Mobile hotspot showdown: 3G and 4G options compared

A cellular hotspot lets you connect multiple devices on the road, but whose service is better?

You're sitting in your hotel room and you need to connect your laptop to the Internet to get some work done. But although many hotels offer free Internet access, you're staying in one that thinks of it as comparable to the room's minibar, charging you a small fortune to get online. "It's totally out of control, with a night's Wi-Fi potentially costing $30," says Allen Nogee, a senior analyst In-Stat, a market analysis firm. "Some hotels are now charging extra for second and third [Wi-Fi-connected] devices, and others are adding in per-megabyte charges."

What's a frugal traveler to do?

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Consider a mobile hotspot. About the size and weight of a wallet, these devices tap into your cellular provider's 3G or 4G wireless data service, delivering Internet data at broadband speeds via a built-in Wi-Fi router. They work anywhere your data service has a signal and can support as many as five devices at once.

Mobile hotspots' pros and cons
Mobile hotspots can yield bandwidth that is on a par with, and in some cases superior to, a hotel's costly Internet service. Satisfying the need for speed, mobile hotspots can stream movies, download huge presentations, and support videoconferences. The best can serve up data as fast as 15Mbps.

What's more, a single mobile hotspot can service a group of working businesspeople, such as several accountants auditing a company's books. Rather than logging on to the hotel's Wi-Fi service at night for $10 to $30 each, the workgroup can tap into a $100 mobile hotspot for all their data needs. (More details on mobile hotspot prices and data plans in a moment.) Some devices even have MicroSDHC card slots, allowing groups to share data.

On top of supporting a workgroup on the go, a hotspot is often the best way to retrofit a tablet or notebook for fast, new 4G connections. It can also provide a convenient way to get online in certain rural areas where wired high-speed connections aren't available but cellular coverage is.

Recently, when my office's Internet provider experienced problems and my connection became unreliable for several hours, I was able to switch to a mobile hotspot and continue working online. The irony is that I started getting much faster download speeds than my cable provider ever delivered.

Depending on your needs, however, a mobile hotspot might not be the best solution. If you're traveling solo, a mobile data card that's integrated into your laptop or a USB modem might make more sense -- they tend to be smaller, lighter, and cheaper than mobile hotspots. But these devices won't help you get colleagues online, and older ones won't work with wireless carriers' new 4G networks.

Another option is smartphone tethering. Many of the latest smartphones, including the most recent iPhones and BlackBerrys, allow you to tether a laptop or tablet to the phone via a Bluetooth or USB connection, turning it into the equivalent of a hotspot. There are potential snags here, though, because some phones don't allow calls when they're doing data duty, and tethering can make opening your monthly phone bill even more stressful. The Big Three national networks charge between $15 and $30 a month (on top of your data plan fees) for allowing you to tether a notebook or tablet to your phone.

Finally, keep in mind that a mobile hotspot is yet another small device to potentially leave behind. Says Nogee, "A mobile hotspot can work well on the road and be a genuine alternative to hotel Wi-Fi, but they are so small that they're easy to forget about and leave in a hotel room."

Putting mobile hotspots to the test
I tested the latest mobile hotspots from the four major U.S. carriers: Novatel Wireless's Mobile hotspot MiFi 2372, which operates on AT&T's network; Novatel's Mobile hotspot MiFi 4082, which works with Sprint's network; the Samsung SCH-LC11, which uses Verizon Wireless's network; and the ZTE MF61, which runs on T-Mobile USA's network.

All four hotspots have black cases and batteries that last at least 3.5 hours; they're also small and light enough to fit into a shirt pocket, yet capable of grabbing megabytes from a mobile data network and pushing the data to five users, whether they're in a hotel lobby, in a conference room, in an airport lounge, or on the beach. All but the ZTE MF61 used by T-Mobile are a full 802.11n router; the ZTE MF61 is limited to 802.11g. And all but the ZTE MF61 support GPS, to tell you where you are. 

Other than that, they go their own way. Two offer the luxury of a MicroSDHC card slot for storing and sharing information among a group, while one features WPS (Wi-Fi Portected Setup) technology that makes connecting a little easier. One even has a screen with bars to show the current signal strength and battery time left.

