4G Mobile Hotspot Face-Off: AT&T, Verizon LTE Hotspots Fight to a Draw
By Mark Sullivan and Edward N. Albro
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.
Next Page: Web Admin Interface, International Roaming, Data Speed, and Price
Web Administration Interface
Winner: Elevate 4G
If you want to make things more complicated, you can delve into the devices’ Web-based admin settings, which you can reach by typing a short carrier-provided URL into your browser.
The Elevate 4G’s admin page includes literally dozens of settings you can tweak. Some are highly useful, such as the ability to change the SSID or password. You can also monitor your monthly data usage at the admin page, a handy feature. Other settings, including port forwarding and MAC filtering, we can’t imagine ourselves using on a hotspot; if you can, however, you’ll find that they’re easy to tweak.
The MiFi 4620L Jetpack’s admin-settings portal is a little less feature-rich, but easy to use. You can change your password, set security and privacy levels, and find all of the same information you see on the display of the device. You can also adjust the device to shut down automatically after anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour of inactivity, or tell it never to auto-disconnect. You can set the display to shut down after a period of 5 seconds to 2 minutes–instructing it never to shut down isn’t an option.
The dominant wireless technology combination in Europe and Asia is HSPA+ for 3G and LTE for 4G service. Both the Elevate 4G and the MiFi 4620L Jetpack contain the radios to connect with these networks, making both of them “world” devices.
The Jetpack contains not only the LTE and CDMA 1xEvDO radios needed to connect in the United States, but also the HSPA+ and EDGE radios necessary to connect in other countries.
Data roaming on these mobile hotspots works just like an international calling plan for smartphones, and it’s not cheap, so make sure to check the carrier’s roaming rates before you start streaming movies in Switzerland.
Winner: MiFi 4620L Jetpack
Both hotspots regularly connect at speeds of greater than 5 megabits per second, and that’s enough speed for 99.9 percent of the people who will use them. In our tests the AT&T hotspot pumped out higher speeds than Verizon’s MiFi 4620L Jetpack did, but Verizon’s service was always over the 5-mbps line, and it’s available to far more people than AT&T’s young LTE service is right now.
The data speeds we measured on the Jetpack here in San Francisco (using Speedtest.net) were in line with the speeds that Verizon tells users to expect from its 4G LTE network (5 to 12 mbps for downloads and 2 to 5 mbps for uploads). Our speeds over a week of usage hovered around 6 to 7 mbps for downloads and 3 mbps for uploads.
Testing the Elevate 4G in the heart of San Francisco on a laptop, our download speeds averaged about 21 mbps while upload speeds were about 14 mbps. The AT&T LTE network here is brand-new, though, and the speeds may decrease as more AT&T customers begin using it for data.
Price, Value, Options
Winner: MiFi 4620L Jetpack
We give the nod to Verizon here because it sells its hotspot for a little less money (after rebate) and offers a little more choice in the way of data plans.
For the Elevate 4G, you’ll pay $70 with a two-year contract for the hotspot itself. Data costs $50 per month for 5GB. AT&T won’t soak you if you exceed your cap–you’ll pay $10 per gigabyte.
Verizon is selling the MiFi 4620L Jetpack for $50 after a $50 mail-in rebate, with a new two-year customer agreement. (Can we stop with the mail-in rebate thing? If you want to charge $50, do it. If you want to charge $100, fine, just don’t make us mail in the stupid piece of paper and then wait a year to be paid for it. What’s the point? Gah.)
In data plans, Verizon offers a little more choice than AT&T does. You can pay $50 a month for 5GB of data, but if you need more you can pay $80 for 10GB. Verizon’s overage rate is the same as AT&T’s: $10 for every additional gigabyte.
Verizon also offers prepaid plans for mobile hotspots, but in that arrangement you pay more money for less data, and you have to pay the full price of the device with no subsidy. For more, see the carrier’s full plan details.
If the MiFi 4620L Jetpack shipped with the larger battery that Verizon plans to sell as an accessory, naming a winner here would be a snap. To gain mainstream acceptance, mobile hotspots need to be able to last for a full workday away from the charger. Out of the box, however, neither the Elevate 4G nor the MiFi 4620L Jetpack comes close to achieving this goal.
We found both hotspots to be easy to set up and use, and we appreciated the fast speeds that come with the LTE service. But neither product could throw a knockout punch, nor did one win over the other on points. The Elevate 4G and the MiFi 4620L Jetpack fought to a draw in size and design, battery life, ease of use, and international roaming.
We thought the Elevate 4G had a marginally more useful display and Web administration interface, while the MiFi had slightly better pricing and options, as well as the ability to connect at high speeds in more places.
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