Review: 5 prepaid mobile hotspots fire up business travel

Fed up with mediocre Wi-Fi on the road? For not-so-frequent travelers, a pay-as-you-go personal hotspot might be the answer. We put five to the test.

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T-Mobile 4G LTE HotSpot Z915

T-Mobile 4G LTE HotSpot Z915 T-Mobile

Easily the largest and heaviest of the five, T-Mobile's 4G LTE HotSpot Z915 offers business travelers inexpensive data and the ability to connect in Canada and Mexico. Ultimately, though, the network can't compare with AT&T's and Verizon's on scope and speed.

At 4.2 x 2.6 x 0.7 in., the 5.1-oz. Z915 personal hotspot is big, bulky and heavy compared to the diminutive Verizon Ellipsis hotspot. (That said, it still fits into a jacket pocket.) Made by ZTE, the Z915 is charged with either a micro USB cable or the included AC adapter.

Behind a flap on the edge of the unit, there's a SIM card slot and a recessed reset button, which are next to the on/off button. On the front, the Z915 has four navigation keys that can be used to select an item, go left or right or go back a page.

Of the five, it's the easiest to maneuver, with screens for Settings, Software Update, Device Info, Connection Info and Connected Device. This allows you to do things like see how much data you've used or adjust when the screen times out directly from the device.

You can still go to the hotspot's Web pages by typing mobile.hotspot into a browser window. There, you can see who's connected, how much data remains and when you used it.

T-Mobile website

The main screen for the Z915 shows everything you need, from what's connected to how much battery life remains.

While its 1.9-in. screen is the largest of the bunch, it can only show black and white and can't compare to the bright and colorful screens on the Netgear-made hotspots from AT&T and Boost.

Setup and performance

Getting the Z915 online took me about eight minutes. It starts with connecting the device to a client. The Z915 comes unencrypted, so is inherently insecure out of the box; I recommend setting a passcode as soon as possible. (It supports up to WPA2 encryption.)

On T-Mobile's website, you need to pick a plan, which the company calls a Data Pass, then enter your personal data and a credit card. T-Mobile doesn't take PayPal or Bitcoins for payment. It takes a minute to activate and then it's online.

An 802.11n router that supports 10 users, the Z915 had a range of 85 feet in my tests -- 25 feet shorter than the Karma Go but 10 feet longer than the AT&T Unite Express. It should be fine for a group working in a conference room. It ran for 7 hours and 50 minutes on a charge, landing in between the long-lasting Verizon Ellipsis and the short-lasting Karma Go.

Of the four networks here, T-Mobile is catching up to the Big Two and has good coverage on the east and west coasts. It ignores places like Billings, Mo. and Boise, Idaho in the heartland, but has coverage in Denver and adds Mexico and Canada to the mix. Lacking a 4G signal, the Z915 will use T-Mobile's older and slower 3G network.

T-Mobile 4G coverage map

T-Mobile's U.S. LTE network as mapped by OpenSignal.

At a Starbucks in suburban Connecticut, the T-Mobile network blew the others away with a peak download speed of 43.4Mbps; its peak upload speed was 18.8Mbps. Unfortunately, at 11.9Mbps and 3.1Mbps, its average download and upload speeds weren't nearly as good, trailing slightly behind the Verizon Ellipsis and well behind the AT&T Unite Express.

Its latency is a concern. With an average wait time of 90.4ms, it had the highest latency of the bunch and twice that of AT&T's network -- which means you'll spend more time waiting on Web pages to fully load.

The $110 price tag for the Z915 is more than twice what Boost charges for the Netgear Fuse or what Verizon charges for the Ellipsis. On the other hand, T-Mobile has flexible rate plans with daily, weekly or monthly Data Passes that go for $5 (500MB per day), $10 (1GB per week), $30 (3GB per month) or $70 (11GB per month). The data expires at the end of the time period.

If you're lucky and live and work in areas that T-Mobile covers well, this is a bargain. Still, the network needs to speed up and widen its scope for it to be a player.

Verizon Ellipsis Jetpack MHS800L

Verizon Ellipsis Jetpack MHS800L hotspot Verizon

Verizon's Ellipsis Jetpack MHS800L shows other hotspots how to succeed with a tiny device that delivers good download speeds and long battery life.

The smallest personal hotspot of the five, the Ellipsis Jetpack measures just 3.1 x 2.2 x 0.5 in. and weighs 2.7 oz. That's roughly half the size and weight of T-Mobile's Z915. It easily fits into a shirt pocket.

