Post updated with new information as of June 13. See notes in italics.
Why pay for something when you can get it for free? And shouldn't Internet access be made widely available to everyone, no matter where they happen to be? This almost seems like the mantra behind FreedomPop, the company that is bold enough to sell you cheap mobile hotspots and provide you with 500MB of free wireless data every month. And now they supposedly have better coverage, thanks to the new FreedomPop Overdrive Pro.
You might remember when FreedomPop launched its Photon 4G mobile hotspot last year, which connected to the Clear 4G WiMAX network. Coverage was spotty at best, but the new Overdrive Pro 3G/4G hotspot uses the Sprint's nationwide network. It may not necessarily be faster, but it should provide better coverage, right?
Revisiting FreedomPop's Free Mobile Internet
Perhaps we need to start with a really quick refresher. Whereas the main mobile operators in the United States charge you a standard monthly fee for a certain data allotment, FreedomPop goes about things in an entirely different way. Everyone starts out with at least 500MB of free data each month. For a corresponding fee, you can roll over unused data or upgrade to a larger plan. They also have a series of offers you can complete for some one-time data bonuses.
While it may be true that 500MB isn't a tremendously large amount of data, it should be enough for the casual user to do some Facebooking, Twittering and Foursquaring without too much of a mess. Tether onto a laptop with some streaming media and you may need to consider a larger plan.
Quick Feature Overview
As far as features are concerned, the Overdrive Pro 3G/4G mobile hotspot offers several advantages over its Photon 4G predecessor. The most notable change, of course, is the network. By using both the 3G and the 4G Sprint networks, rather than just the Clear 4G WiMAX network, this device should give you better coverage. It is physically a lot larger, but there is a removable battery.
Other key features include the small LCD display where you can check on things like your signal strength, number of connected Wi-Fi devices, remaining battery life and so on. Having a display does seem to reduce the battery life, but it is a major convenience to have. There is also a microSD slot that you can use to share media files across your local wireless network. Check out the feature overview video I posted on YouTube for a more hands-on look.
What's My Network Password?
The Overdrive Pro comes with very little in terms of documentation. There is a single sheet of paper, but a hotspot like this is usually pretty straightforward. Whereas the Photon 4G had its default SSID and password printed on the back, the Overdrive Pro uses its LCD display for this purpose. The trouble is that the quick start guide doesn't tell me how to see this information.
I had to look up the user manual (on the Sprint website) and that's how I learned that you can double-tap the power button to enter the device's rudimentary menu. It is on that first screen that you are shown the homepage, network SSID and password. Cycling through, you can also check on your current usage and other details.
Nationwide 3G Coverage?
Second, from what I can gather, the 500MB free plan is for 4G only. If you want to have access to the 3G network as well, then you need to upgrade to the "Pro 500MB" plan, which costs $3.99 per month. It's possible that this is why the device is called the Overdrive Pro and not simply the Overdrive.
Third, it's unclear whether this is due to coverage or if it is a firmware issue, but the Overdrive Pro I received for testing (which may be a beta unit, to be fair) seemed to be a little buggy. It would drop the 3G or 4G signal unexpectedly at times and, perhaps even worse, the Wi-Fi network would occasionally disappear, even though the display on the Overdrive Pro said it was still up and running. Both phones (a Motorola and a Samsung) that I used for testing had no issues "seeing" and connecting to a myriad of other Wi-Fi networks. The Wi-Fi would "reappear" after a reboot of the Overdrive Pro.
UPDATE (06/13/13): It seemed that this was an isolated issue as the problem did not occur with a different Overdrive unit.
Real World Speed Tests
Of course, your mileage will vary considerably based on where you are located in the United States. My testing was done in Washington state, from Bellingham down to Marysville, which is about 30 miles north of downtown Seattle. I found that coverage was best in Bellingham itself, getting spotty as I drove down the interstate. I had some weak signal in Burlington too.
While the ping times weren't so bad (74-143ms), the speeds could be a lot better. When the signal strength was best, I was able to get up to 4Mbps down and a little over 2Mbps up. However, when coverage wasn't as good (but I was still able to connect), I struggled to break 1Mbps down and I'd get anywhere from 0.24-1.33Mbps up. The aforementioned issue with a "dropped" Wi-Fi network didn't help matters much. To put that in perspective, at the best of times, the Photon 4G got as high as 6Mbps down.
MEGATechie Wireless Wonder or MEGATechie Mobile Mishap?
The FreedomPop Overdrive Pro 3G/4G mobile hotspot is one of those devices that sounds great on paper and has some terrific potential. It's supposed to have great nationwide coverage and a usable LCD display, as well as 500MB of free monthly data. That all sounds good.
The execution of this promise, unfortunately, leaves something to be desired. The firmware seems to be buggy (I'm hoping an update can fix the Wi-Fi issue), but the lackluster Sprint network is really the one to blame here. If I can't get a consistent 3G or 4G signal, then it doesn't matter how much free data you give me. Again, the hope is that when FreedomPop and Sprint are able to go all-in with 4G LTE, we will have something really special here.
That being said, the Overdrive Pro is just $40 and, if 500MB of 4G data is good enough, you never have to spend another dime. It may not be good enough as a primary Internet access point, particularly if you are in the fringes of the bigger service areas, but it's cheap enough to be your backup.