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Sprint Sierra Overdrive 3G/4G Hotspot Hands-On Review

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Saturday, 27 February 2010

 Sprint Sierra Overdrive 3G/4G W801 Hotspot Hands-On Review

Update 3/27/11: The Overdrive Pro is now here! The Overdrive Pro is similar to the original Overdrive but offers a sleeker design, the ability for up to 8 users to connect (instead of 5), and a more detailed display.

The 3G/4G Overdrive by Sierra Wireless has been a hot product - and a hot topic - since its debut on Sprint's network earlier this year. Like the uber-popular Novatel MiFi, which was the first 3G portable hotspot, the Overdrive combines the premise of an aircard and mobile broadband router in one convenient unit, allowing users to share their mobile broadband connection with multiple computers or other WiFi-enabled devices (hand-held gaming devices, iPhones, iPod Touch, etc etc). With its embedded 3G and 4G capabilities, Overdrive users can connect to both 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 since the monthly cost for Sprint's 3G/4G service is the same as their 3G-only plan ($59.99/month), a 3G/4G device like the Overdrive can be a great option even for users who aren't currently in a Sprint 4G area.

In addition to the obvious benefit of being a dual-mode device, the Overdrive is packed with features and functions that make it a groundbreaking device: up to five users can connect via WiFi from up to 150 feet away (plus one additional computer can be directly connected via USB), there's a unique LED screen on the front of the unit that displays helpful status information and notices, a microSD slot allows you to use the unit as shared storage drive, its built-in battery provides up to 3 hours of usage time and recharges quickly, and the web admin is incredibly thorough and user-configurable.

We'll get to all those features and more later on in this review, but before we get started, let's address the elephant in the room: as many users have noted, the Overdrive in its current state does indeed have some problems. Stability and performance issues have plagued the device for some (but not all) users, including our testers here at 3Gstore. As we do with ALL the products we review, we put the Overdrive through extensive and vigorous testing, and found it to be a mixed bag - the Overdrive performed great in some scenarios but was nearly unusable in others. While we were initially discouraged and quite disappointed (the Overdrive's features and potential are so great; we really expected to LOVE it), we were impressed by Sierra Wireless's response to our concerns - they took our feedback very seriously and we can confirm that they WILL be releasing a firmware update that is intended to solve all the problems in the near future. We were hoping to see the problems fixed by now and in fact had held off on publishing this review in hopes that we'd be able to discuss the fixes, but due to the extreme demand for the Overdrive and for more information about it, we've decided to move forward with an honest review - both the highs and the lows! UPDATE 6/25/10: Sierra has released firmware version 2.06.06, which provides many key fixes/enhancements. Check out our test results after upgrading the Overdrive to firmware 2.06.06 - Test Results with Firmware 2.06.06

With that said, let's get started!

Design: At 3.14" x 3.14" x .61" and 4.51 oz, the OverDrive is bit larger than the MiFi, but is still quite compact and sleek:

Overdrive size  comparison
The Overdrive compared to the CLEAR W100 modem (bottom left), EX720 ExpressCard (top left), standard SD cards and a AA battery

Unlike the MiFi or any other mobile broadband device or router on the market today, the OverDrive features an LCD screen that provides quite a bit of useful information right on the unit itself! The LCD screen has icons that indicate:

  • whether it is connected to the 3G or 4G network
  • signal strength (using bars - RSSI can be viewed in the web admin)
  • if its is roaming (when on 3G network)
  • GPS status
  • number of connected wireless users
  • battery charge level/charging status
  • wireless station ID (SSID)
  • wireless access password (you can set it to NOT display this if you prefer)
  • live session data (how much data you've used and how long you've been connected this session [this data re-sets each time you disconnect; it is not cumulative])
  • a variety of alerts (low battery, activation status, errors, etc)
overdrive display
The Overdrive conveniently displays quite a bit of info on the LCD screen!

