(Above: 4G and 3G speed tests I’ve done throughout the year. See bigger chart and raw data.)
Since May 2010, I’ve used Clear 4G and 3G for my Internet connection in the office and on the road. I’ve gone through a couple different options in that time, and overall it’s been a great experience overall. The pricing is straight-forward and (for me) affordable enough. There are drawbacks around equipment availability, national coverage, and the limited functionality at their retail locations. Their customer service is generally excellent and the connection speeds have been getting faster, as the chart shows.
The two things Clear advertises are mobility and speed. As my collected speed tests in the US since May shown, the speeds are pretty good on 4G and, when needed, 3G. I’ve been able to use 4G in most places I’ve needed, most importantly in Austin. I’ve had bad experiences in San Francisco and Boston, but recent San Francisco speeds have been fine.
Recently, I’ve been expecting speeds from 3 to 5 Mbps download when I’m on the road. Upload speeds are terrible which is to be expected, but really annoying for all the podcasts and videos I upload. Looking at the chart, you can see that I’ve been getting faster speeds throughout the year – I don’t know if equipment has been upgraded, or what.
For most of my time, I’ve used an older Clear Spot along with the USB dongle (see it in use above). For whatever reason, I didn’t want to use the bull Clear Modem – I think I imagined that I’d be taking the Clear Spot with me into the field to hot-spot for my laptop, phone, and friends.
The old ClearSpot is too bulky to really be useful on the road (see above). If it had a USB power adapter instead of the power cord, the bulk might be fine. There are new, fancy-looking and compact 4G/3G ClearSpots which I’m looking to get. But, last I checked (a few weeks ago) Clear has run out of them. That’s been one of the problems with Clear: having to wait for equipment. I had to wait for the 4G/3G adapter for my Mac (see below) as well.
Recently, I switched to a Clear Modem to address some connectivity problems I’ve been having (Skype dropping calls 20-30 minutes in). I’ve since come to think that the problem was the USB wifi client adapter I was using, but the ability to use ethernet with the Clear Modem has been nice (coupled with a Buffalo NFiniti wifi/router).
Setting up these devices has always been straight forward, with no real hassle.
Clear Spot 4G
I haven’t had the chance to use the Clear 4G Hotspot. These look really nice in that they’re small, even pocketable. My floor-mate Charles Lowell has one. The portability is great, but for all the traveling I do I really want the 4G and 3G coverage. As coverage increased, that need may change. What’s nice about these is that you can run all your devices off them: laptop, iPhone (or Android, etc.), and iPad (for folks like me who don’t want to pony up for the iPad 3G plus service plan).
For the road, where Clear 4G coverage may not always work, I have a USB connector that works with my Mac that’ll do 3G when needed. Connecting with 3G is rarely good, but it’s typically better than nothing.
The software on the Mac can be a little cranky – there’s always a couple windows warning me about something or another being incompatible that I just click and everything works fine.
This little device has worked well for me and I’d recommend it.
Paying for it
I have two services with Clear:
- A Clear Modem which I keep in my office, no phone line.
- The 4G/3G equipment and extra 3G service.
For both of these, including leasing the equipment, I’ve been paying (well, RedMonk has been paying) $93.30 a month. I could buy the equipment instead of leasing it, but with all the swapping out of equipment I’ve been doing (incurring a small restocking fee), it’s been worth it to have the flexibility of leasing all the dongles and doo-dads.
There’s a several plans and bundling options (you can get VoIP through them as well, which complicates the matrix), but it’s actually pretty straight forward.
Considering that that this is for my office broadband and my on-the-road broadband, it’s a good deal. As Stephen O’Grady pointed out several years ago when we both got on-the-road broadband, it’s certainly cheaper than paying for crappy hotel wifi. (Granted, I still have Internet at home, but that’s because I get AT&T Uverse there which is much, much faster than Clear.)
The main issues with Clear are:
- Out-of-stock on non-standard equipment – I had to wait for the Mac compatible 4G/3G USB dongle to become available. There wasn’t really a wait list, the local Clear store rep just told me to check back in a few weeks. As mentioned above, the 4G/3G ClearSpot I’d like to swap out for is also out of stock. Annoyingly, there’s no wait list or way to be notified, you just have to check.
- Retail locations limited – while the retail locations are nice (there’s one right next door to my office, making the initial sign-up quick), they can’t do everything that’d you expect. You have to swap out equipment through the mail (!) so those times when I’ve walked in the store ready to take care of business, I’ve had to print out UPS labels and hunt down a drop off. Pretty silly considering the store is right there. On the other hand, the folks in the store are helpful and it’s nice to see all of the equipment (available or not) in person.
- Coverage – as their coverage map indicates, Clear isn’t everywhere. After adding several new locations over past months, they’re finally just about everywhere I travel (San Francisco, Las Vegas, Orlando, Boston, New York, and the occasional weird spot). Still, it can be dicey getting a good connection when you’re out and about. With other carriers offering 4G, if I was looking around now I’d look for better coverage. Their 3G coverage is provided by Sprint, which is a good backup, but people tell me their Verizon MiFi experience is excellent. Even around Austin (and other cities where Clear has coverage) things can get spotty: I haven’t tested at my house recently, but back in May 2010, the coverage was poor. The same can be said for the Verizon 3G stick I had before Clear – it comes with the territory.
- Dropped Skype Calls – as mentioned above, I’ve had a difficult time with dropped Skype calls since using Clear. After talking with my floor-mates (who also use Clear and Skype), I’ve begun thinking that it’s not Clear’s fault, but rather the wifi adapter I use on my Skype machine. I’ve also swapped out the old Clear Spot and USB dongle for a full modem, which allows me to go from wireless 4G to wired ethernet into my Skype box. We’ll see how it works out. Even in all of that annoyance, I’ve been able to record podcasts and have phone calls with good quality…as long as they don’t drop.