If you’re always looking for a Wi-Fi connection while on the road, Sprint suggests that you make your own Wi-Fi network with the Overdrive™ 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless. The folks at Sprint kindly lent me a hotspot to try out, and I was impressed.
You probably already have a wireless router in your home or office that connects to a cable or DSL Internet connection and broadcasts a signal that can be received wirelessly by laptops and Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices like the iPod touch (s aapl). The Overdrive hotspot works the same way, but instead of using a wired connection, it sends and receives Internet signals through Sprint’s high-speed 3G and 4G data networks. It’s similar to the Verizon MiFi (s vz), although it can connect with faster 4G speeds and is slightly bulkier.
The hardware looks very simple. It’s a 3-1/4″ square box with rounded corners, about 5/8″ deep, and weighing around 5 ounces. It’s small enough to fit in a trouser or jacket pocket, and although it gets slightly warm while in use, it never seems to get uncomfortably hot.
The hotspot comes with an AC adapter for charging, some simple instructions, and not much else. There’s a surprisingly-bright display about 1-1/4″ square, where data is displayed, including the Wi-Fi network name — it defaults to something like “Overdrive-321”, but both the network name and password can be changed. The network password is displayed on the screen, too, although that can be turned off for additional security. The screen also displays data about signal strength, whether one is connected via 3G or 4G, the hotspot’s battery level, and the amount of bandwidth one has used during the current session.
Since the Overdrive only has one “power” button, all configuration changes must be done via a web-based control panel. In the web interface, one can change the administrative password, the password needed to log into the Wi-Fi network it creates, and the type of security used (including several variants of WEP, WPA-Personal, and WPA2-Personal). One can also change the WAN settings to specify whether the hotspot will connect to Sprint’s data network via 3G only, 4G only, 3G preferred or 4G preferred. With that last setting, the hotspot will fall back to a 3G connection if 4G is not available, although switching between networks can take several seconds.
The Overdrive’s web-based control panel worked with all of the browsers I tried, including Mobile Safari on my iPod touch. That’s useful, since it allows one to change the hotspot’s settings without firing up a laptop. Annoyingly, however, changing the hotspot’s default settings requires rebooting the device, which can take 20-30 seconds.
At my home office in a residential neighborhood in Seattle, I got a 4G connection that the Overdrive’s control panel listed as “Good (40%).” According to speedtest.net, my download speed varied between 1.2 and 1.7 Mb/s, and upload speed ranged between 0.6 and 0.8 Mb/s. While this is significantly slower than the cable connection I usually use (and is also slower than the CLEAR 4G modem I reviewed a couple of weeks ago), I was able to connect to a remote computer using Hamachi and do basic work with minimal delays. I also tested the device while on the go: I was able to use the hotspot successfully on an Amtrak train between Seattle and Bellingham, Wash., although I found it best to set the hotspot to “3G only” mode.
Sprint says that one can connect up to five devices simultaneously to the Overdrive hotspot. I only tried two — a laptop running Windows 7 (s msft), and an iPod touch. Both worked well. Sprint claims that the device broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal for up to 150 feet, which I didn’t test, but I was able to connect easily in the next room.
I got about 3-4 hours from a charge, and the hotspot is usable while it’s plugged in. Sprint says that the Overdrive has a standby time of about 36 hours.
I didn’t test the device’s built-in GPS, but that’s only operational only on the 3G network. I also didn’t test the MicroSD slot can be set up as a “network drive,” of up to 16 GB.
As of this writing, Sprint’s 4G coverage is still quite limited: it’s offered in cities in 11 states. Sprint is selling the Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot for $99 with a two-year contract. Sprint’s data plans start at $59.99 per month, which includes “unlimited” 4G bandwidth (with the usual disclaimers), plus 5GB per month of 3G usage, and up to 300MB roaming usage.
If you’re in a Sprint 4G area and don’t want to wait for the upcoming 4G EVO phone, or like the idea of using Sprint’s 4G network to connect the devices you already have via Wi-Fi, the Overdrive 3G/4G hotspot may be for you.
If you use an Overdrive hotspot, let us know how you get on with it.
Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): 4G: State of the Union