Sprint's Sierra Wireless Tri-Fi Hotspot for LTE, WiMax and 3G: Trying It Out

Sprint's new Tri-Fi offers a first: it’s a hotspot that ties together access to LTE, WiMax and 3G networks. Travelers who need multiple connectivity options while on the road are likely to be grateful for it.

Sprint claimed a nationwide first on May 18 when it began selling the Sierra Wireless 4G LTE Tri-Fi Hotspot. About the size of a small clamshell phone, it's the only mobile hotspot to offer support for 4G LTE, 4G WiMax and 3G.

Sprint was the first U.S. wireless carrier to offer 4G, but it did so through Clearwire's WiMax network€”a fine network, but a technology that quickly became the least-popular flavor of 4G. Even though Sprint knew early on this factor might be a marketing issue, the wireless company has come rather late to the LTE party.

Its LTE network will cover 123 million people by the end of 2012 and 250 million by the end of 2013, according to Sprint, although these figures aside it has been rather stingy on the details of its LTE expansion plans. A document leaked by TechnoBuffalo in April suggests the first cities to get the LTE treatment midyear will include New York, Nashville, Fort Worth, Chicago, Akron and a few California towns.

As Sprint shoves off on its LTE adventure it is offering the Tri-Fi. It can be yours for $99.99, excluding taxes, after a $50 mail-in rebate and with a two-year service agreement. Data plans for the Tri-Fi start at $35 for 3GB of combined 3G/4G data while on the Sprint network. Other plan options include $50, 6GB of combined 3G/4G data or 12GB for $80.

Sprint offered me a Tri-Fi to try out, which is what I did. Put another way: I didn't pull a Walt Mossberg and try to max out the thing or set a stopwatch on its battery life. I just used it, like I would if I had paid for it and brought it home.

My first impression was that it's rather nice-looking. It€™s small and shiny with rounded-edges. I was glad for the little display at the center of it, showing battery life and whether it's connected and to what type of network. However, I wondered about the choice of font on the screen, which looks as though the Tri-Fi was made in 1998. Then there was the design decision to employ two tense, closely spaced buttons, instead of buttons that are more easy to push and less weirdly slippery under the fingertip.

One button turns on the Tri-Fi and the other walks a user through six screens, which offer information like the Tri-Fi's name and password, the homepage where one can set up custom features, how much data has been used, how may days are left in a billing cycle, whether the device software is up to date, and more specific information on the battery life€”40 percent left, say, rather than two out of four bars.

As for how it worked, I'll say first, in the Tri-Fi's defense, that I was happy for the offer to try out the Tri-Fi because I live and work in a long, low apartment with exposed brick walls on two sides. Those walls do a stupendous job of blocking out all kinds of signals. I was curious how the Tri-Fi would do.

I also spend a good part of each month cursing at and restarting my WiFi router, and then feeling bad when the Time Warner truck shows up on my street, revealing the issue to extend well beyond my apartment (and my router). I hoped the Tri-Fi might feel like an upgrade.

I connected two laptops to it, though it can handle several more. Sometimes the connection felt like the WiFi connection I was accustomed to. Sometimes it felt slower€”a lot slower. When I felt like it was slowing down my workday, I'd switch back to WiFi.

My work computer, connected to a VPN, kept getting kicked off the VPN, perhaps when the Tri-Fi was switching between its network options€”when it loses a 4G signal, it tries to get you back there quickly, which is nice. Still, the VPN issue was annoying.

The Tri-Fi also emits a beep that lets you know it's doing this network switching, though the sound of the beep is such that a user feels she's being told, "Emergency! Battery running low! Save your data, quick!" and not, "I'm switching from 3G to 4G, don't mind me."

Sprint has set up a site, http://SprintHotSpot, where a person can set up a homepage and customize the Tri-Fi. Perhaps it€™s possible to customize the Tri-Fi to make that beep less intrusive. That's just a guess, though. I was never able to get the page to load. A message says it's still under construction.

On a positive note, I charged the battery once and used the Tri-Fi at various times over three days, and never dealt with the battery again. Sprint promises at least eight hours and that seems right to me, if not conservative.

I won't feel one bit sad to pack up the Tri-Fi in its little box and send it back to Sprint. But I'm sure the next time I'm traveling and in need of a connection€”the last hotel room I stayed in comes to mind, as does the very WiFi-free zone that is my mother's house€”I will miss it very much indeed.

Follow me on Twitter: @eWEEK_Michelle.