4G Mobile Hotspot Face-Off: AT&T, Verizon LTE Hotspots Fight to a Draw
Dedicated mobile hotspots have been around for a few years now, but they've gotten progressively easier to use. And with the advent of 4G service, they’ve become notably faster, capable of connecting to more devices, and just a lot more useful.
We decided to compare the latest and greatest mobile hotspots from the two national 4G LTE providers in the United States, AT&T and Verizon. We lined up Verizon’s new MiFi 4620L Jetpack LTE hotspot against AT&T’s Mobile Hotspot Elevate 4G (by Sierra Wireless) to see which one worked better.
While Mark tested the Verizon device, Ed tested the AT&T hotspot; afterward, we compared notes. After all was said and done, we agreed that both hotspots were impressive. Here’s how our head-to-head review breaks down, feature by feature.
Size and Design
The MiFi 4620L Jetpack measures about 3.75 by 2.5 by 0.5 inches, and weighs 3.2 ounces with the smaller battery in. The Elevate 4G is a little chunkier than other hotspots we've tried, measuring 0.7 inch thick. It also weighs a bit more (3.6 ounces); in a bag full of devices, however, the Elevate 4G's extra weight will be almost unnoticeable.
The range of the Wi-Fi network each hotspot creates is 33 feet; you can connect a device from as far as 100 feet away if it's in the direct line of sight.
The MiFi 4620L Jetpack automatically tries to connect with Verizon's 4G LTE network, and, failing that, will connect with the carrier's 3G CDMA (1xEvDO Rev. A). In its 4G mode, you can connect up to ten devices to the MiFi 4620L Jetpack (but only five if it’s in 3G mode). The Elevate 4G works the same way, except that it steps down to AT&T's HSPA+ service if LTE isn’t available.
Mobile hotspots' biggest problem has been their weak battery life, which keeps them from being mobile for very long. With earlier models, 3 hours of usage time away from the charger is about all you could expect to get on a good day.
Unfortunately, neither the MiFi 4620L Jetpack nor the Elevate 4G seems to offer much improvement in this area. Both devices’ batteries lasted for about 4 hours of continuous video streaming in our tests.
Novatel, which makes the MiFi 4620L Jetpack, says Verizon will soon sell a larger battery as an accessory, but we've heard no word on availability or price.
Winner: Elevate 4G
At first glance, the MiFi 4620L Jetpack’s display looks like a vast improvement over those of earlier MiFi devices: It’s larger, backlit, easier to read, and more detailed.
On the home screen you can see icons representing the quality of the connection (expressed as bars), which kind of network you’re connected to (3G or 4G), the number of messages (you can now read messages directly from the device), the battery life remaining, and the number of devices connected. You can select any one of the icons to drill down for more information.
The problem is, you don’t get that much more detail when you do so. For instance, when you choose the Wi-Fi icon, it merely tells you the name of the Wi-Fi network that the MiFi 4620L Jetpack created, something we had already learned after connecting a device to it. Choose 'more', and the Jetpack tells you your network password. Well, we already knew that too. Select the battery icon, and it’ll tell you the percentage of battery life remaining; that’s somewhat useful, although we don’t see why the product's designers couldn’t have put the percentage on the home screen. The Network, Connected Devices, and Information menu items don’t deliver any additional meaningful details. The mail icon is useful for when Verizon sends you a message to say that you’ve maxed out your data plan for the month.
In contrast, the Elevate 4G’s 1.7-inch LCD screen is a little more straightforward, and doesn’t involve a lot of scrolling and button pushing. It also offers one huge advantage over the display on the MiFi 4620L Jetpack: It indicates how much data you’ve used so far in the month, a big help in staying under your 5GB limit.
The Elevate 4G’s display reveals many of the same things as the Jetpack’s screen divulges, including whether you're on a 4G or 3G network, how many devices are connected to the hotspot, and how much battery life remains. It also displays the hotspot's SSID and password. (If you're paranoid about the guy sitting next to you at the airport piggybacking on your data connection, you can choose not to display that information.)
One complaint: The Elevate 4G's battery life meter seemed inconsistent: Though it appeared to take hours to go from four bars to two, going from two bars to a dead battery happened in a little over an hour. It would be more helpful if the display showed the actual percentage of battery life remaining so that you could judge just how essential it was to power the hotspot up.
Ease of Use
When it comes to hotspots, most people have uncomplicated needs--they just want to get onto the Web, pronto. And in that respect, both the Elevate 4G and the MiFi 4620L Jetpack are simple and intuitive. You have no software to install; you just press the power button on the top, and within a few seconds the LCD screen will light up and you'll be ready to go. Simply find the SSID through your laptop or phone as you would for any other Wi-Fi network, and enter the password.
You might consider the MiFi 4620L Jetpack easier to use if you want to connect a large group of users simultaneously. The Verizon device now connects up to ten people when it’s in 4G mode, whereas AT&T's Elevate 4G will connect only five. But remember: When ten people are connected, they are sharing a common pool of data service, so the more users who connect, the slower the speeds will be for all.
The MiFi 4620L Jetpack powers on and connects to the network somewhat faster than older MiFi models do, and in roughly the same time as the Elevate 4G. We timed the device as taking about 15 seconds from our pressing the on button to its making a network connection. At least the Jetpack gives you some stuff to look at on the display while it connects to the network, which helps pass the time.
One major improvement over the first LTE MiFi device, the 4510L, lies in the disconnect time. The 4620L presents a disconnect icon on the display, and when you select it the device quickly disconnects from the Internet but remains powered up and ready to reconnect. The 4510L requires you to hold the button down for what seems like an eternity before it disconnects.
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