Review: Which 3G network is the best?

All 3G wireless broadband services are not created equal. We tested the top three from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon.

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Sprint Mobile Broadband

Based on Revision A of the Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO) protocol, Sprint's Mobile Broadband network is available in most U.S. cities. The network delivers reasonable but not blazing connection speeds.

Although Sprint offers five different data cards, I chose the $100 Novatel Wireless Ovation U727. At 1.1 ounces, it's not only half the size of the other cards but also includes a micro-SD flash card slot for saving data. The card, with its a fold-out antenna extended, sticks out three inches from the notebook but didn't interfere with adjacent USB outlets on my laptop.

Sprint's Mobile Broadband connection interface has about the same functionality as AT&T's ACM, but lacks the connection speed fever graphs of the Verizon's VZ Access Manager. It shows the network's signal strength as well as the amount of data sent and received.

Novatel Wireless Ovation U727
Novatel Wireless Ovation U727

If you click on the Menu button in the upper-left corner, there's a handy connection history and other details. If you want to have Sprint software control your Wi-Fi connections, you'll need to download the Sprint SmartView program.

The slowest of the three cellular data networks, the Sprint network delivered on average 494Kbit/sec. download speeds to my notebook. That's roughly a third slower than AT&T's network. Its average upload speed was 294Kbit/sec. and the network's top speed was 1.2Mbit/sec. It connected in 3.7 seconds. Since it doesn't have a built-in battery, the radio reduced the runtime of the battery in my system by an hour.

The radio offers the optional ability to map where you are and where you need to go with a built-in GPS receiver and online maps.

Sprint has two service plans. The entry level $40 plan includes 4MB of data per month; after that it costs $1 a megabyte, topping out at $100 a month. I used the $60 plan that lets you download to your heart's content; without a two-year contract, it costs $80. Sprint can restrict heavy use and cancel a contract if a user is overwhelming the network.

Sprint says its EV-DO data network reaches 242 million people in the U.S. Sprint may not offer the fastest service, but Sprint's network and Novatel Wireless' small radio provides GPS and makes getting online easy.

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