There is a better way, and it involves bringing your own mobile network with you. "Having a personal hotspot can let you connect at office speeds just about anywhere," says Jeff Kagan, an independent wireless analyst. "It can mean the difference between being online and off."
Why get a personal Wi-Fi hotspot (and have one more thing to carry, charge and potentially lose) when your smartphone can operate as a hotspot Because using a phone as a hotspot can chew through the battery in a very short time, and when you want to collaborate with others, it's often limited to only a few users at once. A personal hotspot, on the other hand, can provide online access to eight or ten participants at a time -- perfect for an offsite meeting, even on a train or in a van.
Traditionally, a mobile hotspot requires a two-year contract and a monthly data plan -- which makes sense only for those who travel several times a month. For others who travel less frequently, it can end up being expensive and wasteful.
That's where a prepaid hotspot comes in. You're not locked into a two-year commitment with a service plan that you pay for every month whether you need it or not. A prepaid plan lets you add data into your account and use it as needed (although the plans vary among the service providers).
I took a look at five of the latest mobile hotspots that connect over the major national networks with prepaid services. They include, from the major networks, AT&T's Unite Express, T-Mobile's 4G LTE HotSpot Z915 and Verizon's Ellipsis MHS800L. There are also the Boost Netgear Fuse Hotspot and the Karma Go; Boost and Karma are Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) that buy connect time on Sprint's networks. The five hotspots range in price from $50 to $149, have a wide variety of plans available and offer a range of sizes, features and online performance.
"Picking the right hotspot to get is not a simple decision," says Kagan. "You need to look at the entire connection landscape, which also includes the network's technology, hotspot hardware and service plans available."
His advice is to first pick the network that suits your travels geographically, because even the best online device is worthless if there's no network where you need it. I recommend starting at the carrier's website to see if they operate in the general area you want. Then, go to OpenSignal's crowdsourced coverage maps and zoom in on a few places you think you'll be traveling to see in detail if the carrier's service is good.
Finally, you'll need to pick the service plan that best matches your needs. Don't worry, it's a lot easier to up- or downgrade your prepaid hotspot service plan than with a traditional hotspot or phone plan.
Each network has a different view of how data access should be structured. Karma, for instance, offers data for no set time period; just add more data when you need it. By contrast, AT&T still requires a monthly data budget for prepaid plans, but you can turn it on and off as your travel plans change, as well as add data at any time.
While this might be confusing, we're here to help with a lab test drive that attacks this issue from three sides. I compared the prepaid plans available with each device, focusing on price and flexibility. I took a look at the hardware, noting size and weight and testing the devices' battery life and Wi-Fi range. And I did extensive testing of the 4G networks that they operate on by connecting the five hotspots to everything from a Windows PC and a Mac to Android devices and iPads in 20 separate locations over a six-week period.
One caveat, though: The network testing was performed on the east coast, from New Jersey to Maine, where even the flimsiest 4G networks are the strongest. Your experience may be different, particularly if you live in the plains or mountain states. But one thing is certain: With a personal hotspot along on your next trip, chances are you won't have to suffer with a hotel's dismal Wi-Fi service.
It may not be the smallest or longest-lasting hotspot, and it is far from the easiest to set up prepaid service for, but AT&T's Unite Express delivers the hotspot goods. It connects over a reliable and wide-ranging 4G data network, putting data where it's needed: on your screen.
Measuring 4.4 x 2.7 x 0.6 in. and weighing 4.5 oz., the black Unite Express is near the high end of the size and weight spectrum for hotspots but still significantly smaller and lighter than T-Mobile's Z915. It easily fits into a jacket pocket. If you look carefully, the Unite Express bears more than a passing resemblance to the Boost Fuse hotspot. Both come from Netgear and match each other's spec sheet; the biggest difference is that the Boost Fuse has a glossy finish and AT&T's Unite Express has a soft rubberized coating.
Like the others, it's charged via a micro USB port and, unlike the Karma Go, includes an AC adapter and cable. It also has a pair of ports for external antennas (sold separately) for when reception really counts.
