The aptly named Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi Hotspot can access Sprint's fully developed WiMAX network and its nascent 4G LTE networks -- not to mention its 3G network. Plus, this $99 triple threat includes a huge battery and features a microSD Card slot for shared storage. So how well does the $99 Tri-Fi stand up to the other 4G hotspots on the market?
Click to EnlargeThe Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi Hotspot is, in a word, fat. At 2.25 inches thick and 4.9 ounces, the hotspot is easily the thickest and heaviest we've tested recently, a result of the device's massive 3600 mAh battery pack. The Tri-Fi's face is covered in a glossy black coating, which picks up fingerprints all too well, and is surrounded by a slick gray border.
The center of a Tri-Fi houses a 1.7-inch color LCD, which provides users with the hotspot's SSID information, the amount of data you've used for the day, its signal strength, the number of devices connected and battery level.
Directly below the display are the Tri-Fi's Power and Select buttons, the latter of which can be used to navigate between the Tri-Fi's Connect Info, Alerts, Billing Info, Network Status, About and Software Update pages. Along the Tri-Fi's bottom edge, you'll find two antenna inputs and a microUSB port. The hotspot's top edge features a WPS button, as well as a Mute switch to turn off audible alerts. A microSD card slot is accessible by removing the Tri-Fi's battery cover.
4G LTE Coverage
Sprint's 4G LTE network is still very much in its infancy. The company currently has 4G LTE available in 15 cities, and is expected to add four more by Labor Day. That's far less than AT&T's 51 markets and nowhere near Verizon's 337 markets.
If you're not lucky enough to live in one of Sprint's LTE markets - our New York office isn't - you can fall back on Sprint's 4G WiMAX network. That technology extends to 71 markets, covering most major cities, but some users will still find themselves having to rely primarily on Sprint's 3G network.
Click to EnlargeThe Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi Hotspot's main selling point is its ability to connect to Sprint's 3G, 4G WiMAX and 4G LTE networks. Beyond that, the Tri-Fi also includes GPS for use with Sprint Navigation, as well as a 32GB microSD card slot. Like the other hotspots in our roundup, the Tri-Fi features a Web interface from which users can access their device settings, map their location using the hotspot's built-in GPS, view their SMS messages and more.
The Tri-Fi can connect up to eight Wi-Fi enabled devices, more than AT&T's Elevate 4G, which can support only five, but short of the 10 devices Verizon's Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot 890L can support.
Because Sprint's 4G LTE network hasn't yet reached the New York area, we performed our tests in this location on the carrier's WiMAX network. Using the Speedtest.net app on a Samsung Galaxy S III, we measured throughput at three Manhattan locations: Madison Square Park, Union Square and Bryant Park. In general the Tri-Fi performed well, but not great.
Its download speed averaged 9.3 Mbps, which is below the AT&T Elevate 4G's 12.4 Mbps, but faster than the Verizon Jetpack 890L (7.3 Mbps) and T-Mobile Sonic 4G (2.2 Mbps). When it came to uploads, the Tri-Fi fell to third, as its throughput of 1.8 Mbps was worse than Verizon (8.5 Mbps) and AT&T (8.3 Mbps), but almost three times as fast as T-Mobile (0.7 Mbps).
We then measured throughput while simultaneously streaming a 720p video to a notebook also connected to the Tri-Fi. While the Tri-Fi's download speed dipped to 8.2 Mbps, that was more than enough for first place. The runner-up, the AT&T Elevate, managed 5.5 Mbps. The Tri-Fi's upload speed remained about the same, as 1.9 Mbps, but that still left it in third place behind AT&T (9.7 Mbps).
We also tested the Tri-Fi in Overland Park, Kan. one of Sprint's LTE coverage areas. Here, too, we measured throughput in three locations: a house, a park and at a Starbucks. Using Speedtest.net, downloads averaged 13.6 Mbps, and uploads averaged 4.9 Mbps. When we repeated the test while streaming a 720p video to a laptop, download throughput dropped to 10.1 Mbps, but upload speeds actually increased to 6.1 Mbps. However, at the Starbucks location, the device repeatedly dropped its signal.
Large File Downloads
Downloading the 145MB OpenOffice install file took an average of 2 minutes and 42 seconds over LTE, besting AT&T by 18 seconds. The Verizon Jetpack 890L and T-Mobile Sonic 4G, however, both took considerably longer. Verizon's device took an average of 2 minutes and 17 seconds; while the Sonic 4G was able to download the file in 3 minutes and 8 seconds in Union Square, it took 45 minutes in Bryant Park.
Click to EnlargeThroughout our testing, Sprint's Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi Hotspot provided excellent Web-surfing speeds. It loaded CNN.com in an average of 6.5 seconds and NBCNews.com in 5.8 seconds, good enough for second place. (The AT&T Elevate loaded those sites in 5 and 5.4 seconds, respectively.) Sprint was tops when it came to Laptopmag.com, loading this site in 7 seconds, nearly twice as fast as AT&T and Verizon, which both took 13 and 12 seconds, respectively.
In Overland Park, load times were not that much different: CNN loaded in 5.8 seconds, NBCNews.com took 7.7 seconds and Laptopmag.com took 4.8 seconds.
The Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi Hotspot's massive 3600 mAh battery means that you'll have more than enough juice to get through the average workday. Our unit ran for an incredible 10 hours and 35 minutes while connected to Sprint's WiMAX network, easily besting the next longest lasting hotspot, the Verizon Jetpack, by more than 4 hours. Expect to get slightly less battery life out of the Tri-Fi when connected to 4G LTE.
Sprint's Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi hotspot will cost you $99.99 with a two-year data contract. Sprint's cheapest data plan will get you 3GB of data for $34.99 a month. Need more? You can always opt for a 6GB plan for $49.99 a month, or a 12GB plan for $79.99 a month. But for most users, the 3GB plan should work well enough. At that price, you can expect to pay about $939 for the two years your contract lasts.
Click to EnlargeThe Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi Hotspot turned in solid performances at each of our test locations. But with Sprint's 4G LTE network still limited to 15 markets, you won't be able to enjoy the carrier's fastest speeds until the carrier rolls out to more cities. If you desire zippy downloads and uploads in more places, we'd suggest checking out AT&T's Elevate 4G or Verizon's Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi 4620L. If you're on Sprint, though, the Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi is a good choice with excellent battery life.