Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sprint Overdrive 4G In-Depth Review


There are only a few gadgets in life that live up to the “love at first sight” phenomenon.  All too often I see something I like online and when I get it in my hands the honeymoon ends quickly. That’s not the case here. This is the real deal and well worth every penny you might pay for it.  I picked one of these bad boys up as soon as it was available in the hopes that it would live up to its promise: A full blown mobile hotspot that provides remote coverage combined with the ease of use and multiple platform support of WiFi.   Let’s take a look at this puppy in detail so you’ll fully understand why this baby delivers.

What You Get

When you open the box you’ll find the following items:

  • Getting Started Guide with pictures (so you’ll pay attention to them)
  • USB-A to micro-B USB connector (note, not to mini-B)
  • USB-A charger
  • LiON battery (3.7V, 6.66Wh, 1800mAh) and cover
  • The Overdrive unit itself
  • A cool box that looks like the unit’s big brother



Everything is neat and tidy inside the case.  Not much waste to be had here.  The case itself is hard plastic, which not quite the green choice as it bears no resin recycling code.  I’m sure I can find another use for it, but c’mon guys.  Don’t you get out to the movies?  The instructions are pretty simple and initial setup couldn’t be any easier.  If you lose them, they are printed inside the battery cover just in case.  Just turn it on, wait a few min for it to acquire a signal for the first time and connect using the WiFi information on the LCD screen.  Once done, everything can be customized from the browser.

The Goods


 IMG_8683 SprintOverdrive-InitialScreen 

Taking a quick look around this thing there are two sets of inputs on either side.  One is a sound switch to toggle sound from the device.  By default it is set to off, which at first glance you might decide to leave it that way.  However, after a few hours of playing with it I found it to be useful to show when successful connections occurred and when the signal drops, which is another thing entirely. The second side has a microSD slot and a micro-B USB outlet. By the pictures and by the website, you might think that this is an mini-B USB connection which adorns many devices this day, but alas you would be mistaken.  I did confirm with support that this is a micro-B USB connection, for which they sell travel adapters and the like online.  Sadly, they aren’t as widespread as mini-B, so I have a new travel buddy for my bag.

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Connectivity and Device Setup

Connectivity to the client couldn’t be simpler.  Once activated, connectivity is available via WiFi (802.11g).  The initial security is provided via WEP, however this can be easily changed as part of setup.  After receiving a TCP/IP Address, connection to the setup is as simple as connecting to from the connected device.  After hitting the page you are given three options, of which you should head straight to “Set up my Overdrive” to set up your connectivity settings to customize it for you.

SprintOverdrive-Connection  SprintOverdrive-Screen04

The landing page for setup is rather simple.  You have the ability to set up a password (1-20 characters), name the device (which also assigns the first 15 characters as the SSID) and establish security settings.  As I mentioned, the device uses WEP out of the box, but supports WPA-Personal, WPA2-Personal, WEP-64 security as well as an open device. Given its your cell bill people are burning, I suggest configuring WPA or WPA2 security and not echoing the password. This is of course depending on the level of support the devices you expect to connect to it have for WPA or WPA2.


Once initial setup is complete the you are taken to the configuration screen.  From there you can configure most everything about the device including getting detailed metrics about signal strength, WiFi settings and GPS information.


Under the Hood

One great thing about this is the detailed signal strength information you can gather.  Not only do visual indicators show up on the device itself, but several configuration pages provide deeper detail than most mortals care to understand. In this example, I am connected via 3G and my coverage is outlined quite nicely from my indoor office space. In addition, data use information is available on a different page, allowing you to understand how much you have used this billing cycle.  In the Sprint data plan, you are capped at 5GB per month for 3G connections, unlimited for 4G connections.

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Another checkbox in the device feature column is the ability to provide GPS functionality.  Mapping services include Google, Bing, Yahoo and MapQuest.  By default GPS is set to gathering a fix on-demand, however it can be set to continuous, which seems like it would be a battery drain.  I am rather impressed that this device is one – pretty darn accurate and two – able to acquire satellites and my position from indoors.  Granted, I am near some windows where I sit, but I believe I am far enough away to send my Garmin Forerunner 305 into fits of separation anxiety.  The top-level “Map Me” menu item from the settings has a mini-menu bar to provide you map access to nearby needs.  This is achieved by using search tags in the query (“loc”, “bank”, “restaurants”, “gas station”, “coffee”, “hotel” and of course, “sprint”) and is a nice touch for those who are unfamiliar with this functionality.

