|At a glance|
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.)
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.