Mobile hotspot devices offer you online access wherever you go. You can connect your laptop, tablet and other gadgets and get them all on the web simultaneously. Using a mobile hotspot, you can work online almost anywhere via a broadband connection and avoid using up your smartphone data and battery.
Let's look at the pros and cons of the top five devices as well as the carrier plans best suited to each device.
In This Guide
Our Top Picks
In rating the top mobile hotspots, we evaluate the quality of the hardware, price, functionality, and battery life. If you want a specific mobile hotspot feature such as external antenna ports or a color display screen, note that not every machine has every key feature.
The monster lurking in the room are the service plans available from the broadband wireless companies. We consider each plan largely based on what type of data user they work best for.
Verizon Wireless Jetpack Review
- Can have several devices connected at a time
- Great for traveling
- Supports HD video streaming
- No contract required
- Have to pay a monthly fee
- Throttles data speed after monthly limit
Our top pick is the Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE mobile hotspot. This well-designed machine stands apart with its long-lasting battery. You can even charge your smartphone from the Jetpack's potent battery. Combined with the top-rated Verizon 4G LTE network and global roaming bands, this hotspot is set up to serve users both in the US and abroad.
This is a great hotspot for the business user who travels frequently, or simply for the user who wants to watch HD video for hours.
Yes, the Verizon plans cost more, but for demanding users the versatile, reliable Jetpack 4G LTE AC791L is worth the money. In addition to data plans at $50 for 5GB or $80 for 10GB per month, you can also opt for Verizon's More Everything Plan. It lets you share a single plan over all your devices. Adding the hotspot costs you an additional $10 each month on top of the data plan you choose.
The black plastic Jetpack weighs 5.8 ounces and is 4.3 x 2.7 x 0.8 inches and features rounded corners. The LCD measures 1.77 inches with controls below, the power button on top and port on the bottom. A removable back panel reveals a 4,340mAh battery and SIM card spot.
The display shows the WiFi name and password and all devices connected. You can run up to 15 gadgets with it. Users can check data usage, use the "settings" menu and select either 2.4GHz or 5GHz WiFi. The higher GHz band supports faster download speed.
When you set up a VPN with the hotspot you can enjoy a secure, protected WiFi connection.
Netgear Unite Explore Review
- Long battery life
- No contract
- Comes with several great accessories
- Not good for using a lot of data
The Unite Explore is the leading hotspot from AT&T, and from a technical standpoint one of the best, period. It's a top choice if you need internet access for a group of several people.
The Explore has an excellent battery offering more than 9 hours of use, and effective range of up to 50 feet. It's an excellent pick for travel abroad. Users looking for a longer battery life from an AT&T hotspot can go with the Unite Pro, but the Pro has a clunky design.
The durable Unite Explore is small at 4.5 x 2.8 x 0.8 inches and weighs 6.3 ounces. It's protected by rubber bumpers and features a luminous 2.4-inch touch screen. Users can check network name, data use, devices and password on the screen.
One great feature is you can boost the signal capture on the Unite Explore with inexpensive external antennas. Along the side of the unit, you'll find a pair of external antenna ports.
Like the Verizon Jetpack, the Unite Explore is recommended for international use, but you can expect to pay more for using it abroad. You can use it in Mexico for "free" with a plan of 15GB and higher.
ZTE Z915 Mobile Hotspot Review
- Affordable price
- Useful dashboard
- Easy to use
- Shorter battery life
- Can experience slower speeds in urban areas
- Does not work internationally
The ZTE Z915 works with the T-Mobile broadband network. It's beating heart is a Qualcomm LTE modem dating back to 2102, not exactly the latest technology but it gets the job done handily.
The affordable small black plastic unit is pocket-friendly at 3.2 ounces and measures 2.5 x 4.1 x 0.5 inches. There are four indicator lights on the front for signal, WiFi, battery charge and text messages. There's a power button on top and a port on the bottom. The back opens up to access the battery, SIM and microSD card slots.