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The SD slot (which supports up to 16GB cards) is cool on a lot of levels, providing native SMB access to the files stored on the card itself.  No need for an adapter for that pesky speck of a card anymore.  Access can also be managed through the UI and they even went as far as allowing guest access for those times that you don’t want to hand over complete control of the device to a friend just to gain access to some pictures.


Above all, this is a WiFi access point.  You might expect this device to be a watered down WiFi access point.  If so, sorry to disappoint you.  The device is a full blown WiFi AP including advanced capabilities such as DHCP settings, port forwarding, port triggering and DMZ access.  In short, the level of functionality and configuration this device brings is on par with my home Linksys WiFi AP.  Signal strength was advertised as being 150ft, which I decided to test by walking to my neighbor’s house some 200ft away.  As you can see, the signal degraded slightly, however it stayed connected for an amazingly long distance.  Overall I maintained connectivity until I reached their front door, at which time I had to embarrassingly explain to my neighbor what I was doing and that I wasn’t bringing them Girl Scout Cookies.

 SprintOverdrive-Screen26  SprintOverdrive-Signal2 

Speed you ask?  Well, this is where I would have to say “mileage may vary”.  I guess this has a lot to do with the network you are riding upon.  I connected over the device using 40% 3G signal and gathered the following results (525 kbps down, 279 kbps up) from a bandwidth test engine.  Tests on different engines yielded similar results.  When I went to a location where I received a 90% 4G connection, connection speeds went up to slightly over 700 kbps down, but the speeds weren’t noticeably different from the client end.  I will say that overall I was impressed with speeds and didn’t find myself wanting for more.  Having tested a AT&T USB Lightening before, this connection is noticeably faster and ease of use of WiFi cannot be understated.



Ok, with all things gadgets there always is something to complain about and this device, as cool as it is, is no different.  First, this thing is a fingerprint magnet. The glossy black case attracts smears and fingerprints like a bug light. I feel like I am polishing a jewel every time I pick it up and have to wipe it off.  Second, I am pretty sure that this thing will attract scratches just as easily.  While I found that most iPhone covers like this one fit like a glove over the round power button, they do not provide full coverage for the face and run about $15. In talking with the folks from Sprint support, one person suggested clear contact paper for about $3. Genius. I wish they would have added a Crown Royal bag or something for carrying the damn thing. They sell a $15 rubber case for the edges, but I think I am going to go without it. Third thing to complain about is the wonderful LCD screen.  OK, so its color and it has a ton of info on it, it has one problem – to save juice it goes out.  I actually like that aspect from a battery life perspective, but the problem I found is that you cannot easily check information on it once it does go dark.  You can tap the power button once to get a display back up, but I found that all too often it takes that tap as a “shut down” and in the process of checking the device’s connectivity you ultimately lose it. In my discussion with Sprint support they acknowledged that it worked this way and didn’t indicate any future changes.  I’d suggest that Sierra Wireless look long and hard at the wide array of devices which prompt first or require longer taps to initiate a shutdown. Finally, my last complaint is battery life.  At the end of the day, this is a cell phone with great capabilities but limited talk time.  The battery life on this device drains as if there is a hole drilled in the bottom. I set it up with a full charge and was able to drain the battery to 20% in 2 hours.  While this is a lot of time, it seems as if I would have slightly longer for an updated device.  Oh yeah, it gets hot also, but I expected that.  Much of this battery drain was with the default settings, which are configured to provide considerable energy savings given the options.  As for me, I can’t wait until spare batteries are for sale and I hope they come with an external charger.

I will say that I like to complain and none of these are show-stoppers.  Seriously, I just need to get a grip, right?


If you travel like I do and have a need for a mobile connectivity solution - buy one.  Get a paper route, mow lawns, babysit, do whatever you can and get one.  Here’s the deal:  For now this thing runs about $99 now no matter how you buy it ($150 online with a $50 rebate or $199 in-store with a $100 rebate). Competitive solutions with other carriers run about the same price.  What’s more, competing service plans are identical in price ($59/mo) and similar terms (2 year agreement).  Having a data card on your existing plan with another carrier doesn’t help you from a price or commitment point of view so it really doesn’t matter who you get service from.  A quick check on Sprint’s coverage page can show you current and planned coverage areas for the places you live or travel. I highly recommend getting the $7 a month insurance, which unlike iPhone protection plans is quite comprehensive for what is a $349 retail device to replace.  What’s best is that you can do automatic billing and rid yourself of any headaches and separate bills.  I would recommend that when you buy the Overdrive that you get the 10-digit phone number for the device if you have no other service through Sprint.  This speeds up the support chain, which I found to be excellent when I called for information.

