Review: Novatel Ovation U727 wireless modem is useful, but...

There’s a quiet revolution happening right under your fingertips. Breaking free of the bonds of wires and short-range wireless Wi-Fi networks are EV-DO (Evolution Data Only) modems, letting you use your laptop virtually anywhere there’s cell phone service. The smallest and most feature-rich model yet is the Novatel Wireless Ovation U727, a USB modem that's barely larger than a pack of chewing gum. We’ve been putting it to the test for the past few weeks, and have come to some conclusions about not only this particular wireless modem, but the overall concept of wireless connectivity using the cell phone networks.

Ubiquitous Internet connectivity is a powerful prospect. Imagine quickly checking your email on your laptop as you take that daily train ride to work. How about telecommuting from the pleasant atmosphere of a local park bench? You can do all these things and more with the Novatel U727 at respectable speeds, but there’s a catch.

Pay to Ride the Train
You probably guessed: It’s expensive. You’ll pay $99 for the U727 if you sign up for a two-year plan with Sprint or Verizon (our test unit was from Sprint), and then a steep $60/month for unlimited data service. For that, you get what the companies call “wireless broadband,” using the recently upgraded “Rev. A” EV-DO network using the latest 3G CDMA technology. But is it as fast as the broadband you’re used to at home, or Wi-Fi hot spots you might be frequenting?


We tested the Sprint EV-DO Rev. A service in varied situations and locales, and found the network to be quite fast in some instances, dog-slow in others and occasionally unusable. In suburban Milwaukee (speed data at left on the graphic above), we connected to at a sprightly 1,518kb/s (kilobits per second) download speed, uploading at a respectable 507kb/s. That’s just about in broadband territory — if you’re using an unusually slow cable or DSL modem (most cable modems these days deliver download speeds of at least 3,000 kb/s, and ours here is considerably faster, around 14,000 kb/s). On the other hand, during a busy convention week in Las Vegas with many other users vying for network bandwidth, the Sprint system poked along at 423kb/s download speed, uploading at a dialup-like 9kb/s. More recently in Las Vegas, in certain parts of a hotel on the strip, the service wasn’t usable at all. Not good.

Big Fun to Use
Nevertheless, when the service was working well, this little bauble was a joy to use. Short of a built-in wireless modem in a laptop (the best way to go since there are no outboard components to lose), the Novatel U727 is as convenient as it gets. Not only does it have a slot for a MicroSD flash memory card (not included) that can hold up to 4GB of your stuff, but it also has a GPS receiver onboard (only on the Sprint version), showing you exactly where you are. Although it can’t give you turn-by-turn directions, it can tell you where the nearest points of interest are, and connects you with on-line maps from Google, Microsoft and others to get you there. If you’re indoors and away from the line-of-sight of those navigational satellites, it can also determine your position by triangulating signals from cell towers. In our tests, the Novatel U727 performed both these functions admirably.

Is this connectivity-everywhere actually worth it? It depends on how much you’re going to use it. If you’re a frequent traveler and pay $11.95 every day you use a hotel’s WI-Fi service, this wireless modem could pay for itself if you’re on the road five nights per month. If you’d like to get some work done on the way to work, and your boss is willing to spring for that steep $60 monthly tariff, go for it. For the rest of us, we might as well wait for the price of this connectivity to come down to about that of TiVo. Someday, most of our Internet communications will be via wireless broadband, but until its speed matches conventional broadband, service is more dependable, and pricing is less than half its current rate, you’re probably better off finding Wi-Fi hotspots for your mobile online activities.

Novatel Wireless Ovation U727