Living With the Puck: StraightTalk Unimax U240C Reviewed

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Category: Gadgets
Created on Monday, 09 December 2013
Results in Hilo:
Ping: 128ms
Download: 2.27 Mb/s
Upload: 0.51 Mb/s
San Diego:
Ping: 79ms
Download: 1.35 Mb/s
Upload: 0.79 Mb/s

My annual pilgrimage to Hilo used to be fueled by a Verizon 4G MiFi. But it made really no sense to have a $50 a month plan that I'd use only in emergencies and when I was on the islands. So I gave that up and have been looking for a replacement.

When I landed, I had a plan. My primary connection would be the hotel Internet, augmented by the T-Mobile connection on the Nexus 5. Android KitKat has mobile hotspot built-in, and things would have worked swell bUnimax U240Coth at the hotel and on the go.

Turns out the Internet at the hotel (the Wild Ginger Inn) is incredibly flaky. Every ten minutes or so, the connection resets and it takes a while to renegotiate. The phone turns out to be no better, as Hilo is served by the T-Mobile EDGE network and not the zippy LTE. To make things worse, when I tried to use the phone in mobile hotspot mode at the (LTE-enabled) Honolulu airport, the provisioning page refused to load.

When I drove to Walmart to buy the usual necessities you can't take with you on the plane (like the oh-so-dangerous terrorist mouthwash, or the frighteningly terrorist toothpaste), I stopped at their Electronics department, and they had this device for sale. It promised Verizon network with Walmart prices. Nice! (They also had a 4G Verizon prepaid, but that one requires a subscription).

The economics of the device are simple. You buy the gadget for $80. Then, when you need Internet, you buy data by the GB. 1GB sets you back $15, 2 is $25, etc. You have to use up the data within a specified time limit (up to 2G in 30 days, above that in 60 days), but you can buy as much as you like - and as little. If you don't use the thing, you just don't buy gigabytes and you are good. Your only long-term investment is in the device.

Sadly, provisioning was a real pain. I unpacked and charged, and was surprised to find tons of manuals in the box. After all, all I needed to do was connect to the thing, tell it the PIN on the card I bought, and off I should have been able to go.

Not so. The device comes with an unsecured connection (nice). But it's just a brick at first. I connected to the WiFi network it broadcast, no problem. But it wouldn't allow me to do anything after that.

Turns out you have to separately connect to the straighttalk.com web site, where you have to do the provisioning. Once you have completed that, you can connect to the admin interface on the device, press a button, and the thing provisions itself once more, reboots, and you are ready to go.

What's terrible about it is that it's not really explained in the many manuals and quick start guides you get. You have to get there through guess work, which is really annoying. In particular, it's incredibly dumb you can't do the provisioning from the device, since that would be the perfect chance to figure out if it can actually connect to the network.

So, I'll repeat:

  1. Buy the device and a data card; notice that the data card is NOT refundable, so you really need to make sure you have 3G Verizon coverage
  2. Connect to the Internet with anything but the device.
  3. Go to straighttalk.com and click on Activate (top menu)
  4. Fill out the form. You will need the ZIP code of where you will use the device, the IMEI of the device itself, and the PIN code from the card
  5. Once you are done with provisioning, the last page tells you how to connect (the only useful piece of writing in the entire process):
  6. Connect to the network provided by the device. Its name is UMX$xxx, where xxx are the last three digits of the serial number of the device. There is no encryption, so you can connect directly
  7. Once the connection is established, point your browser to 192.168.1.1. You will be asked for a username and password. Those are admin and 12$xxx, where xxx is the same three digits of the serial number
  8. The interface will show a giant SETUP button. Press it and let the thing run wild
  9. After the device reboots, connect to it again. You should have access to the Internet
  10. You probably want to secure the network at this point. The admin interface allows you to do that (and not much else ;-) )

The connection is decent, and nothing more. Latency is surprisingly low, but it sometimes takes forever to finish a download. You'll get half an image for a minute, and then the rest will suddenly load. It's odd.

Of course, I am spoiled by LTE speeds, now. And that's one thing you should remember: no matter how fast Verizon or StraightTalk is going to become, this puck is always going to be 3G. So, it's good for an emergency situation, but don't plan on this being your primary Internet!

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