Aside from the unique LCD screen, the Overdrive's design is very straightforward. The power button is right on top of the unit, and the micro USB port (which you'll use to charge the device or connect it directly to a computer) and MicroSD card slot are on the front device:

overdrive usb and  micro sdcard slot
the micro USB port and SD card slot (SD card not included)

Most of the controlling of the Overdrive's features and settings is done in the web admin. There are only two physical buttons on the unit itself, the main power button and an audio switch that allows you to easily turn the audio indicators on or off:

overdrive mute button
The Overdrive's audio on/off button

The only other button on the Overdrive is the reset button, which is located beneath the battery door:

overdrive reset  button
The reset button is located beneath the battery enclosure

Setting up and Using the Overdrive

overdrive  contents
The Overdrive ships with the battery, USB-to-microUSB sync/charge cable, AC charger with USB port, "Getting Started" booklet, and complete user guide

Setting up for the first time: Getting started with the Overdrive is refreshingly easy. The first step, obviously, is to install the battery by popping open the battery door on the underside of the unit. While the battery ships with about a 70-80% initial charge, it is recommended to charge the battery until the LCD indicator on the face of the Overdrive indicates that the battery is "Fully Charged" (this should just take 35-45 minutes).

overdrive  charging
When the Overdrive is off but charging, the LCD screen shows the charging status

Once the battery is charged, you'll need to do the initial activation. Unlike most aircards, no software is necessary, and in fact you don't even need to be connected to the Overdrive to activate it - it's totally automatic! The only "prerequisites" for activating the Overdrive is that it must be charged up, and you must be in an area with Sprint 3G or 4G service (if there is no network to connect to, it obviously won't be able to activate). To start the process, press the power button on the front of the unit. The automatic activation will begin, and you can watch the progress on the LCD screen.

overdrive  activation status
During the initial activation, the LCD screen will display the progress

Once the initial activation is complete (it's a pretty quick process, just a few minutes - although if your connection is weak, it could take slightly longer), the LCD screen will instruct you to connect your computer to the Overdrive and will show you your WiFi network name and password and you'll need to complete the setup on your computer.

overdrive display
The LCD screen shows your WiFi network name and password

While the LCD screen shows your WiFi network info, you can also connect via USB if you prefer (or if you're on a desktop computer that doesn't have WiFi). If you opt for this route, you still don't need any software - when you connect via USB, the necessary drivers will automatically install and the Overdrive will show up as a network adapter in the "network connections" area of your computer.

Once you're connected either via WiFi or USB for the very first time, you still need to complete the setup. When you open up a browser window, the Overdrive Setup Page will appear and will walk you through naming your network and setting up your desired security settings, as well as selecting a password for the web admin (this is different from the WiFi network password that users will use to connect to the Overdrive - this is the password that you will use when you want to access the web admin to make changes to your settings).

overdrive setup
The Overdrive setup page only appears the very first time you set connect to your Overdrive

After you've chosen your password and completed this basic setup, your Overdrive is ready to use! However, before actually using it to surf the web, we highly recommend updating the firmware to the latest available version. While the firmware that Sierra has promised will fix the problems that many users are encountering is not yet available, it is still very important to make sure you are using the latest version to minimize the possibility of problems. Luckily, updating the firmware is easy - while connected to the Overdrive via WiFi, simply log in to the web admin (navigate to 192.168.0.1 in your browser; the default password is "password" unless you changed it), select the "Device" tab, then the "Basic" tab, and select "Check for Updates Now" (note: you must be plugged into AC power to update the firmware; it won't allow you to update the firmware when you're running on battery!)

You can update the firmware to the latest version from the web adminoverdrive firmware  update

Using the Overdrive: Once you've completed the activation and updated the firmware, the Overdrive is ready to use! As soon as you turn the Overdrive on, it will automatically connect to the fastest network available by default, which is convenient - you don't have to do anything to tell it to connect. As mentioned before, you don't need ANY software to connect to the Overdrive - WiFi users will simply select the network name on their computer and enter the network key, and for users connecting directly via USB, the necessary drivers will install the first time you connect. Up to five users can connect via WiFi, and an additional user can connect directly via USB, for a total of six users (if you need to allow more WiFi users, consider the Pepwave Surf Mini - read more in the "accessories" section).

The Overdrive has a LOT of user-configurable options that can be controlled through the very thorough web admin. The web admin can be accessed from any browser by navigating to "192.168.0.1" and entering the admin password (the default password is "password", you can [and should] change it to something unique... and remember, the password to access your web admin is not the same as the password you use to connect via WiFi). We'll go into more detail about everything that can be done in the web admin in a future article, but here are a few of the most important/useful features that are controlled in the web admin:

