What to look for in a 4G mobile hotspot

While your carrier might not give you much choice when it comes to mobile hotspot hardware, there are certain features and specs to look for that can make connections faster and smoother.

wifi hand businessman
Thinkstock

I’ve spent most of the last decade using cellular routers as my sole connection for work. On trains I’ve stayed connected to the office while others crawled along on congested Wi-Fi. I’ve used mobile hotspots on all the major U.S. carriers, for video teleconferencing, building websites, and downloading a magazine’s worth of raw image files. In other words, I’ve put these devices through a lot and I rely on them heavily.

If you’re looking to buy a mobile hotspot, the first thing to ask yourself is, “Do I really need a dedicated mobile hotpot device?” For most people, the answer is no: their phone is all they need. These days most smartphones can be used as hotspots to connect multiple devices, and you can even make calls and texts while doing so.

That said, there are limitations to phone tethering. Depending on your phone, you can typically connect three to 10 devices, versus 10 to 15 with most dedicated mobile hotspots. Using your phone as a hotspot will chew through its battery in record time, which means it’s best used for short periods of time only. Mobile hotspot devices, on the other hand, typically include large batteries that last all day. And unlike phones, some mobile hotspots offer the ability to share files from onboard storage or an attached USB drive with other connected users, making collaboration a snap.

If you’re attending a business event with a team, need a cellular backup for your office or just like knowing you’ve got a reliable, dedicated connection wherever you travel, a mobile hotspot device may be the way to go. And using a hotspot on the company’s dime will keep you from eating up your own data plan.

For me, a hotspot means freedom, and it keeps me connected even when the power’s out. When I’m not using one for work, I frequently use one in the car for long road trips with three kids. I get better battery life from a hotspot than I do with phone tethering, and there are fewer dropped connections.

Choosing a 4G hotspot

Here are a few key features and specs to be on the lookout for when shopping for a mobile hotspot:

  • Carrier aggregation: This feature allows the hotspot’s modem to access multiple 4G service bands simultaneously, which theoretically could double LTE speeds. In reality, speeds will vary greatly depending on signal strength and network congestion; nevertheless, carrier aggregation is a key feature to look for and will likely increase your real-world speeds.
  • Modem: Recently released modems typically have higher throughput speeds than older ones. While you’re unlikely to reach anywhere near their maximum theoretical speeds, modems that are classified as category 4 or higher are the likeliest to be able to take advantage of the carriers’ upgraded LTE networks. A higher-category modem will offer faster peak speeds, but overall, carrier aggregation is the key factor for speed.
  • Dual-band Wi-Fi: To minimize interference and ensure a steadier connection, look for a hotspot that can use both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi bands and switch between them on the fly.
  • Battery: Look for a battery that’s at least 4000mAh that can see you through a full day of continuous use.
  • Device charging: A nice-to-have feature of some hotspots is the ability to charge your phone or other small mobile device.
  • Antenna connector: If you frequently travel to areas with weak signals, look for a hotspot that allows you to connect an antenna to boost the signal.

According to the most recent RootMetrics research, Verizon tops all other providers for network speed and reliability, with AT&T coming in a strong second. You’re unlikely to be disappointed by the best hotspot offerings from either Verizon or AT&T. Sprint and T-Mobile subscribers are not so lucky: Not only are their networks somewhat slower, less extensive and less reliable, but their hotspot devices don’t match up to those from the leading two carriers.

However, most users and businesses already have a cell plan, and adding a device to an existing plan is likely less expensive and less trouble than starting off with a new carrier. Unless you’re a very heavy mobile hotspot user, it’s probably not worth switching to a different carrier just to get better hotspot hardware.

With that in mind, we asked each of the four major cellular providers to recommend the best hotspot for their service. We’ve looked at these recommended devices below, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each. We also considered some options for international travel.

Note that none of the hotspots in this story will be able to run on 5G networks. But those with a newer modem and carrier aggregation, like the Verizon Jetpack MiFi 8800L and AT&T's Netgear Nighthawk, are more likely to get closer to 5G speeds as the carriers find ways to manage their 4G networks better, speeding things up for the user in the background.

Verizon: Jetpack MiFi 8800L

Verizon’s recommendation for business users is the Jetpack MiFi 8800L ($200, or $100 with 2-year contract), made by Novatel. The hotspot offers a nice mix of battery life and head-of-class speed. It supports carrier aggregation and uses a Qualcomm category 18 modem (with peak, near-5G speeds of 1.2gbps downloading and 150mbps uploading).

mobile hotspot verizon jetpack mifi 8800l Verizon

The large, 4,400mAh battery should hold a charge for nearly 24 hours of use, or nearly a month on standby. As with the Netgear Nighthawk from AT&T, you can also use the Jetpack MiFi 8800L to jumpstart a smartphone. You and 14 of your colleagues can connect to it simultaneously.

If you’re planning international travel, you’ll be able to roam with the device under an international data plan in more than 200 countries.

