Better late than never, right? Two years after Verizon started selling its first MiFi device, T-Mobile is dipping its toes into the mobile hotspot market with the eponymous 4G Mobile Hotspot, which packs an HSPA+ radio and, like other hotspots, doubles as a USB storage device. As an HSPA+ device, of course, it claims slower rates than "true" 4G devices that run on LTE or WiMAX networks -- but, really, typical download speeds of 8Mbps should hardly be a deal-breaker for those who like the idea of paying less for the hotspot and the data plans that go with it. And what tempting pricing it is. Though rates vary depending on whether you're also a voice subscriber, T-Mo is far more generous in both its prices and definition of "unlimited" than its competitors. So is this discreet hotspot speedy enough to keep up with a nomadic routine of traveling and floating from meeting to meeting? And is it worth straying from a bona fide 4G device? You'll have to head on past the break to find out.
Hardware and setup
We wouldn't blame you if you mistook this ZTE-sourced hotspot for a phone. Its narrow build, rounded edges, microSD card slot, satiny back cover, and small OLED display all make it look like a handset-- albeit, a thin clamshell from the mid-2000s. Once we started using the hotspot as a storage device, we came to appreciate the side-loading - it made it easier to swap in the microSD card we were already using with our smartphone. As for ports and buttons, there are power and WPS buttons tucked on the same side as the memory card slot, with an external antenna port on the opposite side, though, as you'll see, we got fast service without having to use any of these. Rounding out this quick tour, you'll find a miniUSB port on the bottom edge, allowing you to connect it to any computer for either charging or accessing whatever you've stored on your microSD. Alas, though, it's not possible to access the card wirelessly.
But more than the pocketable hardware, its the OLED screen that you'll get the most intimate with. It neatly displays up to five bars of service, four bars of battery life, as well as the kind of service you're getting. (Even when our service crawled the screen said 4G, though it's also possible to see 3G or "E," for -- gasp -- EDGE.) Given that stumbling upon fast service was largely a matter of luck (more on that later), we found ourselves glancing at the screen about as often as we'd whip out our phone to check the time.
Getting set up is a short, painless affair requiring you to pull away the back cover. You'll find a battery and SIM card and will then have to pop out the battery to find the password printed on a label pasted underneath. Jot that down then enter it when you find the hotspot in your list of wireless networks. Et voila! A fast, foolproof process, though admittedly, it wouldn't have been obvious that the password was written inside the device had we not cracked the instruction manual.
Rather than get rehash stale questions about whether T-Mobile should be calling its HSPA+ hotspot a 4G device, we'll just focus on what it promises to deliver. T-Mobile says it's a 21Mbps capable device, although a company rep warned us that average download rates of 5Mbps to 8Mbps with peak speeds of 10Mbps are more likely.
We say, that's about right. During a week of testing, we consistently saw an indicator for so-called 4G service, as opposed to 3G, though speeds varied wildly. In short, when it was good, it was very, very good -- with all five bars of service, we noted average download speeds ranging between 6.09Mbps and 8.4Mbps, and upload rates hovering around 1.72Mbps. At its best, tabs loaded briskly, we handily uploaded resized pictures to our blog, and we streamed YouTube videos without worrying that we'd run out of buffer. In fact, we wrote sections of this review while sitting in a cafe and barely waited for our server to save our work.
The problem is, it's impossible to predict when you'll happen upon such speedy service -- or when you'll manage a connection at all. In Brooklyn -- an outerborough of New York City -- our connection slowed to an average of 2.22Mbps for downloads and 1.26Mbps for uploads, though the indicator on the hotspot consistently claimed we were getting 4G service, as opposed to plain old 3G.. That was enough to keep us logged into a group chat in Colloquy, but refreshing a single web page was painstaking. (Loading three or four sites at once just made us throw up our hands.) That didn't mean we couldn't get work done -- we were still able to upload compressed photos, though this was definitely a pokier ordeal than it was in areas where we got all five bars of service.