  • WiFi Security and Settings: The Overdrive is configured by default with 64-Bit WEP encryption with a 5 digit WEP key, but you can change that and several other settings. Some of the changes you can make include limiting the number of users that can connect via WiFi (5 is the default and is the maximum, but you can set it to 0-4 if you prefer to limit it), changing the name or password of the network, changing the type of WiFi security enabled, and deciding if you want a broader WiFi range or if you prefer to save power (it even allows you to make one selection for when the Overdrive is on battery power and another for when it's plugged in!)
    overdrive wifi
    There are a wide variety of WiFi-related settings that can be custom configured in the web admin

  • Network Choice: The Overdrive will automatically connect to the fastest available network (i.e. if 4G and 3G are both available, it will connect to 4G), but you can prioritize one over the other or even turn one off altogether. This can come in handy if both networks are available but your signal strength is much better for one, or if you're getting close to your 5GB limit on the 3G side (remember: 4G usage is unlimited, but Sprint has charges $0.05/mb if you exceed 5GB of 3G usage in a month) and don't want the Overdrive to connect to 3G at all!
    overdrive network  	choices
    3G/4G preferences and settings

  • MicroSD Card Settings: One of the coolest features that is unique to the Overdrive is the fact that you can use it as a shared storage drive. The microSD card slot accepts cards up to 16GB (the documentation warns very strongly against using any cards larger than that as it can cause data loss or damage the Overdrive), and within the web admin you can specify whether the contents of the SD card can  be accessed by everyone on the network or just the admin, as well as whether access files on the drive requires a password or not.
    overdrive microsd  	card settings
    Shared network settings

  • Sounds: The Overdrive utilizes a number of audible sounds to alert you when certain things have taken place, including: Internet Connected, Internet Disconnected, A WiFi User has Joined, Low Battery Indicator, Critical Battery, and more. You can easily turn off all sounds via the "mute" switch on the device, but the web admin allows you to enable or disable the sounds individually.
    overdrive sound  	settings
    Being able to set your sound preferences individually in the web admin rather than turning them all on or off is a great feature

There are a number of other features and functions you can set up in the web admin, which we'll cover in a separate article, but these are likely to be the most commonly used ones. Becoming familiar with these basic settings in your web admin will make your Overdrive experience much more enjoyable!

Overdrive Performance: Before we get into the problems that we discussed earlier, we'd like to emphasize that there are a lot of things we like a LOT about the Overdrive. Many users haven't experienced any problems at all, and while we did encounter issues during our testing, we also found a number of things that work great:

  • LCD Screen: Not only is it just plain cool, it's also very useful. The LCD screen displays a LOT of info, eliminating the need to log into the web admin for simple stuff like checking how many users are connected, which network you're connected to, how much battery you have left, etc.
  • WiFi Range: The WiFi range on the Overdrive is much better than the MiFi. As promised by the specs, we were able to connect to the Overdrive via WiFi from about 150 feet away and found the range to be comparable to a standard wireless "G" router.
  • Tethering: The Overdrive can be connected to one computer via USB and the WiFi does not shut off! (This is not the case with the MiFi - with the MiFi, if you connect it via USB to a computer, it turns off the WiFi).
  • Shared Storage: The microSD card feature is GREAT - it is an awesome convenience and super easy to set up and use. We had no problem using it with a variety of computers. The user guide provides instructions on accessing the shared drive for Windows, Mac, and Linux users, but it's very easy.
  • Battery: The battery life on the Overdrive is impressive for such a tiny unit - up to 3 hours of usage time, and up to 36 hours on standby (an external battery is also available for more battery time). Once the battery is drained, we also appreciate that it charges back up pretty quickly; charging the battery from "dead" takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes. The battery life is also conveniently displayed as a percentage right on the LCD screen and also in the web admin.
  • RSSI: We were very happy to see that the web admin displays both 3G and 4G signal strength as RSSI (read more about RSSI and why it's important here). When connected to the admin page at 192.168.0.1, click on the WAN tab and then select the network for which you want to view the RSSI:
    overdrive rssi
    RSSI is much more accurate for signal testing than "bars" or "percentages"

Many Overdrive users have experienced performance issues - including our testers. Let's move on to those:

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 Overdrive is a 3G/4G device, the same principle should hold true - when in 3G mode, the Overdrive should provide the same speeds as any other Sprint 3G modem in the same location; when in 4G mode the Overdrive should provide the same speeds as another Sprint 4G modem in the same location. For the 3G side of things, this premise held up: when connected to 3G, our testers saw equal (and consistent) results when compared to a Sprint 3G device.

