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Review: WiMAX Works, But Platform Needs Key Improvements

Edward F. Moltzen

A common user interface, better battery life and better support from Sprint-Nextel will all be required before widespread adoption can be expected and the market begins to embrace what technology providers call "4G."

A test of the service in Baltimore, using a Lenovo ThinkPad X301, found the service to be strong and fast in several different points throughout the city. The service is managed by Sprint's XOHM unit and it works just as well indoors or out (where it worked great in the city's Inner Harbor area.) Logging into the service for the first time offers a bit of excitement, given how new the system is after years and years of development.

And Lenovo has brought to market a great ThinkPad based on Intel's WiMAX/Wi-Fi Link 5350 chipset, which permits a PC to switch back and forth between WiFi and WiMAX connectivity. Lenovo has delivered a number of products this year that the Test Center has highly recommended, and the ThinkPad X301 is more of the same: a nice, light form factor and a notebook that offers nice performance with solid engineering. With WiMAX, in particular, Lenovo has delivered some nice flourishes.

There are three areas, though, that Sprint-Nextel and its XOHM unit, as well as technology providers, need to focus on improving:

-- Work toward either a unified user interface or console for managing each device, as well as OS support specific to WiMAX. Neither Windows XP nor Windows Vista shipped to market with WiMAX as an available service and neither is optimized to make it easy to connect to WiMAX. PC makers can pick up the slack with their own device management software, and Lenovo has done a top-flight job with the Access Control Manager built into the ThinkPad. But for WiMAX adoption to take off, Microsoft needs to deliver its own, streamlined WiMAX-WiFi management function baked into XP and Vista -- just as it has for stand-alone WiFi and Ethernet connections.

-- PC makers need to work on maximizing battery life in notebooks and handhelds that connect via WiMAX. During our testing of the ThinkPad X301 on the Baltimore WiMAX network, the ThinkPad's battery drained almost 50 percent faster than using WiFi when power-optimizing software was turned off. Lenovo products this year have been standouts with battery life, so it looks like WiMAX-enablement may very well cause a tradeoff with battery life.

-- Sprint Nextel doesn't now offer 24-by-7 phone support for WiMAX users. That's simply unacceptable, especially with a brand-new technology that will be in the hands of non-technology experts. XOHM support for Baltimore users is available Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. If you have a problem after hours, evidently, you've got to wait. As we've seen time and time again, one of the biggest impediments to the success of a product or offering is vendor support.

The Lenovo X301, as a notebook, is terrific. With its battery installed, the notebook weighs 3 pounds, six ounces and it sports a nice, LED backlit, 13.3-inch screen. Using the Test Center's standard battery life test, which includes turning off all power-saving options and running a video from the hard drive until the system shuts down, the X301 lasted a respectable 2 hours and 24 minutes. After a few hours, the heat from the keyboard reached about 90 degrees -- which is warmer than we'd like but not enough to be a bother.

The X301 was built with an Intel Core 2 Duo U9400 processor at 1.40 GHz and pre-loaded with Windows Vista Business. It delivered a Geekbench score of 1754 -- which is good performance for a system with that processor class.

Lenovo's Access Control Manager is its own management application. The company has designed a nice GUI for it, too. It allows a user to find both WiFi and WiMAX access points, click on their choice, and connect. The console then provides connectivity information including IP address.

Next: WiMAX In Baltimore

This first round of WiMAX testing began in the lobby of the Baltimore Hyatt Regency. On first pass, the Access Control Manager couldn't find any WiMAX access point and only offered up WiFi -- a disturbing development given the four-hour drive from New York just to test it out. Walking across the street to the outdoor area of Baltimore's beautiful Inner Harbor area, a second attempt was made. Again, the ThinkPad wasn't finding any WiMAX access point -- either in Windows' wireless manager or the Lenovo Access Control Manager. It was at this point a phone call went into XOHM support; they offered a recording saying they weren't yet open for business. Thanks XOHM!

The solution: rebooting the ThinkPad and trying again. Happily, the Access Control Manager then found XOHM's WiMAX access point and connected us right away.

(A note about the Lenovo Access Control Manager: it's a very nice graphic presentation to manage available wireless access points. But it does take a few more clicks to log into WiMAX than it does to log into WiFi using the Windows' connection manager. It would be nice to see one- or two-click connection to WiMAX, which is something that Microsoft -- or Linux and Mac developers -- could bring to the table. )

During testing in various parts of Baltimore, bandwidth ranged between 3 Mbps and 7 Mbps; that worked out to as much as 30 times the WiFi throughput found in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. WiMAX allowed the notebook to provide clear calls on Skype, watch YouTube videos with no noticeable latency and log into email with no waiting. And here's the thing: During several hours of testing in various locations, the connection never once dropped.

Battery life in the X301 was attention-getting when it was connected to WiMAX, and not in a good way. After 25 minutes of low-impact work, with "balanced power" the selected option, the power meter showed 64 percent left in battery life. Subsequently, switching back and forth between WiMAX and WiFi did show the battery drained quicker, repeatedly, under WiMAX than with WiFi.

It was the only negative we found with the X301, and it's not even clear at this early stage whether it's an issue on Lenovo's end. But if the idea behind WiMAX is to provide more untethered computing than ever before, battery life should improve when switching to WiMAX, not get worse.

Bottom line: Even without WiMAX, the Test Center would recommend the ThinkPad X301, list-priced at $2,556, because of its sleek form factor (even with an optical drive), nice performance and features. But WiMAX itself (for which XOHM will charge $50 per month after an introductory period ends) warrants a good, long look during its early-stage rollout before big commitments should be made.

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