Sierra Aircard 250U 3G/4G USB Modem Review

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Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Sierra Aircard 250U 3G/4G USB Modem Review

The Sierra 250U is available from both Sprint and CLEAR

The Sierra Aircard 250U is the latest dual-mode 3G/4G USB modem to hit the market and the first from Sierra Wireless, and is available on both Sprint and CLEAR's network (CLEAR calls their version the "Series S 4G+" modem). Like the Franklin U300, which was the first 3G/4G modem sold by Sprint and CLEAR, and U301, which launched on Sprint's network earlier this year, the Sierra Wireless 250U can connect to both Sprint's 3G EVDO Rev-A network as well as Sprint/CLEAR's 4G WiMAX network. Sprint/CLEAR's 4G network (Sprint is a majority owner of CLEAR and they use the same network - so while the 250U will be available from both companies, the coverage and service is identical) is available in about 30 cities right now, with coverage expanding to more cities every couple of months, so many mobile broadband users have begun considering 3G/4G modems even if they don't currently live in or travel to an area with 4G coverage. By opting for a 3G/4G device instead of a 3G-only modem, customers can "future proof" themselves - they can use it for 3G now, and when 4G does become available to them, they won't have to worry about needing new equipment.

The 250U is not the first 3G/4G-capable device, but it is the first to feature something potential users have been hoping for since the very first 3G/4G device: an antenna port for improving cellular signal. The 250U actually features two antenna ports: one for a 3G antenna, and one for a 4G antenna (which aren't yet available, but will be in the future). This really sets the 250U apart from its predecessors and makes it more accessible to a lot more potential users - mobile broadband users who rely on antennas to get a reliable signal for their 3G aircards have been hesitant to make the move to a 3G/4G device, but now users don't have to sacrifice the ability to easily boost 3G signal in order to get a 3G/4G modem!
We were pleased to find that the 250U actually performs BETTER than the U301 (the previous 3G/4G modem available from Sprint). It receives 3G signal better than the U301, and it also doesn't have the interference problems that plagued the U301. Read more about the reception on the 250U vs U301.

In addition to the antenna ports and superior performance, the 250U also offers a very unique design, Mac OSX compatibility, and other enticing features. Read on for more details on this unique 3G/4G modem:

Design: The 250U is a USB modem, but unlike the traditional dongles that stick straight out like a USB flash drive or even the ones that swivel to flip up (like the U301), the 250U utilizes a flexible USB hinge that rotates 180 degrees in both directions, making it easier to connect to horizontal or vertical USB ports. It's also the first round USB modem, which is certainly an interesting design choice but doesn't make a major impact on the usability or convenience of the modem. Despite the unorthodox shape, the 250U is quite small - the round part is under 2" in diameter, and it weighs under 1 ounce!

The 250U's USB connector can swivel 180 degrees in both directions
250U vs U301
The 250U (left) is significantly more compact than the U301
The 250U is compact enough to not block its neighboring USB port (left); the U301's width means it blocks closeby USB ports (right)

On the front of the 250U are two LED indicators, which are used to easily identify which networks are available to connect to. The "4G" LED blinks when it's searching for a network, and lights up blue when 4G is ready to be connected to or when you are connected to 4G; it turns off completely when you're connected to 3G. The "3G" LED works a little differently, since it also serves as an indicator for Sprint's 2G network. The 3G LED blinks while searching for the network and lights up blue when ready to connect to 3G or when you're connected to 3G, and it displays an amber light when 2G is the only available network. If you're connected to 4G, the 2G/3G LED will be off. These LED indicators are great for folks who travel in and out of 4G areas, as you'll quickly be able to see right on the modem which network is available.

As we mentioned, the 250U is the first 3G/4G modem to feature a usable antenna port. There are actually two antenna ports - one for 4G and one for 3G. Right now, there are no 4G antennas available, but we do anticipate that antennas will be available at some point in the future. The 3G antenna port is a usable port, and 3Gstore carries a variety of antennas bundled with the appropriate 250U adapter cable. An important note about the 250U's antenna ports: Sierra Wireless has stated that they have NOT certified any antennas that are intended to improve both 3G and 4G signal. Other retailers may be selling antennas for 3G/4G, but they are NOT certified for use by Sierra Wireless and are not recommended; they may even damage the device or cause signal degradation. If you plan to use an antenna with the 250U, it's important to understand that only 3G antennas are compatible, and you must use them in the lower of the two antenna ports (the one intended for 3G antennas).

250u antenna ports
The 250U has two antenna ports
Compatibility: The 250U is fully compatible with Windows 7, XP, Vista and Mac OS 10.5.X and 10.6.X - this is great news for Mac users, who were left out with Sprint/CLEAR's original 3G/4G modem, the Franklin U300. Both CLEAR and Sprint will provide the appropriate versions of their connection manager software to allow you to use the 250U with just about any Windows or Mac computer. Additionally, the 250U is already officially supported by all of the 4G-capable Cradlepoint routers!
250U in MBR1000250U in PHS300
left: the 250U in the MBR1000; right:the 250U in the PHS300

Key Features:
Access to the fastest wireless download speeds available with dual-mode 3G/4G networks
180-degree rotating USB connector
Supports Windows 7, XP, Vista and Mac OS 10.5.X and 10.6.X
Features an antenna port for 3G antennas
Compatible with Cradlepoint routers

The bottom line on the Sierra Aircard 250U
: 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 - especially since the 250U has an antenna port that allows you to improve your 3G signal just like you can with a typical 3G-only aircard. Sprint and CLEAR are 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?

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 10 August 2010 )
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