The $99.99 Sprint Merlin EX720 costs at least twice as much as other cards on the market, but it's worth half as much. Not only is the price hard to swallow, considering many better-performing cards are at most $50, but its data load speeds were the lowest in two out of three of our testing environments. If you're in the market for a broadband card, look elsewhere.
The Merlin EX720 looks similar to theVerizon Wireless KPC680 ExpressCard. At 4.4 x 1.3 x 0.2 inches, they're about the same size, and both have a slide-up antenna. The Sprint card has a small silver band around it though, which looks stylish, and it doesn't have the large intrusive lightlike the Verizon Wireless card.
On the 21st floor of our New York city office, the Sprint Merlin EX720 under-performed every other broadband card we tested recently with the exception of the AT&T GT Ultra Express card, which wasn't able to acquire a 3G connection at all. While reporting a full EV-DO Rev. A signal, the EX720 downloaded a 25MB file from our FTP server in 10 minutes and 26 seconds, a rate of 321 Kbps. To put that into perspective, the top performer, the KPC680 from Verizon Wireless, downloaded the same file in just 4:09, or 804 Kbps.
The Merlin EX720 also uploaded at a snail's pace; it took 12:20, which translates to just 273 Kbps of throughput. The AT&T USBConnect Mercury was able to do the same in 2:50, a rate of 1.1 Mbps. Oddly, however, Web pages downloaded at a speedy clip: the EX720 loaded CNN.com, NYT.com, and ESPN.com in 15, 12, and 13 seconds respectively.
In Long Beach, Long Island, the Merlin EX720 was decent. It downloaded our 25MB file at a speedy 1.2-Mbps clip, the fastest of any card we've tested recently. It uploaded the file at 692 Kbps, beating out both the Verizon Wireless USB727 and KPC680 but not the Sprint Compass 597. It loaded Web sites fast, too: CNN.com loaded in 12 seconds, NYTimes.com in 19 seconds, and ESPN.com in 17 seconds.
Penn Station Test (Weak Signal Strength)
In the depths of Penn Station, the Merlin EX720 failed to find an EV-DO at all--similar to the problem encountered with the Sprint Compass 597. We stopped short its 25MB download after 2 minutes of choking on a throughput of 68 Kbps with an 80 percent CDMA 1XRTT signal. If we had kept going, the file transfer would have taken roughly 44 minutes to complete. The EX720's 132-Kbps upload speed was better, but not by much. CNN.com loaded in 1:19, NYTimes.com in 1:19, and ESPN.com in 1:35--all far too long for our tastes.
The Sprint Merlin EX720 won a speed test in just one location during a recent roundup, outside of Manhattan in suburban Long Island. It also loaded Web pages speedily overall. However, its general download and upload scores everywhere else weren't nearly as fast as competitors, and one win doesn't make this device worth its $99.99 price tag compared with cards that are either free or cost half as much.