RANDOM REVIEW: Sprint Overdrive / Clear Spot 4G+

Overdrive next to a deck of playing cards
Well, as 'standard' a deck as I could find anyway...

UPDATE: My Overdrive bit the dust almost a year after this review was written, read the update here.

Smartphones may be smart and all, but in my opinion there is no substitute for having an actual computer when I need to do things on the Web.  In addition to being a huge nerd, I have two websites to take care of (www.firststormmanga.com and this one) and so a smartphone doesn’t always cut it.  I like to have a full-sized keyboard and screen for when things need to Get Done.

Back when I was with T-Mobile, I used the built-in tethering that came included on my T-Mobile Dash, which ran Windows Mobile.  I thought it was odd that it wasn’t disabled, but once I started to use it, I found out why.  Tethering on 2G was dirt slow. It did work, though, and I could check my e-mail and do some very light browsing even while in the technological black hole that is my hometown of Odem, Texas.

I eventually ended up bidding T-Mobile and Windows Mobile a not-so-fond farewell and signed on with Sprint, getting a spiffy new Samsung Moment in the process.  I found an app to tether with, but it was limited and I wanted a less hacker-y solution.  A few months later, I looked into what Sprint had to offer and had two options: I could get a USB stick for my laptop for free or an Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot for fifty dollars, both coming with the usual 2-year contract yadda yadda.  FYI, Clear Wireless also sells this device as the Clear Spot 4G+ but its ‘official’ name is the Sierra Wireless AirCard W801.

I went with the Overdrive because I was starting to go to conventions, and my experience with hotel Wi-Fi up to that point was that it was either: slow because of all the convention attendees, not there at all, or really expensive.  Fifty dollars didn’t seem like too high a price to pay for the convenience of having WiFi and the attached data plan was going to cost the same either way.  I thought it would be handy to have a connection that I could share when on the road.

The Overdrive isn’t too big, it is just a little bit wider than a standard deck of playing cards (see pic above).  There isn’t much to it: on its top are a display and the power button.  The front has a micro-USB charge port and a micro-SD card reader.  The back has a switch for enabling or muting the sound, and that’s it.  I was also hoping for a little blinking red light on top, but oh well.

Holding down the power button for a few seconds starts up the Overdrive.  After taking about a minute to boot, it attempts to connect to a network.  If I may digress for a moment: I have griped about boot times in portable devices in the past, but I’m just going to have to let it slide from here on out, because nearly every portable device short of a Nintendo DS is going to take some time to boot.  Its just something I’m going to have to live with from here on out.  Oh well.

Once it has connected to a network, the Overdrive’s display will show its SSID and WiFi password.  Once you connect to it using a computer and type ‘overdrive’ into a browser you will be taken to the device’s setup page.  There you can specify an admin password, select a WiFi security type and change the Overdrive’s SSID and password to something more memorable.  Once you have that done you are ready to go, the Overdrive’s ID and password is displayed on its screen and up to five Wi-Fi devices can be connected to it at a time.

Speedtest.net results
Broadband on the road, baby!

The Overdrive’s 4G connection works great. I have seen it go as high as six megabits/sec with a good signal, the results at right were with a 60% signal according to the Overdrive’s setup page.  While that is peanuts compared to a cable connection, for a portable connection it is great.  The Overdrive has the ability to fallback to a 3G connection if 4G is not available.  It does get a little squirrely on occasion, but not any more so than any other wireless device I’ve owned.

I have had my Overdrive for about six months so far, and I have been very happy with it.  I do have one complaint that I will address in a few paragraphs, though.  As Odem does not have 4G right now (and to be frank, I’m not holding my breath) the Overdrive’s ability to use 3G is a life-saver when visiting my parents.  I have used it at a few Texas conventions and for a few days in Los Angeles, and it has exceeded my expectations.

