Product review – CradlePoint PHS300 personal wireless hotspot

Let me open with a warning; this article is full of buzzwords and acronyms, but I promise to try and keep things as simple as possible.

The CradlePoint PHS300 is a pocket wireless internet router. Unlike other routers, that get their Internet access from your cable company or DSL provider, it connects using a cellular broadband modem.

Still with me?

To get access to the Internet using your mobile operator, you have several options; you can purchase a phone with Internet Access built in (like an Apple iPhone). You can also use a mobile phone with “tethering” capability, which involves physically connecting your mobile phone to your computer, or you can purchase a stand alone “cellular modem”.

If you need mobile Internet access on your PC, and you are not within range of a public Wi-Fi hotspot, you’ll have to go with tethering, or a cellular modem. However, both methods have several disadvantages:

  • You usually need to install special software on your computer.
  • The (often expensive) connection can only be used by one person at a time.
  • Reception is often lacking, as your modem will be away from the window, where the cellular signal is usually the strongest.
  • Battery life of your computer is severely impacted when you use a 3G modem card plugged into it.

The Cradlepoint PHS300 fixes these issues by moving the wireless connection away from the PC. To connect to the Internet, you simply plug your compatible phone or cellular modem into the router, turn it on and you instantly turn the combination into a portable battery powered wireless hotspot. Brilliant.Connecting to the Internet is as easy as turning on your laptop (or Wi-Fi enabled smartphone) and connecting to the wireless network name being broadcast by the Cradepoint router, just like connecting to any other Wi-Fi hotspot. Since this is a regular WI-Fi connection, more than one person can connect to the signal, but you’ll of course have to share the speed with anyone else online with you.

The CradlePoint PHS300 router weighs just 4 ounces. The device has 2 connectors, one switch and a couple of LED light indicators. The 2 connectors are for power and for your USB cellular modem/phone. The switch powers the device on (or off) and the LED’s show the power,charging status and the connection status of the Wi-Fi and the cellular modem connections.

In this day and age it is a rarity when I come across a device that really delivers on the whole “plug and play” promise. In my first test, I plugged my modem card into the PHS300, turned the device on, and 30 seconds later I had my laptop connected to the Internet using AT&T. There were no settings to mess with, and I was even able to skip reading the manual.

Your connection is secured using 2 methods; with a common (shared) password, or with regular Wi-Fi security (WEP or WPA). Changing the settings on the device is done through your web browser, but fear not, most of these settings are only for advanced users, if you just want to get online, you won’t have to deal with them. When the situation requires it, you can create a password that can be shared by others, which is perfect if you need a quick and dirty Internet connection for more than one person in a meeting room or airport lounge.

The PHS300 is powered by an internal Lithium-Ion (user replaceable) battery pack, extra batteries are $29.99. Battery life is rated at around an hour and a half with a USB modem, or up to three hours with a tethered phone (which of course has its own battery). Included in the package is a regular AC adapter. A car charger is available directly from CradlePoint for $24.99.

The speed of your connection will of course depend on your modem and the network you are using.

In my first test, I connected to AT&T Wireless, using a Merlin XU870 modem card. In this test, my download speed was a comfortable 1281 kbps. In my second test, I connected to AT&T using a tethered smartphone (an HTC Touch Dual). This time the speed shot up to 1427 kbps, which is faster than many people have on their home broadband connection. I then used the Merlin card with a T-mobile subscription, and only reached 152kbps (T-mobile does not have 3G in my area yet).

For my final test, I connected to Sprint using my HTC Mogul smartphone. Let me say up front that CradlePoint fully admit that this phone is not the most reliable option for tethering, as Windows Mobile is considered too buggy to always keep a connection active. Despite the warning from CradlPpoint, I did not experience any loss of connection. The only difference between using a modem card, and tethering, is that I had to manually enable the tethering setting on my phone.

Here are the speeds I reached when using the CradlePoint PHS300 with my various phones:

  • AT&T 3G with an HTC Touch Dual: 1427kbps
  • AT&T 3G with a Merlin XU870 card: 1218kbps
  • Sprint EVDO Rev.A with a Sprint Mogul: 831kbps
  • T-mobile EDGE with a Merlin XU870: 152kbps

Of course, these numbers are fairly meaningless to most people, so let me just say that the speed on AT&T and Sprint was perfectly acceptable for most Internet applications, on the AT&T connection, things just felt much faster, pages loaded almost instantly and I was even able to view a couple of Youtube video clips, albeit with a slight delay at the beginning where the player buffers the clip.

CradlePoint offers several other models of cellular broadband routers including the CTR500 which has an internal Expresscard slot for the modem card as well as a network port for connecting your laptop through a wired connection.

All in all I am immensely impressed with the CradlePoint. At $179 it is the perfect solution for anyone who has dealt with the buggy connection software from their mobile operator, or who has watched their laptop battery die in an hour when they were surfing the web from the airport lounge. With most mobile operators charging between $60 and $80 per month for a wireless broadband connection, frequent users of paid hotel or airport Wi-Fi will easily be able to save a substantial amount every month. The biggest advantage of course, is being able to turn this device on, and have instant wireless Internet access for more than one person.