Feb 23 AT 1:59 PM Clark Wimberly 39 Comments

4G WiMax preview: Hands on Sprint Overdrive

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Lately there has been a lot of talk about 3G vs 4G and exactly how fast each is. Sprint has been touting “The first and only wireless 4G network from a national carrier” while T-Mobile just completed their HSPA 7.2 upgrade and is moving to HSPA+ this year.

The whole thing had us curious about current, real-world network speeds so we decided to benchmark the two networks against each other.

Overdrive in the park.

This past week, Sprint was nice enough to send us a new Overdrive 4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless. We took the opportunity to drive around Austin and get our hands dirty to find out just how fast Sprint’s 4G network is.

The Overdrive is a small black square, about 3 inches across and less than an inch thick. When powered up, the small screen on the front displays a unique network ID along with a password to a secure WiFi network. The Overdrive allows up to five devices to easily connect at a time. The device can seamlessly jump between 4G and 3G (when coverage might be spotty) and Sprint is promoting peak download speeds of up to 10 mb/s.

When we are on the road (or even around town) there are lots of times when available WiFi speeds just aren’t fast enough (I’m looking at you, hotel WiFi) so the appeal of a mobile hotspot is high. Usually we tether through our phones, using WiFi Tether or PDAnet, but in the past I’ve found these solutions to not always be the most reliable. They are surely a nice backup (and many times a life saver) but sometimes they just flat out don’t work.

To find out if boosted speeds and a more reliable connection could justify a dedicated device we drove around Austin testing speeds and performing tasks with both the Sprint 4G Overdrive (connected to my Asus eeePC netbook) and my Nexus One running on T-mobile 3G. The speed tests were run through Speedtest.net, our favorite web and Android app for doing so.

Overdriving Around Town

We are located in Austin, Tx, basically one of the most awesome places ever. With an ever growing tech community, it makes sense to expect some impressive network speeds and we found them driving around town.

We visited three areas spread around Austin and recorded the results of a speed test. At each location, the Sprint 4G bested T-Mobile 3G handily in both download and upload speeds. Sometimes T-Mobile 3G edged out the Sprint 4G in latency tests, but in terms of sheer transfer speeds there is a clear winner:

Believe it or not, we found the fastest speeds at the Northwest District Park (which is great news for me as we bike there frequently and hang out for extended periods of time). Sprint 4G was able to hit a speedy 5.3 mb/s. While still shy of the advertised peak speeds I’d take speeds like that any day.

At the cafe, having some gelato.

Another thing to note is how the T-Mobile speeds increased in spaces where the Sprint speeds dipped and vice versa. The numbers would suggest there are significant differences in the coverage maps even at a city level.

The real surprise was T-Mobile testing at almost 2 mb/s downtown. I’d heard others reporting 3G speeds that high but this is the first time to actually see them for myself. Like a true nerd I got all excited when I saw the little download meter shoot up towards 2 mb/s.

Clearly the 4G network is faster. Download and upload speeds surpass anything I’ve had access to in the past. The only bad thing is the fact that I have to return the demo unit. The Overdrive performed very well and I was pretty impressed with how easy it was to use. In fact, it seems like it might even be handy to keep around at home…

Home Sweet Home

When I first started home testing I was planning on including my home internet connection (Time Warner Cable) in the speed comparisons. I’d seen countless people online talking about increased mobile network speeds and joking Soon I’ll be able to cancel my internet.

After a few tests I saw my permanent connection was so much faster (30 mb/s down) that really there was no comparison. My home internet is much, much faster so really the two mobile data connections were competing for the spot of primary backup (for those unfortunate days when you wake up without internet). Again, the Sprint 4G bested T-Mobile 3G:

Another big area the Overdrive wins is reliability (sometimes my Wifi Tether and PDAnet simply will not work). To be fair, those programs aren’t really officially supported connection options and a 3G modem from T-Mobile would probably perform admirably. But most of us don’t have a dedicated mobile internet device, we cheat and use our phones. If I’m strictly comparing using a fancy dedicated device or a workaround hack, I’d pick the dedicated device.

Whether that’s enough to justify a new line or service or actually purchasing a standalone device is another story. If you are already with Sprint and live in a 4G coverage area, this could be a very worthwhile purchase for you. If you are already under contract with another carrier, you can probably survive without an Overdrive. That being said, the Overdrive has a lot going for it…

Looking over the Overdrive

This thing is quite the looker

The Overdrive couldn’t be simpler to use. Its got one button. You press it and the device powers up. Instantly the Overdrive starts up a WiFi access point.

The 3 inch glossy black square features beveled corners and a 1.4in LCD screen. Up to five devices can connect to share the connection. There is even a MicroSD slot on-board for shared storage between the connected devices. The Overdrive contains a 1830 mAh battery that will give you up to 3 hours constant use or 36 hours in standby.

So far every device I’ve tried to connect to the Overdrive worked just fine. I’ve connected a handful of Android phones, netbooks, and my desktop PC (all worked flawlessly). The Overdrive boasts a range of 150ft, which I didn’t exactly measure, but I had no range issues of any kind (through walls, across the park, etc).

The Sprint 4G network boasts peak speeds of up to 10mb/s but they say average use can expect to see speeds of about 3-6 mb/s, which is about what we found. The upload is supposed to peak at 4 mb/s but our tests had trouble getting anywhere near 1 mb/s. For most users that’s not exactly a deal breaker, but a mobile HD video uploading fellow like myself would like to see some higher upload speeds. That being said, this thing is still crazy fast.

Another thing I found it did well was hop between 3G and 4G with minimal effort. Just a small *beeboop* from the unit to let you know you’ve changed networks. It even held a connection while heading up I-35 at 70mph (with Angie driving, of course).

Contents of the Overdrive box.

The Overdrive comes in a glossy plastic box in a white cardboard sleeve and includes a MicroUSB cable and USB wall plug. I’ve been a huge fan of the USB wall plug so it’s good to see it finally catching on. You also get a quick start guide and manual with instructions for getting up and running (I doubt you’ll need them).

Let’s wrap this up

4G? 3G? WiMax? It’s all marketing speak, really. But for the time being the Sprint 4G network seems to be the fastest. The Overdrive is a perfectly capable device for making the most of it and if I was currently with Sprint I’d be mighty tempted to pick one up.

We expect to see a Sprint 4G handset later this year, but we should also keep an eye on T-Mobile for when their HSPA+ network is nationwide.

Last night’s Mobile Monday was not the most centrally located and when I arrived I found my Nexus One only had an Edge connection. I pulled the Overdrive puck out of my bag and had a steady, speedy WiFi connection all night (as did those around me). And I think that’s really the win here. Do you need a dedicated speed boost with you at all times? No. But it sure is awesome.

What do you guys think?

I know this isn’t an Android device but wireless network speeds always seem like a hotly contested topic on this site and we figured you guys would enjoy it. Do any of you have a dedicated mobile internet device? Would you ever consider buying one just for an insane speed boost?

Clark is a developer living in Austin, Texas. He runs ClarkLab, a small web firm with his wife, Angie. He's a big fan of usability, standards, and clean design.

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