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.

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