Clear WiMAX USB modem impressions

Clearwire (along with Sprint and Comcast, just to name a couple) has been fiercely expanding its WiMAX network across America for months on end now, and while select citizens in select cities have had access to the 4G superhighway for just over a year, we haven't actually had the opportunity to find ourselves in one of those locations for any amount of time. Until recently, that is. The Clear 4G service was lit up in Las Vegas late last year, which gave the Engadget squad just enough time to scrounge up a gaggle of Motorola 4G USB sticks and really test out the network while at CES. Meanwhile, the North Carolinians among us were also able to test the boundaries of the 4G patches that have been setup here, and we're finally ready to dish out a few opinions on the fourth generation of cellular data. Eager to know if it's the best thing since sliced bread the invention of the MP3? Read on to find out.

Unlike most 3G options, Clear's WiMAX solution can actually replace your home ISP. We'd probably recommend an at-home modem over a USB stick if you're going that route, but we suppose one could always shove their USB modem in their home desktop before hitting the web for the day. Our focus here is on the mobile side, but suffice it to say, if your home is within a well-covered patch of 4G, there's no reason you shouldn't considering ditching your existing ISP and giving this a shot. Granted, we wouldn't recommend that heavy users (particularly those who spend days on end uploading wacky YouTube HD videos) do such a thing, but for casual browsers the speed is likely to satisfy -- and it'll probably save you a buck or two in the end over what you're paying now.

The actual Motorola USB modem that we used was a 4G-only device, which makes it extremely limited when you're traveling. For example, if using a traditional 3G USB modem whilst in the backseat of a vehicle, it can automatically step down to 2G when you pass out of the city and into a more rural setting. It's typically seamless, and it enables one's internet experience to remain in tact even when jumping from one network to another. Unfortunately, this 4G stick is useless when traveling outside of a 4G coverage area; frankly, we'd recommend one of the 4G / 3G sticks if you're jonesing for something quicker, which will allow you to still surf at 3G speeds if you travel to an area that's outside of the 4G umbrella.

That said, the modem itself performed well in the 4G cities that we surveyed. Installation was a breeze on both Mac and PC platforms, and the bundled USB adapter enabled us to angle it as we pleased and prevented the stick itself from blocking our power ports when inserted. The connection management software was rather barebones, and it simply auto-searches and auto-connects to a network (at least on the Mac side) whenever it detects that a 4G device is present. Once connected, a row of lights informs you of your signal strength. And that's where things begin to get iffy.

More so than any 3G area we've ever been in, 4G connections just seemed overly finicky. We could literally move two feet from our current position and drop the entire signal, yet be downloading at blazing fast rates after we moved back and reconnected. We also found that the fringe areas of the posted 4G blankets are more "fringy" than those in the 3G world; unless you're in the heart of the city that Clearwire covers, you should probably expect spotty or intermittent coverage. As an example, the entire Engadget staff had full coverage (and great throughput speeds) while using 4G at our CES trailer; just a five minute walk away to the hotel brought about varied results.

I personally couldn't connect to Clearwire's network at all from my 18th floor room, while my Sprint 3G card hummed along fine; my good buddy and confidant Chris Ziegler had no issues hopping on the 4G waves from his 18th floor room that sat just a few meters down from mine. It seemed that our hotel luck was all over the place, with some connecting sans issue, some not at all and some with paltry rates and a signal that tended to drop with some level of frequency. We fully understand that CES was going on, but it's not like everyone has shifted to 4G handsets just yet -- in fact, we'd wager that the 4G network in Vegas was the lightest used during the show. We also had varying levels of success in hotel suites where press conferences were being held. Some of the team was able to liveblog entire pressers on 4G without a hiccup, while others just down the road couldn't find a signal at all to connect to (meaning we had to resort to 3G).

When we were able to nail down a solid connection, speeds were admirable. Not mind-blowing, but definitely a step up from the 3G rates that we've grown accustomed to seeing. On average, we were able to pull between 2,000 and 3,000Kbps down, while upload rates rarely topped 600Kbps. That's a fair bit less than those theoretical maximums (around half, actually), but since when has any internet service actually delivered those lofty peaks? We should also note that latency was far better on 4G than on 3G; we rarely saw ping times over 100ms, while our 3G test from a year ago rarely saw ping times under 150ms.

If you'll compare these rates to those found in the aforementioned 3G test, you'll notice that 4G is a lot more like 3.5G, so to speak. It's not going to smoke your HSDPA connection by any wide margin, and it's a lot more likely to drop out on you in our experience. Of course, one must remember than this technology is still in its infancy, and there are still waves upon waves of rollouts that need to happen before the level of infrastructure supporting it comes close to matching that already installed by 3G operators. Still, if you're looking to buy into 4G today, we can't recommend any solution that doesn't also offer 3G compatibility as a backup. In our testing, we found 4G networks to be far too spotty and unreliable to use as your sole mobile broadband solution. Even if your home or place of work is supposedly blanketed according to Clearwire, there's a decent chance that some rooms, corners and hallways won't be. 'Course, we'd be a lot more willing to forgive the shortfalls if WiMAX were available in more than a handful of cities, but hey, expansion takes time and money -- neither of which are particularly easy to come by these days.