Who Needs a Hotspot?
4G LTE networks are better than ever, and with 5G on the horizon, wireless web surfing can be faster than your home Wi-Fi connection. While most modern smartphones have a hotspot mode for occasional use, cellular modems and Wi-Fi hotspots are your best and most flexible option if you have a lot of devices you want to share web access with.
Hotspots can connect more than just laptops to the web. They’ll work just fine with a tablet, a camera, and pretty much any other Wi-Fi-enabled device. They support more devices at one time than your phone’s hotspot mode, don’t drain your phone’s battery, they can be hooked up to better antennas than your phone has available, and they can have separate service plans paid for by your company.
Here’s what you need to know to pick the right service and hardware, along with the top-rated hotspots we’ve tested, and even an international option.
You’ll notice that there are no T-Mobile hotspots on this list. In our view, T-Mobile doesn’t offer any high-quality hotspots that take advantage of all of its network capabilities. On T-Mobile, your best bet is to use hotspot mode from a phone.
Should You Wait for 5G?
While we’ve seen limited 5G rollouts in 2019, they haven’t been reliable, citywide, or transformative. And the coverage and device situation is messy: initial devices only handle some, not all, of the frequencies the carriers will use.
That said, I’ve put two 5G hotspots in this roundup, for Sprint and Verizon. If you’re in their very limited coverage areas, you’ll find about a 3x jump over LTE speeds with Sprint, and gigabit-plus speeds on Verizon. But these hotspots are expensive and bulky, and they don’t have the truly unlimited service plans I was hoping to see from 5G. I think it’s safe to stick with 4G for now. It isn’t going away anytime soon.
Hotspots Can’t Replace Home Internet
Wireless broadband isn’t for everyone. It costs much more per byte than a home DSL or cable setup. Plans range from “free” for 200MB per month with NetZero on Sprint’s network (you’ll need to buy a hotspot), up to $100 or more. The best balance of price and data right now is Sprint’s 100GB deal for $60 per month.
The median US home broadband subscriber uses more than 190GB of data per month, mostly because of video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. So if your needs don’t involve video or music streaming, a wireless hotspot may be a viable alternative for your home. But if they do, you’ll find you become quickly frustrated by the data bucket limits.
So who’s using 4G hotspots, for now? First and foremost, it’s road warriors—business people who need reliable connections on the go that support multiple devices and don’t drain their phones’ batteries. Hotspot plans can be affordable alternatives to hotel or convention hall Wi-Fi, and they’re more secure and reliable than public Wi-Fi in coffee shops. Vacation home and RV owners may also enjoy hotspots to light up their roaming, part-time homesteads. And small businesses that don’t use a lot of data (for instance, ones that primarily use POS systems) may find hotspots a good alternative to a wired connection.
Comparing the Carriers
Hotspots are available from all four nationwide carriers, as well as several virtual operators that use the larger carriers’ networks. Our Fastest Mobile Networks feature compares carrier speeds and coverage in 30 major cities across the US. In general, AT&T and Verizon lead on speeds right now.
Along with the four major carriers, you can get hotspots from Boost (Sprint), NetZero (Sprint), H2O (AT&T), Karma (Sprint), and Net10 (Verizon), along with a few other minor players. Expect to pay $20 to $25 per month for 2GB of data, $40 to $50 for 5GB, and $50 to $90 for 10GB.
If you’re just looking to use a hotspot without tying it to your existing carrier line, the best overall deal is Sprint’s aforementioned $60, 100GB plan. But for most people, the best idea is to add your hotspot line to your existing carrier’s phone plan, as a separate line. That will get you the most data for your dollar.
Be aware that if you have an unlimited data plan, that may not carry over to hotspots. If you add a hotspot onto an “unlimited” plan, you’ll get 15 to 20GB of high-speed data with Verizon, 22GB to 23GB of high-speed data with AT&T and Sprint, and 50GB with T-Mobile, but after that your data will be deprioritized, or unpredictably slowed. The Sprint and T-Mobile
The Best Hotspot Hardware
The four carriers have been frantically upgrading their networks recently, and in many cases, network capabilities have now outstripped the quality of older hotspots running on them. That means recent phones will get better speeds than older hotspots do.
