Road test: Does WiMax work in the real world?
Performance is good when you're sitting in an office or cafe, but don't count on connecting from a moving train or car
Location mattered somewhat in terms of performance. At Walden's Coffee Shop, a local café in west Reno, the Clearwire service came up quickly and worked well. At a medical office complex in southwest Reno, the service also worked well. In a shopping mall in central Reno, the Clearwire service came up readily, but its performance was quite a bit slower than most other locations. This might have been due to the heavy steel construction and high volume of electronic "noise" in the area -- both of which can interfere with WiMax signals. Network performance was fine, even though transmission speeds were a bit slower. At another building with significant steel and electronic noise -- a casino where those slot machines can be a nuisance -- the Clearwire service came up quickly and performed adequately for e-mail and other typical business usage, about the same as at my home office.
At their best, the Clearwire WiMax speeds compare to the landline broadband speeds I have gotten with DSL and cable modem services. However, the DSL and cable speeds are more consistent. Plus, cable service is much faster outside of peak hours. (As more folks in an area access the cable service, such as in the evening, the bandwidth for each user is reduced.)
The WiMax speeds are slower than what I get through my home office's 802.11g wireless network, but comparable to the Wi-Fi speeds I get at public hotspots such as T-Mobile's service at Starbucks. I can't compare the Clearwire WiMax service against 3G cellular broadband offerings from carriers such as Sprint and Verizon, since I don’t have such 3G service. But usage of various 3G networks on handhelds by InfoWorld's Tom Yager show that at best -- on the most modern networks -- you get between 700Kbps and 1Mbps connections, and at worst -- on the older networks -- you get less than 300Kbps.
I took the laptop PC to several locations around the Reno/Sparks area and found only one location where the WiMax service was not available: the Caughlin Ranch area in west Reno. I could not get a connection even when I attached the Clearwire antenna (which is supposed to increase signal strength) to the PC Card.
I did test the antenna several times in numerous locations and could not discern any difference in signal strength or performance whether the antenna was attached or not.
Overall, the performance was fine for business uses such as working with e-mail, file attachments, and Web sites. The speed was not sufficient for bandwidth-hungry tasks such as downloading large video files or trying to play high-end games -- but no wireless services support those uses today.
Quirks and quibbles
While I liked the Clearwire WiMax service overall -- I could get good connections most of the time -- I did uncover a few quirks. None of them would be showstoppers, but they could be a nuisance.
The first quirk was that the Clearwire connection did not always reactivate after I woke up the laptop from sleep. This occurred both when I had moved the laptop from one location to another and when it remained in the same place. Fortunately, it only took a click on the icon in the lower toolbar to reinstate the connection. A related quirk was that the network connection sometimes took a long time to re-establish itself after waking up or restarting the laptop -- as long as 60 seconds. I didn't see a pattern as to why the time to re-establish a connection varied so much.