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Sprint 3G/4G USB U600 Review

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Thursday, 02 September 2010

Sprint 3G/4G USB U600 Hands-On Review


U600 with USB Swivel opened (left) and closed (right)

Sprint (NYSE:S) has just announced their newest 3G/4G hybrid device, the Sprint 3G/4G USB U600, modem by Franklin Wireless.  Compared to its predecessors the U300 & U301, the U600 is significantly smaller, but still offers the USB swivel that we loved about the U301, which allows you to position the device at different angles to get better reception or to keep the device from getting bumped into. Below are the specs for the U600:

  • Supported Networks:
    • 3G CDMA/EVDO Rev. A (800/1900Mhz)
    • 4G WiMAX 2.5 Ghz
    • GPS (1.575.42Mhz)
  • USB 2.0 Interface
  • OS Compatibility:
    • Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7
    • Mac OS X 10.5 & 10.6
    • Linux
  • Antenna Ports:
    • 3G Antenna Port 
    • 4G Antenna Port 
    • GPS Antenna Port
  • Environmental:
    • Operating Temperature: -4 to 140 F
    • Storage Temperature: -22 to 158 F

Design:


Left to right: the Sierra Wireless 250U, Franklin U600, and Franklin U301

The Sprint 3G/4G USB U600's form factor is more of what you would expect a traditional aircard to look like, especially when compared to the Sierra 250U, which some users have avoided simply because of it's unusual form factor. With the U600 only measuring 1.25" x 2.91" x 0.55" and weighing in at only 28 grams, it makes for a very travel friendly dual-mode 3G/4G device for mobile users and frequent travelers.

The U600 has two indicator lights on the face of the device showing the status for 3G & 4G networks. The U300 & U301 didn't have these 3G/4G network specific indicator lights, and we're happy to see them on the U600 - they can be very convenient to determine which networks are available at your current location.


U600 3G & 4G network coverage indicator lights

The LED light on the left is for the 4G network and will light up blue when connected to the 4G (WiMAX) network. The LED light on the right is for the 3G network and will light up green when connected to the 3G (EVDO). When data is being transferred across the network, you will notice that the network LED light will flash, indicating that it is transferring data across that network. When no coverage is available for either of the networks, a LED will light up in red.

What we like about the U600's design the most is the the USB swivel connector, which Franklin has been using for their devices for quite some time. The USB swivel connector allows users to position the aircard at different angles (up to 270 degrees) for better signal reception or to keep the device from being in the way (laptop users in particular tend to really appreciate this feature, since it means that their modem isn't sticking out too far while they move their laptops around!).



One negative aspect of the U600's USB connector is that it does block nearby USB ports on many computers due to the width of the U600. We wish that the U600 was slightly narrower so that it wouldn't block neighboring ports, which can be a problem for users who have older laptops that have very few USB ports on them. As you can see from the photos below, the U600 is just wide enough to block neighboring ports on the MacBook, and unfortunately many other computers will likely have the same problem. This problem can be avoided by using a usb extension cable or a usb flex adapter, or by using the U600 in a router.


The U600 blocks neighboring USB ports on the MacBook (above) in both the horizontal & vertical positions

Considering that most USB mobile broadband devices have blocked nearby USB ports due to their size, we don't think that this will be a major issue for most users, especially since most modern laptops have plenty of extra USB ports. If this is a major issue for you, you may want to consider purchasing the Sprint 250U instead, which doesn't block neighboring USB ports.


The 250U doesn't block neighboring USB ports

MacBook Air owners will be glad to know that the U600 is able to connect to the MacBook Air's USB port, but only in the horizontal position. This means that the U600 can't be put in the vertical position when being used with a MacBook Air due to the design of the MacBook Air's case around the USB port. MacBook Air users might consider the Sprint 250U since its unique form factor is a better fit for the MacBook Air.

Antenna Ports Galore!

The Sprint 3G/4G USB U600 has more antenna ports than we've ever seen on any other mobile broadband device, and that's a big deal! The U600 offers four antenna ports: one for EVDO (3G) networks, two for WiMAX (4G), and one for better A-GPS reception to provide more accurate location services.

