It goes without saying these days that the more you can be online, the better. However, not all tablets or laptops are set up for wireless connections. If you're not at home or work, or in a venue that offers Wi-Fi, you may be out of luck.
Unless you are equipped with a Wi-Fi hotspot.
These small, very mobile devices are essentially portable routers that connect to a wireless Internet service provider and provide Wi-Fi access. Some are directly associated with one of the major service providers; others piggyback on existing networks in order to provide lower-cost connectivity.
I tried out two recently introduced hotspots: the FreedomPop Photon and the Verizon Wireless JetPack MiFi 5510L. One is from a smaller company that boasts of "100% Free High Speed Internet" and the other is from a major telecommunications vendor. While both offer reasonable Wi-Fi connectivity, in this case it's very true that you get what you pay for. Which you select will depend on what you actually need.
FreedomPop is a communications company that says it's trying to buck the trend of high-cost Internet access by offering its customers 500MB of free 4G wireless networking per month with its mobile devices. (It also recently introduced a home router with several plans, starting at 1GB of free data each month.)
Even the devices are free of charge -- sort of. When you order either the Freedom Stick Bolt (a USB modem that plugs into your device) or the Photon (a Wi-Fi hotspot that supports up to 8 devices at once), you have to give the vendor a "refundable security deposit" of $49 for the former and $99 for the latter. There is also a Wi-Fi-equipped case for the iPod Touch that costs $99.
The Photon -- the product I reviewed -- is a small, lightweight device about 2.6-in. square and 0.5-in. deep, weighing 2.1 oz. Besides the power button, there are three LEDs: one to indicate the power status, one to indicate the strength of the 4G signal and a third that shows when the Wi-Fi hotspot is available.
I liked the Photon: It is small, simple and does what it's supposed to do. After I turned it on, it took about a minute for the hotspot light to turn green; after that, I had no trouble connecting it with several devices, and it handled most everyday Web chores without a problem. It even played a YouTube video (the trailer for The Hobbit, which has a fair amount of action) with only the occasional brief lag.
Currently, though, service availability is not very widespread. FreedomPop currently uses Clearwire's 4G WiMax network; if you look at FreedomPop's coverage map, it's limited mostly to major urban centers (and even there, you have gaps -- I noticed a few dead areas in midtown Manhattan).
According to a company rep, FreedomPop plans to offer more widely accessible and faster communications over Sprint's network later this year: 4G LTE service sometime in the third quarter of 2013 and 3G service for areas not covered by 4G (although there is no word yet when that will be available).
Prices and plans
FreedomPop may offer a certain amount of free connectivity, but this is not a non-commercial venture. Currently, the free Basic model offers 500MB per month; extra data will cost 2 cents for each additional 1MB. And watch for the small print -- you can't simply drop the FreedomPop device in a drawer and use it once every couple of months. If you don't use at least 5MB a month, you're charged a 99-cent inactivity fee.
There are two paid plans as well: The Casual plan charges $17.99/month for 2GB, while the Premiere plan gives you 4GB a month for $28.99. Both charge 1 cent/MB for any usage above that allowed by the plan.
No matter which plan you use, you are offered FreedomPop Speed Plus, which promises upload speeds up to 1.5Mbps and download speeds up to 12Mbps -- for an extra $3.99/mo. (According to a FreedomPop representative, download speeds normally average between 5Mbps and 8Mbps.)
If you're on a budget and/or don't want to pay for any of the plans, there are a variety of ways to add more megabytes. For example, if you invite a friend to join, you get an additional 50MB of data per month as long as that friend is a FreedomPop user. You can also earn data by taking part in a number of promotions (most of which I found too inconvenient to consider, since they involved giving my credit card number).
Once you've gotten through all the various payment plans, promotions and the registration page -- even if you choose the free Basic plan, you have to give them a credit card number -- FreedomPop should work nicely for the person who needs only occasional Wi-Fi access.
If, on the other hand, you're looking for something fast with a wide service range, you probably want to go with one of the big guys.
Verizon Wireless' latest 4G LTE hotspot, JetPack MiFi 5510L, is larger (3.9 x 2.4 x 0.6 in.) and heavier (3.3 oz.) than the Photon, but it offers a lot more features.
The JetPack features a 1.4-in. LED display that offers a great deal of information about your connection and account. A glance offers immediate information about your signal strength and battery level.
Verizon Wireless JetPack MiFi 5510L
But wait, there's more. You can access the menu by using three touch controls below the display that let you move your cursor left or right and make a selection. From there, you can do things like get usage data, change your account name or password and see a list of the devices connected to the signal -- you can connect up to 10 devices on a 4G LTE signal and up to 5 on 3G.
You can make additional changes to the hotspot settings via a Web-based interface on your computer -- for example, you can change the times for the device's automatic shutdown or decide how long the JetPack's display stays lit.
Besides the LED and controls, the top of the black JetPack is edged by a bright red illuminated ring that indicates when the device is on or being powered. Like the Photon, the JetPack is powered by a micro USB connection; unlike the Photon, the battery is accessible by opening up the bottom.
The JetPack uses Verizon's very speedy 4G LTE network (and can use 3G where that isn't available), so you shouldn't find yourself without Wi-Fi almost anywhere in the U.S.
Price and plans
The price of the JetPack and its associated plans, of course, fit the convenience they offer. The JetPack itself costs $19.99 with a new two-year activation; without a contract, the price goes up to $199.99.
What you pay after that depends on how much data you plan to use; prices start at $30/month for 4GB of data and then go up by increments of 2GB and $10 until you hit 12GB a month for $70. And add to that a $20 monthly access fee. If you go over your allotted monthly allowance, you pay $15 per 1GB.
If I were choosing my Wi-Fi hotspot just by feel and style, I'd go for the FreedomPop Photon. It doesn't offer any of the bells and whistles that the JetPack does -- it uses LEDs to give you the status of your connection, and that's pretty much it -- but I like my hotspots as simple and lightweight as possible, and the JetPack's larger hockey-puck look just doesn't appeal. On the other hand, the JetPack's display gives you access to a lot of useful information, such as how much data you can still access before you run past your plan, which is always nice to know.
And there's no question that the Verizon Wireless JetPack, with its access to very fast 4G LTE and to Verizon's very substantial network, is going to win for speed and convenience. Tests using the Android version of Ookla's Speedtest.net resulted in maximum upload/download speeds of about 11Mbps/29Mbps, while the FreedomPop Photon tested at upload/download speeds of 1.6Mbps/11Mbps.
2 Wi-Fi hotspots: Performance
Tests performed using Ookla's Speedtest.net. Result shown is maximum of 4 tries.
2 Wi-Fi hotspots: Prices
FreedomPop's Clearwire network is currently much more limited in terms of geographical coverage and, because it's WiMax rather than LTE, it's not nearly as fast. But if you're a casual user, the cost of using Verizon's network may give you pause. If you live in an urban area, and only need the occasional Wi-Fi connection, the Photon may just suit your needs.
Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter ( @BarbaraKrasnoff).
Read more about wireless networking in Computerworld's Wireless Networking Topic Center.