Review: Sprint 4G WiMAX wireless service in Philadelphia - Technical.ly Philly

May 5, 2010 11:30 am

Review: Sprint 4G WiMAX wireless service in Philadelphia

Photos courtesy of Neal Santos. Since Clearwire launched its 4G WiMAX network in Philadelphia in October, we’ve been itching to get our hands on a device that would let us utilize the high-speed wireless network. With promises of speeds that blow away 3G connections that one might be used to on a mobile phone or […]
Sprint’s Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot in Center City

Sprint's Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot in Center City

Photos courtesy of Neal Santos.

Since Clearwire launched its 4G WiMAX network in Philadelphia in October, we’ve been itching to get our hands on a device that would let us utilize the high-speed wireless network.

With promises of speeds that blow away 3G connections that one might be used to on a mobile phone or USB modem, why not?

So we’ve taken the opportunity to test Sprint’s Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot, a compact mobile WiFi router that lets up to 5 people simultaneously connect to Sprint’s WiMAX network.

It should be said that though Sprint, Clear and Comcast all utilize the same 4G WiMAX pipes, performance has been known to vary depending on the device. So while our tests here may indicate one speed, another device could produce a better or worse connection. We hope to test Clear and Comcast devices as the year goes on. [Full Disclosure: Clear is currently a Technically Philly advertising partner]

It should also be noted that the WiMAX network is being upgraded on a regular basis, so new towers are being installed in problem-areas where connection rates may have been poor during our tests produced earlier this year, officials tell us.

That said, we think our review is an interesting look at the network’s capability throughout Fairmount, Center City, Old City and Fishtown (complete with an interactive map of detailed throughput recordings). And we hope you’ll let us know how your 4G connection—whether on Sprint, Clear or Comcast—fares in your own neighborhood.

Below, a map of our test locations. Click the blue markers for detailed test information. Story continues below…

View Sprint 4G WiMAX review in Philadelphia in a larger map

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THE DEVICE

We love Sprint’s Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot. Truly, for its tiny form-factor (not much larger than a deck of playing cards), there’s a lot packed in there.

Traditionally, mobile network carriers have offered up a USB modem that allows users to plug the device to their computer to connect. But with the increased bandwidth of 4G, Sprint opened up the floodgates. With the Overdrive, up to five users can connect to the device using WiFi. By choosing the router and typing in a short passcode digitally displayed on the device, it’s easy as hell to get connected.

The device is highly customizable through a slick Web interface that allows folks to change its password or enable more advanced features like port forwarding. We were a little disappointed by battery life, which tended to last for about 3 hours, but if you toted the USB cable along, you could charge the device right from your laptop.

Let’s talk price. The Overdrive currently costs $99.99 after a mail-in rebate and with a two-year commitment to Sprint’s $59.99 per month data plan. That’s pricey, sure, but it might be a good fit if you’re looking for a high-speed data connection in Philadelphia. We took the device for a test run in several neighborhoods in the city to see how worked in real-life conditions.

FAIRMOUNT

In our first test at a Fairmount apartment, we were disappointed to find that the device was only picking up a 3G signal, which mean low-bandwidth throughput. Off-the-bat, this was a bad sign for using the 4G network to replace in-home service. Further Testing in the same location elicited similar results.
Overall Performance: Poor

Later, in a coffeeshop a few blocks away, the service was strong, peaking at 2,500Kbps downloads and 900Kbps uploads. We were able to browse the Web with blazing efficiency, and we were impressed how much the experience resembled the wired cable connection we were used to.
Overall Performance: Excellent

CENTER CITY

Across from City Hall, we maintained an excellent connection to Sprint’s 4G network and we were able to reap the benefits. With two computers connected to the Overdrive, we were able to stream 720p HD video on both computers at the same time. The video played with little interruption, but a moment or two of buffering would have likely improved the experience. We were floored by the capability.
Overall Performance: Excellent

At a coffeeshop on 12th and Walnut, we had trouble simply opening our Gmail account. Able only to connect to Sprint’s 3G network there, we eventually gave up, turning to our paper notepad. Disappointment set in.
Overall Performance: Poor

But a few blocks South on Pine, we experienced notably better speeds, with downloads that peaked at 1,934Kbps but on the flip, occasionally dropped as low as 314Kbps. Inconsistency plagued the experience there.
Overall Performance: Good

OLD CITY

On Church Street, we were able to maintain a strong connection that averaged at about 1,200Kbps, which mean browsing was brisk and we could perform normal work functions on-the-go. This is the type of experience we would hope for across the board.
Overall Performance: Good

FISHTOWN

Again, at a coffeeshop in Fishtown, we were able to maintain a strong connection without hiccup. Like our Old City tests, we were pleased to have a consistent connection. Though we missed the high-speed ridiculousness of streaming HD video on multiple computers in Center City, it was better to not have that than to not have access to our Gmail.
Overall Performance: Good

CONCLUSION

During a final, undocumented test in West Philadelphia, we stumbled upon one of the great failures of technology: consistency. While on deadline for a story, though performance had been better-than-average throughout our testing, we just couldn’t get either the 4G or 3G connection to give us enough juice to fire-off an e-mail when we needed it most. When your business may be on the line for a tight deadline, the question remains: can you trust wireless over a hardwired connection? That’ll be for you—and your wallet—to decide.

We will, however, remind readers that this network has only been launched for less than six months, and we expect improvements to be made. Though there has not been official announcements, we understand that towers will be installed to cover more of the region comprehensively. And that, we look forward to, for sure.

Overall Performance: Good

Companies: Clearwire, Sprint
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