In addition to an on/off button, the Unite Express has a 1.7-in. color info screen that shows the battery charge level, signal strength and whether it's connected to a 4G network. It doesn't show how much data has been used, which the Boost Fuse does.
To see how much data you have remaining, you'll need to type att.com/mygophone into the Web browser of a device that's connected to the Unite Express. You'll also find a slew of configuration details and options, including the Wi-Fi network name and encryption passcode, as well as a link to refill your data account.
Of the five hotspots tested here, the Unite Express is the most complicated to get from sealed box to full operation. To set the hotspot up, you'll need to enter its SIM card and IMEI numbers into the online form on AT&T's GoPhone prepaid website. Then pick a rate plan and pay for it with a credit card. (Sorry, no PayPal or Bitcoins allowed here.)
AT&T then sends an email with a temporary password for the hotspot, which shows up on its screen. Finally, you'll need to change the password again to something of your choosing. All told, it's a 15-minute process, versus a few minutes for most of the others.
Inside the Unite Express is an 802.11n router that supports WPA2 encryption and works with as many as 10 clients at a time. In my tests it had a disappointingly short 75-foot Wi-Fi range. On the other hand, it lasted a reasonable 8 hours and 35 minutes on battery power -- 15 minutes short of the similar Fuse's run time and one third shorter than the Verizon Ellipsis Jetpack's 12 hours and 45 minutes.
Like Verizon, AT&T has an extensive LTE network with a profusion of cell sites on both coasts and many in the middle as well. It covers places like Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, which others don't. If the 4G network isn't available, the fallback is AT&T's 3G network, which is more extensive but much slower.
The hotspot that best combines network service with hardware capabilities, the Unite Express had a clean sweep of the network performance tests. Its 45.7ms latency represented about half the wait-time of T-Mobile's network. Its peak upload speed was 15.7Mbps, and it had an average upload speed of 10.2Mbps. That's well ahead of the Verizon and T-Mobile units, and several times the speeds that Sprint delivered via the Boost and Karma devices.
Its download speeds averaged 15Mbps and peaked at 28.8Mbps, a few megabits per second faster than T-Mobile and Verizon, but at least double that of the two Sprint network hotspots. This should be plenty for a group of workers sharing a Web connection.
At $80, the Unite Express isn't the cheapest hotspot, but it's still a lot less than the $149 Karma Go. AT&T offers three monthly plans that should satisfy a variety of users -- $25 for 2GB, $50 for 5GB, and $75 for 8GB -- but note that the data expires after 30 days. If you hit your limit before 30 days are up, you can add more. (The rate for additional data varies by monthly plan.)
With the best performance and an excellent network, the AT&T Unite Express puts data in its place -- everywhere you go. I only wish its service plans were more flexible.
While Boost's Netgear Fuse Mobile Hotspot is inexpensive and offers the cheapest data plans of the five, the Sprint network that Boost piggybacks on falls short of the mark in terms of geographic reach and performance.
The Fuse hotspot matches AT&T's Unite Express in most areas, except it has a shiny finish, compared with the Unite Express's matte texture. Other than that, they both weigh 4.5 oz., measure 4.4 x 2.7 x 0.6 in. and are only slightly smaller than T-Mobile's Z915 hotspot.
The Boost Fuse is charged with an included micro USB AC adapter and has a pair of ports for external antennas (not included) to help grab a weak signal from a distant cell tower. Netgear sells an AC-powered desktop cradle that has antennas built in for use in a trailer or other remote location.
Like the Unite Express, the Fuse has a 1.7-in. color display, but the info it offers is more extensive. The Fuse not only shows the expected signal strength and battery status, but how much data you've used. Granted, showing how much remains in the account would have been more useful, but it's a big step up from the competition.
The Boost configuration pages load automatically when you open a browser that's connected to the hotspot, saving you from having to type in an IP address. In addition to how much data has been used and what remains, you can see who's online, set up port filtering and change the unit's name and password.
