LAS VEGAS—When more than 110,000 tech geeks descend on one location, as is the case with this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it's almost a given that wireless connections will slow to an unusable crawl. Whether Wi-Fi or cellular, you might as well resign yourself to finding a wired connection somewhere.
That's why I was delighted when Sprint handed out demo units of its new Overdrive 4G personal hot spot to journalists today. Sprint just launched the device last night at a lavish press event.
I'm doing a crash review of my experience with the Overdrive here at the show. To be sure, putting the unit through its paces at an event like CES is almost unfair. It really doesn't matter what network you're on at CES; 3G is pipedream as you run through the masses of smartphone-toting attendees. In fact, settling for an EDGE connection and tolerating the occasional dropped call is law around here.
That said, let's call this review a stress test, with a more in-depth review to follow when the world returns to normal. I'm writing this on a netbook in the middle of the convention center. I've checked the weather back in Wisconsin and sent a few e-mails with a constant 4G connection. On the shuttle to the convention center, I tried to watch a YouTube video on my iPhone but that didn't work out so hot. You Tube couldn't connect.
Blazing fast in these conditions is not what I've experienced. However, the Overdrive is 3G/4G capable, which means that if 4G isn't available, the hot spot will defer to the 3G connection, which provides more reliable in-building coverage.
But speed isn't really the selling point of a device like this. You'd be amazed at the number of people who came up to me while writing this and asked, with no lack of incredulity, "Are you really getting Wi-Fi in here?" The convenience of a portable hot spot (I threw it in my backpack and off I went) is invaluable at big events like this. No more retreating to the press room or coffee shop to get things done.
Also notable is the number of devices the Overdrive can support. The Overdrive can support up to five devices at one time. Just last night, I saw it running video on an iPod touch, while two Microsoft Zunes played a game of wireless checkers, and another guy searched the Internet on a netbook at a pretty good clip. Right now, I have both my netbook and my iPhone connected. While other iPhone users are walking around, holding their phones to the sky, I'm able to at least get e-mails out on the go.
The Overdrive is larger than other MiFi units, but it features a small screen that gives limited information about the strength of a connection and the number of devices currently connected. The Overdrive will become available in select areas (probably those with 4G service) for $149 with a two-year contract.
I'd give the Overdrive more than a passing grade for convenience in this particular situation. In fact, I may never do another show without one. As far as speed, I'd need to do more testing under normal conditions.