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Sprint U301 3G/4G USB Modem Review

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Friday, 12 February 2010
Like it's predecessor the U300, the new Franklin U301 for Sprint is a dual-mode 3G/4G USB modem, meaning it is able to connect to Sprint's nationwide EVDO Rev-A 3G network as well as the new 4G WiMAX network. Sprint's 4G network is only available in about 30 cities right now (although it is launching in new cities every quarter), but a 3G/4G device like the U301 can be a great option even for users who aren't currently in a Sprint 4G area. The monthly cost for Sprint's 3G/4G service is the same as their 3G-only plan ($59.99/month), so the U301 should not be discounted as an option even if you're not looking for 4G capabilities at this time.

U301 Design
: At 3.5" x 1.27" x 0.92" and 1.25 oz, the U301 is slightly larger than Sprint's currently available 3G-only USB modems like the U760 or 598U, but its flip-up USB connector means it actually sticks out much less than other devices - a great benefit for laptop users who worry about hitting or breaking their USB modems as they move around with their computer. It also ships with a 7 1/2" USB extension cable, which you can use to position your modem a bit away from your computer or router.

U301 contents
The U301 ships with a USB extension cable, Sprint Installation CD for Windows & Mac, and Getting Started Guide

On the face of the U301 is a pair of LED indicator lights that let you know whether the 3G or 4G networks are available. The top light shows your 3G status (green means 3G is available; a red light would mean you're outside of the service area) and the second light displays your 4G status (a blue light means 4G is available; red would again indicate that 4G is not available). This feature will come in particularly handy for travelers - you'll be able to quickly see when you enter a 4G area and can switch to the higher-speed service!

U301 indicator lights
Connected to 3G!

Setting up and Using the U301
: Setting up the U301 is a breeze - as long as your computer has a CD drive! The Sprint 301 ships with a CD with both Mac and Windows versions of the Sprint Smartview Software, which you'll need to install to get your U301 activated (if you don't have a disc drive, you'll need to download the software from Sprint's website before getting started). Once you insert the CD and connect the U301 to your computer, activation is painless and virtually automatic.

Luckily, the U301 solves one major problem that U300 users had to deal with: it is compatible with Mac! The U301 is compatible with Windows XP/Vista/7 as well as Mac OS X 10.4/10.5/10.6, and in our tests we had no problem using it on any of these operating systems (including Windows 7 and Snow Leopard).

Once Smartview is installed and the initial activation has taken place, using the U301 is as simple as hitting the "connect" button in Smartview. The U301 will automatically detect which networks are available (3G or 4G) and will connect to the higher-speed network by default - if 4G is available it will connect to that, if only 3G is available it will connect there. If both 3G and 4G are available, you can switch between the networks easily in Smartview: you can click the "switch to 3G" button that appears beneath the signal bars (if you're currently connected to 3G, it will of course say "switch to 4G") or select the network you want to connect to from the "Tools" menu. This can come in handy if both networks are available but your signal strength is much better for one!

u301 switch mode
Smartview makes it easy to see which network you're connected to and to switch networks

Speaking of signal strength, as seasoned mobile broadband users are well aware, signal is the key to performance, and knowing your signal strength makes a big difference. By looking at your signal strength and how it changes in different locations (and how the performance changes along with it) you'll be able to make decisions about which network to use (you may have great 3G signal but poor 4G signal in a particular location, for example), where to place the modem (simply using the USB extension cable to place your modem a little higher up can help), or whether you might benefit from signal-boosting equipment (for the 3G signal only - there is no way to boost the 4G signal at this time). Smartview displays the traditional "signal bars" for the network you're connected to, and you can also view the RSSI (Received Signal Strength Indicator - a more accurate numerical value of your signal strength than the bars) when you're connected to the 3G network by selecting "Mobile Info" from the "Tools" menu and clicking the "network" tab. Unfortunately, Smartview does not display RSSI for the 4G network - you'll have to go by the bars!

u301 3g rssi
Smartview will display your 3G signal strength in RSSI, but not 4G :(

U301 Performance: Whenever a new device becomes available, one of the first questions customers ask is "how fast is it?" We've always maintained that all 3G devices built to the "Revision A specification" are going to be as fast as all other devices built to the same specs, as long as they receive the same signal from the same cell tower. While the U301 is a 3G/4G device, the same principle holds true - when in 3G mode, the U301 will provide the same speeds as any other Sprint 3G modem in the same location; when in 4G mode the U301 will provide the same speeds as another Sprint 4G modem in the same location.

In our extensive tests and comparisons with the performance of other 3G and 3G/4G devices, we did notice that the internal antenna in the U301 appears to be much more sensitive to interference than other modems, which can effect performance. When the U301 was positioned close to other active aircards, performance suffered; upon moving it away from the other modems the signal strength and performance improved promptly. Based on our tests, we recommend that U301 users ensure that their modem is not too close to any other cellular devices to avoid interference!

What about antennas and routers?
The U301 is now compatible (as for 3/8/10) with the PHS300, CTR500, MBR900, and MBR1000 routers, as well as the CBA250 and CBA750 broadband adapters.

Like Sprint's other 3G/4G devices, there is no way to connect an antenna to the U301 (there are ports present on the device, but these are for manufacturer testing/diagnostics only - you can't connect an antenna to them, unfortunately!). The 3G signal can be improved with a wireless repeater, but there are no amplifiers available at this time to boost the 4G WiMAX signal - since WiMAX operates on a different frequency than 3G technologies, a 3G amplifier will not have any effect on the 4G signal. We do anticipate that antenna/amplifier manufacturers will make 4G signal boosters available at some point in the near future, but at this time there is no way to boost the 4G signal.

U301 Essential Features:

  • Sprint 4G (WiMAX) Capable
  • Rev. A Capable
  • Rotating/Swivel USB connector
  • Compatible with all devices supporting the Type A USB interface including desktops, notebooks, tablet PCs and PDAs
  • Built-in antenna
  • Easy Installation and Activation: Simply insert the SmartView CD to install the software and the device will be activated automatically as part of the installation process.
  • GPS Capable: Autonomous and simultaneous GPS using Sprint Navigation for turn by turn directions, and points of interest searches.
  • Security: Employs CDMA wireless technology authentication and identification system for top-notch security. The Mobile Identification Number (MIN) and Electronic Serial Number (ESN), together with CDMA spread spectrum technology, make it virtually impossible for unauthorized users to capture and decipher messages and other sensitive information.

The bottom line on the U301: Anyone considering signing up for Verizon, Sprint or AT&T mobile broadband with a 2-year contact should consider getting a data card that has built-in 4G support, even if you do not need it now. Sprint is rolling out their 4G WiMAX network to more and more cities in the US each quarter, meaning there is a good chance 4G could become available to you at some point during your 2-year contract. Upgrading an aircard in the middle of your contract can cost $200-$300, so why not be prepared now?

3Gstore.com is now selling the Sprint 3G/4G U301 for FREE with a new Sprint contract, and you'll also receive a $50 mail-in rebate - you MAKE $50 (that's $50 less than Sprint sells it for)! More importantly, 3Gstore customers receive superior customer service and tech support from Mobile Broadband Experts that actually use and test these devices on a regular basis!


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Last Updated ( Friday, 23 July 2010 )
 
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