Sprint wireless in conjugation with their longtime mobile hotspot manufacturing partner, Sierra Wireless have begun the new revolution of Triple-Network Mobile Technology with the introduction of the new Sierra Tri-Fi mobile hotspot. This new hotspot is appropriately named the Tri-Fi, meaning its a true "three network" device, operating on the CDMA3G, WiMax 4G, and LTE 4G Sprint wireless networks.
The fact that the Tri-Fi is Sprint LTE compatible is great news for Sprint mobile broadband customers. They can currently take advantage of Sprint's moderately fast and widely available WiMax 4G network, while at the same time be assured that their mobile hotspot will also be compatible to the new amazingly fast Sprint 4G LTE network, which is currently being deployed in cities and metro areas all throughout North America.
The Tri-Fi is Sprint's first mobile hotspot to take advantage of 4G LTE, and is designed to help Sprint's mobile broadband subscribers move between their 4G WiMAX and4G LTE mobile networks. This innovative piece of equipment will appeal to the business oriented subscribers who need fast and reliable data networks without wasting time with public or rented Wi-Fi hotspots, but is also a great choice for to tech obsessed end-user customers who crave the incredible amount of features and settings that can be utilized to maximize the use of this 4G mobile hotspot.
Unwrapping the Tri-Fi Mobile Hotspot
As soon as I took the Tri-Fi mobile hotspot out of its box, I was surprised to see how small the device actually is. When I first saw the hotspot in photos and ads that didn’t have a familiar object of reference to compare against, I got the impression that it was going to be quite bigger (not that I’m saying that is a good thing).
The Tri-Fi measures in at about 3.85” x 2.25” (a little bigger than the size of a business card) and is a bit under 1 inch in thickness. Since I’ve handled dozens of other hotspots over the years, the thickness and general feel in my hand was pretty strange feeling. In Sprint’s defense, the Tri-Fi is pretty “fat” for good reason – it has a battery that is twice as large as every other mobile hotspot out there. The good news is that while the Tri-Fi may be twice as thick as other MiFi’s and Mobile Hotspots, it’s battery last twice as long (a trade-off I’ll take any day)
The first thing I noticed is that the Tri-Fi has a relatively large and well organized LCD panel which provides all the information you’ll need to manage the device, including signal strength, battery life, security encryption modes, and connected clients.
As a matter of fact, the Tri-Fi has the most comprehensive and functional display panel I’ve seen on any mobile hotspot. While the administrative web page for the device can be accessed with a browser at http://192.168.0.1, it seems that every setting and configuration that you would normally use the web page for can be done directly on the device itself – this is real handy feature that I’ve been looking forward to for a while now. The multi-paged layout works very well for both novices and techies, making the more detailed setting layered below the basic settings.
The technology behind the Tri-Fi’s display is a bit “old fashioned” by 2012 standards. It uses LCD instead of the sexier OLED technology display panel found on other competitor’s 4G hotspots. From my understanding, LCD draws less battery power than OLED, so there is a functional benefit to LCD over OLED on the Tri-Fi at least. While the text on the Tri-Fi’s display is far less sharp and contrasting than then Verizon Jetpack’s OLED panel, I think it’s perfectly fine for the average user. After all, this is not a smart phone we’re talking about, where you're spending half your life staring at a tiny screen.
The side edge of the case has dual female cable ports to allow for hookup of external Wi-Fi and mobile broadband 3G/4G antennas, which help provide better Wi-Fi range and Sprint 3G/4G signal strength and reliability. Business travelers who don't mind toting around a few extra cables and an antenna or two will definitely appreciate the ability to hook up a high gain external antenna. The proper external antenna can often boost WiMax and LTE 4G signal strength by a factor of several times, which is sometimes the only way to acquire a weak signal when in remote areas. High gain antennas also come in handy in environments like hotel and meeting rooms that have lousy cellular reception due to the building structure, walls, and other interferences.