You can attach a small antenna, sold by Verizon or third parties, using a standard TS9 connector, for between $10 and $20. However, as with all MiFi devices, you won’t see much of a speed boost with an antenna unless your signal is weak. If you’re getting a good signal, an antenna won’t change much.

AT&T: Netgear Nighthawk

For business travelers, AT&T recommends a robust hotspot made by Netgear. The Nighthawk ($200 up front or $10/month for 20 months) will support up to 20 simultaneous connections and comes with the beefiest battery of the units we considered, a 5,040mAh li-ion that should provide 24 hours of continuous use, or days of surfing if you’re not using it full time.

mobile hotspot att netgear nighthawk AT&T

The Nighthawk uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon X16 modem, which theoretically supports gigabit speeds. As carriers roll out next-generation 5G service over the next few years, the Nighthawk, like Verizon’s Jetpack MiFi 8800L, is a good bet for seeing speed improvements in the meantime. Carriers say speeds will increase nearly imperceptibly until 5G is widely in use.

All of AT&T’s LTE bands are supported by the Nighthawk, which can be used worldwide.  The Nighthawk’s USB-C port lets you charge a cellphone. If your signal is lacking, an antenna with TS9 connectors will set you back about $20.

If you currently have AT&T service, the Nighthawk is an excellent choice. And while Verizon still gets top marks for reliability and coverage, according to RootMetrics, AT&T is a close second. If you’re a current AT&T customer or looking to switch carriers, the Nighthawk is a top-notch hotspot on an excellent network.

Sprint: Franklin R910

Sprint’s latest hotspot, the Franklin R910 ($180, free with 2-year contract) was released late last year. Like the devices we’ve mentioned from AT&T and Verizon, the R910 supports carrier aggregation for faster speeds.

mobile hotspot sprint franklin r910 Sprint

The R910 uses an LTE category 4 modem from Qualcomm, with a peak speed of 150mbps downloading and 50mbps uploading. Real-world speeds will likely be quite a bit less than that, especially in areas with crowded networks. In my rural home office, I see speeds from Sprint of about 20mbps down and 12mbps up.

The device’s 3,000mAh Li-ion battery should last a full day on a charge, and about 12 hours of continuous use. Like the offerings from AT&T and Verizon, it supports both the 2.4GHz band and the less crowded 5GHz band for Wi-Fi, though you’ll need to choose one in the hotspot’s settings.

You can connect up to 10 devices, which is a bit on the low side, but most business travelers are unlikely to need more. Possibly more troublesome is the lack of a connector for an external antenna. If your signal is weak, you won’t have that option to boost it.

T-Mobile: Alcatel Linkzone  

The tiny Linkzone ($72 or $3/month over 2 years) is just half an inch tall. It’s a no-frills unit and is the only hotspot T-Mobile offers. It supports 2.4GHz but not 5GHz Wi-Fi, where the other hotspots here support the less noisy 5GHz as well. The Linkzone supports up to 15 users simultaneously, and you should get nearly seven hours of continuous use (35 hours on standby) using its smallish 1800mAh battery.

mobile hotspot tmobile alcatel linkzone T-Mobile

The Linkzone uses a category 4 Qualcomm MDM9207 modem, released in 2015, which has a theoretical maximum of 150mbps. (By comparison, the flagship modems from AT&T and Verizon have a peak top speed of a gigabit per second or more.) Users are realistically unlikely to hit 150mbps, and like the units offered by the other carriers, the Alcatel hotpot will serve most business travelers just fine. In my casual testing, speeds were similar to what I experienced with the hotspots offered by other the carriers — plenty fast for downloading web pages, movie files and presentations on the go.

There’s no display, as with the offerings from Verizon and AT&T, to show signal strength or other options like how much data you’ve used. The device also has no connector for attaching an antenna.

The Linkzone does not allow carrier aggregation, though Alcatel sells units that do, so T-Mobile says it will offer this feature in future hotspots. The current unit does offer global roaming on all of T Mobile’s LTE bands — you’ll get 5GB of LTE data in Mexico and Canada. In other countries you’ll have unlimited data at 128kbps, which should suffice for email and light web browsing, but not much more.  

Another option: Unlocked devices for international travel

All the units we looked at in this story can be used internationally, but it gets expensive. If you’re looking to pick up a local SIM card to cut costs when traveling abroad, you can purchase an unlocked hotspot that will deliver 4G LTE service, along with 3G and 2G service for remote areas.

The GlocalMe G3 will set you back about $150 on Amazon. GlocalMe will also sell you service so that you don’t need to track down a SIM card. Rates are reasonable: A 3GB, 30-day pass you can use in the UK costs $22.50. The same deal for use in Hong Kong costs $10. You buy a pass before you leave or choose a plan once you arrive in your location, through a menu on the device. The company says it offers service in 100 countries.

If you need more data for a short period, consider the Skyroam hotspot. The device costs $150 online and works in 120 countries. Unlimited service is sold on a daily basis, at $9 a day. For short trips, you can rent the device and get unlimited 4G service for $10 a day.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon