Clear Apollo WiMax 4G Mobile Hotspot Review

Patrick Nosker December 26, 2011 0
Clear Apollo WiMax 4G Mobile Hotspot Review
  • Speed
  • Coverage
  • Battery Life

There are a number of popular mobile hotspots now that leverage 3G or 4G cellular coverage to provide you with broadband on-the-go. One of the most competitively priced is Clear’s service which uses a national system of Intel-designed WiMax service shared with Sprint and Comcast. Rather than having a bandwidth limit per month such as that found with Verizon and AT&T, Clear does not limit how much you download or upload within one month. Not only that, they advertise 4G speeds at the cost of other service’s 3G.

Clear recently moved to a new hotspot device called the Apollo or Clear Spot 4G. It features a LCD screen which allows you to view your wireless network name (SSID) and password as well as signal level, number of devices connected, battery life, and total bandwidth use. It’s a big step from their prior system with more data displayed, more concurrent users, and better battery life. It’s easy to configure by going to http://clearspot/ when you’re connected. The clearspot portal also allows you to view more detailed information about the device as well as configure it.

Now for the most important part: the service.  Clear uses a system of WiMax towers around the United States. If you haven’t ever heard of WiMax, that’s understandable since they call it 4G. The back-story is that The WiMax Forum, a consortium made up of companies including Intel, Samsung, and Sprint-Nextel, pushed for a long-range WiFi system. Using essentially similar technology, WiMax was equivalent to a 30 mile radius WiFi base station. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really caught on outside of several cities.  The map below is provided by Clear of its WiMax service areas.

So, the coverage isn’t great. In fact, it was so disappointing that even some areas with generally good service such as Manhattan, New York City, I couldn’t even get reception at the CES Press Preview. I had to rely on my T-Mobile service as a backup (which had no problems).  I took a picture of the Clear Apollo showing no bars.

Fortunately, there are some good things about the Clear Apollo and the service it comes with. When you can get a good signal, the speeds are incredible! I’m talking real broadband speeds, faster than 3G service you might get on your iPhone. And the best part is the latency– it’s very low compared to most mobile hotspots.

That picture was taken with only 3 bars. With all bars lit up, I was getting around 6 Mb/s consistently and up to 10 Mb/s bursting. But as I mentioned before, the ping is so low you can actually use this for gaming. Just to test it out, I played a lag-free game of League of Legends and it felt like I was plugged into my Verizon FIOS.

Essentially the Clear WiMax service isn’t a true competitor with the others. Without the ability to fall back to a 3G service the service footprint is just too small to depend on it for essential tasks. It’s more useful in my opinion as a real ISP since the speeds are good and it’s not really any more expensive than a cable or DSL service. Clear offers a “home” service for those interested in using it this way. Alternatively, it’s useful when you know you will only be in service areas. Unfortunately for me, I tested it in a few cities: New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and New Brunswick, NJ. Of those cities, oddly the only ones which gave me reliable service were Philadelphia and New Brunswick. Atlantic City had absolutely no service (which makes sense looking at the coverage map), but even New York and Washington DC had very spotty service in some areas, likely due to the tall buildings.

Chris Comes, Clear’s Director of Field PR, has indicated that they have some new stuff in store for next year. Hopefully it will be more robust than what they have now. As of this point, I’d say do some careful research before you decide to take the plunge and get Clear’s 4G service. It’s got some great pros such as uncapped, unlimited data and a great low-cost, but beware of their spotty coverage. If you can make sure you will have service wherever you need it, I wouldn’t hesitate to get it.

Clear 4G Wireless Service, $35 for 1.5 Mbps cap, $50 for no speed cap

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