Everyone wants to stay connected. There are emails and texts to read, videos to watch and games to play. Use your phone for these though and you're burning through megabytes and gigabytes of data. Wouldn't it be better if you could get on WiFi everywhere you go?
That's the idea behind mobile hotspot devices. They let you create a WiFi network, just like the one you have at home but portable. No more lingering over a cold coffee in Starbucks while you use their WiFi: just connect instantly wherever you are.
The subject of this article is mobile hotspot devices. More specifically, we're going to review eight of the best-selling such devices so you can decide which will suit you, your family or maybe your customers, best.
If you haven't already been through our other piece on this subject, “How to get WiFi in Your Car”, you might want to take a look before reading this. It provides a more general introduction to the why's and how's of in-car WiFi but without the individual product reviews. Here we'll quickly summarize the advantages before getting into the details of what to look for and why.
When you need a mobile WiFi device
- When you need a mobile WiFi device
- Alternative technologies
- 3G versus 4G – and what about 5G?
- What to look for
- Best mobile car wifi device list
Phones are wonderful devices in many ways but they have some limitations too. Here's a list of ways in which mobile WiFi beats a cellular connection.
- Data caps. Unless you're on a costly unlimited plan there's a limit to how many hours of video and music you can download each month. WiFi overcomes that.
- Working on a big screen. Spreadsheets and graphics are just two examples of software products that are hard to use on a phone. When the boss emails that big file you want to be able to read it while you're on the road.
- Using a keyboard and mouse. Ditto to the above.
- Connect multiple devices simultaneously. Say you're on a family roadtrip and everyone wants to use their device: with a WiFi hotspot you can all get on the same network. The same applies to those awkward work trips colleagues are sometimes forced to make.
- Security. Public WiFi hotspots are vulnerable to attack. That might not be a concern if you're just checking Facebook but would you bank over a connection like that? A personal mobile hotspot is far more secure.
Check the settings on your phone and you'll probably see it has a “hotspot” function. This lets you set up a mobile WiFi network. It's a good option when you need to connect a few devices for a short period, but over longer periods it has some negatives.
- Drains the battery – phone must be plugged in to charge
- Uses your data plan
- Cellular service providers dislike “tethering” (using your phone as a hotspot,) because it sends a lot of data through their network. Even on an unlimited plan your provider may impose penalties or speed caps.
- Limit to how many devices can be connected. (Typically three to five.)
3G versus 4G – and what about 5G?
3G, 4G and in the near future, 5G, refer to cellular network speeds. This is relevant because mobile hotspot devices send and receive data over cellular networks. 4G is faster than 3G, and 5G promises to be faster still. When shopping for a device it's important to consider what speed you'll need.
The two drivers behind this are: the number of devices you expect to connect and what you'll be doing with them. If you're investing in a mobile hotspot purely to send and receive email while out of the office a 3G connection may be fast enough. Alternatively, if you want WiFi in a RV so a small brood of kids can all watch different movies at the same time you should definitely go for 4G. (And 5G will be even better when it becomes available.)
What to look for
Here we’ll go through the various features to consider when choosing a mobile hotspot device. Sections will address:
- Battery life and charging
- Ports on the device
- WiFi frequency
- Number of devices that can connect
One factor that’s hard to evaluate explicitly is range: it depends on many different variables. However, if you buy a device and find it doesn’t have the range you need you can add an antenna (providing your device has an antenna port.)
Your hotspot device needs to connect to a cellular network and so has a space for the kind of SIM card used in your phone. Devices are available both locked, (typically you'd get these through your phone provider,) and unlocked, allowing usage on any network with the appropriate SIM card.
Most reviewers consider Verizon to be best for coverage and speed, although many note that T-Mobile has good speed too. One factor you may consider is who you’re with now. It’s probably easier and cheaper to add another line than to start new service. That said, be sure to tell them what the line is for otherwise you will likely experience some data throttling.
Battery life and charging
This is often 8 to 15 hours, but can vary widely between devices, and how you use it. You may not get quite what the manufacturers claim. How big a factor this is depends on your anticipated usage. If you’re providing WiFi at your lakeside cabin long life might be important. If you just want a couple of hours while you’re in the car, maybe it’s not so significant.
All the mobile hotspots reviewed below are charged either through a USB port or a regular mains adapter. That means you will need to connect it to either a USB or 12V outlet in your car.
Ports on the device
Some provide USB-A outlets where you can charge a phone or tablet. You may also find other USB ports intended for external hard drives. Occasionally you’ll find an Ethernet port, which is useful for any devices that don’t have WiFi.
The other port to look for is what’s called a “TS9 external antenna port.” This will let you plug in an antenna for improved range. You will need to buy it separately though.
