Sprint has been madly rolling out WiMAX (4G) all over the U.S., and the recent news that Houston was lit up had me jonesing for a switch to the higher speed. The folks at Sprint decided they would send me a 4G Overdrive modem to test.

Sprint Overdrive 4G Modem

I have been a mobile broadband user for years; I started back in the 1xRTT days as a matter of fact. I’ve watched connections speeds go up over the years, and until recently I was quite happy with the EVDO speeds I enjoy using my Verizon MiFi. Sprint has been madly rolling out WiMAX (4G) all over the U.S., and the recent news that Houston was lit up had me jonesing for a switch to the higher speed. I waffled over the decision to jump from Verizon’s 3G to Sprint’s 4G for a while, so the folks at Sprint decided they would send me a 4G Overdrive modem to test. I’ve only had it for a few hours, and haven’t found any 4G connectivity yet, but here’s a quick look at the Overdrive modem.

The Overdrive is like the MiFi as it is a 3G modem that serves as a Wi-Fi router to allow up to 5 devices to connect to the Sprint network simultaneously. Once the device has been set up to use the Overdrive’s Wi-Fi network, subsequent connections are as easy as hitting the power button on the modem. That’s what makes wireless routers like the Overdrive so compelling, they are easy and will work with any device with Wi-Fi. Oh, and if the Sprint 4G network is active in the area, it connects at those speeds (up to 10 times faster than EVDO). That’s pretty darn compelling, too.

The Overdrive is bigger and thicker than the MiFi, no doubt to fit those extra 4G bits inside. It has a nice LED display on the front that provides full status information, like connection info and battery gauge, which is sadly lacking on the Verizon MiFi. There is also a microSD card on the Overdrive to allow storing media files for streaming over the Overdrive’s Wi-Fi network.

Sadly, the 4G network is not live on my street yet, so I haven’t been able to enjoy that fast speed. The Overdrive tries to find and connect to the 4G network when powered on (which takes a minute), and failing that connects to the Sprint 3G network, which is happening at my home office. When I first checked the Sprint 4G coverage map a couple of weeks ago it showed the area where I live was fully covered with 4G. When I check it today it shows that there is 4G coverage most everywhere around me except on a few blocks surrounding my house. No 4G for me.

My limited testing has only been at home on the 3G network. The speed I am getting on the Sprint 3G (EVDO) network is slower than the Verizon 3G (EVDO) I get on the MiFi, which is disappointing. I wouldn’t mind trading the MiFi for the Overdrive if I didn’t give up any speed at home, but that’s not the case. Of course when 4G gets turned on here — and there’s no indication when that might be — there’s no looking back.

So far I haven’t seen any power problems as some have reported. The Overdrive has been solid in that regard, although it has intermittently dropped the 3G network connection a few times. That has been really annoying as it kills whatever I’m doing at the time. I have to manually tell the device to reconnect to the Overdrive and then I am back online.

I’ll be testing the Overdrive more thoroughly over the next few days, so I’ll find some 4G and report on the speed I get. I’ll also have a look at the Overdrive’s configuration, as every aspect of both the data connection and the Wi-Fi settings can be customized. This may have something to do with the connection drops I’ve seen so far.


Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub req’d)

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. Supposedly there is a new firmware coming VERY soon that will fix the disconnect issue along with the other issues. So hold tight things will get better :)

  2. If you get a chance to do a battery test that would great to see how it really compares to the Verizon MiFi. I went out and picked up the MiFi from Verizon, since Sprint shows no signs of 4G in San Diego area. Besides the lower bTtery life on the OberDrive and connection problems.

  3. Yeah, before any new firmware hits let us know how many times you lose signal or have to pull the battery to reset the device.

    FYI My Best Buy sells these for $50 on contract, cheaper than the Sprint Store’s $100. Additionally, if you buy an iPad or netbook now, they give it to you free (on contract, of course). Not sure if that’s nationwide or not, or how long it’ll last. Might be a story idea worth tracking down… :)

  4. I just picked me up one of these this weekend. I was going to go for a MiFi on Sprint, but let them talk me into an Overdrive, since 4G is coming to Minneapolis this summer.

    So far, I’m pretty happy with the little beast, but the real test for it will come this week on a business trip. Last time I made this particular trip, I spent a lot of time in the field wishing I had some way to get on the net on something larger than my iPhone. Now, at least in theory, I can. We’ll see how well it works in practice!

  5. James – what kind of battery like r u thinking vs. the Mifi? Thats my only complaint on the Mifi. I want an all day battery.

    1. James Kendrick Gary Tuesday, April 13, 2010

      I see what looks like a 3 hour battery pace so far. The MiFi gets about 4, but both devices have a user replaceable battery. I’d likely get a second battery for the Overdrive to last most of a day.

      1. My Sprint MiFi never came close to 4. Heck, don’t know I ever hit 2.

      2. That’s surprising. I’ve always gotten right at 4 hours on my Verizon MiFi.

      3. James,

        I get 4 hours on 4G here in Seattle (in the heart of the old Speakeasy WiMAX network now owned by Clear/Sprint) and 3 hours on 3G.