Users manage the Linkzone over a web-based interface. You can see data usage, battery status, and signal strength. Up to 15 devices can connect to the device. The battery is rated to last six hours, but some users report up to eight hours of battery life. The device works at 2.4GHz, which can slow speeds working in crowded areas.
Given its performance limitations, the Z915 may be better suited to the coffee shop than the luxury international airport lounge, but for you caffeine fans, T-Mobile gives you the most data at the best price.
Netgear Around Town Review
- Solid battery life
- Pay only for the data you need
- Data never expires
- Portable and fits in your pocket
- Can't connect to many devices
The Netgear Around Town mobile hotspot works over the Sprint LTE 4G network to deliver broadband internet wherever you are. It can keep you and the people around you wired, and you the user are motivated to share your signal via incentives.
Unfortunately, this is not a budget hotspot but still reasonably price for this stylish gadget. It comes in a felt pouch along with a USB charging cable, a quick start guide and documentation packet. The battery keeps the WiFi signal rolling for about 8 hours.
Turn on the Netgear Around Town and it puts out a 4G LTE WiFi signal. Interestingly, the device and service plans are intended to share data. The company's high-minded goal is to make WiFi available to one and all. The wireless signal launched by the hotspot is open and public. Anybody within range can use the signal.
When other people connect via your signal, you can earn free data. The other users must login and pay for their own data. Netgear has an excellent idea here, but if you want a network with a secure password you can share with your own group only, it's probably not for you.
Sprint Netgear Zing Review
- Excellent portability
- Fast Internet speeds
- Low battery life
- Connection isn't the greatest
You can pick up the Sprint Netgear Zing at an expensive price from Sprint if you sign a data contract or at a much cheaper one from a third-party retailer. It's a solid unit that works with the Sprint LTE network to create a wireless hotspot signal.
Built by Netgear, it is a perfectly good entry-level hotspot for Sprint's growing broadband network. This unit is covered in easy-to-grip soft gray plastic. It has a 320 x 240 2.4-inch touchscreen on the front, a power switch and screen lock button on the top as well as a SIM card slot and USB port below. Battery life comes in at about 6 hours.
The Zing can be managed via an on-screen or web interface. You can check data usage, manage passwords and monitor connected devices from both places. Its small size makes it perfect for staying in your pocket for all your on-the-go Internet needs.
The Netgear Zing is a Sprint-only gadget. Sprint is working hard to improve its network, but it still sits in fourth place out of the four major wireless carriers' networks. It can work with all of Sprints LTE and CDMA bands and supports 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi bands. You can split up to 10 connected internet-enabled devices between the two bands.
Learn More: Don't know how to set up a VPN? We'll show you how.
What is a Mobile Hotspot?
These devices connect to a wireless carrier's 4G LTE network, allowing them to send a WiFi signal to your internet enabled gadgets. It's similar to a tethered smartphone, but a mobile hotspot is dedicated to the function of creating a WiFi signal. Mobile hotspot enjoys a much longer battery life than tethered smartphones.
Mobile Hotspots and 4G LTE
Mobile hotspots tap into the 4G LTE networks of the major wireless carriers, creating an internet connection as good or better than router based home.
Mobile hotspots provide advantages to using your smartphone in hotspot mode. You can connect upward of 10 - 15 devices depending on which hotspot device you use. The battery life of mobile hotspots ranges from 5 to 20 hours, outstripping the amount of time you can use your cell phone as a hotspot.
Costs vary greatly on mobile hotspot hardware, plans, and usage. Predictably, things get expensive if you spend a lot of time playing games and watching movies. There is no best device for everybody, it depends on your budget, your plan and how you use it.
Wireless Carrier Plan Choices
The four top wireless carriers all offer national LTE mobile broadband networks that work with mobile hotspot devices.
The Verizon and AT&T networks are the fastest and offer the best coverage. T-Mobile and Sprint are rapidly upgrading their networks in this hyper-competitive business. The all deliver solid coverage in major metropolitan areas. As with your cell phone plan, it's worth checking each carrier's network reach in your area before you sign up for a plan, especially if you live in a small town or rural area.