Setup takes about five minutes and starts with connecting the Fuse to a client. It comes with a unique network name and encryption passcode, so is secure out of the box, but I recommend changing them as soon as the device is online for better security.
After clicking on Activate Now, you need to set up an account and enter your credit card info. (Boost won't take PayPal or Bitcoins as payment.) After connecting to Boost's servers and picking the rate plan, you're online.
Like the others, the Fuse has a full 802.11n router inside; it supports WPA2 encryption and can connect with up to 10 users at once. Its 80-foot Wi-Fi range was short, just five feet longer than the similar Unite Express device. Still, it should be more than enough for a group in a small conference room.
Like the Karma Go, the Boost Fuse uses Sprint's 4G network, which has lots of cell sites on the east and west coast, but is sparsely covered in the plains and mountain states and lacks Canadian and Mexican coverage. That said, Sprint has been working to expand its network and upgrade its LTE technology.
Surprisingly, the Fuse's performance results don't mirror those of the Karma Go, despite using the same network. It had peak download and upload speeds of 17.6Mbps and 13.6Mbps, compared to 32.7Mbps and 26.4Mbps for the Karma Go. That said, the Fuse's average download speed of 5.9Mbps was nearly 30% faster than Karma Go's 4.2Mbps average, while still disappointing compared to AT&T's 15Mbps average download speed.
The performance was reversed for average upload speeds, with the Fuse pushing just 2.9Mbps up to the cloud -- more than 40% slower than the Karma Go's average 5.1Mbps upload speed over the same network. In fact, there were times when the two devices gave wildly different results while operating side by side.
The Boost Fuse's 48.9ms latency was second best to the AT&T Unite Express's 45.7ms, well ahead of the Karma Go's latency of 79.9ms and the T-Mobile Z915's 90.4ms.
Its price tag of $50 makes the Fuse a bargain. Boost offers only monthly rate plans that range from $25 for 1.5GB (not as good a deal as AT&T's $25/2GB plan) to $50 for 10GB (much better than AT&T's $75/8GB plan). Unfortunately, the data expires when the 30-day time period expires.
Boost's Fuse is for those who travel where Sprint has service and who have high data needs.
The Karma Go is unlike any other hotspot -- it actually encourages you to share your data stream with others. This may show generosity, but it may not suit security-minded business travelers, especially because it doesn't encrypt its data stream.
At 2.9 x 2.9 x 0.5 in., the Karma Go has heavily rounded corners, making it look like a white hockey puck and allowing it to easily fit into a shirt pocket. It weighs 2.8 oz., making it slightly heavier than the Verizon Ellipsis Jetpack MHS800L and a couple ounces lighter than T-Mobile's 4G LTE HotSpot Z915.
On its edge are an on/off button and a micro USB port for charging. While it comes with a short charging cable, the package doesn't include an AC adapter. It's the only one of the five to lack this essential piece of equipment, although you can buy a generic one for about $5.
Visually, the Karma Go stands out because it does without the info screen that the others have. Instead, the Go has a series of small circles on one edge that convey what's going on inside. The three open circles act as a signal-strength meter, lighting up in white to show how strong a link to the Sprint data network you have. On the right is a colored-in circle that acts as a battery gauge, glowing green for a full charge, orange for 67% charge, red for 33% remaining and white when the device is asleep.
To get going, connect the Karma Go via Wi-Fi to a Windows, Mac OS X, iOS or Android client using the "Karma Wi-Fi" network name. You'll need to create an account and enter credit card details; Karma also lets you pay with PayPal and even Bitcoins. New accounts get an instant 100MB of data. Setup took me seven minutes from start to finish.
If you're using a laptop, the Go connects you to a Web page; if you're using a phone or tablet, you'll need to get a free app for iOS or Android. Using the website or the app you can see things like how much data you've used, how much remains and your history of data usage; you can also pay for more data. However, the site and app lack a battery gauge and details like how many clients are connected.
