A few months back, I gave a public talk, that was based on a past article of mine, on the perils of using public hotspots without any kind of protection. At the very end of that talk, as a bit of an addendum, I made the suggestion of using private hotspots when out in the field as a means of circumventing use of their public counterparts in the first place. I didn’t go into much more detail than that as it wasn’t the focus of the talk and at that point, I really didn’t have much to say on that particular aspect of it.
As of late, however, I’ve been making a further push to minimize my life and take a harder look at the things I own and ask: “Do I really need that?”. This led to the somewhat knee-jerk purchase of a prepaid hotspot at a local Walmart as a means of having the same functionality of data on-the-go without having to worry about being in any particular establishment:
After a week of monkeying around with that, I then made the more calculated and planned purchase of a device and plan from their competitor:
I’ve made a couple of surprising discoveries and thought that I’d “share with the class”, as it were.
Let me start at the “Beginning”….
Before going into what I tried and what I’m (currently) running with, let me explain where I came from for some perspective: My original “hotspot” was, literally, a *second* live smartphone. It was an AT$T Go-Phone that had served as a cheap replacement to a galaxy nexus that I had originally setup and meant to use as my mobile work line. For all of the calls that I regularly made or took on this line, it essentially became a glorified hotspot that I used solely for the purpose of tethering to my laptop when I was on the go.
As far as the plan: Unlimited talk, text and 4GB of data with rollover. My average monthly bill: $95, and I was only paying that much because I managed to get an odd 20% discount on services given that, at the time of this writing, I was also an employee of a non-profit. So, the actual damages for any other John or Jane doe might have been closer to $120/mo. Yikes! That’s a pretty heavy bill to be burdened with from month-to-month even with a decent paying job. For a freelancer or entrepreneur with a more erratic income stream, that simply will not do.
So what’s the alternative?
Well, I came across the two aforementioned offerings that I played around with for a few weeks:
The gist of part of the sales pitch made by both of these companies is that their service is network neutral and will connect you to whatever network you’re near when you’re trying to connect:
- StraightTalk – “Straight Talk provides nationwide prepaid wireless service. We use the nation’s leading cellular providers to create a national footprint covering 99% of the U.S. population. This gives you service everywhere cellular service is available.” (http://get.straighttalk.com/best-networks/)
- Net10 – “We’ve partnered with the country’s top four carriers to bring you the network quality you need. The only difference is the cost–we don’t have to pay to build or maintain a nationwide network of towers. That means you get the same dependable coverage they offer.” (http://www.net10wireless.com/#/advantages/howitworks)
That being said, in the bit of testing I was able to do during my research, The StraightTalk unit always seemed to connect to Verizon’s cell network while the Net10 device proved partial to T-mobile. Do with that what you will, but bear in mind that I was running around with their respective devices in the metropolitan area of Philadelphia, PA. If you’re somewhere else monkeying with equipment from one of these companies, your experience may vary. Speaking of companies: The bell companies themselves (Tmobile, ATT, Verizon) all do have dedicated prepaid hotspot offerings of their own, but I really didn’t come across any of those devices to quickly test given the limited time and money I had to put in. If you have one of these devices and are interested in adding to this conversation, feel free to do so in the comments.
Anyways, here’s a bit of a primer on these two operations:
This company seems to be a Walmart exclusive. If you want to run out and buy a physical device or a reload card right now, you’d need to travel to the nearest Walmart and hope that that have what you’re looking for in stock. As an alternative, you can order what you want straight (pun intended) from the StraightTalk site.
Taking a look at their advertised coverage map, it seems likely that you’d be able to get a connection in just about any area that you’d be likely to sit down and try to use a laptop or some other smart device in:
As far as their data plans go: for so many dollars, you get a certain amount of gigs to use in a prescribed time period:
- $15 / 1GB / 30 Days
- $25 / 2GB / 30 Days
- $40 / 4GB / 60 Days
- $50 / 5GB / 60 Days
- $75 / 7GB / 60 Days
The two plans at the bottom are what caught my eye, and started me down the road that led to this article. Remember: I was initially paying an odd hundred a month for a second line that provided FOUR gigabytes of data. For half the money, StraightTalk is putting up twice the data and even if I run out of that, I can tack on extra gigs at $15 apiece. From a monetary perspective, this was definitely worth at least a try to me.