You can leave the Overdrive’s settings as is or use the admin password to adjust its settings.  Among other things, you can choose to not display the WiFi password on the screen, or even set the WiFi to auto-disable when it is plugged into your computer’s USB port if you don’t feel like sharing.  The Overdrive’s webpage also shows the actual signal strength as a percentage, which comes in handy when I am looking for a ‘sweet spot’ to place it.

As with many wireless devices, the fly in the Overdrive’s ointment is its battery life.  At about three hours, it isn’t terrible, but it is short enough that it will run out of power before most laptops.  It can be charged via a computer using the included USB cable, but I highly recommend packing the charger in your laptop bag.

On a technical level, the Overdrive works great: you push the button, it connects to the cellular network, and then you and up to four friends can have Internet just about anywhere you go.  While the battery life could be better, it isn’t bad enough to be a deal-breaker, but it is something to be aware of.  Another negative is that the service does not come cheap.  Clear and Sprint are currently charging about sixty dollars a month for the service which consists of unlimited 4G and 5GB of 3G data.  If you don’t mind paying for the convenience, though, you might never find yourself “off the grid” again thanks to the Overdrive!

NOTE: The author received no compensation for this review.

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RANDOM STOPS: “Play Again” At Corpus Christi’s Classic Video Game Store

On any particular day on the corner of Everhart and Corona in Corpus Christi, Texas, you may find Link or Master Chief beckoning you over to a store called Play Again Classic Video Games.

Come on Down!

In business since 2007, Play Again specializes in classic video games, currently defined as everything from the Playstation 2 going all the way back to the original Odyssey.

Odyssey
Where it all began...

Upon entering, you see that two walls of the interior are almost completely covered with shelves of cartridges and some CDs.  The store is decorated with video game and anime memorabilia: atop those cartridge-filled shelves are board games based on popular 80’s titles and boxes for various systems both old and relatively new.

Games!

A few tables and seats by the front door invite customers to come in and talk shop, and accessories for older systems can be found in the back.

Classic Accessories for Classic Systems
Those Wonderful Toys...

Store owner Marco Castillo is always happy to talk shop.  He asked not to be photographed for this article, saying that “we are one big team and not just one face.”  With several years of working in video games, he has some interesting views on where the industry is currently at and where he feels it should be heading:

R9: How did Play Again get started?

MC: Play Again Classic Video Games got started by two friends of mine that owned independent game stores in California, where I was living at the time.  I was working at Sony Electronics in Silicon Valley and got tired of working for others and felt my life needed some new direction.  I would visit my friends’ stores and noticed that they seemed very happy and often counseled young folks through life’s big and little challenges.  I think it was that concept of helping and counseling people in this environment that was the thing that snapped me into action per se.  I can safely say that we have been in business now for over 3 years and I have helped out all kinds of people from the simplest technical problem to the deeper relationship issues as well.  While it may be an endless job I, would not ever want to give it up: its just too much fun and fulfilling.

R9: Do you play current-gen titles, or are you strictly a retro gamer?

MC: I own a DS, Wii and PS3 and will be getting a 360 since we will soon start to repair the current gen systems.  I really like the DS the most of this generation of gaming, there is just so much to choose from and companies appear to feel comfortable to make games for it that often would not make it to the larger consoles.  I really do try to play everything I can get my hands on and make it a point to try everything from the first person shooting games to the cheerleading and DDR style games.  I hear the word “hard core gamer” being bandied around, in my opinion a hard core gamer is a gamer who is willing to try any game and is not tied to any genre or system or platform.  When I used to work in the video game industry people defined hardcore as people who play first person shooter games, I really think that is a bit myopic.  I think the term should be dropped because lately it seems to me that it is taking kind of a negative tone to those types of people who have no real human social life and are becoming socially inept.  I think gamers are neat people; I wanted to create a place for gamers to come out and meet people in person and find a girl or guy and play games in person.  Call me old fashioned but meeting people and interacting with them while doing the thing you all have in common is a fun way to live life.

Ok, I see I went off topic…to answer your question I play a lot of classic games because they are quick fix get in and get out games since I work 7 days a week at the store.