Unfortunately, the 4G performance is not nearly as stable. For one, in our extensive tests the speeds the Overdrive provided when connecting to 4G were not equal to what we saw with other 4G devices connected to the exact same tower in the same location. The good news is that this problem does not seem to be effecting everyone (it may even be location-based), and as mentioned, we have confirmed that Sierra has a fix on the way for this problem. Even more disconcerting than the speed issues is the fact that (for some users, not all) the Overdrive intermittently refuses to connect to 4G at all, displaying mysterious error codes on the LCD screen - error codes that even Sprint has no reference for!

Worst of all - and again, we preface this by saying that not all users are having these problems (which supports the theory that the problems may be location-based) - is the "locking up" problem we saw many times during our testing. With no apparent trigger and no pattern, the Overdrive (and we did test several different units to confirm it was not one defective item) occasionally stopped responding completely, refusing to power up or even reset. When this happens, the only solution we found was to remove the battery and then re-install it; that allowed it to power up again but is obviously not acceptable for long-term use. Again, Sierra's promised fix should solve this problem.

A final note about the Overdrive's performance: It is very rare for us to encounter so many problems with a new device, and we are truly disappointed that our experience with the Overdrive wasn't ideal. We are encouraged that many users are NOT having any problems, and are also very pleased with Sierra's response and their promise for a fix. UPDATE 6/8/10: Sierra has released firmware version 2.06.06, which provides many key fixes/enhancements. Check out our test results after upgrading the Overdrive to firmware 2.06.06 - Test Results with Firmware 2.06.06

Overdrive Accessories: Like Sprint's other 3G/4G devices, there is no way to connect an antenna to the Overdrive. 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.

3Gstore has a number of accessories available for the Overdrive, including the MP1800 external battery and a cigarette lighter adapter for charging on the go, but our favorite accessory by far is the Pepwave Surf Mini. The Pepwave Surf Mini is a "WiFi bridge" that, among other features, accomplishes the following when used with the Overdrive:

overdrive and  pepwave
The Pepwave can connect to the Overdrive as one of the 5 allowed users, and then as many devices as you like can connect through the Pepwave!

The Overdrive's Essential Features:

  • 4G performance in any Sprint 4G market
    • Wireless speeds up to 10 times faster* than today's 3G from any other national wireless carrier. *"up to 10x faster" based on download speed comparison of 3G's 600 kbps vs. 4G's 6 Mbps. Typical published 3G avg. speeds (600 kbps-1.7 Mbps); 4G avg. speeds (3-6 Mbps). Actual speeds may vary.
  • Compatibility
    • Universal Wi-Fi compatible beyond just a notebook to such devices as cameras, music players, personal media players, mobile phones and portable game consoles.
  • Ready-to-connect
    • No software to install
    • Easy online configuration
  • LCD View
    • Unique LCD screen communicates everything you need to know: signal strength, battery level and whether 3G or 4G connectivity is available.
  • Micro SD Slot
    • MicroSD slot for shared network storage with up to 5 connected devices
  • GPS Enabled
    • Supports Sprint Navigation, BlackBerry Maps & other GPS applications when using the Sprint 3G Mobile Broadband Network.
  • MiFi Connectivity
    • extended MIFI range up to 150'
  • Antenna
    • Advanced built-in antenna that offers advanced dual-band diversity design enhances performance by maximizing data throughput.
  • Sprint Mobile Broadband Capabilities
    • With the evolution to EV-DO Revision A, users in markets where it is rolled out, will experience faster average download speeds of 600 kbps - 1.4 Mbps and average upload speeds of 350 - 500 kbps.
  • 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 Overdrive: Despite the problems many users have experienced with their Overdrives, we still feel that it is a device worth considering if you're in the market for a 3G or 4G device. Based on our dealings with Sprint and Sierra, we feel confident that the issues will be rectified in an upcoming firmware release, and once that happens the Overdrive will truly be a "must have" device for mobile broadband users wanting to share their 3G and 4G connection with one sleek and very portable device.

As we've been explaining for months now, anyone considering signing up for Verizon, Sprint or AT&T mobile broadband with a 2-year contact should consider getting a device 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 Overdrive for just $49.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate with a new Sprint contract. As always, 3Gstore customers receive superior customer service and tech support from Mobile Broadband Experts that actually use and test these devices on a regular basis! Additionally, 3Gstore will update the firmware to the latest version for FREE for all Overdrives ordered with Sprint service!


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Last Updated ( Monday, 28 March 2011 )
 
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