The device has an attractive black-with-red-trim color scheme and a soft rubberized coating. On its side is a small on/off button and behind a snap-out door is the device's SIM card and a recessed reset button. It's charged with a micro USB port and comes with an AC adapter and cable.

The top of the unit has a 0.9-in. monochrome screen that due to its size was the hardest to read; I spent too much time squinting at it. It shows the signal strength in bars, as well as its connected network and a battery gauge. You can use the screen to get other details, like the network's name, by tapping the on/off button. It can also show data usage a layer below the main screen, but twice during my testing it reported, "data usage is not available at this time."

Pointing a connected browser to its host address (192.168.1.1) offers a wide variety of information and setup options. There you can see the current charge level, change the Wi-Fi channels, block devices and even set up port filtering.

Verizon Ellipsis website

The most visually oriented of the five, the Ellipsis Jetpack's main page mixes text with images.

Setup and performance

After inserting the included SIM card and closing the door, I started up the Ellipsis Jetpack and connected it to a computer using the default name and encryption code. Each hotspot is set up with an individual name and passcode so it is secure out of the box, but I strongly recommend changing them as soon as you're connected.

A fresh browser window takes you to the Verizon Broadband Portal, where you'll need to open an account and enter your payment information; unlike Karma, Verizon only accepts credit cards. After that, you'll need to pick and purchase your data plan. All told it took me 15 minutes to set up.

The Ellipsis has an 802.11n router built in that supports WPA2 encryption and connects up to eight individual clients at a time. The hotspot has a mediocre range of 85 feet, but continuously doled out data to a client for an amazing 12 hours and 45 minutes. In this regard, it's easily the longest lasting of the five and can run for nearly three times as long as the Karma Go.

The Ellipsis uses Verizon's LTE network, which has the most extensive coverage in the country. In addition to lots of cell sites on both coasts, it has towers in the middle of the country -- for instance, in Billings, Mo., which Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T ignore. However, the hotspot lacks the ability to fall back on 3G service in a pinch.

Verizon 4G coverage map

Verizon's U.S. LTE network as mapped by OpenSignal.

In the real world, Verizon's network worked well with its Ellipsis hotspot. It had one connection failure, but it connected fine on the next try. It hit peaks of 32.8Mpbs and 22.6Mbps, respectively, for downloading and uploading data. While its average download speed was a more sedate 12.7Mbps, this should be plenty fast for individuals and small groups to share.

The Ellipsis offered middle-of-the road 51.6ms latency and 5.5Mbps average upload speeds. In other words, it lagged behind AT&T's Unite Express in each performance category but performed respectably compared to the other hotspots.

The device itself is inexpensive at $50 (the same as the Boost Fuse). Verizon offers weekly, monthly and bimonthly data plans, but nothing for a day of data. When the time period expires, so does the data. The company has a $15 weekly plan for 500MB of data, a monthly plan for $20 (1GB), and three two-month plans for $35 (2GB), $60 (5GB) and $100 (10GB). This adds up to somewhat expensive data at the low end and reasonably priced data at the high end. The two-month plans are a good deal for those whose travel period stretches outside a 30-day window.

This tiny hotspot is for those who want to travel light. Getting online in the widest variety of places is the name of the game here, and Verizon delivers with the best network coverage across the U.S. and a tiny hotspot that just misses being the top performer.

Bottom line

When it comes to a personal hotspot, network coverage and pricing count for at least as much as the hardware does. This trifecta means that despite Boost's inexpensive data plans and the enviable $50 price tag of its Netgear Fuse Mobile Hotspot, its use of Sprint's network means it will neither satisfy a thirst for high-speed data nor offer the ability to connect in out-of-the-way places.

That goes for Karma Go as well, although its superior Wi-Fi range and the fact that data never expires are redeeming qualities. I just can't get my mind around the hotspot's inability to encrypt data and the fact that anyone can share your connection.

T-Mobile's 4G LTE HotSpot Z915 has cheap data plans and includes Canadian and Mexican coverage, making it a good option for those who travel north and south of the border. Unfortunately, it's the least portable of the five, and during testing, T-Mobile's network had the longest latency period of the group.

Tiny and light, Verizon's Ellipsis Jetpack MHS800L is the most portable of the five hotspots, and it's tied for cheapest. It has an excellent network behind it, and while its data is a wee bit expensive at the low end, its two-month plans are a bargin for anyone who anticipates traveling for more than a month at a stretch.