The best hotspots use the Qualcomm Snapdragon X20 or X24 modems, which you’ll find in the MiFi 8800, MiFi 8800L, and HTC 5G Hub. Those are capable of hitting every network feature that carriers have to offer. Other hotspots out there, including everything T-Mobile and the virtual carriers currently sell, use three- or four-year-old modems that have lower speeds and worse signal strength than the best new phones. That means you may get 5Mbps to 10Mbps where your phone gets 25Mbps to 30Mbps, for instance.
High-quality hotspots also have TS9 external antenna ports to help you improve your signal using inexpensive antennas you can purchase online. TS9 is a standard, and these antennas cost much less than a cellular signal booster does.
Make sure your hotspots support 5GHz Wi-Fi, which is typically faster and less congested than 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. Some hotspots also support guest networks and access controls, such as MAC filtering and time-based access controls. Those features are on pretty much all dedicated routers nowadays, but you can’t take them for granted on mobile hotspots.
Hotspots with big batteries can be used as power banks to charge your phone, and hotspots with microSD card slots can be used as tiny servers to share media on their Wi-Fi networks. That said, we’ve never found a real use for that media server functionality.
We really like the displays on the front of many current hotspots. They can report the strength of your signal, your hotspot’s name, data usage, and the network password right on the device.
To Tether or Not to Tether?
If you decide to make the jump, hotspots and cellular modems aren’t the only
Beware: Overseas Surfing Will Cost You
Traveling soon? US hotspots generally allow you to roam in Canada and Mexico, although rates may be high—definitely check with your carrier in advance to find out. For short trips further abroad, we recommend renting the
It’s surprisingly hard to find an unlocked hotspot with global LTE bands in the US, so if you want to go the route where you buy a local SIM to take advantage of much lower local data rates, your best choice is to use the hotspot function on your phone.
And before you commit to a modem or a plan, make sure to check out our most recent hotspot reviews.
Pros: Fastest hotspot hardware available. Excellent access controls. Long battery life.
Cons: Heavy. No touch screen.
Bottom Line: The Nighthawk for AT&T is the first hotspot to support gigabit LTE, the fastest LTE standard currently available.
Pros: Reasonably priced. Excellent 4G performance. Long battery life.
Cons: No 5G. No Band 71 in case of T-Mobile merger.
Bottom Line: The MiFi 8000 is the best 4G hotspot you can get on Sprint. It will keep you connected for at least the next year.
Pros: Fastest 4G LTE technologies. Long battery life. Easy-to-use touch-screen UI.
Cons: 5G is on the horizon.
Bottom Line: The new Verizon Jetpack MiFi 8800L hotspot has the best 4G LTE networking capabilities available today-but Verizon is about to launch a 5G network that could change everything.
Pros: High speeds. Reliable connectivity. Large battery. Can charge other devices.
Cons: No rental option. Big and heavy.
Bottom Line: The Android-powered Roaming Man G3 is a fast and reliable hotspot for 4G international usage.
Pros: First 5G hotspot for Sprint. Good battery life. Long Wi-Fi range. Handsome design.
Cons: Expensive. Uneven Google Assistant UI. Sprint’s future and strategy are currently unclear.
Bottom Line: The HTC 5G Hub is the first dedicated hotspot for sharing Sprint’s new network with up to 20 devices, but it’s not a viable alternative to traditional internet just yet.
Pros: First 5G hotspot for Verizon. Doesn’t overheat as easily as phones. Supports lots of devices via wired and wireless connections.
Cons: Service plan doesn’t justify the price. Connected devices maxed out at 350Mbps in testing. Poor global roaming.
Bottom Line: The MiFi M1000 is Verizon’s first and only 5G hotspot, but it’s expensive and doesn’t offer big-enough service plans to change how you do business.