WiFi networks all work at 2.4GHz. Some devices however also use the 5.0GHz band. The latter can be faster and more reliable as it’s typically less congested and has more channels. However, it does have shorter range than the 2.4GHz band. Ideally, get a device that works on both simultaneously.
Mobile hotspot devices all need a little bit of set-up prior to first use. This is easier if there’s a display that shows you what the device is doing, and easier still if it’s a touchscreen. At a minimum, you want one that displays the network name and your data usage.
Number of devices that can connect?
As with battery life, the importance you place on this depends on how you expect to use it. A family on a camping trip could easily be connecting eight or 12 devices while the lone road warrior might just have a laptop, tablet and phone.
Older and less expensive devices may allow five to 10 connections but pay more money and you can go to 15 devices or maybe more. Note though that you might not get 4G speeds on every device.
Best WiFi Hotspot Devices – Our Top Picks
Novatel Jetpack MiFi 7730L Quick Review
This uses the Verizon 4G LTE network so you can expect coverage almost everywhere in the US and high speeds. (A nano-SIM card is needed to get on the network.) Real-world battery life is up to 15 hours and it weighs only 5.4oz, so it’s very portable.
The touchscreen works well and helps with initial setup. It shows data used so you can keep track of your consumption. Along the sides you’ll find a USB-A charging outlet and two antenna ports. It provides both 2.4 and 5 GHz simultaneously and users report good range.
Netgear Nighthawk M1 MR1100 Quick Review
Also using 4G LTE, this operates on the 2.4 and 5GHz frequencies. It allows connections to as many as 20 devices. At 11oz it's quite heavy and it's also larger than competing devices.
The manufacturer claims a battery life of 24 hours. Ports provided are two TS-9 antenna, Ethernet, USB-A and USB-C. (You can plug in and charge other devices through the USB.) A circular display shows how many devices are connected, data usage and days remaining in that billing period. There's an app that helps with set up up as this devices does not have a touchscreen.
This is one of the more expensive hotspot devices, but as is often the case, you get what you pay for. In particular, it was designed to be rugged and durable, making it good choice for on-the-go use.
Claimed battery life is 22 hours and charging is through a USB 3.0 port. A touchscreen makes for easy setup and use and it provides simultaneous 2.4 and 5GHz WiFi frequencies. Weight is 6.2 oz and there are two TS9 antenna ports. A microSIM card is needed for network connection.
Netgear AirCard 790S Quick Review
This relatively simple devices weighs-in at 4.8 oz, connects up to 15 devices and has 2.4” color touchscreen with data usage monitor. In other words, it's a fairly basic hotspot that's easy to set up and use. Battery life is a claimed 11 hours. It operates on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, requires a microSIM card and provides dual TS-9 antenna ports.
Verizon Ellipsis Jetpack MHS800L Quick Review
Very small and also inexpensive, the particular one reviewed here is locked to Verizon but you may be able to find them for other networks.
About the size of a credit card and weighing under 3 oz, it allows connections to eight devices. There is a very small display that shows how many devices are connected, plus data usage, battery life & network signal strength. Battery life is up to 10 hours. It does require that you buy a SIM card separately.
Alcatel Hotspot 4G LTE Quick Review
Historically, T-Mobile has not offered a lot of hotspot options. This is device is available both on their network and unlocked.
It's a more basic device with no display, just indicator lights to let you know it's working, and it works only on 2.4GHz. It does allow up to 15 connections, weighs 3.7 oz and has a battery life of about six hours. A USB port makes car charging easy but there are no antenna ports. You will need to buy a separate SIM card.
ZTE Velocity 4G LTE Mobile WiFi Hotspot Quick Review
This is the second generation Velocity hotspot, and reportedly much improved over the first. It provides 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi frequencies and lets you connect up to 10 devices simultaneously. Battery life is 10 hours and it charges through USB-C charger. There is an easy to use touchscreen display and the devices weighs 8 oz. It does need a microSIM card.
KuWFi 300Mbps 3G 4G LTE Car WiFi Quick Review
This is a little different to the other mobile devices reviewed here. It's a big chunky box with four antennas that create a vaguely menacing appearance. It also needs more in the way of technical skills to set up. There's a USB port plus four LAN Ethernet ports, an SD card slot and a SIM card slot. It will support AT&T, Verizon and Sprint networks with the appropriate SIM card. Weight is 1.76 lbs.
Connect to WiFi While You Drive
There are many reasons for setting up a WiFi network while you're on the move, and a mobile hotspot is the device to use. You can get them network-locked or unlocked, (usually for a slightly higher price,) and with varying connection capacity. Most charge through a USB port, making them easy to use in a car, and have a display screen that lets you see your data usage. Whether you're a solo road warrior or a vacationing family, you can stay connected with a mobile WiFi hotspot.