Networking

Clearwire ISpot

The Clear iSpot panders to iOS device owners. The tiny, battery-powered cellular router connects any iOS device--iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch--via Wi-Fi to Clearwire's high-speed mobile broadband service. The iSpot is similar to the MiFi 2200, with two big differences: It is compatible with iOS devices only; it won't connect Macs. And it works only with Clearwire's fourth-generation (4G) network, which is not yet widely available. (MiFis currently sold in the U.S. connect to Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless's more widespread 3G networks.)

Clearwire's 4G network employs WiMax, a cellular technology that the firm has built out in a scattering of cities. That network currently reaches about 50 million people (or roughly 16 percent of U.S. residents). In contrast, Verizon's 3G network reaches about 95 percent of the U.S. population; 3G services from the other three carriers (AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) are available to about 75 percent.

The iSpot's connection quality will vary depending on where you are. But if you happen to be in the right spot (sorry), Clearwire's service can be amazing. Coverage is superb in Seattle (where I tested it); it extends throughout the whole metro area and beyond. In those tests--inside and outside, in cars and at rest--I saw sustained rates from the iSpot from 1 Mbps to 8 Mbps downstream (clustered in the 2 to 3 Mbps range). Upstream rates were far worse, rarely exceeding a few hundred Kbps per second. By comparison, using an iPhone 4 in those same spots, AT&T's network delivered downstream rates in the 1 to 2 Mbps range; uploads were consistently over 1 Mbps. (The iPhone 3G and 3GS and 3G iPad are constrained to 384 Kbps upstream.)

Because the iSpot appears as just another Wi-Fi network to your iOS device, services that Apple or AT&T restricts over 3G networks are fully available. There's no 20MB limit on app, music, or movie downloads, nor is streaming audio or video throttled to a lower rate. Netflix and Hulu Plus worked as beautifully on my iPad connected to the iSpot as they did when the iPad was connected through a high-speed cable modem connection. The iPhone 4 can use FaceTime with an iSpot, too; in tests, FaceTime worked just as well as over wired broadband.

Simple, small, secure

The iSpot is eminently portable: It fits in a shirt or pants pocket. It's also simple to set up and use. A WPA Personal password is preset and written on the device's label to secure the Wi-Fi network. The Wi-Fi controls available through a Web browser let you change the network password, and robust WPA2 Personal security is available.

Startup time was typically under two minutes, including the acquisition of a network signal. The iSpot has a variety of signal lights on the top to show its startup progress. A visual signal-strength LED shows solid green, yellow, or red for best to worst 4G performance; it flashes red to indicate no connection. You can also connect to the router to view connection information by typing ispot in Mobile Safari.

The worst thing about the iSpot is its battery life: I got about four hours per charge, which means you'll need to find an AC outlet or DC charger a few times in the course of a full working or traveling day. The battery is swappable, but Clear isn't currently selling replacements.

Its other big limitation is the hardware it works with. Clearwire blocks access to devices that don't have a MAC (Media Access Control) address or unique network identifier in the ranges Apple uses for iOS hardware. You could conceivably spoof an iOS device, by changing the MAC address on computers or other mobile devices that allow that; Clearwire is clearly expecting you to be on the honor system.

But its limitations don't negate the iSpot's strengths. At $25 a month, Clearwire's service could be attractive to anyone who regularly uses an iOS device beyond the range of fixed Wi-Fi networks and who wants to consume gigabytes of cellular data each month without facing AT&T's overage fees. The iSpot also takes away the tedium of monitoring usage, as there's no bandwidth limit. It's a simple, solid product--as long as you have the right hardware (an iOS device) and you live in a place with Clearwire service. If you don't qualify on both counts, the iSpot obviously ain't for you.

(Note: Clearwire also offers an identical modem, the Spot 4G, for the same upfront price and $40 per month (or $5 per month with a two-year contract), with no device restrictions. It also has a combined 3G/4G modem, the Spot 4G+, for $225 upfront or a $6 per month lease; Service is $55 per month with unlimited 4G and up to 5 GB of 3G usage on Sprint's network. But the 4G+ is primarily intended for people who live in a 4G area and need 3G only when traveling.)

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