While it is a full 802.11n router that accommodates up to eight users, the Karma Go's Wi-Fi connection with the computer isn't encrypted. By design, this allows and encourages others to jump on and use your connection (they'll see it listed among the available Wi-Fi networks), but not your data stash. Needless to say, this is an open-minded attitude that could (potentially) lead to your computer being compromised. However, Karma says that each client's data stream is isolated and that there have been no reported instances of using a Karma Go to hack into a host's system.
Personally, I found it felt liberating and acted as a natural conversation starter to share the data connection with a stranger, and I didn't experience any slowdowns while sharing the connection. Karma gives you an extra 100MB every time you share your Go's connection.
The Go puts out the strongest Wi-Fi signal of the bunch with a superb range of 110 feet -- 35 feet longer than the AT&T Unite Express. On the downside, its battery lasted for just 4 hours and 35 minutes, the shortest of the five and only about a third as long as the Verizon Jetpack's 12 hours and 45 minutes.
The Karma Go uses Sprint's emerging LTE network, and -- as is the case with Boost -- that's a weak point. The network is strongest on the east coast and Midwest, but is sparsely represented throughout the plains states and offers no sites in Mexico or Canada. If there's no 4G coverage, the Boost device will use Sprint's older and slower 3G network.
In actual use, the device was reliable and never failed to connect on demand. It hit peak download and upload speeds of 32.7Mbps and 26.4Mbps at different locations on different days.
In testing, however, the Karma Go was a mediocre performer with an average latency of 79.9ms, 43% slower than the class-leading AT&T Unite Express. Its average download speed of 4.2Mbps made it the slowest of the five. Oddly, its average upload speed of 5.1Mbps was faster than its average download speed -- and faster than the average upload speeds of both the Boost Fuse (2.9Mbps) and T-Mobile's Z915 (3.1Mbps).
Unlike the others, Karma's plans are not time-dependent and data never expires. Just fill your account and use it whenever you want. It's no bargain, however, with plans that range from $14 for 1GB to $99 for 10GB. (Karma also offers a plan that doesn't fit our "pay-as-you-go" theme but isn't quite traditional either -- $50 per month gets you unlimited data but a maximum download speed of 5Mbps.)
Think of the Karma Go as the social butterfly of the hotspot world. At $149, it's nearly three times the cost of the Boost Fuse or the Verizon Ellipsis Jetpack, but can help make friends while delivering data.
Easily the largest and heaviest of the five, T-Mobile's 4G LTE HotSpot Z915 offers business travelers inexpensive data and the ability to connect in Canada and Mexico. Ultimately, though, the network can't compare with AT&T's and Verizon's on scope and speed.
At 4.2 x 2.6 x 0.7 in., the 5.1-oz. Z915 personal hotspot is big, bulky and heavy compared to the diminutive Verizon Ellipsis hotspot. (That said, it still fits into a jacket pocket.) Made by ZTE, the Z915 is charged with either a micro USB cable or the included AC adapter.
Behind a flap on the edge of the unit, there's a SIM card slot and a recessed reset button, which are next to the on/off button. On the front, the Z915 has four navigation keys that can be used to select an item, go left or right or go back a page.
Of the five, it's the easiest to maneuver, with screens for Settings, Software Update, Device Info, Connection Info and Connected Device. This allows you to do things like see how much data you've used or adjust when the screen times out directly from the device.
You can still go to the hotspot's Web pages by typing mobile.hotspot into a browser window. There, you can see who's connected, how much data remains and when you used it.
While its 1.9-in. screen is the largest of the bunch, it can only show black and white and can't compare to the bright and colorful screens on the Netgear-made hotspots from AT&T and Boost.
Getting the Z915 online took me about eight minutes. It starts with connecting the device to a client. The Z915 comes unencrypted, so is inherently insecure out of the box; I recommend setting a passcode as soon as possible. (It supports up to WPA2 encryption.)
On T-Mobile's website, you need to pick a plan, which the company calls a Data Pass, then enter your personal data and a credit card. T-Mobile doesn't take PayPal or Bitcoins for payment. It takes a minute to activate and then it's online.
