sprint overdrive hero
photo gallery

Since CES 2010, Sprint has unveiled the Overdrive, a 4G (WiMax) and 3G mobile broadband HotSpot that creates a WIFI bubble for up to five wireless devices. Sprint sees it as a potential replacement for low-end DSL connections, and certainly a replacement for dial-up connections. We have tried it in both WiMax and 3G modes, and it’s time to see if Sprint sales pitch lives up to a real world test.

First, let’s summarize how Sprint is pitching this devices to you and I – and let’s see if it’s true or not. Here’s a bulleted list that can be found on their website:

  • 4G Speeds that are up to 10X faster than 3G
  • Share your connection with up to Five WIFI devices
  • One device for all your broadband needs
  • Wireless and totally portable
  • Easy to connect, easy to use

Design

This short video shows what the Overdrive looks like and how big it is compared to a Blackberry 9700 and a Nexus One. I also boot and connect to a 3G network to show you how long it takes to get online.

Performance

sprint overdrive performance
When available, the 4G network is much faster than its 3G counterpart“4G Speeds that are up to 10X faster than 3G”, really? Well, not in my world. Don’t get me wrong, WiMax, is noticeably faster than 3G, but in Las Vegas I never could get more than 2Mbps/0.5Mbps (Download/Upload), and in 3G I got around 0.65Mbps/0.25Mbps. Results will vary with location, but you get the idea: WiMax is indeed much faster than 3G.

Not only it has higher bandwidth, but it seems to me that the latency* is shorter than 3G, making web pages display a bit faster. It feels like using a basic DSL connection (*time between a request by your computer and a reply from the server).

In any case, if WiMax is available you will immediately see its benefits. I tried doing things like watching TV shows on HULU, and the Overdrive could do it with ease. Overall, WiMax Kicks 3G’s butt – when available.

“One device for all your broadband needs”? It depends, but mostly, no. At home, if you are still on a dial-up account, or if your broadband connection is pitiful because you live at the edge of the DSL coverage, and if cable is not an option, maybe. However, if you can get a decent (6Mbps/0.5Mbps or much more) connection at your place, I would recommend getting a wired internet access. Because the latency will be shorter, it will make your Internet Experience better.

Gaming? Sprint has made a case for gaming with the Overdrive, and basically if you play a game that doesn’t require short latency, it might be OK, but FPS shooters and things like that would probably be the wrong candidate for network gaming.

Usability

We typically use a bunch of Novatel USB727 modems from Verizon and the experience has been quite frustrating. Between the activation mess* (monthly prepaid) and the software that might or might not work on Mac/PC, I pulled quite a lot of hairs during CES 2010. *If you are curious to know what I’m refering to, search for Verizon Error QA913

With the Overdrive, it’s simple: you turn it on, it connects to WiMax or 3G, and creates an instant WIFI bubble around you. Your access is protected by a simple code that is visible on the LCD display. It’s not CIA-secure, but it’s good enough for most situations. There’s no need to install drivers and it works on everything that can connect to a WIFI network. Mac, PC, Blackberry… it doesn’t matter.

The other device of this kind is the Novatel MIFI (Novatel also makes the Overdrive hardware for Sprint). It works similarly, but on 3G GSM networks. I own one as well and I found the Overdrive to be more practical because it has an LCD display that tells you what’s going on. Also, MIFI requires you to use a MAC* filter, which is less convenient than a password (*MAC is a unique hardware ID for network devices).

“Easy to connect, easy to use”: I have to give that one to Sprint. This is the easiest broadband modem/hotspot to use.

Connectivity

Every wireless network will have some limits and “dark spots” where coverage goes to hell, but that’s up to you to do some homework. Personally, I’ve never seen a place where Sprint’s coverage is non-existent (I’ve definitely seen places where T-Mobile or AT&T went dead), but again, I tend to hang around tech-friendly places.

WiMax is still not available in many places, but even in 3G mode, I found that the Overdrive keeps all of its usability. 4G Coverage has been the main complaint that I found on various forums and websites. The good news is that it can only get better overtime.

Note that in WiMax mode, Sprint offers “true” unlimited uploads and downloads. However, if you connect in 3G, there’s a limit of 5GB in (down) and 300MB (up) that you need to be aware of.

Check the current WiMax coverage here: http://nextelonline.nextel.com/en/stores/popups/4G_coverage_popup.shtml?id12=MA:MS:20100101:Mobile%20Broadband%202010

Configuration

sprint overdrive admin ui
Friendly admin interface. Look at ALL the administration screensNormally, you can use the Overdrive without going into the configuration options, but if you are curious, I’ve added a few screenshots so that you can see what can be tweaked.

Battery Life

sprint overdrive battery life
Thanks to its battery, Overdrive won’t drain your laptop’s battery lifeThe good side of having a little box with its own battery is that it does not suck your laptop’s battery life. The downside is that you need to remember to charge it, although if you forget, you can still plug it to your computer.

In practice, we got about 3 hours of battery life, while watching TV shows with Hulu. I consider this to be very good, and the only option to make this longer would be to make the box and the battery bigger.

Misc

Local Storage: I’m not sure how much people care about this, but there’s a MicroSD slot that allows you to create a shared Flash Storage for you and your friend. If you work as a team, it might be handy – I just did not have a use for it at the moment.

VPN: I’ve heard people having VPN issues with the overdrive, but I have not tried it, so I’m putting it out there: if you need to use VPN, you might want to do further research. I’ll post an update if I happen to test that.

GPS: I have not used the GPS at all, because I didn’t “need” it on my laptop. What would you have done with GPS? Let me know and I might try if I have time.

Price

As of now, the street price for the Overdrive is $50 (on Amazon) with a new two year contract of $60/month. This is on-par with other wireless br
oadband offerings.

Conclusion

sprint overdrive conclusion
The overdrive is currently my favorite broadband device, followed by the MiFiI would disagree that the Overdrive should be your only source of broadband because the latency is too high, and I don’t think that WiMax is “10x faster than 3G”, but I can say that the Overdrive is an excellent wireless broadband device that is much easier to use than any USB or PC Card modem. It is inherently easier to use because it is a self-contained unit that communicates with WIFI to any other device (Laptop, PSP, iPod Touch…). By doing so, it is also compatible with much more devices than a regular broadband modem could ever be. While WiMax was not “10X” faster for us, it was significantly (4X) faster and it almost felt like “being home”. We named the Overdrive a “Best of CES 2010″ and after weeks of use, we can confirm this choice.

Specifications

  • Sprint 3G EVDO, WiMAX 2500 MHz
  • integrated GPS
  • 128 × 228 pixels, 1.4″ monochrome LCD
  • micro-USB port (charging and tethering)
  • microSD card slot
  • 1830 mAh battery
  • Dimensions: 3.14 x 3.14 x 0.61″ and 4.51 ounces

Second Opinion

As always, I will recommend you to get a second opinion, simply because my particular usage pattern might be different from someone else’s. I hope that this review helped you form an opinion and answered the most common questions about the Sprint Overdrive. Here are some reads that I found interesting, in no particular order: ZDnet Overdrive Review, Tumblebug in-depth review of the Overdrive, Geek.com overdrive review, Jake’s Overdrive review (covers 4G to 3G issues), BGR video review (4mn)

Filed in Cellphones >Featured >Reviews. Read more about broadband, Hands-On, Sprint, wifi and wimax.

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