Fast forward 12 months to today, and I now have their newest mobile hotspot, the Apollo 4G, under my scrutiny. Does the newer hardware improve the user experience? And has Clear been able to take advantage of the last 12 months to make improvements to their wireless internet service? Read on to see how the company fares this time around!
PROS: Solid performance, reasonably fast and compact, good battery life, informative display, useful web interface, unlimited plans, great monthly rates, no contract required
CONS: Battery cover problematic, no NAS functionality, 4G coverage still sporadic, must prepay each month, no paper invoice, desktop docking solution sorely missing
Anybody who has followed the progress of mobile tech over the last few years will notice how data usage has risen to the mainstream, fueled primarily by Apple's iPhone. You can hate Apple all you want, but Steve Jobs did the world a big favor by putting the spotlight on mobile data, or rather, the carriers' inability to provide enough of it.
Imposing data caps is an evil when you look at how many consumer devices today (smartphones, netbooks, notebooks, tablets) all have internet capabilities as standard. Do carriers really expect consumers to pay a monthly data fee for each and every device they own? Some folks may be fine using wifi networks at home and at their favorite coffee shop, but it requires being stuck at a physical location. True mobile tech should mean letting you not only take that gadget anywhere, but use it everywhere.
Enter the Apollo 4G mobile hotspot from Clear. With the ability to tether to any wifi-capable device, and offer unlimited data, it allows no-nonsense internet connectivity on the go at speeds comparable to DSL. That's a home run for notebook and netbook users who are used to the same always-on connectivity and broadband speeds at home and in the office. In addition, the Apollo 4G allows up to 8 devices to connect simultaneously and share that internet connection, allowing you to use not only your smartphone, notebook, and/or slate together, but bring a handful of friends along and let them connect with their devices likewise.
Out of the box, the Apollo 4G was simple to get going. Following an easy and quick activation process on Clear's website, I was up and running in a matter of minutes. Do make sure to fully charge the battery as well, as it comes from the factory with only a partial charge. As was the case in my last review, speeds will depend greatly on the 4G signal strength hitting your location, and Clear does advise in the manual that you keep the Apollo 4G located near a window to obtain optimum signal.
|Top speeds at my home location in LA...|
Moving to an area with a CINR of 20 and higher interestingly didn't improve performance, leading me to believe that traffic congestion is still an issue. Perhaps I was just unlucky running speedtest when traffic was high, but it does raise my concerns on exactly how well Clear does plan to provide service, if performance within earshot of a 4G tower falls at only 1100kbps. Also, while I have noticed sporadic 4G connection drops in my fringe area, the Apollo will automatically reconnect, making any streaming activity continue seamlessly.
|...and the same in Las Vegas|
Most importantly, however, the Apollo 4G mobile hotspot continued to work on my return home, and has not locked up or dropped a connection, unlike their last device I tested. I'll say that again - my device is still working! That's certainly good for Clear, and reassuring for folks who travel all over the place on an inconsistent schedule.
|The best LCD of any mobile hotspot by far|
|Easy-to-navigate web interface|
Clear supplies the Apollo 4G with a 2200mAh battery that's rated for 6 hours. The LCD display includes a battery indicator that turns red once you reach 15% charge, begins blinking at 10% and finally displays a warning message to plug in once you get down to 5%. In practice, you can safely use every drop of juice in the Apollo, as even at 15% you have a good 10-40 minutes of 4G tethering time left, depending on how intense your data session is.
Average use comes out to around 4 hours 30 minutes, but if you are gentle on your browser you can stretch your web surfing out to a full six hours on a single charge - a boon for bloggers working with a netbook! TV fans can expect a solid 5 hours 12 minutes watching 480p Hulu, while YouTube junkies watching full HD 1080p will get 3 and a half hours. For those who like to listen to Pandora radio while working on their spreadsheet, tune in for an extended 7+ hours of uninterrupted streaming audio - that's right, all-day music on one charge!
|Mobile charging made easy!|
THE ARGUMENT FOR UNLIMITED MOBILE BROADBAND:
How committed is Clear to providing an unlimited mobile broadband experience? Enough to not even include a traffic meter with the web interface! You just won't be able to measure with the Apollo 4G how much data you're using each month. True, the LCD display on the device does show traffic usage, but only for the currently connected session - the meter will reset every time you disconnect from 4G, such as when reception drops or the device powers down.
Frankly, I don't care how much data I use. I never have. And folks that need an unlimited plan for what they do won't be counting geebees either. No traffic "calculator" ever devised by any carrier, no matter how advanced, will tell you how much a day's worth of Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Pandora, FarmVille, blogging, email, web surfing, software updates and video conferencing will consume. One, they simply can't, and two, because it's realistically beyond any capped amount these carriers would offer. Their reasoning gets particularly silly when you actually begin harnessing the potential of mobile hotspots - sharing your connection with multiple data-hungry devices. Yet these other wireless carriers expect mobile users to know exactly how much total data they use, stick to some severely limited data cap, refrain from burdening their network or risk throttling, overage charges and service shutdown.
Only those who understand unlimited internet will appreciate what Clear is doing.
THE TRANSITION TO LTE-ADVANCED IN 2012:
Sprint CEO Dan Hesse announced in January that Clear would roll out LTE service in H2 alongside existing WiMax coverage. While I'm all for the move to LTE for providing faster speeds and increased capacity, it does open up the issue of support for existing WiMax devices. Clear ceased requirements on two-year contracts for new subscribers late last year, suggesting that they may throw the switch to LTE and end support for all WiMax devices within the next 24 months.
