What's not: Driver and software doesn't play nicely with some Macs.
Reviewed September 27, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
With all the hoopla about WiMAX 4G and upcoming LTE, T-Mobile has nearly been left out of the buzz. We can tell you that they most certainly should be included and we're happy to see them now marketing their extremely fast HSPA+ network as 4G that rocks. HSPA+ is a faster version of the more ubiquitous and slower HSDPA and HSPA technologies that are commonly referred to as 3G on GSM carriers (those being T-Mobile and AT&T in the US). HSPA+ is an easy and elegant upgrade to a theoretical 21Mpbs from HSPA's 7.2Mbps, and it requires relatively less work on the tower and in the handset or modem since it's merely an extension of existing HSPA technology. That means T-Mobile can roll out HSPA+ as their version of 4G relatively quickly and easily. In fact, since they introduced HSPA+ this spring they've gone from a handful of cities to 80 metro regions now with more to come.
HSPA+ cities include NYC, LA., Dallas-Fort Worth, Boston, Austin, Seattle, Spokane, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Reston, Birmingham, San Diego, Irvine, New Haven, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and Atlanta. San Francisco, San Jose, Long Island, Chicago, Denver and Salt Lake City are coming soon. For the full list visit the HSPA+ coverage section of T-Mobile's website. If you're not in an HSPA+ region, the webConnect Rocket 2.0 will simply fall back to 3G which is still reasonably fast and is comparable to AT&T's 3G and Sprint and Verizon's EV-DO Rev. A.
The webConnect Rocket 2.0 is T-Mobile's second generation HSPA+ USB laptop USB stick and it's made by ZTE. It works with Windows and Mac OS X computers but the software isn't included. Instead, when you insert the stick it will open a web page that directs you to the latest download on T-Mobile's site. This means you must have an existing WiFi or Ethernet connection to download the driver and desktop software. We had no trouble installing the software on our Windows 7 HP TouchSmart TM2 notebook, and all went smoothly on our first generation MacBook Air running Mac OS X 10.6.4 Snow Leopard. We did however run into problems when running the successfully installed software on our latest generation 15" MacBook Pro (also running OS 10.6.4). Apple's latest and greatest Core i5 machine threw scads of error messages when trying to connect if we had the Rocket 2.0 plugged into either of the machine's USB ports. When we plugged the USB stick into a powered hub, it worked just fine. It's nice to have happened upon a solution, but we're not thrilled at the thought of adding a powered USB hub to our travel kit. Perhaps a driver update could fix this problem?
Here in the Dallas area we have HSPA+ and connection speeds beat the Sprint Overdrive and other WiMAX devices we've tested including the Sprint HTC EVO 4G with WiFi Hotspot sharing. We averaged 5 megs down and 2 megs up-- these speeds are so good we really couldn't tell the difference between 4G and our own WiFi 802.11n network when surfing, downloading email and streaming YouTube. YouTube and Hulu HD content streamed perfectly and Windows Updates downloaded with good speed. We've seen a lot of wireless broadband connections that claimed to be able to replace your existing home cable, DSL or FIOS service. This is the first that's actually been fast enough to do that job. Now if you download torrents or play online games where latency is key, you'll still want that home wired connection. Also keep in mind that T-Mobile, like all major carriers, caps data at 5 gigs/month. That's fine for most of us using a connection on the go, but it's not enough for the average home user looking to replace their wired service. What happens if you exceed 5 gigs in a month? T-Mobile will slow down your connection for the remainder of that monthly billing period.
The webConnect Rocket 2.0 is a mid-sized USB stick, and though it's not skinny it fits just fine in the space-constrained MacBook Air without using the included short USB extension cable. The USB connector swivels, making it easier to fit the Rocket 2.0 in with other connected USB peripherals. The wireless modem has the requisite SIM card slot as well as a microSD card slot that are located under the pry-off cover (see photo above). The USB stick can thus act as a microSD card reader in addition to doing duty as a modem (no card is included nor is there accessible internal flash memory storage).
The desktop software is stable and unobtrusive under Mac OS X and Windows. We noted a problem with one of our two test Macs, but the software itself otherwise behaved well and didn't cause any conflicts or problems with our other wired and wireless connections.
If you're in a T-Mobile HSPA+ coverage area, we heartily suggest you consider the Web Rocket Connect 2.0 and T-Mobile's data service in general. For $39.99, less than the $59.99/5 gigs per month price other major carriers charge, you get significantly faster data speeds-- in fact in our tests T-Mobile's 4G is faster than public shared WiFi and as good as a middling home 802.11b/g WiFi connection. Finally, mobile broadband doesn't have to seem like a ride through molasses that tides you over until you get back to the office or home.