Pricing on mobile hotspot plans
Rates for carrier plans are all over the place. For prepaid data, you get 5GB at Verizon and AT&T for $50. Sprint gives you 6GB for the same price, while Boost (over the Sprint network) gives you 10GB.
For heavy data users, T-Mobile offers 22GB for $95, Sprint has 30GB for $110, and AT&T delivers 25GB for $130. Keep in mind that plans and rates are in constant flux.
As with smartphones, you often can buy the hotspot device at a deep discount when you sign up for a data plan.
Another consideration in choosing your plan and is whether you can set up a VPN (virtual private network) from your mobile hotspot modem. Some plans and hotspots allow it, and some do not.
Your US based hotspot will likely roam in Mexico and Canada, but your rates may jump.
Some plans cover Europe and even Asia. Be sure to check before you travel. An alternative budget solution is to get a local SIM and use the hotspot option on your unlocked smartphone, as it's tough to find and unlocked hotspot.
Should I tether my smartphone instead?
Instead of buying a mobile hotspot, you can make your smartphone a mobile hotspot via tethering. This involves tapping the option on your phone to activate its mobile hotspot function. It allows you to share your phone's data with one other device such as your laptop, tablet or another wireless gadget.
You can enjoy speedy downloads via USB tethering, connecting your phone to your laptop with a cable. This won't drain your phone battery, but it will pull from your computer battery.
Roll the Dice on Free WiFi
You can dodge the cost of purchasing a mobile hotspot device and simply head out to a cafe, airport, library or other public spot and login to their Wi-Fi hotspot. Of course, it's a roll of the dice on whether you can find an active hotspot, and if the signal will provide high-speed internet. Throw in the fact that these are often open, unprotected networks and it's clear you don't want to rely on public networks for work or finances.
If your online needs away from home are modest and you have at least a couple regular backup locations for free WiFi, you may be able to squeak by with this option.
Related: Be aware, however, that public WiFi may not be secure or safe to use. Read some of our WiFi safety tips before heading out.
What We Recommend
We recommend the Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE as the top choice for a mobile hotspot. It has fantastic battery life and can propel you through the longest workday here, there or just about anywhere.
The Unite Explore is a close runner-up. Its internal hardware is top-notch, and it works well with AT&T's excellent broadband coverage. It also has external antenna ports and is a strong choice for international roaming.
Next up is the Alcatel Linkzone. While it's an adequate hotspot, it's all about price here. T-Mobile offers the best rates on data of the big four, hands down. But remember, there are no external antenna ports and this hotspot runs on a 2012 modem design, so performance can be an issue.
The Karma Go earns our fourth spot. It is a very sleek, cool machine and the data prices are competitive. Bear in mind you can't set up a hotspot shield with the Karma Go, it puts up an open, unsecured WiFi signal.
The Sprint Pocket WiFi is a solid choice but it's another machine with no external antenna ports to boost your signal. The Sprint broadband network itself is good and getting better, but it's still in fourth place. It's nice that you can get it from Sprint for $29.99 when you sign up for a data plan, but you must scroll through sign-up online or visit a Sprint retailer to ferret out current plan details.
Related: How to Get WiFi in Your Car
Which is the best mobile hotspot for you? If you are on a budget, try the Karma Go or Alcatel Linkzone. If you are a swashbuckling globe-trotting entrepreneur, go with the Verizon Jetpack or Unite Explore.
Do you really need a mobile hotspot? It could be too costly to be your primary internet service, an inefficient replacement for home internet. For those with limited internet access needs away from home, you may want to use the tether function on your cell phone or look for a public hotspot instead.
Many mobile phones are hotspot capable as well. You can see our comparison of the best mobile hotspot plans for more.
On the other hand, connection to the cell phone tower could be the primary culprit. To ensure you have a strong connection no matter where you are, consider using a cell phone signal booster.