Will owners of WiMax equipment receive replacement LTE devices? How will service remain uninterrupted if today's devices are no longer supported? These questions remain unanswered, yet must definitely be on the minds of existing and potential Clear customers. I'm happy to have paid $99 for my Apollo hardware, but not if it becomes a doorstop in a matter of months! The company will need to think about implementing an equipment upgrade for existing modem and mobile hotspot owners, as continued service is dependent on customers having supported hardware.
As happy as I am with how the Apollo 4G has performed, there were a few issues I did encounter. Fresh out of the box, I had a difficult time replacing the battery cover after inserting the battery for the first time. The tiny tabs used to secure the cover would not go into place, and took much persistence before I could re-seat the cover properly. I'm fortunate that I just plug in my XP8000 for extra juice, but for those wanting to swap batteries in the middle of work, trying to fit the cover back on may end up making you rip your hair out.
I was also a little disappointed to find a microUSB connector on the device instead of miniUSB, as this means I now have to carry two different tips for charging the Apollo 4G and my smartphone. Clear's previous mobile hotspot model came with a miniUSB connector, and I was happy not having to use a different cable to provide juice. I'll admit it's just a minor nag, but a hassle if it means carrying another cable or tip along in your gear bag.
Likewise, when compared to Sprint's 4G Overdrive Pro mobile hotspot, the Apollo 4G lacks a microSD slot for NAS functionality. This omission is somewhat puzzling given how file streaming would definitely benefit from an unlimited data connection. Whatever the reason may be for it's absence, it's a feature Clear should seriously consider including on their hardware, as I'm sure many serious mobile users would be able to take advantage of it's capabilities.
I'll admit the Apollo 4G is rather large compared to other mobile hotspots, coming in at around 3.4x3.4 inches and just under 1/2 inch thick. Yes, the 2200mAh battery and large LCD display do factor into that, but it is more than double the size of a Novatel Mifi 2200. I found it simply too big to fit into pockets that the Mifi would go into. It's not a deal-breaker for me, and it is still small enough to go inside a front shirt pocket if need be. Just be aware that the Apollo 4G isn't the smallest mobile hotspot out there.
Clear still require prepayment each month for service, and continue to refuse to send paper invoices in the mail. I'm somewhat wary of companies that have access to my credit card in such a manner, as it makes billing disputes an issue. Given how other wireless providers send an invoice in the mail and can operate on a post-paid basis, I see no reason why Clear should require money up front each month from every subscriber to ensure uninterrupted service. Maybe I'm simply being overly cautious, but a company that shows symptoms of cash flow issues does make me wonder how volatile the mobile broadband market in the U.S. still is. Clear will need to exude more confidence in order to win long-term subscribers.
Taking that last point further, the absolute WORST thing Clear could possibly do, short of ending their unlimited plans, would be to increase prices. Some experts would have people believe that metered billing is the future, but I disagree, as that still puts a (financial) cap on your data usage. Clear's speed-based pricing is a more liberal alternative, as it allows folks on any budget full access to the world wide web without restriction - want it faster, pay more.
WiMax has been available in Los Angeles since December of 2010, and while reception has improved in my area, my home location is still adjacent to a large hole on their coverage map. Even after more than a year, numerous imposing holes still persist in heavily built-up areas in and around the city. You really have to understand the massive size of the LA area metropolis to see how difficult it is to achieve blanket coverage akin to what folks in cities such as Las Vegas enjoy. But since Clear has undoubtedly been taking it's time to increase and improve coverage, I'm holding out that by this time next year they will fill more holes on their map - I'd love to see speeds hit that theoretical 10,000kbps maximum in my home.
Finally, I was most disappointed to not find the option of a desktop docking solution for the Apollo 4G, as both Clear's other mobile hotspot, and Sprint's 4G Overdrive Pro, both have a desktop docking cradle available. The back of the Apollo 4G does have a pair of TS-9 antenna connectors, so a compatible dock with an antenna booster would benefit reception, especially when used in fringe areas such as where I am. The ability to stay charged and maintain a solid signal would make it a perfect replacement for always-on home DSL. I can easily see mobile road warriors keeping the Apollo 4G in such a dock at home, battery fully charged, and taking the hotspot with them when they head out the door, making for a seamless home+mobile internet solution.
Every time I turn the Apollo 4G on, I always get a smug smile on my face - that's when you know you've got a great device. I never anticipated this mobile hotspot to work as good as it does, but the newer hardware combined with Clear's improved coverage has turned my mobile broadband nightmare into a dream come true. Yes, I am paying $5 more per month than I was last year, but compared to what the competition is offering, $35/month and $50/month for unlimited 4G without data caps or overage charges is one hell of a deal. There really is nothing better out there today for the money.
When you begin to think about how mobile hotspots can be made useful, connecting with smartphones, netbooks, notebooks and slates, it opens up new ways for people to work, communicate and have fun. With my smartphone's prepaid SIM, I can again enjoy voice and data on my Touch Pro 2 without compromise. It works great with my netbook and notebook for both home and mobile use. And I'm certain my next hardware purchase, be it a slate, notebook or even dual-processor workstation, will be a perfect match with the Apollo 4G.
Call me harsh, call me critical, but I'm a nice guy. I'll gladly give any company or product a second look, and despite my bad experience with Clearwire a year ago, it seems they have gotten their act together in 2012. I cannot be more impressed with the Apollo 4G mobile hotspot for it's speed, connectivity, always-on capability and competitive monthly price for true unlimited data. So much so that I can now finally dump my antiquated DSL connection, and become a bona-fide mobile road warrior. This really is internet awesomness!
Congratulations Clear, the Apollo 4G mobile hotspot has earned the lgpOnTheMove Best Accessory Award for 2012.