Even though we couldn't test any antennas (yet), we are excited to see that manufacturers are now including antenna ports for both 3G & 4G antennas so that road warriors and users in fringe areas can get better signal for improved performance. Even thought there aren't any 4G antennas currently available, 3Gstore is working on getting antennas that will support the 4G WiMAX frequency. We find it interesting that the U600 has two 4G antenna ports - while we can't confirm this, we suspect that one of the 4G ports is for boosting receiving (RX) signal and the second is for boosting the transmit (TX) signal (the 3G-only KPC680 aircard from a few years ago offered dual ports like this).

UPDATE: 3Gstore now has the antenna adapter cable for the U600 in stock! Click here to order antennas for the U600; click here to order the U600 adapter cable only.

The U600 also offers another first, which is a GPS antenna port. This isn't a connector for a dedicated GPS satellite, but is actually for connecting another antenna that supports the 1.575.42 Mhz frequency to improve the assisted GPS triangulation accuracy.

U600 ports
U600 Antenna Ports Diagram

Signal Reception & Performance Comparison:

So now that you know all the extra bells & whistles that the Sprint 3G/4G USB U600 provides, you're probably wondering how it compares to other 3G/4G hybrid devices in terms of signal reception and performance. To compare the 3G performance, we tested the RSSI and speedtest.net results of the U600 and 250U at the same location and time of day to ensure accurate results. Here's what we found:

U600: -85 RSSI; 1.2mbps download speed, 0.4mbps upload speed

250U: -89 RSSI; 1.1mbps downoad speed, 0.5mbps upload speed

While the U600 received a stronger 3G signal at our test location than the 250U, we didn't really see any significant performance differences between the two devices. Even though at our test location the slight difference in signal strength didn't result in noticeable performance differences, the fact that the U600 appears to receive 3G signal slightly better than the 250U may make a bigger difference in weaker signal areas.

As far as performance on the 4G network, performance from the U600 and 250U was comparable - and we were impressed with what we saw! In areas where we were getting a great 4G signal, we were seeing average speeds of 6mbit per second, and we occasionally saw peak speeds up to 12mbit per second, which are the fastest speeds that we've seen from 4G yet! While we don't expect that everyone will get 12mbit/sec (remember, speeds will vary by location & signal quality), this does show us that the U600 is capable of providing some of the best speeds possible on the 4G network. Here is a video demonstrating a speed test we performed while connected to the 4G network with the U600:



OS Compatibility:


SmartView 2.50 adds support for U600

Franklin Wireless is very well known for ensuring that their devices are compatible with almost every modern operating system. The Sprint 3G/4G USB U600 ships with Sprint SmartView connection manager software version 2.50, which adds U600 support for both Windows & Mac OS X. The U600 has a built-in storage drive that includes the Sprint SmartView software for both Windows & Mac OS X, which eliminates the need for a CD that includes the connection manager software (in other words, you can simply connect the U600 to your computer and load the software right from the device itself!). Using the Sprint SmartView software, the U600 is compatible with Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, and Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard.


Sprint SmartView U600 Device Info

While Franklin Wireless also claims that the U600 is compatible with Linux, we were unable to test this as the preview unit that we received didn't include any software or documentation on how to configure the device for any of the popular Linux distributions. We suspect that the final production units will also include software or documentation on the built-in storage drive on how to get the U600 working in the most popular Linux distrobutions, as Franklin has provided this type of Linux support in the past for devices such as the CDU-680. We can confirm that there isn't going to be any special version of SmartView software that will be Linux compatible.

Router Compatibility:


U600 & MBR1000 (left); U600 & MBR1200 (right)

For home users that want to share their high speed 3G or 4G internet connection from the U600 with multiple computers or devices, there are several different Cradlepoint routers that support the U600 as long as you have the proper version of firmware installed on the router. For home users, we recommend either the MBR900 or MBR1000, which provides a WiFi hotspot with a range of up to 150 feet as well as 4 ethernet ports for wired connections. Not sure which router is right for you? Read this article: Which Mobile Broadband Router Is Best For Me? 3Gstore includes the latest version of firmware for U600 support on our exclusive mobile broadband support CD so that you can perform the firmware upgrade, or if you prefer 3Gstore can perform the upgrade for you for an additional $15 before shipping the unit. If you purchase your U600 with service from 3Gstore.com and you also purchase any Cradlepoint router, 3Gstore will perform this upgrade for you for free before shipping your router! 3Gstore.com is offering several U600 & Cradlepoint router promotions - see the bottom of this page for more details!