Of course, each mobile hotspot has to work with its network's specific technology. While AT&T and T-Mobile use HSPA+ technology for upgraded 3G speeds, Sprint and Verizon use 4G systems that rely on WiMax and LTE technology, respectively. (Confused? See "The 4G name game.")

Geography also plays a role. All these networks are still works in progress. They generally provide adequate coverage in bigger cities on the coasts, but they have so many gaping holes, particularly in the upper Midwest, that it's hard to call any of them national networks; patchworks of service is more like it.

The ZTE MF61 hotspot used by T-Mobile lists for $150, whereas the other three hotspots list for about $300, but with a two-year contract, each can be had for less than $100. Be careful, though -- the two-year commitment can add up quickly, because you'll pay between $30 and $90 a month for data service, and some networks restrict the amount of data you can download.

To see how they stack up, I pushed each hotspot to the limit, both in my office and on the road, connecting three clients simultaneously while doing everything from watching videos to updating websites. (See "How I tested," below, for details.)

I found that any of these hotspots can provide a quick and convenient Internet connection. Which one you choose depends on how much you're willing to spend, how important getting top speed is, and how much time you have left on your current data service contract.

How I tested
To see how AT&T's, Verizon's, Sprint's, and T-Mobile's mobile hotspots compare, I used each of them every day over a three-week period. On top of using them for daily Web excursions, I watched online videos, listened to Internet radio, posted material to a website, made VoIP calls, and downloaded and uploaded large files.

I conducted my online speed tests over the course of five days: three days in my office, and two days on the road in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. While mobile, I tested in a variety of environments: while working out of my car, on a moving train, in a hotel lobby, while waiting at the airport, and even at a nature preserve.

At 9 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m., and 9 p.m. each day, I simultaneously connected three clients (a Lenovo IdeaPad U260 laptop, an Apple iPad, and an Archos 70 Internet Tablet) to each of the hotspots in sequence. To simulate the needs of a small workgroup, the iPad played online videos 10 feet from the hotspot, while the Archos tablet played an Internet radio station from eight feet away. The laptop was set up four feet from the hotspot and measured the available bandwidth with Ookla's Speedtest.net bandwidth meter. I recorded three latency (ping), download speed, and upload speed results for each hotspot at each testing time, and when all the data was compiled, I averaged the results.

To see how long each hotspot's battery lasted, I started by fully charging each one overnight. With the hotspot about five feet from a connected PC continuously playing YouTube videos, I unplugged the hotspot and timed how long it took for the battery to die. While it was running down, I monitored the hotspot's battery level using its setup screen's battery gauge.

Finally, I measured each hotspot's Wi-Fi range. With the hotspot at one end of my office and the IdeaPad U260 notebook connected, I ran an Internet radio station and slowly walked down a long hallway. When the audio content began to lose its wireless connection and started stuttering, I stopped and walked back and forth a step or two to confirm the location where the network's signal died, then measured the distance back to the hotspot.

AT&T: Novatel MiFi 2372
If a bargain price tag is more important to you than speed, grab AT&T's Novatel Wireless MiFi 2372 hotspot (available for $50 if you buy it online and sign up for a two-year data service contract, which costs $50 per month). It's an inexpensive way to get online, but its performance lagged behind the others.

Weighing 2.7 ounces and measuring 0.6 by 3.9 by 2.4 inches, the MiFi 2372 will easily disappear into a pocket. The lightest but largest of the three mobile hotspots, its black-with-chrome styling is a little ostentatious compared to the understated Samsung SCH-LC11 offered by Verizon.

The MiFi 2372 includes a handy MicroSDHC card slot for saving and sharing up to 32GB of data. It has the simplest design of the three devices reviewed here, with just one LED light that shows that it's transmitting a Wi-Fi signal; it lacks extras like the the digital ink screen on the Sprint hotspot device that shows what the signal strength and battery level are. The device ships with both an AC adapter and a USB cable for charging it from a computer.

I was able to connect to AT&T's network on the first try using the system's default network name and encryption code. It's pretty easy but doesn't have the Sprint hotspot's instant configuration button that makes setup a snap. The AT&T hotspot supports Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux computers.

There's a GPS receiver built in, and when you log on to the setup pages, you're greeted with your location and the current weather conditions. Once you're in setup, it's easy to change the device's name, power conservation setting and other operating details. Encryption settings can be adjusted to the usual protocols used by Wi-Fi routers; I recommend WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2) as the most secure.