The second of the two is a more brick-and-mortarless outfit that isn’t tied to any box store. In fact, I got my unit, brand new, right off of eBay. Similar to StraighTalk, you can buy the specific hotspot unit you want direct from them, or go to a local reseller. This will likely be a neighborhood mobile spot of some kind and their website will point you in the direction of one, if you provide your zip code:
As far as coverage, Net10’s page on the matter goes a little bit farther out of the way to make a distinction between “GSM” and “CDMA” access, but it seems that you’ll only have to work a little bit harder to get online with them if you’re in the north or mid-west:
Finally, we come to their data plans, the work in a fashion very similar to StraightTalk:
- $10 / 0.5GB / 14 Days
- $20 / 1.0GB / 30 Days
- $30 / 2.5GB / 30 Days
- $50 / 5.0GB / 60 Days
As you can see, Net10’s pool of plans is one shy of matching StraightTalk’s, but they’re a little bit cheaper as well.
Both companies seem to use the same type of equipment, or at least strikingly similar save some corporate branding, so I’ll show you the two devices I have in the order that I got them
The first one is the ZTE Z291DL:
This device is touted as being 4G capable and able to connect up to 10 separate devices. However, the fine print on their page, as of the time of this writing reads as:
“Device Usage Limitations: While up to five (5) devices may be connected to your Straight Talk Hotspot at one time, a single connected device will experience optimal speeds. Performance will be reduced if multiple devices access data through the Straight Talk Hotspot simultaneously.”
So, basically, as you connect more devices, each device gets less of a connection. Ok, that sounds logical enough. As for the view while its operating:
Yeah. Not a lot to look at. Granted, its not meant to be a showpiece, and got the job done for as long as I used it but then I got this:
This little guy is the ZTE Z289L. It matches the aforementioned device in offering a 4G LTE top connection, but slightly falls in only being able to handle five simultaneous connections. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that we’re going to really accept this as an out-and-out fault, the Z289L more than makes up for it with its bright, backlit, LED readout that quickly provides critical information about your device and connection on the fly:
From here you can see what devices are connected, the name of your hotspot ID, and even the password you set for it (unless you turn that off in the admin settings, which you really should do). But the critical piece of information this readout shows you is the running tally of whatever data plan you’re currently on:
As you can see in the video above, as of the shooting of the video, I’m running a bit low at the moment and will need to add some more data soon. But that’s ok because, thanks to that display, I now KNOW that I’m running a bit low on data and will need to add some more soon. Given that this service is prepaid, and the onus is on me to keep track of what I have and when I have it, this is crucial. Especially given that, from what I saw in the account pages of StraightTalk AND Net10, there was no way for me to really figure out what data I had left in my plan from there. The minor downside to this is that, from what I’ve seen in my usage, the readout doesn’t update in real-time. You have to update the readout by backing out to the main menu and selecting the option again. Still, this is far more helpful than the seizure inducing LEDs of the Z291DL.
The Brass Tacks
So lets get down to it: How well do these devices really work?
I loaded each of them up with a fresh gigabyte of data and set out to run a speed test at various locations around the city:
- 12/09 – Delaware Ave WalMart
- 12/09 – My Home Office
- Let’s just say its in the vicinity of Broad and Snyder and leave it at that, shall we?
- 12/10 – A McDonald’s near 69st Market-Frankford line station
- 12/10 – Rittenhouse Square Park
- Yes, somewhere in the middle of the park
Why did I choose these locations? They were all part of the running around I was going to be doing that weekend anyway so I just dragged my laptop and the hotspots around with me. Admittedly, its far from the most exhaustive testing pool, but I wanted to try to do at least some on-the-spot comparisons
Just to give you an ideal of the process, here’s a video of the first test I ran at each spot and the outcome for each service and its respective unit:
In this first round, StraightTalk’s connection was abysmal in comparison to Net10. Here’s what happened after I went through the rest of the trials:
So on average, Net10 pulled data in at about 11.11 Mb/s and pushed it out at 15.03 Mb/s. Respectively, StraightTalk pulled in at 4.45 Mb/s and pushed out at 2.06 Mb/s. Admittedly, this is hardly testing on the scale of “Consumer Reports”, but I think this pretty much gets the gist across.
Prior to this in-depth testing, I didn’t notice a particular difference between my web surfing through either service or unit so I actually found the above numbers a bit surprising. Still, they are what they are and from that standpoint, Net10 looks to be the winner here. Personally, I had opted to go with them myself beforehand, but that’s only because I don’t want to have to worry about finding a Walmart to schlepp to should I ever need or want to add data to my plan by way of their physical card, which I’ve regularly come across in my neighborhood convenience and drugstores. That being said I had no problem reloading either unit with new data plans from their respective apps on my smartphone.
As far as the hardware is concerned: Regardless of whichever of these two companies you opt for, if either, do yourself a favor and spring for the Z289L:
If you’re even going to give one of these companies a try, this is just too essential from what I’ve seen. It will make your own testing, review and perhaps ongoing usage a lot smoother.
If you have any questions or comments about any of this. The box is below. Thanks for reading.