U600 Router Compatibility & Required Firmware Versions:

  • CTR500 Firmware 1.7.2
  • PHS300 Firmware 2.5.4
  • MBR900 Firmware 1.7.2
  • MBR1000 Firmware 1.7.2
  • MBR1200 Firmware 1.7.2
  • CTR350 Firmware 2.5.4 (***IMPORTANT: the U600 will only work in 3G mode on the CTR350, since this router is NOT 4G-capable***)
  • NexAira BC2 Firmware 1.2.3.20


The battery powered PHS300 (above, with U600) is perfect for mobile users who are looking for a portable 3G/4G WiFi hotspot solution to provide internet connectivity for their laptops, iPhone, iPad, or any other WiFi enabled device!


U600 & NexAira Business Class II Enterprise Router


For enterprises that want to use the U600 as a backup connection, we highly recommend the NexAira BC2. The BC2 is compatible with the U600 right out of the box with stock firmware version 1.2.3.20, but NexAira has indicated that they will be releasing a new version of firmware soon that will improve U600 support for improved performance & reliability. The BC2 allows enterprises to utilize the U600 for internet failover mode, IP Passthrough,IPSec VPN Tunneling, and many other enterprise level features that can be found in our NexAira Business Class II Review.

Bottom line:

There are several things about the U600 that we think will make it the best 3G/4G mobile broadband choice for most users, especially road warriors. The most notable feature is the variety of antenna ports that the U600 offers. For road warriors and users in fringe areas, having the variety of antenna ports for 3G & 4G can make the difference of having a reliable signal and not being able to connect at all. We are very relieved to see that manufacturers are now including antenna ports on 3G/4G devices, as hybrid devices didn't offer antenna ports at all until the 250U (the first hybrid device to offer usable antenna ports). The Sprint U600 one-ups the 250U by providing a second WiMAX antenna port for increased signal gain and an antenna port for GPS, which is a first on any mobile broadband device. Having an external antenna for A-GPS will provide more accurate GPS results for users who want to track their trip progress or want to monitor their fleet of trucks, etc.

Another notable feature of the U600 that is common with Franklin Wireless devices is compatibility. The Sprint U600 just works with nearly anything you connect it to. With the included Sprint SmartView software that comes on the U600 itself, it is compatible with both Windows & Mac OS X. The U600 is also compatible with just about every 3G/4G mobile broadband router that 3Gstore.com offers and is also compatible with some of the more popular distributions of Linux as well. No other 3G/4G mobile broadband device offers that kind of compatibility!

With previous hybrid devices from Franklin like the U300 & U301, the average speeds we saw when connected to a 4G network where about 3-4mbps. With the Sprint U600 we're seeing average speeds of 6mbit/sec, with max speeds of up to 12mbps depending on location & signal quality. We believe that the new Beceem 4G chipset that Franklin is putting in the U600 improves the 4G performance compared to it's predecessors, making the U600 the best 3G/4G hybrid device for 4G use.

Although we really like the USB swivel connector that allows you to position the U600 at almost any angle, it does create the only thing that we don't really like about the U600: the potential to block neighboring USB ports. However, this is unlikely to be a "dealbreaker" for most users - just a potential minor annoyance.

In short, the U600 is by far the most impressive 3G/4G device to hit the market to date!



3Gstore U600 Introductory Promotion!

You can Order the Sprint U600 from the mobile broadband experts at 3Gstore.com for FREE after $50 mail-in rebate with a new 2 year service agreement NOW!

All U600's ordered with Sprint service from 3Gstore are shipped pre-activated (so that they are ready to use when you receive your order!) and include our esteemed free technical support.

Discuss the Sprint U600 on EVDOforums.com




Last Updated ( Tuesday, 22 February 2011 )
 
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