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Optus' combo PC Card ticks every box on the wireless menu, including 3G, GPRS and Wi-Fi, to serve road warriors with a smorgasbord of connectivity.
In addition to hitching a ride on the carrier's own 3G and GSM networks, this canary yellow uber-card also boasts 802.11b and 802.11g for hooking up to hotspots and home and office WLANs. The all-in-one card costs a weighty AU$599, although you can save AU$200 by opting for the 3G/GSM card sans wireless (and rely on your notebook's own Wi-Fi, which may enjoy superior Wi-Fi range because many laptops use vertical antenna mounted in the display panel). Inking a 24 month contract will almost halve those up-front costs.
Both versions of the card tap into Optus's secret weapon: a single account that readily connects to the best available signal on any of these networks without additional per-network charges - even to the extent of no-cost roaming onto over 600 Azure hotpots (in addition to Optus's own wireless web).
Optus's 3G coverage is currently limited to the greater sprawl of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, plus the Brisbane CBD and airport, although network extensions continue afoot (click here for updated coverage maps).
Their more extensive GSM network provides a safety net, so you can choose either phone-based network for the best chance of connectivity. If speed is of the essence, Optus's intent is that customers will hotfoot it to the nearest hotspot, where throughput should be a magnitude greater than 3G. However, this depends on the size of the pipe behind the hotspot (as well as how many users are sharing it) - during a session at North Sydney's popular Greenwood Plaza we logged onto an Azure hotspot and could manage no better than 240kbps, which was less than we were getting on 3G. Hotspots with fatter backhaul links (Optus has a 10Mbps channel behind their hotspots at Sydney Airport, for instance) should fare better.
3G performance was on par with expectations, although Optus's choice of a 128kbps uplink (twice that of Telstra, Vodafone and 3) will be a boon to users who routinely send fat emails or upload large files.
The Windows-only software supports location-based profiles where you can nominate your preferred connection route with prioritised fall-back if your first choice is unavailable, or specify a single connection type - for example, your WiFi network when at home.
Other features of the software dashboard include a Wi-Fi sniffer to detect nearby hotspots (as well as unprotected WLANs) and the provision of a fixed IP address to ensure easy VPN access back to the office intranet.
Once you've swallowed the cost of the card itself, Optus's plans scope from AU$49 per month for a laughable 50MB data cap to AU$89 for 500MB or AU$129 for a generous 1.5GB; excess usage charges for all plans are 30c/MB.
The top-shelf scheme represents the best value of the trio, and while it's pipped at both the post by Vodafone's $100 'Unlimited' plan, many travellers will find the added convenience of hotspot access tilts the table in Optus's favour.