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Sprint U301 3G/4G USB modem

May 16th, 2010
Sprint WiMAX modem now works with Mac OS X

As Sprint continues to expand 4G service through a partnership with Clear, customers can now access the company's widespread 3G network and the faster WiMAX alternative without using multiple devices and separate subscriptions. The new U301 USB modem, manufactured by Franklin Wireless, provides 3G/4G hybrid functionality, while Sprint's SmartView application is now available for Macs as well as PC systems.

The U301 is a typical dongle-style modem that attaches to a USB port. The overall form is slightly larger than many alternatives such as Verizon's USB760 and UM175, although the hinged USB connector provides flexibility when positioning the housing.

Several LEDs provide important status information when the modem is connected to a computer. Green lights indicate availability and connection status for 3G networks, while a blue LED provides the same references for 4G. The blue LED is particularly useful when traveling, allowing users to quickly see when a 4G tower is within range. Red LEDs illuminate when either 3G or 4G networks are out of range.

SmartView installation and setup is simple and straightforward, with Mac and Windows software provided on an included CD. The interface allows users to quickly switch between 4G and 3G connections, while an automatic setting jumps to the faster network without requiring manual selection.

For customers that do not live in 4G coverage, the software lacks a manual setting for 3G preference over 1xRTT (2G) networks. In certain fringe areas, the software switched to 2G networks even though a 3G connection provided faster data speeds with a weaker signal. The same problem occurs with roaming networks, which are preferred over home networks with a weak signal. This could be a problem for rural customers, as the roaming service is simply cut off after 300MB of usage.

Running SmartView on Mac OS X 10.5.8 (Leopard) was problematic, as the buggy software behaved more like a beta release. The software did not consistently recognize the U301 after the device was connected. Many operations were extremely slow, including the disconnect command which typically lagged for several minutes or required a forced quit after freezing. Hopefully the overall usability on Macs will be improved with future software updates.

Sprint advertises the 4G network as "up to 10 times faster than 3G," with peak download speeds over 10Mbps. The company references average speeds of between 3Mbps and 6Mbps, compared to 600Kbps to 1.4Mbps for the 3G network.

Real-world tests obviously run into significant variation depending on specific location within coverage areas. Signal strength even depends on comparatively minor factors such as positioning around a room or proximity to other cellular devices. Our tests of the U301 achieved a peak speed of 8.11Mbps in Las Vegas, although the download number was paired with lackluster upload performance of 0.77Mbps.

Although the U301 nearly reached peak advertised speed near the Las Vegas Convention Center, performance was inconsistent when traveling around other parts of the city. Average speeds actually fell closer to 2Mbps, which is only a minor improvement over 3G technology. Performance on the 4G network seemed to be extremely sensitive to exact location and surrounding buildings. Although Verizon's 3G network did not achieve the same peak speeds in Las Vegas, the overall averages were surprisingly close.

Traveling from Las Vegas to Western Pennsylvania put the U301 to the test on Sprint's own 3G and 2G networks. The 2G network was nearly unusable in rural PA, achieving 0.13Mbps download speeds and 0.08Mbps upload performance with 1174ms ping time. In the same area, Verizon's 3G towers average 1.5Mbps with 0.75Mbps uploads. While this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, it serves to reinforce the clear need for potential customers to take a close look at Sprint's local coverage maps before considering the company's wireless broadband services.

When used in cities covered by Sprint 3G towers, the U301 seemed to maintain connections just as well as most other USB modems. The device lacks a connector for an external antenna, which would have been helpful in fringe areas. A wireless amplifier still works to boost the signal on 3G and 2G networks, however the current range of available amplifiers have yet to add support for 4G technology.

The U301 is a great choice for customers located in urban areas that are already covered by Clearwire's WiMAX network, or regions that will be added in the near future. Although 4G performance in most areas might not live up to Sprint's advertising campaign, it does offer a slight edge over 3G data rates. Most importantly, hybrid 3G/4G functionality is available for the same price as typical 3G-only service from other carriers.

For customers who live in an area which can achieve peak rates on WiMAX, the U301 could even serve as a potential replacement for wired services. Sprint has yet to put a cap on 4G usage, although 3G service carries the common 5GB allowance and roaming is capped at 300MB. Unlimited 4G bandwidth effectively emulates basic wired packages that offer 5Mbps to 10Mbps download speeds. Sprint currently offers the U301 for free with a two-year contract, making 4G connectivity a free upgrade for customers already eyeing a 3G mobile broadband subscription. For customers located in many fringe areas, however, Sprint's 3G coverage still pales in comparison to Verizon's widespread network.

-Works on 3G and 4G networks

-Cross-platform software

-4G network faster than 3G

-Unlimited 4G usage

-Same price as 3G-only service

-Buggy software on Mac

-4G speeds inconsistent, typically slower than advertised

-4G coverage still limited

-Roaming cut off after 300MB

-Integrated GPS

-No connector for external antenna