Sprint Overdrive 3G/4G

Made by Sierra Wireless, the Overdrive 3G/4G is Sprint’s first mobile hotspot that, as its name suggests, works on either a 3G or 4G network. The unit has a list price of $350, but Sprint’s current rebates bring the net cost to $50 when tied to a two-year contract (with unlimited 4G data but a 5GB-per-month cap on 3G data for $60 per month). 

These prices are the same as for laptop USB network adapters, but at least you can share the bandwidth among several devices. The battery-powered Overdrive fits easily in a shirt pocket and can share your cellular data connection with up to five Wi-Ficapable devices. 

When it can’t connect with a 4G network, it reverts to Sprint’s 3G or 2G service, depending on what’s available. I traveled with an Overdrive through several of Sprint’s 4G and 3G cities, along with a number of laptops and smart devices (an iPhone 3GS, an iPad, a Motorola Droid, and an HTC Hero). I often stowed the Overdrive in my coat pocket or in my backpack.

A simple yet comprehensive browser interface guided me through configuration and setup. An external LCD on the unit delivers status messages; if you like, you can make it show your Wi-Fi password as a reminder. The single power/control button was sometimes slow to respond in my hands-on testing. Another drawback: The Overdrive took a full minute to boot up. Since the device has GPS on board, you can view the unit’s position in Google Maps; it also includes a MicroSD card so you can share files among Wi-Fiattached devices.

In my testing, though, I found the MicroSD storage less convenient than using a simple USB stick to move files. During my tests in Sprint 4G cities, the Overdrive remained in 4G mode about 80 percent of the time. When I used the Overdrive to connect my laptop in Baltimore and in Washington, D.C., I saw download speeds of around 3.2 megabits per second and upload speeds of 400 kilobits per second. I set the device to switch automatically between 4G and 3G service, with a preference for 4G (the default setting).

Moving to 3G from 4G was quick and seamless, but the Overdrive needed between 30 and 60 seconds to jump from 3G to 4G. On my iPhone, iPad, Droid, and Hero, 4G download speeds were substantially worse than they were on my Overdrive-connected laptop. In fact, the iPhone and iPad registered faster speeds when connected via their internal 3G radios to AT&T’s 3G network than when linked via the Overdrive to Sprint’s 4G network. (I should note, though, that the latest Overdrive firmware update significantly improved the iPhone’s performance over the hotspot.) 

For the Droid and the Hero (which normally connect on Verizon’s and T-Mobile’s 3G networks), the Overdrive boosted performance by about 50 percent. Whether that improvement justifies buying an extra Sprint contract is debatable. In 3G-only cities, all of my test devices dropped to Sprint’s reliable but somewhat leisurely 3G speeds. Like other mobile hotspots, the Overdrive has its own battery, which you recharge via Mini-USB connected to a PC or to a power outlet with a plug-in adapter. 

The Overdrive seems to use more power when connecting to 4G than it does when connecting to 3G; its battery life was about 4 hours on 3G and 3 hours on 4G. Recharging it from a fully discharged state took between 2 and 3 hours using the USB cable, but less than an hour using the plug-in adapter. For power laptop users, the Overdrive is a godsend. In 4G cities, it offers higher performance (often two or three times higher) than that of hotel or coffee-shop Wi-Fi. And for frequent travelers, offsetting hotel Wi-Fi charges easily justifies the cost of the Sprint contract.


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