The Sprint Tri-Fi Mobile Hotspot supports all current Wi-Fi standards including “B”, “G”, and the newest and fastest, “N”. Wireless “N” supports a minimum of 108 to 150 Mb per second Wi-Fi transfer speed, which is twice as fast as “G”. While it's true that 108 Mb per second is perhaps 10 times faster than even the fastest Sprint 4G itself, there are a host of other improvements that “N” offers that are beyond the scope of this review. Not all hotspots sold today support “N”, this one does - so let's leave it there without worries.
Using the Tri-Fi
The Tri-Fi has the capability to handle up to eight separate devices or users connected at once, and can accept up to 32GB of storage space with a standard Micro-SD card slot. This onboard memory can be used for storing and sharing files, business documents, music, and videos. The Tri-Fi also performs nicely as a sort of “shared file server” for its connected clients. This even comes in handy when you have two of your own devices, like a laptop and iPad connected to the Tri-Fi hotspot which need to transfer or store common shared files. It's like having a virtual USB memory stick over Wi-Fi. -- a pretty cool feature actually.
The range of the Wi-Fi is claimed to be 150 feet. In outdoors testing, I was able to get as far as 215 feet before the signal disappeared. Outdoors, the signal dropped to approximately 50% strength at around 60 feet from the Tri-Fi, which is about the same as the Verizon Jetpack 4G. For more practical indoor testing, the Wi-Fi signal was able to penetrate a plaster and wire mesh wall over a distance of about 20 feet, and still register about 50% signal strength on our laptop. All in all, the Wi-Fi performance was above average, and I was pretty happy with its performance in a bunch of different environments.
The Tri-Fi’s Outstanding Battery Life
The Tri-Fi has a factory supplied battery that is significantly larger and “thicker” than all other mobile hotspots I have used or tested. While this makes the hotspot’s profile appearance a bit funky looking (considering everything mobile is moving towards being thinner and thinner). The oversized battery is a small price to pay for the benefit delivers: a battery running life of at least 8 hours.
The beefy 3600 mAH battery pulled just over 9 hours and 15 minutes during the rigorous LAPTOP battery life test that simulates real world internet activities over a mobile hotspot, but the typical users should easily be able to get close to 10 hours from this hotspot when on Sprint's 3G and WiMAX 4G networks.
One of MobileHotspot.com’s affiliates who were located in range of Sprint LTE tested battery power when on Sprint’s 4G LTE network. When connected exclusively to Sprint LTE network, battery drain was definitely more a factor. Our friend reported in a runtime of almost eight hours (7 hrs 52 mins)- a figure still way ahead of most other mobile hotspots out there. From my experience with other 4G LTE devices, the reduced battery life when operating in LTE mode is normal and was to be expected.
Sprint Mobile Networks
Inside the Tri-Fi are three separate cellular modems which go through a cyclic process of one modem turning on, then the other two powering down. This cyclic process enables the Tri-Fi to find the fastest connection by support for the three Sprint cellular bands (850, 1900, and 2600 mhz). This translates to support for EVDO/CMDA 3G, WiMax 4G, and the LTE 4G networks. During the Tri-Fi's boot up process, it performs a scan of available Sprint networks within its range. In the Tri-Fi’s attempt to connect to the fastest network, it will first scan for LTE, then the WiMax and finally the 3G Sprint networks.
The Tri-Fi's time to “boot up”, meaning for the device to 1) power-on, 2)acquire a Sprint network signal, and 3) put the device’s Wi-Fi receiver into a ready state took about 20 to 40 seconds, with Sprint 3G signal taking the least amount of time, and 4G WiMAX taking the most. As compared to other 4G hotspots like the Verizon Jetpack and AT&T Elevate, the Tri-Fi took about twice as long to boot. But then again, if the difference between 20 seconds and 40 seconds means that much to a user, the fact that they're even using a mobile hotspot at all might be a more interesting question.