All in all, this is a gem and Sprint/Sierra Wireless deserve all of the accolades they will likely get for this device. See you on the road!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Things are always bigger in Texas


If I learned anything in my time in the military, it was that when “Texas” is used in conversation it should always be referred to as “the great state of Texas”.  That said, I had the luxury of spending three days in the great state attending some job related training in Austin. Having never been to Austin, I was pretty excited.  I’ve been a big fan of the PBS Austin City Limits show since I was a kid, and that love has grown since the featured artists have become decidedly cooler over the years. Oh yeah, Lance has a little bike store there also, but more on that later.

One thing you need to mentally prepare yourself for when travelling to the great state is the sheer expansiveness and retail repetition. The whole experience of driving through Texas reminds me of the Chemical Brothers’ Star Guitar video with retail chains taking the place of the telephone poles. Round Rock, the adjacent city to Austin, is home to Dell and happened to be where my class was.  I expected it to be hot as Hades there and was somewhat looking forward to a good dose of sun, but alas it was cold and rainy for most of my trip.  That didn’t bode well for the grand unveiling of the Dell solar panel farm in the building 1 parking lot on Monday.  Given the clouds and rainfall on its opening day, I doubt that the panels could generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity required to send Marty McFly back home. What struck me as odd was how expansive this farm looked in the Engadget picture, however in reality it wasn’t quite as large in real life with only six panels in the whole lot.  What’s more, when I helped drop off my friend’s rental car I noted that most of the Avis airport rental car parking lot had the same setup but in a much larger capacity.  Oh well, the idea is still pretty cool and I hope to see more green goodness in the future from big companies like this.

As I mentioned, there seemed to be enough chain restaurants in the area to clog the arteries of a small country. Being a vegetarian I fear these joints, so I referred to my favorite site for dining suggestions – HappyCow. By the way, if you have dietary restrictions and haven’t discovered this site, you haven’t lived yet. Yelp is nice, but HappyCow is where its at for vegi fare. Using a combination of HappyCow and a cell phone GPS mapping system, my friend and I chased down several restaurant leads until we settled on a good one – Sarovar. This Indian cuisine restaurant didn’t have the appearances on the surface of being as good as it was. At one point I think that they had some really swinging disco pumping in the joint since it was set up like a 70’s night club, but now it was converted into a small restaurant. I could practically smell the polyester. Anyhow, the service was great, the staff wore simple t-shirts and the food quite simply rocked. I highly recommend spending the extra $3 and getting the Thali with your entree for the complete experience. You know the place is good when you tell the hippie waiter that the food was awesome and he responds with “hell yes it is”.

On the way back, we stumbled across this bakery on the rear corner of a somewhat abandoned strip mall. Literally, this looked like any other abandoned strip mall in America, however around the corner was a swarm of activity pretty late at night. I have an affinity for local food places that are off the beaten path and this fit the bill.  Never being ones to pass up a baked good, we headed in straight away. The place turned out to be a traditional Hispanic bakery and it was a feast for the senses.

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We performed a bit of “wine tasting” with the baked goods and packed the rest up to enjoy when we got back home this week. 

A trip to Austin just wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Mellow Johnny’s bike shop and it was certainly on our agenda.  My travelling buddy DCRainmaker promised to do a complete blog post on the shop, so I won’t steal his thunder there.  The short story on the shop is that I found it to be one of the most well thought out bike shops I have seen. Given the owner and founder I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, however the shop was pretty unpretentious and was clearly designed around the breadth of cycling needs.  Aside from a good retail selection and repair shop, there was a complete bike fit room, CompuCycle fitness room, an espresso stand and a mini-museum of some notable TDF items built right into the shop. I included some pictures below, but head over to DCRainmaker’s blog to see the good stuff.

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Where does that leave us?  Going home of course.  The journey home was interesting since the sun finally made an appearance and raised the temperature up to the 70’s (Great Scott!  Finally some gigawatts!). From the Austin airport I made my way to Denver where 18 inches of snow awaited, delaying my flight home by several hours. Quite the contrast when juxtaposed to the warm weather of Texas.  I snapped a picture from my phone while we waited on the ground for de-icing to complete.


All that said, it was an interesting trip to Texas and I think that my time there was spent well. I can’t say when I will be back that way again (if ever), but now I feel as if I have a good sense of things if I do. BTW, no waffles were harmed in the making of this post.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Gear: Epson EX70 Review

If you are like me and work for a small non-profit organization, you likely need a small projector from time to time for everything from slide shows, entertainment and presentations. If you are also like me, you typically find yourself borrowing projectors to satisfy this requirement.  After years of doing this, my Boy Scout Troop/Venture Crew finally woke up, looked in the mirror and decided today was the day to buy a projector of our own.  Since I am usually the guy people come to for gadgets, I was asked to look into this and make a product selection.  Given all my research, I settled on the Epson EX70 and I can’t tell you the last time I was so impressed with a product purchase.  Let’s dig into the product a bit so you can see why I liked this device so much.

Epson has five (5) mid-range projectors, most of which can be found at your local large-chain office supply store or online.  While typically you can follow the product model numbers for increased feature sets (e.g. EX30, EX50, EX70, EX90, etc), this is simply not the case for the Epson EX line.  The EX70 certainly hits a sweet spot with features, functionality and cost.  My projector criteria was simple – cheap, flexible, simple and multiple inputs.  Size was certainly a factor, but in the end I gave up on in trade for other features.  The technical specification of the EX70 can be found on Epson’s site, but I prefer to look at things a bit deeper so I will share my personal findings here.

What You Get

When you open the box you’ll find the following items:

  • Instructions you’ll never read (in several languages you likely don’t understand)
  • Small remote control
  • 2 AA Batteries
  • 6’ power cable
  • Standard VGA cable
  • Standard A to Standard B USB cable
  • The projector itself
  • Carrying case

IMG_8253 IMG_8255

IMG_8256 IMG_8254

Everything seems very well put together aside from the carrying case, which is somewhat flimsy to the touch.  While the projector fits in like a glove, the storage of cables and other items seem to make it burst at the seams.  With the few strips of velcro that keep this bag sealed, it seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Luckily there seem to be several options out there if you are interested in a replacement, including some nice ones from Lowepro.

The Goods

The device itself is slightly larger than a big dictionary.  This is larger than many of the devices you’ll find on the market, but the device makes up for its size.  One of the first features you will notice is the self-contained sliding door to protect the lens.  After handling many borrowed projectors the thing I have learned to despise is the invention of the lens cap.  I can’t think of anything that sucks more than trying to find that thing at the end of the night.  What’s more, I can always hear the echo of my 5th grade teacher mentally warning me not to put a cap on a hot instrument for fear of damaging the bulb.  No worries with the EX70, that seems to be solved by this cover.  For suspension the device has two adjustable rear posts and a single tripod post on the front that raises the device about 1 1/2 inches in the front.  The dual rear adjustment posts are rather nice for uneven surfaces. Controls for lens focus and distance are also easily handled manually from handles on the lens, something that is much easier than managing this through software.  The projector also has a built-in speaker, which is very cool… but I’ll talk about that later. Finally, being a guy I like buttons, but honestly as I get older I have learned to appreciate simplicity.  Luckily the button-based controls on the projector are minimal and easy to understand. 

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One area that simply reigns supreme on this device is the wide array of inputs.  You can plug just about anything into this baby, including USB, SD cards, RCA, S-Video, HDMI and VGA.  I’ll dive into each connector here in a moment, but I want to stress that other Epson projector models did not carry this wide of an array of inputs.  Ultimately this became a major selling point towards the selection of this device.


Display Connections

The first connection I tried was the standard VGA connection.  I am running Windows 7 on my laptop and had no trouble connecting the device to it.  I grabbed an old Windows XP system to verify connectivity to that as well and equally had no trouble.  One of the great things about this projector is its range of supported resolutions.  This is another distinguishing factor of this device since others only supported XGA resolutions, while the EX70 supports up to 1600x1200 resolutions and is true WXGA compatible.  What does this mean in practical terms – you can run the resolution on your computer and not have to fiddle with it to get output from the projector.  What’s more, it supports wide screen formats making it simple to use for most modern laptops. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked to figure out how to make someone’s laptop display output to the projector screen, so the extended resolution support is a welcome feature in my book.  As you can see here, I was able to get 1680x1050 out of my laptop which has a humble Intel GMA 945 display adapter. It should be noted that the display is vivid and the quality is excellent.  Rated at 2000 lumens, this device is in line for projectors of this price point and it delivers a bright and beautiful display.

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One thing that I immediately noticed is how the projector  accommodates for wide screen formats by padding the screen.  While it is very subtle, at 1024x768 I could see some minor artifacts around the displayed screen.  I used some simple painter’s tape on the wall to outline the native resolution of the projector and how it elegantly and transparently handles display scaling. 


Aside from VGA the projector has RCA, HDMI Type A and USB connections.  The RCA connections worked like you would expect they would and required no knowledge.  This is where I discovered the built-in speaker – something that is quite unusual for a device of this class.  While not incredibly loud, it does the job for things like movies and Wii game play. I have provided a sample of VHS output below which played nicely on the wall during testing.  This will certainly come in handy when it doesn’t make sense to drag along a set of PC speakers or if the device cannot connect to an external speaker set.  Sadly, the device is missing audio output/pass-through for additional connections to external speakers.  That would have made this projector complete, however not being an electrical engineer I have no idea what complexity that would have added to the device.


