Three's Web Cube is a simple box for the home that uses 3G to hook up to the web, creating a Wi-Fi hotspot for your laptop or tablet to connect to. Plug it into a power socket and -- assuming you live within Three's mobile network coverage -- you're online. That means no phone line or broadband connection is needed.
The Web Cube, made by Huawei, costs £60 on a £15 per month plan that lets you roll one month at a time. The box also comes free on a £16 per month plan that locks you in for two years -- so you'd end up spending more than £380, roughly the cost of a basic fixed-line broadband connection (minus any installation fees).
Because the Web Cube is a standalone box with a SIM card, you can take it with you when you move house -- and it's that convenience of getting a web connection up and running in minutes that you're paying for.
At the time of writing, the Web Cube is only available on a limited trial in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Leeds. You can check availability in your area here.
Should I buy the Web Cube?
The big advantage of the Web Cube is that you don't need a phone line or broadband installed in your home. Getting your Internet fix can be as straightforward as taking the Web Cube home and plugging it in. Three is offering a one-month rolling contract option, so if your commitment levels are at rock bottom, you'll like the freedom the Web Cube provides.
If you move house regularly and don't want the expense and hassle of constantly installing a new broadband line, then the Web Cube could be worth a look -- even if it's only to cover your first month when you're without a connection.
Likewise, if you're on a tight budget and the thought of having Internet at home without a long-term contract appeals, it could be worth considering. The Web Cube could also be a good way to introduce the Internet to someone who hasn't used it before, such as an elderly relative, who wouldn't want to commit to a long contract or big installation fee.
Three's Web Cube is a low-hassle way to get a basic Internet connection at home.
Families with multiple web users all wanting to get online at once would likely stretch the limits of the Web Cube, which works best when only one device is connected. You'd be better off committing to a decent fixed-line broadband connection to avoid lots of arguments about who is slowing down the Intertubes.
The Web Cube is certainly not suitable for heavy web users who regularly do bandwidth-intensive stuff such as streaming TV shows, downloading large files or playing online games.
And if you want a flexible Wi-Fi hotspot that you can take out and about, you'll want to opt for a MiFi or a 3G dongle instead. A MiFi with a 15GB limit on a two-year contract from Three costs £19 a month -- which is only slightly more expensive than the £16 two-year Web Cube deal. The MiFi even comes with a home dock so it can act like the Web Cube when at home. It also has a battery pack so it doesn't have to remain plugged into the wall to function.
Set-up and getting online
I found setting up and getting the Web Cube online to be straightforward. But if you're considering buying one, make sure you live within Three's network coverage by checking its indoor coverage maps. This is an important consideration. If you happen to reside in an area not best served by Three -- and there are quite a lot of them -- you'd better love the Web Cube's looks, because it's going to be useless other than as a pretty lighting feature.
The Web Cube comes with a SIM pre-installed. Plug the Web Cube in and its signal indicator light should power on -- if it doesn't, or if the signal bars aren't at maximum, chances are you're in a network blackspot. If you have a spacious abode, you could try moving the Web Cube around the house to find the best signal strength.
To connect a device to the Internet via the Web Cube, turn on the Wi-Fi and the Web Cube should appear in the list when you scan for Wi-Fi networks. Then you just need to enter the Wi-Fi key -- handily written on a sticker stuck to the bottom of the Web Cube -- and connectivity should be yours. You can tether up to five Wi-Fi-enabled devices at a time.
Three says the Web Cube supports a maximum download speed of 21.6Mbps and a top upload speed of up to 5.76Mbps. The best speeds I got during testing were 6.36Mbps downlink and 2.08Mbps uplink. The download speed generally averaged around 5Mbps but it did dip as low as 1.5Mbps.
In my tests with a single smart phone connected to it, the Web Cube performed well -- streaming videos from iPlayer without buffering and speedily loading websites. I also had no trouble downloading apps and uploading photos.
However, once I hooked up multiple devices, connectivity became much more flakey. The Web Cube certainly isn't suitable for multi-person households that are regularly streaming stuff online at the same time. Two smart phones and a netbook all streaming iPlayer via the Web Cube caused serious connectivity gremlins to appear -- with regular bouts of buffering hitting one of the three devices and making it all but impossible to watch.
The range of the Web Cube's Wi-Fi was impressive when tested in a largely open-plan office. Video continued to play on my Wi-Fi device as I walked to the other end of the CBS Interactive HQ -- officially the Web Cube's range is 'up to 30 metres'. Its signal finally gave up the ghost after I passed through a couple of doors.
However, range wasn't so great when tested inside a flat with internal brick walls. Once a few walls stood between the Web Cube and the device I was trying to connect to, the signal strength went down to two bars.
You'll certainly get the best performance if the Web Cube is located in the room where you're trying to get online. The supplied power cable isn't that long though -- there's about a metre to play with -- which could limit where you can position it.
The two data plans offered by Three have a monthly cap -- either 10GB or 15GB -- so if you want to use the Web Cube for loads of video streaming or other bandwidth-intensive activities, you could gobble your allowance before the month is up. I think 10GB should be ample if you just want to do a spot of light web browsing.
Settings, interface and text messaging
If you want to tinker with the Web Cube's settings or see how much of your monthly data limit you've used up, there's a handy browser-based interface (pictured below).
As well as letting you toggle the main blue light on and off, and send text messages via the Web Cube, you can also access more advanced security and firewall settings here.
The SMS feature is very limited -- the Web Cube only stores 100 texts and you have to manually enter the number you want to SMS, so it's not exactly a convenient way to text your mates. I also had problems getting the text message feature to work. While I was able to receive texts sent to the Web Cube and read them via the browser interface, all attempts to send a text from the Web Cube to other mobile numbers failed.
Design and build quality
The Web Cube is a pleasing, rounded cube shape -- with a desktop footprint that's slightly bigger than the average mug of builder's tea. Three has slathered its branding all over the Web Cube so there's no chance of pretending it's an expensive light feature, but it doesn't look awful considering its name and Three's logo are stamped on it.
The Web Cube's opaque plastic sides allow its internal blue indicator lights to shine through. These lights glow when devices are connected so it's easy to see if someone's online. The lights make the Web Cube look like a Mathmos mood indicator lamp -- in a darkened room, its blue colours glow icily. There's also a blue indicator light on top, which shows a full four bars if signal strength is good.
If you think all these blue lights are a bit boy racer, you can turn off the main lights -- via the browser-based settings interface. However, the signal strength light can't be switched off.
The Web Cube itself feels solid and well constructed despite its plastic shell, so it should take some abuse from pets and children.
The Web Cube is not a replacement for a decent high-speed fixed-line broadband connection -- due to unspectacular speeds and monthly data limits. Rather, it's best considered as a connectivity stop-gap to tide you over during a house move, or even as an easy way to introduce the Internet to someone who isn't already addicted.
It's most suitable for one person to connect to at a time for light to moderate web use. Its performance will degrade as you hook up more devices, especially if you're trying to do high bandwidth stuff like video streaming.
The Web Cube is undoubtedly a product with niche appeal. If you need a quick and temporary Internet fix at home or in a small office, it's worth a look.