The AT&T hotspot works with the company's HSPA and upgraded HSPA+ networks. Although the company calls its HSPA+ service 4G, it's really more like 3.5G, since it's an enhancement to an 3G existing network rather than a new network built from the ground up using a 4G technology such as LTE or WiMax. AT&T has upgraded nearly its entire 3G network to HSPA+ at this point.

The company is also busy building a 4G network based on LTE technology, with planned rollouts to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio this summer and to 10 more cites by the end of the year. Note that the MiFi 2372 hotspot will not work on AT&T's planned LTE network.

In my tests, the AT&T hotspot's average download speed was 1.65Mbps, which should be plenty for most uses but was only one-sixth as fast as Verizon's LTE network. At two locations, it was faster than 4.5Mbps, but at others, AT&T's network bogged down to barely 100Kbps. In some locations, video took a long time to buffer and faltered during playback; at others, it worked fine.

The hotspot was able to upload data at 630Kbps, well behind the Verizon hotspot but ahead of Sprint's WiMax system. On the downside, it had the longest latency, taking an average of 334.6ms (more than a third of a second) for a ping command to reach AT&T's servers and return to the hotspot. If you get this hotspot, plan on spending a lot of time waiting for Web pages to respond.

At a glance
AT&T MiFi 2372
Novatel Wireless
Price: $300, or $50 with two-year AT&T contract ($50 per month for HSPA+ service) after $100 online discount
Pros: Lightweight; MicroSDHC card slot; inexpensive with two-year contract
Cons: Slow speeds; high latency; no battery gauge

Its 1,500 milliamp-hour (mAh) battery was able to power the hotspot for 3 hours and 48 minutes, slightly longer than the Verizon hotspot but 24 minutes less than Sprint's hotspot. At 90 feet, its Wi-Fi range was between the other two.

For $50 a month, AT&T delivers up to 5GB a month for HSPA+ data service in the United States. If you go over the data limit, you're charged $10 per gigabyte.

Bottom line: I love the $50 price tag for the AT&T MiFi 4082, but it might end up being a case of "penny wise and pound foolish" because of the network's slow data speeds.

Sprint: Novatel MiFi 3G/4G
It may not be the fastest, cheapest, or lightest mobile hotspot around, but if your work or play takes you far from an AC outlet, Sprint's MiFi 3G/4G Mobile hotspot -- aka the Novatel Wireless MiFi 4082 -- can keep you online longer.

The device weighs in at 3 ounces, about a third of an ounce heavier than AT&T's hotspot. At 0.6 by 3.5 by 2.4 inches, it is midway between the others in size.

Its black housing has shiny graphite trim. Rather than the cryptic LED lights that the others have, the Sprint hotspot has a monochrome e-ink screen that shows the signal strength, battery life, and whether GPS is on at a glance. There's also a light on the side to show that the Wi-Fi router is transmitting. It comes with an AC adapter, USB cable for charging from a computer, and a soft fabric case.

Like the others, Sprint's hotspot supports Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux computers, and like AT&T's mobile hotspot, it has a MicroSDHC card slot for saving and sharing data; it works with cards up to 32GB.

I was able to connect the GPS-enabled hotspot on my first try using the default network name and encryption code. The setup page opens with a map of where you are and the local weather. Setup offers access to all the hotspot's operational details, such as when it goes to sleep and how many bytes have been sent and received. It can connect with clients using any of the popular encryption standards, from WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) to the more secure WPA2.

The Sprint hotspot can do a setup trick the others can't: Press the WPS button on its side, and the router automatically creates an encrypted data channel with your computer and reconnects the two whenever they are in range. It can be done in 15 seconds.

The hotspot can tap into Sprint's 4G WiMax network, which is currently up and running in 71 cities in 28 states, as well as the company's 3G CDMA2000 EVDO network as a backup. Every few weeks, Sprint adds another group of cities to its WiMax-covered list. If the 4G network doesn't reach to where you are, the hotspot automatically downshifts to the slower 3G network, although you can expect a short disruption of service.

With performance that came in between the scorching speed of Verizon and the tepid speed of AT&T, Sprint's network generally satisfied, with smooth video. Its download speeds averaged 2.33Mbps and hit a peak of 9.2Mbps, but its 157.1ms latency meant wasting time waiting for the network to respond. It had an average upload speed of 230Kbps.

