Now that the carrier is deploying faster 4G network across the country, it's only natural that Sprint rolls out hardware to take advantage of those faster connection speeds. For business travelers who only need to connect one device at a time to the Internet via wireless broadband, the Sprint 3G/4G USB Modem 250U (built by Sierra Wireless) is a snappy USB modem that switches between 3G and faster 4G data, and is capable of download speeds over 7 times faster than the 3G network. But even though Sprint is basically giving the device away, is it worth $60 per month?
Picture a skipping stone with a Sprint logo, and you have an image of the 250U. It weighs 2 ounces and measures 1.9 x 0.6 inches. A joint connecting the disc to the USB dongle allows it to swivel left or right and to tilt backwards and forwards. This flexible design allows users to plug the modem into nearly any available USB port on a notebook. Along the curved edge of the disc is a small port for attaching an external TS9 antenna (Sierra Wireless will sell a four-band blade antenna that is expected to boost 3G and 4G signal reception by 50% in August 2010), and on its face are two LED lights that indicate connections to a 3G or 4G network.
To get online with the 250U, you'll need Sprint's SmartView software, which works with Mac OS X and all Windows OSes; it can be installed from the included CD or downloaded from the Sierra Wireless website. SmartView is one of the less intrusive broadband connection managers we've used. It quickly launches a very small window that contains options to hunt for a 3G network connection, a 4G one, or both and choose whichever is strongest. Signal strength is displayed in the familiar bar format, and SmartView indicates whether you are connected to Rev. 0 3G signals or faster Rev. A ones.
The 250U also acts as a GPS device. It can determine your location and launch a Bing search for local businesses, making it a matter of clicks to find things like nearby restaurants or hotels. When we tested this feature at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, we found a smattering of options: searching for nearby restaurants pulled up ten venues, and placed them on a map in Bing; a search for Wi-Fi hotspots gave us a list of local McDonald's joints. SmartView's GPS software works in a pinch, but we prefer leveraging our data connection to search Bing, Google Maps, or Yelp ourselves.
We tested the 250U in and around Atlanta, Ga., one of the not-plentiful-but-growing number of markets with Sprint's 4G coverage. Other markets include Seattle, Wa.; Richmond, Va.; Chicago, Ill..; Baltimore, Md., and other cities in 15 states. (Check here to see if 4G is available near you.)
In Atlanta, we only found 4G data signals near the downtown area, and not in the city's suburbs (within city limits). We used Speedtest.net to measure download and upload signals in the front of a restaurant near the windows and entrance, about 40 feet from any windows in the same building, and in the open air of Piedmont Park. We also tested 3G connectivity in these same locations, as well as at Hartsfield International Airport and in the city's southwest suburbs.
4G Connection Speeds
Sprint claims 4G download rates of 3 to 6 Mbps with peaks of 10 Mbps or higher. The fastest rate we obtained during our testing was a scorching 7.6 Mbps while sitting in the back of a restaurant just outside of downtown Atlanta. To put that in perspective, 7 Mbps is fast enough to download a standard definition movie file (roughly 700MB) in about 13 minutes.
Using this connection, we streamed the South Korean film Old Boy with Netflix's Watch Instantly feature. Playback was nearly instantaneous; no loading, buffering, or video quality adjustments interrupted our viewing during the 15 minutes we watched, and jumping from to scene to scene was smooth and free of delays. Web pages also loaded quickly. For example, NYTimes.com loaded in an average of 6.2 seconds over 4G, compared to 12.5 seconds on 3G. That's about twice as fast.
Overall, the 250U's average download rate was 3.5 Mbps, which puts the 250U towards the low end of Sprint's advertised rates but just above the Sprint Overdrive, which averaged 3.4 Mbps for downloads in Philadelphia. The 250U's 0.6 Mbps speeds also performed slightly worse than the Overdrive, which achieved 0.7 Mbps averages. The highest uplink rate we measured for the 250U was 2.8 Mbps.
Unfortunately, even though Atlanta is touted for its 4G connectivity, signal availability was basically limited to the downtown area and neighborhoods just outside the center of the city. It was also lacking at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport (about 10 miles away), a venue that's a broadband priority for traveling professionals in need of fast Internet connections.
Take a look at the averaged 4G data connection tests and website load times below:
|3.5 Mbps||0.6 Mbps||6.2 secs||4.6 secs||8.6 secs|
3G Connection Speeds
Over 3G, the 250U's performance was predictably slower than 4G, but we found it to be more reliable. Average download speeds were fairly consistent with Sprint's advertised expectations of 0.6 Mbps to 1.4 Mbps. However, only in one of our testing zones, the middle of Piedmont Park, did download speeds rise above 1 Mbps. There, it averaged 1.4 Mbps. Similarly, upload speeds were best in the park, averaging 0.3 Mbps and topping out at 0.4 Mbps; that was still plenty fast enough to browse the web, stream YouTube video, and listen to a comedy station on Slacker Radio. Both the Overdrive and 250U clocked in with 3G upload connections at about 0.3 Mbps.
Take a look at the averaged 3G data connection tests and website load times below:
|0.8 Mbps||0.2 Mbps||12.5 secs||12.7 secs||23.5 secs|
Plans and Coverage
When you take into account the $50 mail-in rebate and an instant $199 discount (with a new contract or upgrade), the hardware is ultimately free, but data for the 250U will cost you $59.99 per month for a package that includes unlimited 4G access and 5GB of 3G data. Go beyond the cap on 3G usage and you'll be charged 5 cents per extra MB.
The Sprint 3G/4G USB Modem 250U offers fast downloads in 4G coverage areas and reliable 3G performance everywhere else. Small teams traveling together or consumers with multiple Wi-Fi gadgets might do better with the Overdrive, which costs $100 after rebates but lets multiple users take advantage of the mobile hotspot. However, that device ran hot and didn't last long enough on a charge. You could also get the Evo 4G smart phone and pay an extra $30 per month for its mobile hotspot app, as long as you're willing to take the hit on battery life. For dedicated laptop use, the Sierra Wireless 250U is a great choice.