Worse, there were a few times when the hotspot failed to come through at all, and left us hunting for free public WiFi networks. In one instance, we couldn't get online in a Brooklyn test spot where we had previously made a connection -- albeit, a perfunctory one. Later in our testing, we tried to get online in New York's Herald Square, an outdoor area with seats and tables -- precisely the kind of spot you might tote your laptop during your lunch hour on a sunny day. What did we get? Zilch. Ditto when we relocated to the lobby of a nearby building. Throughout, our Verizon phone showed full 3G service in that part of town, so it's not like we would expect any cellular device to turn up dry. Even stranger, Herald Square is about a mile and a half north of some of the spots where we got the fastest service. The troubling thing, of course, is that this isn't information you'll learn by looking at a coverage map. T-Mobile might promise HSPA+ service in New York City, but it won't tell you that you'll get golden performance in the Lower East Side, but not West 34th Street in Midtown. If that's the case, we don't see how T-Mobile can guarantee that anyone anywhere will get consistently strong service from block to block, or neighborhood to neighborhood.
T-Mobile claims the hotspot can withstand up to four hours of continuous use, which is pretty accurate. After two and a half hours of nonstop use, we were down to two bars of battery life out of four. Still, don't feel like you have to rush to turn it off to save juice: after three hours of letting the hotspot sit idly, the battery life indicator hadn't budged from two bars. Then, when we forgot to charge it overnight, we still had a bar left. And, the good news is that the hotspot will still work while charging via USB, so assuming you've got a port to spare and don't mind packing the cable, there's no reason you should find yourself stranded without a connection.
Like a subsidized phone, the hotspot will cost less up front if you commit to a two-year contract. If you make that commitment, the hardware itself will cost $80, though the price of the monthly data plan will vary depending on whether you opt for a 5GB or 10GB plan and whether you plan on purchasing it along with a T-Mobile voice plan. Both plans allow you to connect wirelessly to up to five devices at once, with a UBS tethering option for tablets, in particular. And neither plan imposes any data overage fees, though depending on the plan, speeds will slow significantly after you've consumed either 5GB or 10GB during a given month. All that said, a 5GB monthly plan costs $50 per month by itself, and $40 in conjunction with a voice plan. The 10GB plan costs $85 alone and $68 with a voice plan.
Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that there's also a 200MB monthly plan for $24 with a voice plan ($30 without). Then again, if you opt for this plan you'll be at the mercy of overage fees to the tune of 10 cents for every megabyte beyond 200MB. Needless to say, that can add up, and 200MB won't get you very far, particularly if you plan on streaming video.
Meanwhile, if a monthly contract is too large a commitment when you don't even know how often you'll be traveling, you can purchase the hotspot off contract for $130. If you take the no-strings-attached approach, you'll be purchasing service in weekly or monthly increments. The offerings include a 100MB weekly plan for $10, a 300MB monthly plan for $30, and a 1GB monthly plan for $50. All of these plans allow for USB tablet tethering along with five simultaneous wireless connections. And just to warn you: they also include overage charges.
To put all these numbers in context, none of this is so bad when you consider that Verizon is charging $100 for its (admittedly faster) LTE hotspot, even after rebates. But even where the data is concerned, T-Mobile undercuts Big Red slightly. A 5GB and 10GB plan cost $50 and $80, respectively -- and come with the threat of $10-per-gigabyte overage fees.
On paper, T-Mobile's 4G hotspot isn't as fast as a so-called true 4G device, and in practice its speeds aren't always bustling. The question with this device isn't whether you'll get service -- because you almost always will -- but whether you'll happen to park yourself in an area where you can really make the most out of its HSPA+ radio. When you do, the speeds will be as brisk as promised, and we're betting many people won't find themselves pining for an LTE or WiMAX device. It's clear that the occasional disappointment of 2Mbps speeds is the trade-off for a lower up-front cost and more generous data plans. We say, take a hard look at T-Mobile's data coverage map. Depending on where you fall, that could be a compromise well worth making.