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.)