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Testing Clear’s WiMax Internet Service

Clear Logo

We’ve huddled under awnings on the sidewalk in the rain to tap weak Wi-Fi signals, slipped into hotels as “guests,” and paid big bucks from cell carriers for a wireless modem, all to get our mobile Internet fix. And every option seems to suck in its own way. Whether you’re being hounded by an impatient barista and force fed soft jazz, or waiting 20 seconds for every page to load from a 3G modem, neither comes close to matching the silky-smooth connection and freedom you have at home. Why can’t you just get broadband speeds everywhere?

If you believe the marketing of Clear Wireless, you can. So when the WiMax pioneer rolled into Digital Trends’ home town of Portland, Oregon, plastering up ads on benches, knocking on doors and preaching the greatness of WiMax in radio commercials, we had to put it to the test.

Bar graphs, coverage maps and hypothetical maximum download speeds are great, but we decided to run Clear through the ringer the same way most consumers will: By using it around town. After picking up a new USB WiMax modem from Clear, we tossed a trusty ThinkPad in a backpack and hit the streets… with an AT&T 3G card along for a little competition. Here’s what we found out.


Before we ventured out on a sunny summer afternoon to hit the streets, grab some grub, and get our wireless surf on, we had to get the Clear modem up and running back at Digital Trends HQ. Fortunately, it’s a simple affair. Pop the CD in, install the drivers, click in the modem and hit “Connect” from the software menu. But you read ¬¬correctly, there’s a CD involved. Unlike our AT&T USBConnect Mercury, which acts as a thumb drive storing its own drivers, the Clear modem needed a physical disc. No big deal the first time around – before it’s lost in a drawer somewhere – but for future installs on new PCs and letting friends borrow it, built-in drivers would have been a major plus to make the modem a truly self-sufficient device.

Size-wise, the Motorola WiMax modem looks about like what you would expect from pictures. It’s basically an oversized thumb drive about as long as your ring finger. Clear includes a Belkin flex USB adapter with it, which makes it easier to fit in cluttered USB ports and adjust for signal. As an added plus, it also alleviates fears of snapping the modem off in your USB drive with one misplaced blow, a cringe-worthy event we always pictured with such a long stick hanging out.

Download and Upload Speeds
By the Numbers

We’ve pledged to keep the stats to a minimum here, but before seeing what the modem can do, it’s worth investigating what the tech can do on paper. Like all “maximum speed” claims, these are all purely hypothetical, and you could rarely or never expect to actually reach them in real life. But they should reflect on more typical scenarios, in proportion.

A typical broadband cable connection, like one from Comcast here in Portland, might claim to offer download speeds of 15 Mbps and uploads up to 3 Mbps. Clear’s WiMax network is capable of 6 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. The AT&T card, by contrast, can pull 1.7 Mbps down and 1.2 Mbps up.

To put that in perspective, those figures are all in megabits per second, which need to be divided by eights to get the more typical megabytes per second you might be more familiar with. You can also shove the decimal point over three spaces if you want kilobytes per second, which you’re probably used to seeing when you download things.

US Bancorp Tower
U.S. Bancorp Tower

Glass and Altitude

Naturally, we began our adventure on Digital Trends’ perch on the 10th floor of the U.S. Bancorp Tower in downtown Portland. Depending how close we got to the window, we pulled a respectable seven to nine out of 10 bars. With this signal, we hit 2.0 Mbps down and 0.6 Mbps up from the Seattle server in SpeakEasy’s Speed Test, which we used as a constant benchmark in this test. That kind of speed was more than enough for everything from casual surfing to streaming 720p video from YouTube. First impression: This thing is fast. Even South Park episodes, which typically tax our connection to the max, streaming fluidly with zero interruption. Though not quite as robust as the 10 Mbps down and 8 Mbps up we got from our landline office connection, the difference between the two was hardly noticeable in most real-life use applications. Unless you’re yanking down movies on BitTorrent, you won’t notice the difference.

But of course, we had to try. And the results blew us away. Though Clear was slow to gather steam on a torrent file, we checked back in about 20 minutes and found it pulling up to 350 kbps on an extremely popular (but legal) file. Downloading high-quality movies from thin air? Believe it. The best we were able to manage with the AT&T modem was about 26 Kbps, and even with full signal, certain stream media formats like South Park’s were unwatchable.

Move away from the window, though, and things change. We started an episode of The Simpsons on a netbook through Hulu, then strolled into the hallway and around the perimeter of the floor with the video still streaming. Adding two walls between us and the outside put a major damper on signal, which dropped as low as zero bars in some spots, also causing the video to sputter when we stayed too long.

At this point, we also noticed that adjusting the antenna could make an enormous difference in signal. In some situations, turning it from vertical to horizontal literally cut the signal in half, from eight bars to four. While it was nice to think we could improve signal with some fiddling when it really got bad, having to think about antenna position also throws a potential kink into ease of use, if you have to do it much.

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