If want hook your laptop or other device to the Internet through a 3G or 4G network, wireless carriers give you a choice of two tools you can use: a USB modem (discussed in the previous section) or a mobile hotspot. A USB modem can connect only one device at a time, but a mobile hotspot beams a signal that several Wi-Fi devices (computers, gaming devices, etc.) can use simultaneously -- in effect, creating a mobile Wi-Fi cloud for you to share.
Experts' favorite mobile hotspot is the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi 4510L (*Est. $100 with two-year contract). That's partly thanks to Verizon's top-rated 4G network, which helps the MiFi 4510L beat other carriers' mobile hotspots in various speed tests -- ranging from 5 to 20 Mbps on the download and 4 to 10 Mbps upload. "These speeds are blazing fast, and typical for Verizon's (4G) LTE network," says PCMag.com. The Verizon MiFi 4510L is 3G-compatible as well.
The Verizon MiFi 4510L proves more reliable than Verizon's other 4G mobile hotspot, the Samsung 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot SCH-LC11 (*Est. $100 with two-year contract), which drops the connection twice during PCMag's head-to-head streaming test. The MiFi 4510L also gets better battery life than the Samsung hotspot in that test -- although experts say the MiFi's battery life is just average, lasting about three to four hours in tests. ArsTechnica.com notes that the battery is user-replaceable, though, so you can pack an extra one, and Sal Cangeloso at Geek.com notes that the MiFi 4510L will still transmit a signal while it's plugged into its included wall charger (although not while charging via USB).
The Verizon MiFi 4510L is about the size of a credit card, but about half an inch thick. It beams its wireless signal up to 100 feet, but "performance takes a big hit once you start moving past the 50-foot mark," says Alex Colon at PCMag.com. (For best results, experts recommend staying within 25 feet.) Overall, testers say you'll get somewhat faster performance from a USB modem (which doesn't have to transmit its signal over Wi-Fi) -- but they're certainly not complaining about the MiFi 4510's speeds, which consistently outrun a lot of people's home DSL or cable connections.
If you don't want to sign a long-term mobile broadband contract, Verizon does sell month-to-month contracts, but you'll have to pay full price (*Est. $270) for the MiFi 4510L. One drawback: Verizon's mobile broadband plans top out at 10 GB per month (*Est. $80). You can't get unlimited mobile broadband from Verizon, prompting some experts to recommend mobile hotspots from Sprint (which does have unlimited 4G) instead. For more detail about 3G and 4G plans, see our report on mobile broadband.
Although Sprint's 4G network proves slower than Verizon's in tests, Sprint does hold one big advantage: Unlimited 4G plans (although you'll run up against data caps if you travel into a 3G area). And on this network, the Sprint Sierra Wireless Overdrive Pro 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot (*Est. $50 with two-year contract) "is the best Sprint hotspot today," PCMag.com says.
Sprint also offers its own version of the MiFi, the Sprint MiFi 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Novatel Wireless (*Est. $80 with two-year contract), but the Overdrive Pro proves slightly faster in PCMag's tests, with downloads averaging 3 Mbps and uploads 0.7 Mbps -- quick enough to make "unlimited 4G data seem like an enticing option," PCMag's Alex Colon says. The Overdrive Pro is a little bulkier than the MiFi, at 2.7 inches square and 0.7 inches thick, but battery life is comparable (about four hours in the test), and the Overdrive Pro can connect up to eight devices at a time -- three more than the MiFi. Another top source, Mobile-Broadband-Reviews.com, also prefers the Overdrive Pro to the MiFi on Sprint's network.
T-Mobile offers only one 4G mobile hotspot -- appropriately called the T-Mobile 4G Mobile Hotspot ($80 with two-year contract). It's an Editors' Choice at PCMag.com, "and not just by default," Alex Colon says. The MiFi-like gadget is compact, easy to use, connects up to five devices simultaneously, lasts longer on a battery charge than a lot of other mobile hotspots (five to six hours in tests at PCMag and CNET) and delivers speeds that are "not too shabby" in Colon's test -- an average of 3.5 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload. Testers at CNET and PC World get speeds in the same ballpark, but Engadget Mobile testers get frustrated when the T-Mobile hotspot fails to get a connection in places where it should -- such as at an outdoor table in New York City's Herald Square. Like Verizon, T-Mobile caps its mobile broadband plans at 10 GB per month.
AT&T likewise offers only one mobile hotspot, but it's a 3G MiFi that isn't 4G-capable: the AT&T Mobile Hotspot MiFi 2372 (*Est. $50 with two-year contract). Both PCMag.com and Mobile-Broadband-Reviews.com say you might want to choose one of AT&T's 4G-capable USB modems instead. We found a few reviews for Clearwire Clear mobile hotspots (which share a WiMAX network with Sprint), but none get a strong recommendation.
With a prepaid mobile hotspot, you don't have to chain yourself to a lengthy contract or submit to a credit check. You will have to pay full price for your hotspot (which can cost from $130 to $270), but then you'll only pay for mobile broadband service when you want it. You can get various-sized buckets of data by the day, week or month.
One drawback: Most carriers don't have prepaid plans for their 4G service, so you'll probably have to settle for 3G -- unless you choose the T-Mobile 4G Mobile Hotspot Prepaid (*Est. $130). Prepaid plans start at $10 for 100 MB to use over a week to $50 for a one-month, 3 GB pass. It runs on T-Mobile's 4G network, reverting to 3G if 4G isn't available. Download speeds average between 2 and 8.4 Mbps in tests -- not as fast as Verizon's mobile hotspots, but still plenty fast for most uses, as long as you're covered by T-Mobile's 4G network. "At its best … we streamed YouTube videos without worrying that we'd run out of buffer," writes Dana Wollman at Engadget Mobile, although the hotspot oddly dropped down to slower or no service in parts of Manhattan. "The hotspot let me stream Netflix movies with almost no difficulty," says PC World's Yardena Arar, "though at one point during each film, the unit went to sleep for some reason, causing the film to stop."
Snafus aside, critics agree that T-Mobile's hotspot is a solid choice. Like the Verizon hotspot, it's pocket-sized, easy to use and can share its connection with up to five devices. The only other prepaid mobile broadband device that gets much attention in reviews is the Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 (*Est. $150). It's an older-model, 3G-only hotspot, but it does have the advantage of broader coverage: It runs on Sprint's more widespread 3G network. $10 gets you 100 MB over 10 days, while $50 gets you unlimited data for a month.