The Tri-Fi goes into sleep mode after it’s Wi-Fi radio being idle for about 30 minutes, and it takes about 30 seconds to wake up from sleep mode ( about as long as it takes to power up) . To turn the Tri-Fi on or off, you'll need to press and hold this button for a few seconds. On two occasions I experienced a situation where the device would not come out of sleep mode – I had to pull the battery to actually reset the device. I am not sure if this is a common issue, (or if it’s an issue at all) but from my experience future firmware updates usually fix these types of issues.
USB Tethering for Non-WiFi Devices
I'm assuming large percentage of desktop PC's out there don't have Wi-Fi capability built in, so how can they use a mobile hotspot to get online? By using the USB connection to the device instead of Wi-Fi., that’s how.
The Tri-Fi mobile hotspot was extremely easy to use as a "tethered" USB data modem. Plugging the Tri-Fi into my HP desktop caused the (Windows 7) drivers to be automatically installed. If you want to use the Tri-Fi over USB, you’ll need to install those included drivers.
The device driver software is actually stored on the USB port itself, exactly the same way a USB memory stick works. Not needing to worry about carrying installation and setup CD's when traveling is exactly the type of thing business travelers like myself appreciate. The Tri-Fi automatic driver installation is handled by the “Tru-Install” feature, which takes all of the difficulty and uncertainty of installing a device driver away.
I was curious as to how the performance over USB would be, especially as compared to the speedy Wi-Fi “N” connection I normally use. The good news I found was that there was no noticeable difference in bandwidth speed when communicating over USB 2.0. If anything, I saw perhaps a very slight increase in speed for USB when testing download speeds using Speedtest.net’s online tool.
Sprint Data Plans
The first thing that comes on people’s minds these days you mentioned Sprint is that they are the only major carrier that (still) offers unlimited data. Perhaps its Sprint’s millions of dollars spent on advertising their famous slogan “Truly Unlimited Data” ?
Although I hate to be the bearer of bad news, the first thing you must realize is "unlimited data" is only available for Sprint Smartphones, like the iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy. Back in November 2011, Sprint officially ended unlimited data offerings for their mobile hotspots. It's not all bad news however - Sprint instituted a few new pricing tiers to accommodate both light and heavy data subscribers. While some smaller limit plans, like the 1GB per month became less expensive, other larger data plans, like the 12GB per month offer some comparative advantages over Verizon and AT&T, and that on “per gigabyte” basis, the Sprint plans would be less expensive.
Sprint offers four data plan levels for their mobile hotspot subscribers:
For lightweight users, there's an inexpensive $19.99-a-month for 1 gigabyte of data. This plan works great for my grandmother and her “can’t live without it” iPad, since she does absolutely no video, music and other data hogging activities. The $20 price point also works for her, since she's living on a tight monthly fixed income.
The other Sprint data plan options include:
$34.99 plan for 3 gigabytes, which is perfect for business users who need occasional high bandwidth use like video chat, VPN, IP telephony and online corporate video.
$49.99 for 6 gigabytes, which is incidentally their most popular data plan.
$79.99 for 12 gigabytes , the largest monthly plan amoung Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
Sprint's 12GB plan equates to less than a penny (0.66 cents) per megabyte. To my calculation, this is the lowest overall data price on a "price per megabyte” basis among all the four big mobile providers. Data overage changes are assessed on a 5 cents per-megabyte basis. Sprint's overage charges are more expensive than AT&T and Verizon, but at least Sprint's policy is a bit more equitable, since overuse is billed in megabyte increments, where the other providers bill in gigabyte increments.
Sprint Network Performance
I was able to test Sprint’s 3G and 4G WiMAX download and upload performance, in and around the New York metro area. When connected to the Sprint 3G network, download speeds ranged from 600 Kbps to about 2.7 Mbps, with what I would estimate to be an average of about 2.0 Mbps. Upload speeds averaged about 1.0 Mbps. These 3G numbers, while not terrible, are by no means spectacular. From my experience and research, Sprint 3G is a lot slower in the larger US cites like Miami, Los Angeles and New York because a lot of the Sprint 3G spectrum is “flooded” with users from Sprint affiliate and sister companies, such as Virgin Mobile and Boost Wireless. Outside the big urban cities, Sprint 3G is reported to be much faster.
