Mobile hotspot showdown: 3G and 4G options compared

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

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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.

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