Mobile hotspots: AT&T, Sprint and Verizon compete on price, features, speed

Which carrier's mobile hotspot packs the most punch?

You're sitting in your hotel room and you need to connect your laptop to the Internet to get some work done. But while many hotels offer free Internet access, you're staying in one that thinks of it as comparable to the room's minibar, charging you a small fortune to get online.

"It's totally out of control, with a night's Wi-Fi potentially costing $30," says Allen Nogee, a senior analyst In-Stat, a Phoenix-based market analysis firm. "Some hotels are now charging extra for second and third [Wi-Fi-connected] devices, and others are adding in per-megabyte charges."

What's a frugal traveler to do?

Consider a mobile hotspot. About the size and weight of a wallet, these devices tap into your cellular provider's 3G or 4G wireless data service, delivering Internet data at broadband speeds via a built-in Wi-Fi router. They work anywhere your data service has a signal and can support as many as five devices at once.

Mobile hotspot pros and cons

Mobile hotspots can yield bandwidth that is on a par with, and in some cases superior to, a hotel's costly Internet service. Satisfying the need for speed, mobile hotspots can stream movies, download huge presentations and support videoconferences. The best can serve up data as fast as 15Mbps.

What's more, a single mobile hotspot can service a group of working businesspeople, such as several accountants auditing a company's books. Rather than logging on to the hotel's Wi-Fi service at night for $10 to $30 each, the workgroup can tap into a $100 mobile hotspot for all their data needs. (More details on mobile hotspot prices and data plans in a moment.) Some devices even have microSDHC card slots, allowing groups to share data.

On top of supporting a workgroup on the go, a hotspot is often the best way to retrofit a tablet or notebook for fast, new 4G connections. It can also provide a convenient way to get online in certain rural areas where wired high-speed connections aren't available but cellular coverage is.

Recently, when my office's Internet provider experienced problems and my connection became unreliable for several hours, I was able to switch to a mobile hotspot and continue working online. The irony is that I started getting much faster download speeds than my cable provider ever delivered.

Depending on your needs, however, a mobile hotspot might not be the best solution. If you're traveling solo, a mobile data card that's integrated into your laptop or a USB modem might make more sense -- they tend to be smaller, lighter and cheaper than mobile hotspots. But these devices won't help you get colleagues online, and older ones won't work with wireless carriers' new 4G networks.

Another option is smartphone tethering. Many of the latest smartphones, including the most recent BlackBerries, allow you to tether a laptop or tablet to the phone via a Bluetooth or USB connection, turning it into the equivalent of a hotspot. There are potential snags here, though, because some phones don't allow calls when they're doing data duty, and tethering can make opening your monthly phone bill even more stressful. The Big Three national networks charge between $15 and $30 a month (on top of your data plan fees) for allowing you to tether a notebook or tablet to your phone.

Finally, keep in mind that a mobile hotspot is yet another small device to potentially leave behind. Says Nogee, "A mobile hotspot can work well on the road and be a genuine alternative to hotel Wi-Fi, but they are so small that they're easy to forget about and leave in a hotel room."

Putting mobile hotspots to the test

I was able to lay my hands on the latest mobile hotspots from the three major U.S. carriers: Novatel Wireless' Mobile Hotspot MiFi 2372, which operates on AT&T's network; Novatel's Mobile Hotspot MiFi 4082, which works with Sprint's network; and the Samsung SCH-LC11, which uses Verizon Wireless' network.

Note: After my testing for this story was completed, the No. 4 wireless carrier, T-Mobile, released its own competing device, the 4G Mobile Hotspot, made by ZTE. I'll follow up with a review of T-Mobile's hotspot shortly. (Story continues)

Mobile hotspots: Features and specs

Carrier AT&T Sprint Verizon Wireless

Novatel Wireless

MiFi 2372

Novatel Wireless

MiFi 4082
Samsung SCH-LC11
Dimensions 0.6 x 3.9 x 2.4 in. 0.6 x 3.5 x 2.4 in. 0.5 x 3.5 x 2.3 in.
Weight 2.7 oz. 3 oz. 2.9 oz.
Wi-Fi protocol 802.11n 802.11n 802.11n
Simultaneous users supported 5 5 5
Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) No Yes No
Battery gauge No Yes Yes
Flash card slot Yes Yes No
Warranty 1 year 1 year 1 year
Price $300, or $50 with two-year service contract* $280, or $80 with two-year service contract* $270, or $100 with two-year service contract*
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