Using the Tri-Fi in 4G WiMax mode was overall a pretty enjoyable experience. I estimate the average download speed was about 4.5 Mbps, and upload about 1.0 Mbps. On a few occasions the WiMAX 4G connection would be VERY slow, like 400 Kbps download. But that only happened a few times, and was likely attributable to physical obstructions and signal interference.
So what about Sprint LTE 4G? As mentioned, Sprint has not yet deployed LTE in the New York area, so I could not test it myself. I reached out to one of my contributing editors who is within the Atlanta metro area that does have LTE turned on. I arranged for a loaner Tri-Fi to be sent out to her for some actual Sprint 4G LTE testing using the Tri-Fi.
Overall, the Sprint 4G LTE speed is a little disappointing (at least in relative terms) . I got back reports of download and upload speeds that are both on average of about 5 to 6 Mbps. These LTE speeds are significantly slower than Verizon’s LTE speeds of about 8 to 12 Mbps. In doing some research, it seems that in general, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon will all have about the same 4G LTE performance when measured in aggregate across the county, likely around 7 to12 Mbps. Because there are relatively few Sprint LTE sites turned on as of June 2012, I personally think that it’s premature to draw any overall conclusions on Sprint 4G LTE speed and performance.
WiMax 4G should suffice for most people who need a broadband solution that’s adequately quick and available in large number of cities an metro areas.
Wrap up and Final Thoughts
The new Tri-Fi Mobile Hotspot is definitely needed by Sprint, and could not have come at a better time for the company. Sprint realizes that its WiMAX network has limited growth potential and may be approaching end-of-life, so it’s placing all bets on its 4G LTE networks in 2012 and beyond.
Unfortunately, Sprint got off to a late start with deploying their LTE network, so this device is a great middle ground for customers who want to take advantage of Sprint's fairly large and moderately fast WiMAX network today, while waiting for LTE to be turned on in their neighborhood tomorrow. The fact that it also is compatible with Sprint's 3G network is icing on the cake, when it comes to offering the Tri-Fi user maximum coverage no matter where they are.
As far as hardware specs, the Tri-Fi is definitely up to par when compared to the other providers flagship mobile hotspots, namely the Verizon Jetpack 4620L and the AT&T Elevate 4G. It supports nearly identical specs when it comes to Wi-Fi signal radius and built-in features, but really shines when it comes to battery life, USB tethering and an excellent on-board device management using it’s LCD display panel.
Existing Sprint smartphone or mobile broadband customers who are happy with Sprint will likely love the features and functionality of the Tri-Fi mobile hotspot. For those starting out on owning a mobile hotspot, Verizon's 4G LTE Jetpack mobile hotspot is probably a better option, since the Verizon LTE network is over 10 times larger than Sprint's LTE 4G. Verizon does not offer the lower-end data tiers that Sprint does, but on the other hand, Verizon's data overage rate can be far less expensive in the long run for users who regularly exceed their data limits.
- Huge list of advanced device features like SD card slot, external antenna port, advanced WiFi security
- Compatible with three Sprint Mobile Networks: 4G LTE (Very Fast), 4G WiMAX (Fast) and 3G.
- Wide range of Sprint 3G/4G Data Plans well suited for both light and heavy users.
- Data overage billed in megabyte (not gigabyte) increments can result in lower costs.
- The longest battery life (up to 10 hours) of any mobile hotspot
- Sprint's 4G WiMax and 4G LTE networks, even when combined, are smaller than Verizon's single LTE network
- Uncertain future and perceived lack of investment by Sprint into their 4G WiMax network.
- Data overage rates at 5 cents per MB, add up to more than Verizon's $10 per GB
- LCD screen can be difficult to read in sunlight and the text in not as sharp as the Verizon Jetpack's OLED screen.