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Clearwire's Rover Puck 4G Mobile Hotspot: Prepaid Is Now Hip

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Clearwire is offering a pay-as-you-go mobile hotspot called the Rover Puck as an alternative route to its 4G service. Aimed at consumers who don’t want to commit to (or can’t qualify for) a service contract, this very portable device lets you become a walking hotspot, sharing 4G Internet access with up to seven friends.

The catch is that you can use it only in Clearwire's WiMax service areas. I took it to an offsite staff meeting, but the building was not quite within range of the WiMax signal. The WiMax symbol (which resembles a martini glass) on the top of the disc flashes as the device seeks a signal, and stays solid when the Puck is connected to WiMax service. I walked about 20 feet from the meeting room and got a connection, but the WiMax indicator started flashing when I returned to the meeting. What’s more, the Puck doesn’t support 3G--and though Clear is ambitiously expanding its WiMax service, that service still doesn't reach some places I frequently go. But if you stick to WiMax turf, the Puck is a good and economical option.

About the same size as Clearwire's Clear Spot 4G, the $150 Puck connects to the same Clear WiMax network as other Clear 4G products, but it doesn't require a contract. In contrast, the Clear Spot 4G router costs $100 outright (as of October 1, 2010) or you can lease it for $5 monthly, but it requires a contract of about $30 per month for unlimited use.

Clearwire created the Rover brand to market two products designed for customers who prefer to pay by the month for 4G network access: the Puck hotspot and the single-user USB Rover Stick. The pay-per-use option for the Puck costs $5 for a day, $20 for a week, or $50 for a month of 4G service.

The Puck is an attractive glossy black disk with blue trim (instead of the Clear brand's characteristic lime green). It seems sturdy; I dropped it (accidentally) a couple times and it didn’t even scuff, and it easily fits into a backpack or purse. It measures 4.25 inches in diameter and is about 0.75 inch high (with “feet” to permit a little air flow under the disk--a good thing, because it can get a bit warm, though the heat didn’t seem to hamper performance. The only wired connectivity is via a micro-USB port to accommodate an AC or car charger (both are included in the package). The two buttons at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on the side of the disk are small but serviceable. One powers on the device; the other displays the bars of connectivity (the maximum is four).

When you press the On button, the Puck seeks out and automatically connects to the Clear 4G network. When you first connect, launching a browser brings up the Rover Web page. You log on to the Website by entering the default WPA password identified on the label on the bottom of your Puck. That leads to another Web page containing a simple form that you fill out to set up your account and that you revisit to add credit to it("re-up") as needed.

On that second site, you can (and should) change your WPA password. To share access with friends, you simply give them the SSID of your particular Puck (their laptops should see the associated service set as a password-protected wireless network) and the password. Clear claims that the Puck can handle eight users; I can’t vouch for that, but the hardware's performance will probably decrease if eight users are using it simultaneously to download and upload large multimedia files with gusto, simultaneously.

In my tests, the Puck provided access for about 4 hours straight on its battery for two users who were performing ordinary Internet connectivity tasks such as viewing and sending e-mail, loading Web pages, and watching the occasional video; of course, you can plug it in if an AC outlet is handy.

The Puck’s connectivity and throughput are as good as the 4G signal strength in your location. I tested the Puck on the island of Maui, and since Clear service blankets the Hawaiian Islands, the signal was clean and steady just about everywhere (with a few exceptions that you can see on Clear’s coverage maps). Download speed was about 5.6 megabits per second.

In the Seattle area, the story was the same; the Puck usually connected quickly--well within a minute--and performed consistently and reliably where the signal was strong, even when I shared the hotspot with other users. The best connection speeds I saw in Seattle were around 7.2 mbps, with an average speed of about 5.6 mbps. The Puck was sometimes faster than the Clear home modem but it didn’t always connect to a signal as quickly as the other device did.

Service in Bellingham, Washington--which has had 4G service from Clear for almost two years--was true to the geography; if the WiMax tower was nearby and the signal was strong, the Puck connected quickly and performed well. Nearer to the edge of the WiMax service area, the martini glass tended to keep flashing. You can hold down the Puck’s second button to conjure up the bars that purportedly indicate the signal's strength, but those were not usually much help: Either the device was connected to the service or it wasn’t.

Just for fun, I tried to use the Rover Puck on Interstate 5 in western Washington state, to see whether the hardware could maintain an Internet connection across various tower handoffs. (I wasn’t the driver.) The signal repeatedly failed between towers, and the Puck did not automatically reconnect.This result surprised me, since I had been able to stay online when using Clearwire’s Clear Spot 4G+ on the same route; but then again, the latter supports both 4G and 3G.

My main complaint about the Rover Puck is that it works only with WiMax; enabling the device to connect to 3G when 4G isn’t available would have been a welcome convenience. Devices that support both types of service are typically more expensive: Sprint’s Overdrive Wireless Router costs $100 and requires a contract, and the Clear Spot 4G+ costs $225 with a month-to-month option but a fee of about $55. Though Clear is marketing the Rover Puck to buyers in their 20s who prefer or need the pay-per-use option, The Puck interests me because it lets me share Internet access among family members or coworkers on the fly. It's a handy traveling companion because it frees you from having to hunt down an Internet café; and its pay-as-you-go rates beat most hotel fees for Internet access.

The documentation and even the name (“Puck, Yeah!” is a slogan) try to be hipper than thou (one instruction in the skinny but serviceable troubleshooting guide is followed by, “Like, duh?”) but some members of the target demographic whom I consulted found the affectations a little silly. The main question is whether the technology works--and it does, as long as your 4G does.

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At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Extremely simple 4G setup
    • Attractive pricing plan option
    • Sturdy, slick, portable device
    • Wireless LAN capabilities seemed reliable


    • You must have 4G, which isn't everywhere
    • WPA appears to be the only security
    • Determining when you have a solid connection isn't easy
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