        The nice lady at the Sprint store told me to get the new firmware right away and I did. The unit has worked well for me.

        I bought the latest Madonna album off iTunes on the iPad and it ticked off 207MB downloading it over 4G. Between iTunes, App Store, Zinio, Netflix and the WSJ I’ve consumed 1GB on the Overdrive’s download meter in one session with no drops. That includes no drops on the iPad’s part either. The iPad’s wifi is rock solid with the Overdrive’s AP and I can walk around quite a bit at the office and still have connectivity without taking the Overdrive with me from my desk (where the 1amp charger keeps it topped up).

  6. “…haven’t found any 4G connectivity yet…”

    LOL :)

    I hope you do manage to find a cozy spot somewhere with a 4G footprint, and enjoy a cold one after you get connected.

  7. James – you can find the 4/1 Houston 4G Clear coverage map here: http://bbs.keyhole.com/ubb/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&topic=882010

    Clear publishes new maps every Thursday, so this one’s a week behind, but it’s a start. Here’s how to read the layers.
    HOU_AOI= Area of Interest – outline of where they want to cover with 4G
    725 Sectors – the towers they are targeting to light with 4G,
    HOU_On-Air_Sites – the towers already lit – Red is most recent, blue is existing
    HOU_OS90_Coverage – outdoor coverage areas – yellow is recent, green existing
    HOU_IB90_Coverage – in building (commercial) – supposedly where strong signal can penetrate multi tenant buildings – light blue is recent, purple existing

    We recently tested over near Bissonnet and BW8 with a Clear USB and laptop and were getting excellent speed, averaging 7MB down and 2MB up. I was quite impressed, especially while moving. Clear is advertising upstream at 1MB, but this was better than expected.

    1. The Sprint coverage map is quite clear too.

  8. @DAVEZATZ: with devices like this, battery life is going to depends mainly on three factors:

    1] How strong is your received signal (the bars on your display…although I gather the MiFi doesn’t have one)
    2] How good is the signal to noise ratio (sadly not displayed by default on any device I’m aware of, although sometimes available with other utilities)
    3] What are you actually doing with it.

    The first two items are going to determine (by inference) how much power the device needs to use to transmit — that is, if you’ve got a good, clean, strong signal from the tower, chances are the tower’s going to hear your transmitter even if you whisper. It will also reduce the number of incidental messages needed — for example, if you had a weak, noisy signal, your device would be asking frequently for retransmissions of garbled or lost packets.

    And of course, if you’re constantly streaming video or music or anything else that’s keeping the device continually processing packets and retransmitting them over your WiFi link to you, then that’s going to use up a lot more power than if you’re just casually surfing the web or reading e-mail using a POP or IMAP client.

    I can’t speak for the MiFi, but the Overdrive appears to have a few power-saving tricks for when your link is actually idle. I think some of the WiFi drops that JK is seeing may be the firmware being overzealous about this function. On the other hand, it’s possible that I’m misinterpreting an actual disconnect bug as a powersaving feature :-D But for me, I’ve only ever seen “disconnect” behaviour when I’ve been idle.

    1. I turned off the standby feature in the Overdrive and it’s not dropping much anymore. It is a power saving feature.

      1. How is that affecting your battery life?

      2. I’ve only had it for half a day, and not on 4G yet.

  9. How much data are you allowed on the Overdrive vs. MiFi? I was unimpressed with the amount of data Verizon allowed on a monthly basis with MiFi. Plus, for me, rollover would cinch it as my needs will vary month to month with some months using 0 and others much more than 250 (or whatever it was) that was allowed. Alas, MiFi didn’t offer that.

    I can check Sprint’s site, but I am curious…how has the amount of data transfer allowed worked for you who have something?

    1. It’s a function of plan and system, not device.

      Overdrive-on-3G is still limited to 5GB/mo. on Sprint. The difference is that, for the same price as the 5GB/mo. 3G plan, you get truly unlimited data on the 4G network if/when it’s available for you. This is what decided me on getting an Overdrive rather than a MiFi. The device itself was slightly more expensive, but the plan is the same price, and Minneapolis should be getting 4G this summer.

      1. @Uncle Mikey, thanks for the 411. I knew it wasn’t device specific but I could make neither heads nor tails out of Sprint’s site for usage allowances. I believe that Verizon’s MiFi is significantly larger than 5gig/mo…but I could be wrong.

      2. MSJOANNE: Just a heads up that Verizon’s MiFi plan is 5GB — I have it and it’s capped.

  10. @Kevin C. Tofel. Thanks, Kevin. I have the weirdest life ever. I spend so much time on the road that there are some months I would use 0, and others I would want to go over 5MB as I would be using this as my primary. I was thinking of replacing my rarely-used DSL at home and replacing it with this. The size limit is a killer for me because sometimes I deliver webinars (not to mention watching Flash videos and things like that, online).

    Much appreciated all!

Comments have been disabled for this post