The introduction of the next generation of mobile phone and mobile broadband technology is just around the corner in the UK, with more and more column inches being dedicated to ‘4G LTE' coverage, each and every day. This is while we ramp up to the spectrum licences being auctioned off by Ofcom, although Everything Everywhere already owns its required license, ahead of the sale.
As a taste of what is coming down the pipeline, ITProPortal has started to publish reviews, such as the HTC EVO LTE 4G mobile phone. We are now turning our attention to other aspects of the next-gen tech - mobile broadband - with this review of a 4G LTE MiFi or Ti-Fi hotspot device.
You may have guessed it from the name, but the Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi Hotspot for the Sprint mobile phone network in the U.S.A., is one versatile cellular modem. It supports 3G, WiMAX, and brand new 4G LTE network standards. That means you're guaranteed the fastest speeds available wherever you are. You also get fantastic battery life, a microSD slot for shared network storage, an informative LCD, and router options galore. The Sierra Wireless Tri-Fi may be big, but it's flexible and future proof.
The Tri-Fi connects to Sprint's already established 3G and WiMAX networks, as well as its embryonic LTE network. In the past, I have found Sprint's 3G network to be the slowest of the nationwide networks, with average download speeds around 500Kbps. But if you're covered by WiMAX, you'll be looking at considerably faster speeds - more like 3Mbps.
Chances are, you aren't in the coverage area for Sprint's initial 4G LTE rollout, which promises significantly higher speeds than WiMAX. Sprint has said that it'll turn on LTE in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, and San Antonio by the middle of 2012. The mobile phone network also promises to cover 120million Americans with LTE by the end of the year, but has yet to reveal just where that coverage will fall. That's a bummer, since it's pretty much impossible to tell if you'll be getting LTE from Sprint anytime soon. But the beauty of the Tri-Fi is that you don't have to worry about buying a device for the right network, since it supports all of them.
You may not fall in love with the Tri-Fi at first sight. Simply put, this hotspot is huge. At 57.15 x 97.53 x 24.13mm (HxWxD) and 138grams, it probably won't fit into your trouser pocket in the way many other hotspots can. But it's still small enough to fit into your bag or the pocket of a jacket. The front panel has a Power button and a Menu button, and there's a WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup) button and a Mute switch on top of the device, along with two external antenna ports and a microUSB port for charging on the bottom.
When you slide off the Tri-Fi's back cover, you get access to the microSD card slot. Stick in a card, and it becomes a shared drive for connected PCs and Macs. That back cover also hides the Tri-Fi's massive 3600mAh battery, which is where the bulk of its size and weight come from. It's put to good use, though. We got eight hours and fifty-five minutes of WiMAX streaming on one charge, which is the longest battery result we've ever seen on a hotspot; you'll likely see good results over LTE as well.
The Tri-Fi also has an informative 1.7in LCD on the front of the router. It gives you connection information, alerts, and billing info (including the amount of data you've used, itemised by network), among other useful options.
Using the Tri-Fi is easy. Just turn it on, and use your device's wireless connection manager to connect to it using the SSID displayed on the modem's screen. You can connect as many as eight devices this way. If you want to connect the Tri-Fi to a Windows PC as a USB modem, you can do that too. When I connected the Tri-Fi to a Windows 7 laptop with a micro-USB cable, it automatically installed its own drivers and connected as an NDIS link using Windows' built-in software.
The Tri-Fi has an excellent management console. It allows you to monitor battery life and signal strength, see what devices are connected, and control a plethora of advanced router settings. There's a comprehensive list, allowing you to change the screen backlight, set your 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi options, and enable port forwarding, port triggering, UPnP, a DMZ, and static IP addresses.
After booting in about a minute, the Tri-Fi automatically connects to the fastest network available, which, in New York City where we tested, is WiMAX. You can also set the modem to connect to the network of your choice (if it's available, that is).
WiMAX speeds were solid, and on par with other devices we've seen from Sprint recently. The Tri-Fi pulled in average download speeds of 3Mbps and upload speeds around 0.8Mbps. That's no match for LTE, but it should be enough to keep you satisfied until it rolls into your town.
The Tri-Fi offers up to 115ft of range indoors. As with most other hotspots, speeds remain consistent within about 50ft or so of the device. Move further away than that and speeds start to decline. At 100ft you can still get a connection, but just barely.
The Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi Hotspot is the best hotspot you can buy on Sprint right now. And if you want LTE when it becomes available, it's the only hotspot you can buy, period. The Overdrive Pro 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot is a little less bulky, but you're limited to 3G and WiMAX, and less than half the battery life of the Tri-Fi. The same is true for the Novatel Wireless 4082 MiFi. So if you want to get online with LTE from Sprint, or if you need a hotspot that can last longer than any other, the Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi is your best bet.
Pros: 3G, WiMAX, and 4G LTE support; Fantastic battery life; microSD slot for shared network storage; Informative LCD; Plenty of router options.
Cons: Bulky. Areas getting Sprint LTE are unclear.
Manufacturer: Sierra Wireless
Service Provider: Sprint (USA)
Bands: 850, 1900, 2500
Mobile Technology: Other, WiMAX, LTE, EV-DO Rev A
Mac Compatible: Yes
Slot Type: Other