iPad 3G speed shootout: Telstra vs Optus vs Vodafone vs 3

Apple’s iPad is finally here and lined up behind it are Australia’s four mobile carriers – each spruiking their own networks with temptingly affordable prepaid 3G plans. But how do they stack up?

With the assistance of each carrier in supplying their respective microSIM starter kits hot off the press we grabbed an iPad 3G and hit the streets of Sydney to put the telcos toe to toe in Australia’s first iPad 3G mobile broadband shootout.

To typify real-world conditions we tested the iPad 3G on 3 Optus Telstra and Vodafone using several Sydney CBD locations ranging from a sidewalk cafe to a meeting room inside a commercial office block. The tests were conducted mid-week in both the morning and afternoon peak usage hours.

The nature of radio networks means that your mileage will vary –  we all have different usage patterns and tend to frequent different areas with equally varying signal strengths. Our tests aren’t intended to be the definitive guide to network coverage or reliability – they’re more of an indication of general speed and performance.

Across all of our tests Telstra shone as the most consistent performer – even though Next G wasn’t always the fastest.

One set of cafe tests was Next G deliver an average speed of 2.1Mbps with the  lowest and highest rates barely 1Mbps either side while Optus and Vodafone kicked up as high as 3.2Mbps and 3.4Mbps respectively.

Several tests saw Vodafone best Next G for top speed although Telstra was the most reliable

But Optus Vodafone and 3 (which peaked at 2.3Mbps) all showed vast variances throughout those same tests.

Optus ranged from a lowest average of 1.3Mbps to a median of 2.2Mbps and up to 3.2Mps; 3 spanned from barely 1Mbps to 2.3Mbps; and our Vodafone connection was a roller-coaster ride which could soar to record highs of 3.4Mbps but then plummet to 250-500Kbps.

(Upload speeds were unimpressive across the board but unsurprisingly fell into the same pattern as downlinks – Telstra pulled a slow but steady 260Kbps Optus ranged from 50Kbps to 250Kbps and Vodafone lurched from 45Kbps to 342Kpbs.)

In indoor and outdoor tests around the Sydney CBD Telstra returned consistently solid results

The indoor tests tend to favour Telstra because Next G uses a lower frequency of 850MHz compared to the 2100MHz of Optus Vodafone and 3 – and the longer wavelengths of lower frequencies provide better punch and signal soak through walls into buildings and even down through underground carparks.

This played out as expected with Telstra recording noticeably higher average speeds (and more consistent speeds) of around 2.5Mbps compared to the 2100MHz 3G networks.

3 didn’t bend the needle like Optus and Vodafone but it also lacked their oft-insane lows

3 managed a solid 1.3Mbps with little variance during testing and once again Optus and Vodafone sent the needle bouncing all over the dial. One session saw Vodafone hammering away at 3.8Mbps even though subsequent tests sat closer to 2Mbps; Optus went from 240Kbps to 2.5Mbps within the space of five minutes.

While Optus hit many high notes during testing like Vodafone these were offset by sudden drops in throughput

So if you’re looking for speed alone you might be surprised to see that Optus and Vodafone can deliver some amazing results – but those soaring peaks are usually balanced by deep valleys.

3 turned out to be more like a budget version of Telstra albeit with a far more modest network map but was still more predictable and consistent within a given range than Optus and Vodafone.

And while Telstra didn’t exhibit the raw speed with which Next G made its name it still emerged as the most solid and most reliable choice for your prepaid iPad dollar.