Mobile (or 3G) broadband lets you get online wherever you have a phone signal, without having to worry about finding and connecting to a potentially insecure public Wi-Fi hotspot. Tethering an iPhone or Android smartphone to your laptop, inserting a SIM into a compatible tablet, or plugging in a 3G USB dongle are all simple ways to access the mobile web on the move. But what if you have more than one device that you need to get online? That is where the TP-Link TL-MR3020 comes in.
This problem was brought home to us when we acquired our Wi-Fi-only Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, which lacks not only 3G support but a USB port. We had previously been using a Vodafone-branded Huawei K3805-Z 3G USB dongle to connect to the web a MSI Wind U100 netbook and an Apple iMac - albeit not simultaneously - and had no wireless connection available for the Tab. There were two possible solutions: subscribe to a broadband deal, or utilise the 3G connection for which we were already paying. Devices such as the TP-Link TL-MR3020 offer a cheap way to take a single 3G connection and share it with all your wireless devices. Once configured, this portable 3G router acts in exactly the same way as any other wireless router; the only giveaway to its mobile nature is its connection speed. See also: Group test: what's the best wireless router?
TP-Link TL-MR3020: Portable router
At just 74x67x22mm, the TP-Link TL-MR3020 is tiny and lightweight - in fact, it made our USB dongle look positively chunky. The ability to power it over USB makes it simple to throw into a bag and take a sharable internet connection wherever you go, although we'd prefer to have seen a built-in battery for true portability.
The white-and-grey plastic chassis feels rather cheap, and that's because it is: the TP-Link has a £53 RRP but is available from just £26.90 online, so it pays to shop around. However, TP-Link's generous three-year warranty provides some reassurance.
On one side is a USB 2.0 port for connecting a dongle, and on another is a 3G/WISP/AP mode switch, Mini-USB for power, and fast ethernet for hooking up either a WAN or LAN as a failover. Alternatively, you can use the TP-Link as a WAN router, with 3G as the backup.
On the front of the TL-MR3020 is a WPS button that lets you invoke WPA2 security with a single touch, plus an LED bar that confirms whether the device is switched on, data is being transferred, wireless is enabled, and the ethernet status. See also: Group test: what's the best modem router?
TP-Link TL-MR3020 video review
TP-Link TL-MR3020: Setup
Setup is supremely simple. The device can be powered from the mains or a pair of USB 2.0 ports (a Y-cable is supplied). We plugged in our dongle, switched on the TP-Link, then refreshed the list of available wireless networks on our netbook.
The TP-Link appeared as an unsecured network. We connected to this, then opened a browser and headed to the device's web interface. Following confirmation that our USB dongle had been recognised on the Status page, we clicked Quick Setup to change the SSID and enter an access password.
After rebooting the TP-Link, any wireless device could be connected to the network in exactly the same way as if it were a standard wireless router. And just like a standard router, the TL-MR3020 offers configuration options that include one-touch WPA2 security, IP QoS, parental controls, a firewall and more.
TP-Link TL-MR3020: Performance
The connection speed accessible to you depends on your hardware and the mobile operator's coverage in your area. The TP-Link itself is said to operate at up to 150 megabits per second (Mbps), but our USB dongle is specified at up to 14.4Mbps.
We used Speedtest.net to measure the connection speed of the Huawei dongle when plugged directly into the MSI netbook. It recorded 4.36Mbps download, and 1.80Mbps upload, which is in line with the speeds we'd normally receive.
After adding another link to the chain by connecting the Huawei to the TP-Link, then picking it up on the netbook as a wireless connection, Speedtest measured a slightly faster 4.61Mbps download speed, but slower 0.61Mbps upload.
Pleasingly, performance was barely affected when we connected to the TP-Link from the next room. Here, we recorded 4.47Mbps download and 0.69Mbps upload.
And we saw slightly better upload speeds with our Galaxy Tab: 4.43Mbps download and 1.98Mbps upload in the same room, and 4.19Mbps download and 2.01Mbps upload in the next.
Testing the Galaxy Tab using a neighbour's Wi-Fi connection, the 15.22Mbps download and 0.80Mbps upload speeds recorded make mobile broadband look positively slow. Of course, in some parts of the UK, even a 2Mbps connection is unachievable. If you can live with the speeds of mobile broadband, devices such as the TP-Link can transform your 3G connection into a wireless connection like any other.