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Wi-Fi tethering 101: Use a smartphone as a mobile hotspot

November 4, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Hands on: Hotspotting at home and abroad

To see for myself if smartphone tethering lives up to its potential, I got my hands on a pair of Verizon hotspot phones and took them for a ride. Both the LG Revolution and the Motorola Droid 3 did well (and both cost $200 with a two-year Verizon contract), but they are meant for different situations. Because it can be used on Verizon's 4G LTE network, the former has the speed advantage in certain locations in the U.S. Stuck on 3G, the latter is slower, but it works in Europe.

LG Revolution
Data downloads to my laptop were lightning-fast in my tests of the LG Revolution on Verizon's LTE network.

To set them up, I tapped the Mobile Hotspot icon on their home screens, and they each brought up their hotspot settings page. After configuring the hotspots' network names, I set them to secure the network with WPA2 encryption and typed in my security passcode. In each case, it took only a minute before the phone was sending out a Wi-Fi signal and my laptop was online.

I tested the LG Revolution in and around New York City to see how it performed on Verizon's 4G LTE network. With an HP laptop tethered to its hotspot, it averaged scorching speeds of 19.6Mbps for downloading and 4.5Mbps for uploading data, as measured by SpeedTest.net's broadband benchmark site. That's roughly three times what I get with a wired cable line at the office on a good day, and the phone's peak speeds were even more impressive: 21.1Mbps download and 5.6Mbps upload.

(These numbers are, of course, indicative only of what you can expect using LTE. If you're using the Revolution on a 3G network, your connection will be slower.)

Next, I tried out the Motorola Droid 3 on Verizon's 3G data network. While it can't touch the speeds achieved by the Revolution over LTE, it can be used on HSPA networks in Europe. (Remember to upgrade your plan for international use before you go.) Wherever I went for a month, the Droid 3 was my constant travel companion. In addition to day trips into Manhattan, I went to London and Paris, followed by a road trip to central Michigan and back.

It worked well at my office, in my home and on the road. On two occasions, I used it instead of expensive hotel broadband, saving at least $15 a night.

The Droid 3 was a respectable hotspot performer here and abroad. With my HP laptop tethered, it hit average download and upload speeds of 1.4Mbps and 747Kbps in New York City, peaking at 2.1Mbps down and 824Kbps up. That's about half the bandwidth I'm used to from a wired connection at work, but it's still quite invigorating while traveling.

I also watched YouTube videos, collected and sent email, and downloaded a big file at various times -- all with the laptop, an iPad and a Lenovo Ideapad connected. The Droid 3 kept me smoothly connected throughout.

Motorola Droid 3
The Motorola Droid 3 kept me connected at respectable speeds in Europe and on Verizon's 3G network in the U.S.

During my road trip to Michigan, I used the Droid 3's tethering abilities with the HP notebook every night and morning to catch up on work. This portion of my data journey yielded average download and upload speeds of 1.4Mbps and 620Kbps, with peak speeds of 2.2Mbps and 651Kbps.

On my international journey, I averaged 1.5Mbps for downloading and 640Kbps for uploading. I used the Droid 3 hotspot connected to the HP laptop and an iPad to view digital maps, listen to Internet radio, watch videos, play a few games and update a website. The biggest surprise was that while on a Eurostar train rolling from London to Paris, I had more than enough bandwidth for mapping the next stage of the trip and reading the headlines to know what was going on back home.

There is a downside to all this data consumption. Using the Droid 3 as a hotspot for an iPad playing online videos chewed through the battery in 3 hours and 15 minutes, compared to about 15 hours for typical on-and-off data and voice use. In other words, if you plan to use the hotspot abilities of a phone, be sure to bring the charger with you and keep an eye out for AC outlets.

Also note that building out the mobile data networks here and in Europe is a work in progress, and I encountered lots of dead zones in my travels. For example, while driving from Paris to the Loire Valley as well as cruising on I-80 in northern Ohio, I had intermittent data access.

All in all, though, I found that having my own Internet connection inside my phone most places I went was an incredibly liberating feeling. But be warned: It makes it harder than ever to hide from work.

Next: Chart: Smartphones that support Wi-Fi tethering

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Read more about Mobile/Wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.



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