|At a glance|
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.