It's sort of tough to believe that Sprint's own femtocell hit the national scene over a year ago, and just as we were impressed with that Samsung-sourced device, we're equally impressed with this Cisco-built box. We've already heard reports that the unit simply works, and without getting all long-winded on you, the long and short of it is this: yeah, it really does work.
Upon unboxing the 3G MicroCell, we were immediately struck at just how large this thing is. It's nearly twice as big as our WLAN router, and it's shockingly white. In other words, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Of course, it provides a nice blanket of AT&T 3G for your phones, but there's really no hiding this thing. AT&T also recommends that you place it near a window and over a foot away from your wireless router, though an incredibly short Ethernet cable is included (go figure). Initial setup was a breeze; you simply head to AT&T's setup website, login to your AT&T account, punch in your device's serial number and then add or delete AT&T mobile numbers that can be used on the device. Got a friend that comes over often and likes to make calls? Adding him / her is no problem, and numbers can be added or deleted at any time after the initial setup, too.
Once the online portion is complete, you're instructed to plug the device into your router (or broadband modem) and power it up. From there, the manual states that a 90 minute initialization period is needed before you can actually use it. Thankfully, our setup only took a half hour, and immediately after it was ready, a text message was sent to our iPhone 3G notifying us that a) our phone was connected to the 3G MicroCell and b) we could now make calls / access 3G data over the device.
Once it's connected (which happens automatically), the only difference you'll notice when using your 3G handset is clearer calls and stronger 3G reception. Our web surfing and emailing was buttery smooth over 3G, and calls were as clear as ever. We huddled down in a corner that's notorious for killing our signal and made a few test calls, all of which maintained signal throughout and garnered praise from everyone on the other end. Of course, you'll still feel the pain if your ISP tends to drop from time to time, but as long as your internet connection remains strong, you should be good to go. Just so you know, we tested our calls on a basic, no frills cable internet connection that sees uploads capped at around 40Kbps. Oh, and we did test two simultaneous calls (up to four at once are supported), and both of 'em went over great.
All told, AT&T's 3G MicroCell works exactly as advertised, though we were slightly disturbed by how toasty the top got. We generally saw anywhere between 1 and 4 bars of 3G at our testing facility, and after the MicroCell installation, we never saw it dip beneath 5 bars of 3G. One huge benefit of the 3G MicroCell over Sprint's AIRAVE is data support; the latter still doesn't provide EV-DO data, meaning that you'll still be forced to struggle through emails and web surfing at home if your handset doesn't handle WiFi. With AT&T's solution, users can expect strong 3G downloads anywhere in their home, which may or may not be a deal-maker. So, is this thing worth the coin? If you're dying to have an iPhone 3G / 3GS (or any of AT&T's 3G handsets), and you get horrible coverage at home, sure. Yeah, you could bicker that users shouldn't be paying to patch holes in AT&T's coverage areas, but that's exactly what your monthly payments go to (in theory) anyway. For those out there who are hard-up for an iPhone 3G or 3GS, another $150 from the savings account probably won't stop them. Oh, and for those of you dreaming of taking this overseas for a bit of gratis international calling, fuhgetaboutit. As with Sprint's AIRAVE, the internal GPS chip has to certify that you're within US borders before it'll work. Lame, but impossible to avoid.
We dig that AT&T will let users buy the box and then keep using it sans any monthly fees (unless you opt for a $20 per month unlimited calling plan), and we're hoping that the pricing gets increasingly more attractive as new test markets are rolled out. You see, the 3G MicroCell was priced at $150 regardless of plan selections in Charlotte, but in Raleigh, AT&T is testing out something a little different. Customers can purchase the device for $150 straight-up, but if they choose a $20 monthly plan to get unlimited calling, they can look forward to a $100 mail-in rebate bringing the grand total to $50. Additionally, Raleigh-area AT&T DSL and U-verse users (new subscribers only, though) get an extra $50 rebate, bringing the net cost of the femtocell to $0.00. It's not perfect, but it's progress, and we could definitely envision these flying off shelves at a breakneck pace should the MSRP stoop below the magical $100 mark.
Update: AT&T pinged us to say that the $100 rebate for choosing the $20 / month unlimited calling option is in effect for both Charlotte and Raleigh, though the extra $50 rebate is for Raleigh-area users only. And no, you can't buy this in Charlotte or Raleigh and take it back to San Jose; right now, AT&T will only enable MicroCells to operate in its test markets.