Finally, at $80 AT&T's Unite Express is cheap enough, and in my tests offered the best network performance in every category. While its setup procedure could only have been devised by the Inquisition and there are no daily or weekly data plans, it offers the best mix of economy, throughput and coverage for those whose travel typically lasts less than 30 days. When I travel, I want it in my bag.

5 personal hotspots: Features

 AT&T Unite Express for GoPhoneBoost Mobile Netgear FuseKarma GoT-Mobile 4G LTE HotSpot Z915Verizon Ellipsis JetPack MHS800L
Dimensions 4.4 x 2.7 x 0.6 in. 4.4 x 2.7 x 0.6 in. 2.9 x 2.9 x 0.5 in. 4.2 x 2.6 x 0.7 in. 3.1 x 2.2 x 0.5 in.
Weight 4.5 oz. 4.5 oz. 2.8 oz. 5.1 oz. 2.7 oz.
Maximum number of users 10 10 8 10 8
Screen 1.7-in., color 1.7-in., color No screen 1.9-in., monochrome 0.9-in., monochrome
Indicators for signal strength/battery/data usage Yes/Yes/No Yes/Yes/Yes Yes/Yes/No Yes/Yes/Yes Yes/Yes/Yes
External antenna ports 2 ports 2 ports No No No
Flash card slot No No No No No
Device price $80 $50 $149 $110 $50
Plan prices $25 (2GB/mo.); $50 (5GB/mo.); $75 (8GB/mo.) $25 (1.5GB/mo.); $50 (10GB/mo.) $14 (1GB); $59 (5GB); $99 (10GB)* $5 (500MB/day); $10 (1GB /week); $30 (3GB/mo.) to $70 (11GB/mo.)

$15 (500MB/week); $20 (1GB/mo.); $35 (2GB/2 mo.); $60 (5GB/2 mo.); $100 (10GB/2 mo.)

Warranty 1 year 1 year 1 year 1 year 1 year
* Data does not expire

5 personal hotspots: Performance results

 AT&T Unite Express for GoPhoneBoost Mobile Netgear Fuse (on Sprint network)Karma Go (on Sprint network)T-Mobile 4G LTE HotSpot Z915Verizon Ellipsis JetPack MHS800L
Download speed (avg.) 15.0Mbps 5.9Mbps 4.2Mbps 11.9Mbps 12.7Mbps
Upload speed (avg.) 10.2Mbps 2.9Mbps 5.1Mbps 3.1Mbps 5.5Mbps
Latency* 45.7ms 48.9ms 79.9ms 90.4ms 51.6ms
Battery life (hr:min) 8:35 8:50 4:35 7:50 12:45
Wi-Fi range 75 ft. 80 ft. 110 ft. 85 ft. 85 ft.
* For latency, lower numbers are better; for all other results, higher numbers are better.

How we tested

To see how these mobile hotspots compare, I used each of them every day for a month in a variety of situations for work and play. On top of using them for daily Web excursions, I watched online videos as well as live sporting events, listened to Internet radio, posted material to a website and downloaded files.

After setting each up with an account, paying for service and exploring how each works, I connected them concurrently to a Microsoft Surface 3 tablet, a second-generation iPad Mini, a Google Nexus 7 tablet and a third-generation MacBook Air. Then I gauged how long each lasted on its battery. After connecting with a client, I started a stopwatch and ran YouTube videos continuously until the hotspot's battery was empty. I repeated this three times, averaged the results and rounded to the nearest five-minute interval.

Next, I measured their Wi-Fi range by connecting with a client and starting up an Internet radio station. As I walked away from the hotspot, I listened for break-ups and stutters while monitoring the system's wireless signal strength. When it disconnected, I noted the place and moved back towards the hotspot. After it reconnected, I confirmed the place where the client lost contact.

I tested each hotspot's performance at several locations side by side using Ookla's Speedtest.net website. Each data set was completed within 15 minutes to lessen any effect of Internet congestion. I took daily readings at an office in Westchester County (just north of the Bronx) twice a day, three times a week. Then I hit the road and made day trips to New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut, taking readings three times a day for two days a week. Finally, I went on a four-day business trip through Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. The hope was that testing the hotspots at a large number of different locations at different times evened out any high or low spots.

In addition to recording the latency (through the ping test), I tracked each hotspot's download and upload speeds. All told, I took more than 1,500 readings at 20 different locations over six weeks of testing.

This story, "Review: 5 prepaid mobile hotspots fire up business travel" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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