The Sprint 3G/4G Plug-in-Connect USB (free with a two-year contract) is the successor to last year’s 3G/4G USB U600 (4 stars), our most recent Editors’ Choice for cellular modems on Sprint. The Plug-in-Connect is essentially the same exact device, with one key new feature: This is one of the first cellular modems to work without the need for connection software—simply plug it in and you’re ready to go. It’s a big step up from having to deal with Sprint’s fussy SmartView software. And while it doesn’t support Sprint’s upcoming 4G LTE network, the Plug-in-Connect pulled in some really fast download speeds on Sprint’s fated-to-shutter WiMAX network. All in all, this would be our latest Editors’ Choice, if only it wasn’t so difficult for the Plug-in-Connect to establish a connection in the first place.
Design and Plans
Manufactured by Franklin Wireless, the 3G/4G Plug-in-Connect looks physically identical to the U600. Testing the two side-by-side, I had to mark the modems in order to tell them apart. That’s not a bad thing: At 2.9 by 1.3 by .6 inches (HWD) and a super light 1.1 ounces, the Plug-in-Connect is small, portable, and attractive. When plugged into a USB port, the modem is capable of 180 degrees of vertical motion. This doesn’t have an effect on reception, but it’s helpful if you’re looking to get just the right fit.
There are status lights at the top of the device that indicate whether it is in 3G or 4G mode. They’re simple to understand, if a bit dim. Aside from those, there are external antenna ports on either edge of the modem if you’re looking to boost reception.
Sprint offers two different plans for mobile broadband. $49.99 per month gets you 6GB of data, while $79.99 per month is good for 12GB. While either plan should be more than enough if your primary concern is email and Web access while traveling, it’s not enough data to replace your home connection—watch a few movies on Netflix and you can burn through that 6GB plan before the weekend is over. If you’re a heavy data user, you’d be better served by a device like the Clear Stick Atlas ($49.99, 4 stars), which gets you unlimited WiMAX for $49.99 per month, though it doesn’t support 3G where WiMAX isn’t available, like the Plug-in-Connect does.
Sprint also offers contract-free, pay-as-you go plans for the Plug-in-Connect, but they’re pretty pricey. You can get 150MB of data for use over a single 24-hour period for $14.99. $29.99 gets you 500MB of data over a week, and $49.99 is good for 1.5GB of data for over 30 days.
Setup and Performance
Unlike the U600, which requires Sprint’s SmartView software in order to establish and manage your Internet connection, the Plug-in-Connect remains true to its name. Simply plug it into a free USB port and connect to the Internet. The modem uses your computer’s built-in networking protocols in order to establish a connection, and it worked just fine on my iMac, as well as a laptop running Windows 7.
I tested the Plug-in-Connect against the U600. On a clear spring day, I travelled between 11 different locations throughout New York City, testing the modems in WiMAX mode in each location. I transferred files over FTP, downloaded Web pages using curl, and ran the speed tester at speedtest.net.
Overall, the two modems had similar speeds, though the Plug-in-Connect is undoubtedly faster. Reception was average on both devices, and WiMAX download speeds were surprisingly fast. On speedtest.net, which simulates Internet streaming, the U600 averaged 7.9Mbps down, while the Plug-in-Connect bested it with an average of 9.7Mbps down. Upload speeds were significantly slower for both devices. The U600 averaged 1.1Mbps up, while the Plug-in-Connect came out ahead again, at a modest 1.3Mbps. While those upload speeds are slow in comparison to the 4G LTE data speeds we’ve seen on ATT and Verizon, the download speeds should be fast enough to keep you happy. FTP and Web tests were also close, but the Plug-in-Connect won again, coming out ahead 66% of the time.
While Sprint has announced that it will be abandoning its WiMAX network in favor of LTE, there’s still plenty of time to get good use out of the Plug-in-Connect and other WiMAX devices. And since we don’t know the status of the carrier’s LTE build out or the availability of LTE-capable modems in the future, we feel confident in recommending a WiMAX modem for the time being.
What we aren’t as confident in, however, is the Plug-in-Connect’s finicky attempts to connect to Sprint’s network. While the U600 worked reliably each time it was plugged in (albeit with the use of connection management software), the Plug-in-Connect could sometimes take up to five minutes to connect, and had to be removed and reconnected in order to establish a connection on more than one occasion. While it always worked out in the end, it was often frustrating to use, and not a good choice if you need to get connected as quickly as possible.
While I really like the Plug-in-Connect’s new, software-free method of getting you connected to the Internet, I wish it wasn’t such an ordeal to establish a connection some of the time. Although the Plug-in-Connect is an update to the Editors’ Choice-winning 3G/4G USB U600 , it will not receive our latest Editors’ Choice award this time. Even so, the Plug-in-Connect is worth it if you want slightly faster data speeds and are willing to put up with the connection issues. But for everyone else, slightly slower but steady modems, like the Sierra Wireless AirCard 250U (Free, 4 stars), win the race.