Review: Sprint U301 4G/3G Combo Card

I have checked out a few mobile broadband offerings from Verizon Wireless and Sprint, the two options were pretty similar.  They all featured EVDO data cards (or MiFi hostpot) that offered 3G speeds on very widespread, trusty networks.  I found Sprint’s speeds to be a bit faster than Verizon, but this is one element that differs based on your geography.

In 2009, however, the field changed a bit.  Sprint launched their 4G network, that utilizes Clear’s Wi-Max network that is now in quite a few major metro areas.

U301Today’s review is on the Sprint U301, a device that is a 4G/3G combo device, meaning where a Sprint 4G network is available, the U301 will hop on that for uber-fast net surfing.  Alternatively, when Sprint’s ubiquitous 3G network is available, the U301 will attach to this older but more pervasive broadband network technology.

Getting Started

The U301 comes in a standard box.  It is a USB device that requires an open USB port on your laptop.  The U301 is unique on Sprint’s network because it supports both Apple Macs and PCs.  This is important for me, as I switch between two computers quite regularly.

After loading the Sprint SmartView software on your computer, you are ready to pop in the U301 and start surfing the web.  On both my Mac and PC, I was able to successfully install SmartView and all the necessary software/drivers with no hassle.  The process took maybe 10 minutes.

Note: For Macs, you must be running an Intel-based model and you have to run OS X 10.5 (Leopard) or higher.

Testing the Network

I tested the U301 all across the country.  Starting out in Salem and Portland, Oregon, I found 4G speeds to vary from being very zippy to decently fast.  I also trialed the device in Las Vegas, Nevada and Austin, Texas (yes, I was in Austin after the 4G launch – in mid-March).

Everywhere I went, I found that if you have a seemingly strong network signal, you are going to get fast and reliable 4G speeds.  Once in Beaverton, Oregon, I got stellar speeds clocking in and 9Mbps down and 1Mbps up.  If you don’t believe me, see my Speedtest score.

However, in many places where I tested, I had 1 or maybe 2 bars.  In these environments, I would achieve perhaps 2 Mbps using the same site I did my above mentioned Speedtest score.  In these cases, I actually got faster surfing speeds when I forced the U301 to go to the legacy 3G network.

One nice factor about having the U301: while I was at a coffee shop with bad Wi-Fi and when I was at tech conferences including CES and SXSW; I didn’t have to concern myself with finding a hotspot.  Also, I was never concerned with dealing with a coffee shop or hotel with a bad Internet connection.  Armed with the U301 and Sprint’s 4G/3G network, I was able to get online and do my business.

I would say that overall, I averaged about 3 Mbps down while doing Speedtests in the areas of the country I tested over the last few months. These speeds aren’t as smoking fast as the Sprint ads make them out to be, but it is an improvement over 3G.

The bottom line is this: when you’re in close proximity to a Sprint 4G tower, the speeds are spectacular.  However, the ‘net speeds drop off pretty fast when you start to get distance between you and the tower.

Software Problems

I have been using Sprint SmartView off and on now for the last year.  On both the PC and Mac platforms, this software continues to be a nuisance.  I find overall the the software is very slow and sluggish.

On my Mac, I still continue to get an error that I have tried for hours to troubleshoot.  Uninstalling and re-installing the software does not help.  I am a software developer, so I’m pretty well versed in troubleshooting rubbish installs, but SmartView continues to plague me with the same error every time it loads up.  Although, it does sign onto the network just fine, despite the error.

Conclusion

Despite the funny SmartView software, the U301 performs reliably every day for me.  It signs on to the Sprint network and provides the vital connection to the Internet I need to get through my business day whilst on the go.

If you are in a metro area that has Sprint 4G (they are growing in number each month), give the U301 a hard look.  It has awesome 4G speed and will also attach to Sprint’s already-stellar 3G network when 4G isn’t available.

In writing this review, I looked at Sprint’s website and saw that the U301 is free after rebate.  Also, Sprint’s monthly service charge for 4G data service is no more expensive than the conventional 3G plan.  This makes getting the U301 an absolute no-brainer.  Plus, the amount of productivity you gain thanks to Sprint will speak for itself.