An 802.11n router that supports 10 users, the Z915 had a range of 85 feet in my tests -- 25 feet shorter than the Karma Go but 10 feet longer than the AT&T Unite Express. It should be fine for a group working in a conference room. It ran for 7 hours and 50 minutes on a charge, landing in between the long-lasting Verizon Ellipsis and the short-lasting Karma Go.
Of the four networks here, T-Mobile is catching up to the Big Two and has good coverage on the east and west coasts. It ignores places like Billings, Mo. and Boise, Idaho in the heartland, but has coverage in Denver and adds Mexico and Canada to the mix. Lacking a 4G signal, the Z915 will use T-Mobile's older and slower 3G network.
At a Starbucks in suburban Connecticut, the T-Mobile network blew the others away with a peak download speed of 43.4Mbps; its peak upload speed was 18.8Mbps. Unfortunately, at 11.9Mbps and 3.1Mbps, its average download and upload speeds weren't nearly as good, trailing slightly behind the Verizon Ellipsis and well behind the AT&T Unite Express.
Its latency is a concern. With an average wait time of 90.4ms, it had the highest latency of the bunch and twice that of AT&T's network -- which means you'll spend more time waiting on Web pages to fully load.
The $110 price tag for the Z915 is more than twice what Boost charges for the Netgear Fuse or what Verizon charges for the Ellipsis. On the other hand, T-Mobile has flexible rate plans with daily, weekly or monthly Data Passes that go for $5 (500MB per day), $10 (1GB per week), $30 (3GB per month) or $70 (11GB per month). The data expires at the end of the time period.
If you're lucky and live and work in areas that T-Mobile covers well, this is a bargain. Still, the network needs to speed up and widen its scope for it to be a player.
Verizon's Ellipsis Jetpack MHS800L shows other hotspots how to succeed with a tiny device that delivers good download speeds and long battery life. On the downside, the low-end data packages available with the hotspot can be expensive on a per-megabyte basis.
The smallest personal hotspot of the five, the Ellipsis Jetpack measures just 3.1 x 2.2 x 0.5 in. and weighs 2.7 oz. That's roughly half the size and weight of T-Mobile's Z915. It easily fits into a shirt pocket.
The device has an attractive black-with-red-trim color scheme and a soft rubberized coating. On its side is a small on/off button and behind a snap-out door is the device's SIM card and a recessed reset button. It's charged with a micro USB port and comes with an AC adapter and cable.
The top of the unit has a 0.9-in. monochrome screen that due to its size was the hardest to read; I spent too much time squinting at it. It shows the signal strength in bars, as well as its connected network and a battery gauge. You can use the screen to get other details, like the network's name, by tapping the on/off button. It can also show data usage a layer below the main screen, but twice during my testing it reported, "data usage is not available at this time."
Pointing a connected browser to its host address (192.168.1.1) offers a wide variety of information and setup options. There you can see the current charge level, change the Wi-Fi channels, block devices and even set up port filtering.
After inserting the included SIM card and closing the door, I started up the Ellipsis Jetpack and connected it to a computer using the default name and encryption code. Each hotspot is set up with an individual name and passcode so it is secure out of the box, but I strongly recommend changing them as soon as you're connected.
A fresh browser window takes you to the Verizon Broadband Portal, where you'll need to open an account and enter your payment information; unlike Karma, Verizon only accepts credit cards. After that, you'll need to pick and purchase your data plan. All told it took me 15 minutes to set up.
The Ellipsis has an 802.11n router built in that supports WPA2 encryption and connects up to eight individual clients at a time. The hotspot has a mediocre range of 85 feet, but continuously doled out data to a client for an amazing 12 hours and 45 minutes. In this regard, it's easily the longest lasting of the five and can run for nearly three times as long as the Karma Go.
The Ellipsis uses Verizon's LTE network, which has the most extensive coverage in the country. In addition to lots of cell sites on both coasts, it has towers in the middle of the country -- for instance, in Billings, Mo., which Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T ignore. However, the hotspot lacks the ability to fall back on 3G service in a pinch.