HDMI connections worked as expected.  HDMI output was immediately picked up by the computer and other devices I plugged into the projector.  In testing the display was able to output HD quality video (720p and 1080i tested) without a problem and with stunning clarity.  While the projector supports HDMI audio, I was not able to get this working with my ATI HD 4670 display adapter.  At this point I am blaming the display adapter (not the operator) and will dig into that at some other time.

One area I was pretty excited about was the USB display capabilities.  I haven’t really seen this before and wondered if it was something that would be more trouble than it was worth.  Not so - installation and use was as simple as it can get. Like most guys I simply plug things in and look at the instructions if things end up not working.  In this case, the instructions stayed where they belonged – unopened in the bottom of the box.  Right off the bat Windows 7 picked up the projector and installed a mass storage device in Windows.  In a brilliant addition, Epson decided to bake in onboard USB storage in the projector to contain the setup software required.  No need to find an Internet connection or insert a CD/DVD for driver installation – its all there. From my point of view this is incredibly handy as it will keep us from having to haul around different media formats to ensure installation of the required drivers and software works for all systems.

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 Epson4 Epson3

As for the output quality, the display was just as vivid as the VGA connection from my findings. One thing I did notice is that there was a slight delay in the navigation of menus and the rendering of items in general, however this is simply because I was looking for it and I doubt this would be noticeable to anyone else using the device.


Onscreen Menus

If you’ve ever had to mess with a projector, you’ve likely had to press the dreaded “menu button”, which offers the user a dizzying array of customizations and options that will likely never be used.  While the menu options are quite large, I must say that Epson made this simple on the EX70.  There are six major categories for options and navigation is simple using the four-way buttons on the projector and the remote control.  One thing I certainly appreciate is the parity of the control from either the remote or the projector itself.  That parity means my boy scouts can lose the remote (yeah, its going to happen) and we can live fine without it.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t outline two cool things for adults who simply aren’t gadget-heads.  First, there is a “source search” button on the projector, allowing a single click to scan the inputs for available input connections.  That feature is typically found several menu options deep from my experience.  Second is the integrated Help feature.  When you press the Help button on the projector or the remote, a small menu appears asking some common, simple questions about the problem and offers quick shortcuts on how to solve it.  For a Boy Scout troop and the adult leaders that run it, this seems invaluable to me for days when I can’t be there to take the thorn out of the lion’s paw.

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Onboard Media Readers

If all this isn’t enough coolness for you, enter the onboard media reader feature of this projector.  The projector supports reading media directly from USB memory devices as well as standard SD cards (commonly found in most consumer point-and-click cameras). These inputs are also found on the rear of the projector and are equally as simple to use.

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Once a device is added, the onboard Slideshow application starts.  This application is very simple to use, allowing for the same four-button navigation from either the remote control or the buttons on top of the projector itself.  Navigation of on-media folders is equally simple (typically pictures in SD cards are nested within folders), with the UI allowing for folder drill-down as required.

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The onboard Slideshow application displays all of the media on the device as thumbnails and allows for single picture view or automatic presentation via a slideshow.  This had to be the easiest part of the whole solution.  A simple “Options” menu is available at the bottom of of the Slideshow UI to tweak minor settings in the presentation of media.  The only setting I found a need to change myself was the Screen switching time, which I reduced from a default of 5 seconds to 3 seconds. This seemed about on pace with what we would set up in a Picasa slideshow and kept me from wanting to fast-forward the presentation.

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In Slideshow view, the pictures were shown perfectly. In picture view mode, a small menu is available which has simple menu options that map to the four directional buttons mentioned earlier.  During a slideshow, the menu bar is obscured, however advancement of pictures can still be controlled through the same mechanisms.  While this seems like a minor feature, this has the potential to be the mechanism to present the many pictures taken over long camping trips in a very simple way.  Without the need for any additional software and simple navigation/operation, I can see our group getting a lot of mileage out of this feature.



Last but not least, let’s talk dollars and cents. The cost of the device was under $700 out of the door.  I was able to take advantage of a sale that brought it down to $649, but you can find good prices on this projector all over the web. Given the alternatives and the feature set, I was not able to find a more functional device that had the flexibility and feature set to be used by our troop.  If you are in the market for something like this for your group, want something simple, flexible and cheap, I strongly suggest you give this projector a hard look.  From my research it is a hard act to follow and certainly rises above the competition in this space.

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