'Faster' 4G Vodafone tablet slow to impress

The Cat 4 tablet from Vodafone and Huawei promises faster 4G speeds than other LTE-capable devices. But is it faster really?

Vodafone said Cat 4 devices, like the soon-to-be-released Huawei MediaPad 10 Link 4G, are in theory capable of download speeds of up to 150Mbps, compared to 100Mbps for Cat 3 devices. Cat 4 devices are faster because they take full advantage of Vodafone’s 20MHz of spectrum in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.

However, in a week-long test of the Huawei MediaPad, Techworld Australia didn’t find network speeds to be significantly faster than in a previous test of the network using a Cat 3 device.

In addition, while the 10.1 in Huawei device is an acceptable Android tablet, it is unlikely to dazzle, especially when compared to other 4G devices on the market like the Apple iPad.

Network speeds

We conducted 12 speed tests of the 4G LTE network over five days. The tests were conducted in Sydney - Surry Hills, North Sydney, Kensington and the CBD.

Our average download speed using the Huawei Cat 4 tablet was 34Mbps, with a high of 53Mbps and a low of 11Mbps. Using a Cat 3 Samsung Galaxy Note II in our previous test, the average download speed was 33Mbps, with a high of 67Mbps and a low of 16Mbps.

The Huawei device had an average latency of 47ms, which is better than the average 58ms we found on the Samsung smartphone. Latency, sometimes called ping, measures how much time it takes for the host server to receive and process a request.

With both Cat 3 and Cat 4, actual speeds were significantly lower than theoretical speeds. Actual speeds are affected by several factors, including how many people are on the network and distance from the wireless tower. It should be noted that our test of the Cat 3 device occurred before Vodafone opened its 4G network to the public, so it’s possible we experienced faster speeds on that device as a result.

These are still great speeds compared to 3G, and the average user who doesn’t have a speed test app on heavy rotation will likely be satisfied. Using the Huawei device, we watched a YouTube video in full HD 1080p on the train near Circular Quay with no problems whatsoever.

It’s worth noting that Vodafone’s 4G coverage can be spotty indoors. Both the Cat 4 and Cat 3 devices we tested switched to 3G inside train tunnels and inside some buildings. Even when the devices maintained a 4G connection indoors, reception tended to be about 2 bars.

Both issues could be attributable in part to the 4G network using 1800MHz spectrum, which is higher frequency and therefore less able to penetrate walls. Telstra and Optus 4G networks currently also use this spectrum, but in the future they will use lower-frequency 700MHz spectrum purchased in the recent Digital Dividend auction. Telstra also plans to refarm 900MHz spectrum for 4G.

Next: A rather average tablet

Page Break

The tablet

The Huawei Media Pad 10 Link 4G, which goes on sale exclusively at Vodafone on 14 August, is a usable if not overly impressive Android tablet.

Our first impression of the Huawei MediaPad was that it looked a lot like a black iPad. It’s got the same 10.1in screen size with a black border and metal back. At 640grams, the tablet is only slightly lighter than the 662 gram Apple device (Wi-Fi and cellular version).

However, as soon as we turned the MediaPad on, it was evident that this was no retina screen. The device has a resolution of 1280x800 pixels, or 149 pixels per inch (ppi). By comparison, the iPad is 2048x1536, or 264 ppi. The new Google Nexus 7, which has a 4G version coming soon, has 323 pixels per inch across its 7 inch screen.

We also found the Huawei tablet’s screen to be a bit dim compared to other tablets on the market. It's also very reflective and prone to finger smudges.

The MediaPad appears to run on stock Android Jellybean 4.1, though Huawei has included some of its own apps. With Google recently introducing Jellybean 4.3, the Android version here is slightly outdated, but still miles better than older versions of Android.

As an Android device, the MediaPad gives you access to all the apps in the Google Play store. That should be fine if you’re mainly looking to use it for consumer purposes, but business users may prefer the greater range of apps on the iPad or a Windows 8 (not RT) tablet like the Microsoft Surface Pro that, while Wi-Fi only, can run Windows applications.

Also, the actual touch operation of the tablet felt somewhat sluggish compared to other devices on the market. Like the screen, this is not a deal breaker, but can give the impression of a last-generation tablet.

The tablet is fine for watching video or playing most games. HD video on YouTube ran smoothly and a brief test of the included Riptide GP, a 3D jet ski racer, seemed to have a solid frame rate.

The tablet has 16GB of internal storage, with a MicroSD slot to expand memory by up to 32GB. It also includes a decent-but-not-great 3MP camera on the back and a VGA camera on the front that can be used for videoconferencing.

Conclusion

With a tablet that’s just OK, the main reason to buy a Huawei MediaPad on Vodafone is that it’s a Cat 4 device. However, given that we did not find its speeds to be significantly faster than Cat 3 devices on the 4G network, it’s difficult to recommend.

It’s still early days of Cat 4, and better tablets are on the way. While Vodafone has not yet announced any other Cat 4 tablets coming onto the network, Samsung has one in the United States that could be a likely candidate to eventually surface in Australia.

For now, it is unlikely that the average user—who cares more about user experience than network speed statistics—will be dissatisfied with the theoretically slower 4G speeds of the iPad and other 4G tablets currently for sale.

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Techworld Australia on Twitter: @Techworld_AU

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