I have a caveat, however: Twice during my work with the Sprint hotspot, the device would not respond and needed to be reset. Neither of the other two hotspots behaved like this.

At a glance
MiFi 3G/4G
Novatel Wireless
Price: $280, or $80 with a two-year Sprint contract ($45 to $90 per month for WiMax service)
Pros: Long battery life; battery and signal-strength gauge on unit; MicroSDHC card slot; easy setup; soft case; 3G and 4G coverage
Cons: Slow upload speed; needed to be reset

Its 1,500 mAh battery pack was able to power the hotspot for 4 hours and 6 minutes, the longest of the three and perfect for those who work or play off the grid. On the other hand, its Wi-Fi transmitter was the weakest, with a range of only 68 feet, one-third less than the Verizon hotspot's class-leading range.

Priced at $80 with a two-year service contract, the hotspot is a little less expensive than the Verizon model but more costly than AT&T's device. Sprint offers three service plans: All include the luxury of unlimited 4G data but charge $45, $60 and $90 respectively for 3GB, 5GB, and 10GB of data on Sprint's 3G network. Each plan charges an extra 5 cents per megabyte when you go over the data limit.

Bottom line: The easiest of the three hotspots to set up and get online, Sprint's MiFi 4082 delivers reasonable bandwidth and long battery life, but it pales in comparison to the speed of Verizon's hotspot.

Verizon Wireless: Samsung SCH-LC11
If all you care about is getting blazing speed, look no further than the Samsung 4G LTE Mobile hotspot SCH-LC11 on Verizon's LTE network. It can connect you to all the Web has to offer at speeds that can make wired broadband systems jealous, but it has the highest upfront cost.

At 0.5 by 3.5 by 2.3 inches, Verizon's hotspot is the smallest of the three; at 2.7 ounces, it weighs more than the AT&T hotspot and less than Sprint's. However, the three devices differ by less than an ounce in weight and less than half an inch in length; it would be hard to tell them apart blindfolded.

The Verizon device comes with an AC adapter as well as a USB cable to charge it from a computer, but it lacks the MicroSDHC card slot that the other two offer for saving and sharing data. It supports Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux computers.

Using the device's default network name and encryption code, I connected from a laptop on the first try. Once online, I was able to change its configuration details, such as its encryption settings; it can handle anything from WEP to WPA2 security. You have access to when the device goes into power-saving sleep mode, and can monitor how much data the device is moving. However, it lacks the instant-online button of the Sprint hotspot.

The device has lights to show battery life, Wi-Fi activity and whether it's connected to Verizon's 4G or 3G service. I like the Sprint hotspot's info screen better, though, because it shows more data and is easier to read. The Verizon unit's battery gauge in particular isn't very helpful -- the light shows solid green for a 20 to 100 percent charge (a very wide range), yellow for 6 to 20 percent and red for less than 5 percent. Alternatively, you can see how much battery power is left or how strong the wireless data connection is by logging on to the device's setup pages.

Verizon's LTE network is currently available in 74 cities, and the company plans to have 4G access available in 175 U.S. cities by the end of the year. The long-term goal is to mirror its 3G network with LTE coverage by 2013. In the meantime, if you're in an area that isn't covered by Verizon's LTE network, the hotspot automatically connects to the company's 3G network; you may experience a short disruption of service if you're connected while moving from a 4G to a 3G location.

The Verizon hotspot swept all three performance categories. It averaged an 11.3Mbps download speed over a week of testing and hit a scorching peak download rate of 19.7Mbps -- six times faster than AT&T's network.

For those who need to move data onto the network, Verizon led the pack with an average upload speed of 3.3Mbps, nearly 10 times that of Sprint's network. Finally, it had a latency of 76.4ms, half that of Sprint's and one quarter that of AT&T's network, meaning that the network reacts faster to requests, making for smoother surfing. The Verizon hotspot was able to consistently play Internet radio and online videos without interruption or stuttering.

Its Wi-Fi signal reached the farthest of the three, with a range of 95 feet, one-third longer than Sprint's hotspot. The downside is battery life: Verizon's hotspot ran for 3 hours and 42 minutes, 24 minutes less than Sprint's.

