No. 4 wireless carrier T-Mobile has just joined its larger rivals in offering a mobile hotspot to its users. These handy devices tap into your cellular service, broadcasting a Wi-Fi signal that lets you connect up to five laptops, tablets or other devices to the Internet, effectively creating a personal high-speed wireless network wherever you go.
I recently tested mobile hotspots sold by Sprint, Verizon Wireless and AT&T to see which device -- and network -- served up the fastest speeds and packed in the best features. While AT&T's Novatel Wireless MiFi 2372 was the cheapest and Sprint's Novatel MiFi 4082 had the longest battery life, the Samsung SCH-LC11, backed by Verizon's LTE network, was the clear speed winner.
How does the T-Mobile 4G Mobile Hotspot ZTE MF61 stack up?
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 to Waco.
T-Mobile's new 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 merger 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 x 3.9 x 2.1 in. and weighing 2.9 oz., the T-Mobile 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.
Unlike the hotspots from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, T-Mobile's works with 802.11b/g only; it can't use the newer and potentially faster 802.11n protocol for Wi-Fi. The router can service up to five clients, but it lacks the GPS location abilities that the other three hotspots have.
On the other hand, the T-Mobile hotspot can do something the others can't: It has a connector to plug in an external antenna to boost a weak signal. The antenna is available from third-party sellers for $50.
Like the AT&T and Sprint hotspots, the MF61 has a handy microSDHC card slot that lets connected users share data. It works with cards that hold up to 32GB of data. The hotspot supports Windows and Mac OS X computers.
I was able to connect to the MF61 hotspot on the first try. Once online, I was able to change the network's name and encryption settings, update its software and change its security settings; it can handle all the recent encryption protocols including Wi-Fi Protected Access II (WPA2). Like Sprint's MiFi 4082, it has a Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button to make connecting clients a snap.
To extend its battery life, the T-Mobile hotspot goes into sleep mode after 10 minutes of inactivity. However, unlike the hotspots from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, the MF61 doesn't let you adjust when it goes to sleep.
In my tests, the MF61's 1,500 milli-amp hour battery pack ran for 4 hours and 49 minutes on a charge, 43 minutes longer than Sprint's MiFi 4082 and more than an hour longer than Verizon's Samsung SCH-LC11.
Able to keep a client online 120 feet away, T-Mobile's MF61 has the longest Wi-Fi range of any hotspot I've seen, besting the Verizon hotspot's range by 25 feet.
In my data throughput tests using T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 network, the MF61 hotspot had mixed results. Over the course of two weeks of heavy use at several locations on the east coast, the MF61 averaged a respectable download speed of 3.26Mbps, peaking at 7.61Mbps.
I can't definitively say how that stacks up to the other hotspots and networks I tested because I didn't test T-Mobile's system at the same times that I did the others. Unscientifically, however, the T-Mobile hotspot came in well behind Verizon's 11.3Mbps average download speed and slightly ahead of Sprint's 2.33Mbps and AT&T's 1.65Mbps.
T-Mobile also came in second in upload speed with an average of 1.23Mbps, behind Verizon's 3.30Mbps and ahead of AT&T's 630Kbps and Sprint's 360Kbps.
The T-Mobile hotspot's latency came in at 222 milliseconds (ms) for a third-place finish behind Verizon's 76ms and Sprint's 157ms but ahead of AT&T's slow 334ms. High latency translates into fairly long waits for the network to respond to requests.
Service plans and pricing
T-Mobile offers a dizzying array of service plans with an option for occasional travelers or those scared of commitments. With a two-year contract, online discount and mail-in rebate, the hotspot costs $80; there are four monthly service plans that provide 10GB ($85), 5GB ($50), 2GB ($40) or 200MB ($30) of data. (See our data plans and pricing table for how these plans compare to the competition.)
At a glance
T-Mobile 4G Mobile Hotspot ZTE MF61
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.
T-Mobile's 4G Mobile Hotspot is the distance and battery-life leader among the hotspots I've tested, and the carrier offers the most flexible array of service plans. But T-Mobile's network doesn't deliver top speed and remains second best to Verizon's LTE network.
This story, "T-Mobile mobile hotspot offers speed" was originally published by PCWorld.