year contract thing gives me the heebie-jeebies. In the iPhone's case, Apple will doubtless have better models out within six months, or a year max. The T-stick will also get outmoded, fast (which is maybe why it was launched, almost completely un-noticed, smack in the middle of Vodafone's iPhone blitz). It runs on Telecom's CDMA 1x-based "EV-DO rev a" network, which has now entered a sunset phase. It'll still be around for another couple of years, but investment and upgrades will be focussed on Telecom's new GSM network, which will go live in November (and run in parallel with the old network). For similar reasons, I'm not a fan of notebooks with built-in 3G cellular radios, from either Vodafone or Telecom. Cellular wireless is a very fast moving area. Look for both carriers to have mobile data networks that rival DSL speed within a couple of years.
(*A quick note on notation: 1000Kbit/s - Kilobits per second - equals 1Mbit - megabit per second. To confuse things - this is the IT industry, after all - modem speed is also measured in kilobytes - KByte/s - per second. There are 8 bits to a byte, so 1000Kbit/s equals 125Kbyte/s. Telecom hashes things in its T-stick press release, which claims the Stick can pull 800KByte/s).