At a glance
SCH-LC11
Samsung
Price: $270, or $100 with two-year Verizon Wireless contract ($50 to $80 per month for LTE service) after $50 online discount
Pros: Top speeds; 3G and 4G coverage; excellent Wi-Fi range
Cons: Lacks MicroSDHC card slot

Verizon has two service plans that offer 5GB and 10GB of data for $50 and $80, respectively; each extra gigabyte costs $10. At $100 with a two-year commitment with Verizon, it is the most expensive of the three hotspots.

Bottom line: The Samsung SCH-LC11 mobile hotspot and Verizon's LTE network team up to deliver top speed, and at the moment no other wireless network can even come close. Think of it as premium gas for your computer.

T-Mobile USA: ZTE MF61
No. 4 wireless carrier T-Mobile has just joined its larger rivals in offering a mobile hotspot to its users. T-Mobile is a bit optimistic in calling its network "4G." Based on HSPA+ technology, an upgrade to the company's HSPA 3G technology, most of T-Mobile's network is capable of a maximum throughput of 21Mbps, well short of the peak bandwidth of more than 100Mbps that is theoretically possible with Sprint's WiMax and Verizon's LTE networks. As is the case with AT&T's HSPA+ network, it's best to call T-Mobile's 3.5G. (See "The 4G name game.")

But real-world speeds can be significantly lower than theoretical ones, and a 3.5G network can beat a 4G one in the right circumstances. More about that in a moment.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile is busy rolling out even faster HSPA+ 42 service with a peak theoretical throughput of 42Mbps -- twice that of the original HSPA+ 21 network. The new network is currently available in just under 100 cities, from Akron, Ohio, to Waco, Texas.

T-Mobile's ZTE MF61 mobile hotspot doesn't, however, work with the HSPA+ 42 network, so all my tests were conducted on the more widespread HSPA+ 21 network. Which leads to my next point: For the hotspot to work, T-Mobile's network must be available where you live (or where you travel to), so be sure to check the company's coverage map. Like the other networks, T-Mobile's is strongest on the coasts and in major cities.

Further muddying the waters is the fact that AT&T intends to buy T-Mobile and make use of both companies' networks. The acquisition must still pass muster with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission; if it does go through, it remains to be seen whether the companies' mobile hotspots and networks will interoperate.

T-Mobile's hotspot is attractive and easy to use. Measuring 0.6 by 3.9 by 2.1 inches and weighing 2.9 ounces, the ZTE MF61 hotspot is a fraction of an ounce heavier than AT&T's Novatel MiFi 2372 hotspot but lighter than Sprint's Novatel MiFi 4082 device. I really like the bright green edge that gives it a splash of style.

Rather than cryptic blinking lights to show what it's doing, it has a small, bright info screen that displays a four-bar battery gauge, the network's signal strength, Wi-Fi status, and how many clients are connected.

Unlike the hotspots from AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, T-Mobile's works with 802.11b/g only; it can't use the newer and potentially faster 802.11n protocol for Wi-Fi. The router can service up to five clients, but it lacks the GPS location abilities that the other three hotspots have.

On the other hand, the T-Mobile hotspot can do something the others can't: It has a connector to plug in an external antenna to boost a weak signal. The antenna is available from third-party sellers for $50.

Like the AT&T and Sprint hotspots, the MF61 has a handy MicroSDHC card slot that lets connected users share data. It works with cards that hold up to 32GB of data. The hotspot supports Windows and Mac OS X computers.

I was able to connect to the MF61 hotspot on the first try. Once online, I was able to change the network's name and encryption settings, update its software, and change its security settings; it can handle all the recent encryption protocols including Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2). Like Sprint's MiFi 4082, it has a Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button to make connecting clients a snap.

To extend its battery life, the T-Mobile hotspot goes into sleep mode after 10 minutes of inactivity. However, unlike the hotspots from AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, the MF61 doesn't let you adjust when it goes to sleep.

In my tests, the MF61's 1,500 mAh battery pack ran for 4 hours and 49 minutes on a charge, 43 minutes longer than Sprint's MiFi 4082 and more than an hour longer than Verizon's Samsung SCH-LC11.

Able to keep a client online 120 feet away, T-Mobile's MF61 has the longest Wi-Fi range of any hotspot I've seen, besting the Verizon hotspot's range by 25 feet.