In the real world, Verizon's network worked well with its Ellipsis hotspot. It had one connection failure, but it connected fine on the next try. It hit peaks of 32.8Mpbs and 22.6Mbps, respectively, for downloading and uploading data. While its average download speed was a more sedate 12.7Mbps, this should be plenty fast for individuals and small groups to share.
The Ellipsis offered middle-of-the road 51.6ms latency and 5.5Mbps average upload speeds. In other words, it lagged behind AT&T's Unite Express in each performance category but performed respectably compared to the other hotspots.
The device itself is inexpensive at $50 (the same as the Boost Fuse). Verizon offers weekly and monthly data plans, but nothing for a day of data. When the time period expires, so does the data. The company has a $15 weekly plan for 250MB of data, as well as monthly plans for $60 (3GB) and $90 (10GB). This adds up to very expensive data at the low end and reasonably priced data at the high end.
This tiny hotspot is for those who want to travel light. Getting online in the widest variety of places is the name of the game here, and Verizon delivers with the best network coverage across the U.S. and a tiny hotspot that just misses being the top performer.
When it comes to a personal hotspot, network coverage and pricing count for at least as much as the hardware does. This trifecta means that despite Boost's inexpensive data plans and the enviable $50 price tag of its Netgear Fuse Mobile Hotspot, its use of Sprint's network means it will neither satisfy a thirst for high-speed data nor offer the ability to connect in out-of-the-way places.
That goes for Karma Go as well, although its superior Wi-Fi range and the fact that data never expires are redeeming qualities. I just can't get my mind around the hotspot's inability to encrypt data and the fact that anyone can share your connection.
T-Mobile's 4G LTE HotSpot Z915 has cheap data plans and includes Canadian and Mexican coverage, making it a good option for those who travel north and south of the border. Unfortunately, it's the least portable of the five, and during testing, T-Mobile's network had the longest latency period of the group.
Tiny and light, Verizon's Ellipsis Jetpack MHS800L is the most portable of the five hotspots, and it's tied for cheapest. It has an excellent network behind it, but its data is expensive at the low end, so it's really aimed at those who travel a lot.
That leaves AT&T's Unite Express, which at $80 is cheap enough, and in my tests offered the best network performance in every category. While its setup procedure could only have been devised by the Inquisition and there are no daily or weekly data plans, it offers the best mix of economy, throughput and coverage. When I travel I want it in my bag.
To see how these mobile hotspots compare, I used each of them every day for a month in a variety of situations for work and play. On top of using them for daily Web excursions, I watched online videos as well as live sporting events, listened to Internet radio, posted material to a website and downloaded files.
After setting each up with an account, paying for service and exploring how each works, I connected them concurrently to a Microsoft Surface 3 tablet, a second-generation iPad Mini, a Google Nexus 7 tablet and a third-generation MacBook Air. Then I gauged how long each lasted on its battery. After connecting with a client, I started a stopwatch and ran YouTube videos continuously until the hotspot's battery was empty. I repeated this three times, averaged the results and rounded to the nearest five-minute interval.
Next, I measured their Wi-Fi range by connecting with a client and starting up an Internet radio station. As I walked away from the hotspot, I listened for break-ups and stutters while monitoring the system's wireless signal strength. When it disconnected, I noted the place and moved back towards the hotspot. After it reconnected, I confirmed the place where the client lost contact.
I tested each hotspot's performance at several locations side by side using Ookla's Speedtest.net website. Each data set was completed within 15 minutes to lessen any effect of Internet congestion. I took daily readings at an office in Westchester County (just north of the Bronx) twice a day, three times a week. Then I hit the road and made day trips to New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut, taking readings three times a day for two days a week. Finally, I went on a four-day business trip through Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. The hope was that testing the hotspots at a large number of different locations at different times evened out any high or low spots.
In addition to recording the latency (through the ping test), I tracked each hotspot's download and upload speeds. All told, I took more than 1,500 readings at 20 different locations over six weeks of testing.