R9: As an independent store, how has the consolidation of the brick-and-mortar videogame chains (EB/Gamestop merger, Gamecrazy going under, Blockbuster on the ropes) affected you, if at all?

MC: The big chains are a very interesting case to me, we really do go out of our way to try to make friends with all game stores in our area.  Since Wal-Mart, Gamestop, etc are all selling modern games, it has not really affected Play Again too much.  We often send people to our friends at the other stores when they are looking for anything in this generation of gaming and it seems to be a real friendly relationship that we honor and enjoy.

For the record, I don’t think it’s a good sign for gaming that stores seem to be closing up, it might be a sign that the industry is changing again.

We have noticed that since so many people are growing tired of sequels of games many are going back to their roots and wanting a SNES, PS1, Genesis  or any other retro system.  I think gaming coming back to its roots is a great way for us to be reminded that in the end of the day, its not just about the graphics, it all about the game play.

R9: You appear to be primarily a brick-and-mortar operation; do you have any plans to increase Play Again’s online presence?

MC: We do indeed; when I first opened I was pushed by so many to have a very robust online store and to get it opened immediately.  I had noticed that after research and falling back on my Silicon Valley experience the only way to do a website is the right way, and in this case to make it work well from the beginning.  When I first opened it was just me and one employee and we didn’t even really have enough games to satisfy the local market much less the worldwide one, but we saw the importance of getting a website done right.  In the end we held off the idea until one can be done correctly taking into consideration logistics, mailing, communication, labor and product supply.  We hope to hire our web person when we do our expansion.

R9: The industry seems to be in a bit of a rut right now, with sequels upon sequels littering the release lists.  What do you think needs to happen for the industry to move ahead?

MC: That is an interesting question; I think the rut of the industry is a many faceted problem.  I think the market has become too saturated with games and game making people.  People often call the “Golden Era” of games the times of the 8 and 16 bit system days.  I think it was a bit different back then; games simply were not coming out as fast, reusable / licensable game engines really did not exist on a very large level.  The idea of taking someone’s engine and doing a graphic mod really kept the games coming out to a smaller amount with longer design times.  I think that was the biggest strength and weakness of gaming back then, but games often were quite fresh and original many times.  With the dawning of rapid design tools like flash, games come out quicker than ever and all have that simple flash look that the cartoons of today are so unfortunately saddled with.  I yearn for the time of hand drawn animation and games on a wider scale again!

The other day I saw a commercial for a tech school that claims, “Hey you! Unemployed person, stop playing games and start making them!”  I realized that once gaming became the next gold rush, there were going to be a lot of people making them and not necessarily a lot of people becoming the overnight millionaires that many believed the Silicon Valley tech bubble of the late 90’s and 2000’s tried to be as well.  When you have too many people rushing to make money it always comes at the cost of quality and originality.  I hate to say it but I think some of the best games came when game makers were not the millionaires but the lower salary people who were doing it simply because it was what they really believed in.  Can you imagine if paintings all of a sudden became real money makers?  People would swarm in and paint like there is no tomorrow, and what would we have, a whole bunch of paint on canvases and very little art.

I personally think one of the best things that can happen to this industry is to scale back. I think it should cut the people who really should not be in that business/art field and regroup and decide that it’s ok to take time to make a game.   It will be ok not to rush it out, and its NOT ok to make too many sequels.  Its sad but we live in a “sure bet” world of: “if your game cannot project to make over $1 Million dollars than we simply wont do it.” Thus, we have lots and lots and lots of sequels and very little originality.  Seriously people, you pay good money, (often $50 – $80) for a game.  Don’t you deserve a new and fun experience every time?  It should not be an accident before we get another original game like Katamari Damacy.

R9: Is retro gaming is making comeback, and if so, why?  Is it because of a desire of younger players to find out where it all began, nostalgia on the part of first generation gamers, or a combination of the two?