In my data throughput tests using T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 network, the MF61 hotspot had mixed results. Over the course of two weeks of heavy use at several locations on the East Coast, the MF61 averaged a respectable download speed of 3.26Mbps, peaking at 7.61Mbps.

I can't definitively say how that stacks up to the other hotspots and networks I tested because I didn't test T-Mobile's system at the same times that I did the others. Unscientifically, however, the T-Mobile hotspot came in well behind Verizon's 11.3Mbps average download speed and slightly ahead of Sprint's 2.33Mbps and AT&T's 1.65Mbps.

T-Mobile also came in second in upload speed with an average of 1.23Mbps, behind Verizon's 3.30Mbps and ahead of AT&T's 630Kbps and Sprint's 360Kbps.

The T-Mobile hotspot's latency came in at 222ms for a third-place finish behind Verizon's 76ms and Sprint's 157ms but ahead of AT&T's slow 334ms. High latency translates into fairly long waits for the network to respond to requests.

T-Mobile offers a dizzying array of service plans with an option for occasional travelers or those scared of commitments. With a two-year contract, online discount and mail-in rebate, the hotspot costs $80; there are four monthly service plans that provide 10GB ($85), 5GB ($50), 2GB ($40), or 200MB ($30) of data. (See our data plans and pricing table for how these plans compare to the competition.)

At a glance
MF61
ZTE
Price: $150, or $80 with two-year T-Mobile contract ($30 to $85 per month for HSPA+ service) after $20 online discount and $50 rebate. No-commitment passes are also available ($10 to $50)
Pros: Excellent Wi-Fi range, top battery life, MicroSDHC card slot, bright info screen, external antenna connector, no-commitment service option
Cons: Midrange performance, doesn't support 802.11n, no GPS, service slows when you reach plan's data limit

Rather than charging a small fortune if you go over your data limit, T-Mobile switches the hotspot to its older GSM network, which runs at about 50Kbps, until the next monthly billing period starts. It's a good way to prevent monster bills, but it can be frustrating if you reach your limit in the middle of watching a movie.

If you intend to use it infrequently or are wary of a two-year contract, the hotspot can be had for $150 with no service plan, and T-Mobile offers three no-commitment options: a 3GB/30-day pass ($50), a 1GB/30 day pass ($30), and a 100MB/7-day pass ($10). It's expensive and a bit confusing, but no other network provides this level of flexibility. I hope it doesn't get lost if or when AT&T merges with T-Mobile.

Bottom line: T-Mobile's ZTE MF61 is the distance and battery-life leader among the hotspots I've tested, and the carrier offers the most flexible array of service plans. Its speed is middling overall. But it had the best battery life and connection-distance results of all four hotspots.

Mobile hotspots: Performance results
Verizon's mobile hotspot blew the competition away in tests for download speed, upload speed and latency, as the charts below show. (T-Mobile is not included in the charts as its MF61 arrived for testing after I had completed work on the other three.)

mhot_perfcharts3_508.jpg
Conclusions Your current wireless contract may dictate which mobile hotspot you choose -- unless you're willing to pay a hefty cancellation fee. Or you may be limited by the networks that are available where you live, work, and travel frequently. The good news is that the mobile hotspots offered by all the major carriers provide decent ways to get online.


Your current wireless contract may dictate which mobile hotspot you choose -- unless you're willing to pay a hefty cancellation fee. Or you may be limited by the networks that are available where you live, work, and travel frequently. The good news is that the mobile hotspots offered by all the major carriers provide decent ways to get online.

If, however, you're nearing the end of a contract and there are several wireless networks available in your area, it pays to consider all your options. Which mobile hotspot (and carrier) to go with depends on what you want to get out of it. If a low entry price is all you care about, the $50 Novatel MiFi 2372 from AT&T is the way to go. If quick and easy setup is your primary concern, it makes sense to go with the Novatel MiFi 4082 device on Sprint's network.

But if your top priority is fast downloads and uploads, then Samsung's SCH LC-11 mobile hotspot delivers the goods using Verizon's LTE network. It may not be the cheapest device or have the longest battery life, but the Verizon hotspot offers blazing speed that puts AT&T's and Sprint's systems -- as well as many wired networks -- to shame. I just wish it were available in more places, but that's a matter of time.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

This story, "Mobile hotspot showdown: 3G and 4G options compared" was originally published by Computerworld.

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