MC: Humm.. I think that retro is kind of making a comeback in some ways.  We get the luxury of being able to talk to many people, men and women, young and old alike and we have found one thing: people really do want straightforward games.  You will notice I did not say simple games.  People say that to make games for families or girls and women that the games need to be simple, but I have to very much disagree.  I think families and women want straightforward games, games where you don’t have to learn complicated moves or remember esoteric key combinations to do the simplest stuff.  I think the moment some nerd figured out the dragon punch for Street Fighter II and decided that he wanted to impress the exact girls that were playing the game by thoroughly handing them many defeats, gaming changed forever…and not in a good way.

You see, the concept of women playing games or even fighting games, while may seem very foreign now, was not so foreign back in the early days of arcades.  Gaming and arcades in the 80’s were full of games like Frogger, Donkey Kong, Pac Man, Street Fighter II etc that were straightforward games, not simple or easy, and they were just fun to play for everyone.  I think we lost our way in some respects and I think many people are getting back to when gaming was just fun and straightforward.  There is a good reason that at one point it was cheaper to shingle your house with the Mario/Duck Hunt cart than it was for actual shingles, but today that game goes for quite a bit more money.  People want to return to the days of easy to get into, get in-and-out-of, straightforward gaming.. at least that is what we see in our store.

R9: How do you feel about the current trend of “new arcade” games, such as Geometry Wars?  Are there any that have succeeded in capturing the feel of the classic games that they clearly draw inspiration from?

MC: I really do like games that are an homage to the game they are honoring.  I loved Geometry Wars on the DS and the Wii. I am really enjoying the new version of Sin and Punishment on the Wii as I was a big fan of the Japanese N64 version.  I did not try a Boy and His Blob yet but would like to give it a run since the first one was such a cool game.  I think it might be harder to remake a game than just make a new one in some ways, because with a remake people have expectations and sometimes our memories are fonder than the game itself.  Go back and play some of your most well remembered games, I am betting that a few of them like movies will now turn out to be kind of flat experiences.  When we create the legend of a game or movie in our head that is often bigger than the actual game,  any remake of it will have a very rough time meeting those tough expectations.

ES: How long have you been involved with gaming?

MC: I am happy to say I am a child of the 80’s, I was a teenager during the original video game wave and was pretty much born with an Atari joystick in my hand.  I was always that kid that was always reading the magazines and saving his money for the game he wanted and never seemed to have enough for all of the ones I actually did want!  I have been doing this store now for over 3 years, and have worked in the game industry for another 3 years and in Silicon Valley for almost 10 years… I have to say its been quite a ride and one that I would not mind doing over again!

ES: Are there currently any plans for expanding Play Again?

MC: We are currently planning to expand the store into our sister store where we are hoping to give our locals a place that is focused on meeting people of the opposite gender and share the love of gaming in friendly competition in a relaxed anime inspired café gaming shop.  I am working with the person who is going to open it and it looks like everything is going well and we hope to have lots of community based events and fun things for people to do until the wee hours of the night in a safe and welcoming environment for everyone.

R9: Is there anything else you would like to say?

MC: Gaming, anime & cartoons are lots of fun, meeting people for real, going on dates and discussing things in an adult manner are the cornerstone of what we as gamers are. Somewhere down the line we have been pigeon-holed as less than that and lost our way.  I just want to help us find it again and enjoy ourselves at the same time.

I would like to thank Mr. Castillo for taking the time to answer my questions.  If you are in Corpus Christi and are looking for a long lost cartridge, need a system repaired, or just want to rekindle the old SNES vs. Genesis debate (or Atari 2600 vs Intellivision for us older gamers). then check out Play Again Classic Video Games located at 5301 Everhart Road, just one block off of South Padre Island Drive.  With a knowledgeable staff and a love of all things classic, they will be more than happy to take care of your retro gaming needs.  Play Again Classic Video games can be found on the Web at: http://www.playagaincvg.com

Contact Eduardo “RANDOMIZER9” Soliz at edsoliz@gmail.com!