Spend just $100 and get a year of free 4G service? That's the deal being offered by NetZero with its new $99 4G HotSpot. But is this a cost-effective, portable solution for laptop and tablet users who don't want to rely on free Wi-Fi at Starbucks, or a clever marketing gimmick? Read on to see how this hotspot's performance, coverage and data plans compete with the big carriers.
Weighing 4.4 ounces and meausring 3.4 x 3.4 x 0.7 inches, the glossy black NetZero 4G Hotspot is not quite compact enough to slip into your jeans, but you can stuff it in a jacket pocket or bag. A 1.25 x 1.5-inch LCD display sits towards the top above a red and white NetZero logo. The sides and the base are made of black matte plastic.
The LCD has indicators for signal strength, battery, network speed, number of connected devices, time device has been on and the amount of data consumed during the session. The name of the device, password and time are also shown in the display.
Buttons for power and sound are located on the right and left sides of the device respectively. A microUSB port sits along the front of the hotspot.
The NetZero 4G Hotspot is able to connect up to eight devices simultaneously and supports a tethered internet connection via USB.
NetZero uses WiMax provider Clear for its 4G Mobile Broadband service. Available in 80 cities nationwide, it's a far cry from Verizon's 4G LTE or T-Mobile's 4G, which covers 203 and 191 markets respectively. However, it manages to beat out AT&T's 4G LTE coverage (28 markets) as well as Sprint's 71-market coverage. Still despite our office (5th Ave. and 20th Street in New York) being located in one of Clear's Best Coverage Areas, we experienced spotty service with fluctuating speeds. When we tested in at our home in the Bronx (another Best Coverage Area) the signal was nonexistent. We got the most reliable results when we tested in Union Square.
Keep in mind that this device doesn't fall back to 3G speeds like other mobile hotspots when you leave a 4G coverage zone. So you'll want to really study those coverage maps.
Data Plans and Value
NetZero offers five mobile broadband plans. The first--and most attention-grabbing--is a free 1-year plan that provides users with 200MB of data per month. Once the year is up, users will be encouraged to switch to one of the other available plans. 200MB isn't a lot of data, though. In fact, some apps for the new apps are much more than that.
In addition to the free plan, the $9.95 Basic plan delivers 500MB/month while the Plus package offers 1GB/month for $19.95. There's also the $34.95 2GB/month Pro plan and the 4GB $49.95 Platinum package. Instead of overage fees, service is cut on each of the plans once a user hits their monthly allotment.
After two years, consumers would spend $338 on the Basic plan, $578 on the Plus plan, $938 on the Pro plan and $1,298 with the Platinum Plan. By comparison, Verizon shoppers would spend $1,219 ($19.99 MiFi 4510L plus the $50/5GB plan), AT&T customers would spend $1,269 ($69.99 AT&T Elevate 4G, $50/5GB plan), T-Mobile customers would spend $1,299 ($99 Sonic 4G, $49.99/5GB), and Sprint users would spend $1,249 ($49.99 Overdrive Pro, 6GB $49.99 plan).
A light data user could get by with Plus package, but moderate to heavy users would be better off with the NetZero Platinum package, which is only a few dollars cheaper than the big carriers.
After pressing the power button for 5 seconds, the NetZero 4G Hotspot turned on, and immediately began searching for a signal. After approximately 10 seconds the device was raring to go, with 4 bars of service.
Netzero claims that users will receive maximum download speeds of 10 Mbps and 1.5 Mbps for uploads. During our testing, the NetZero 4G Hotspot achieved decent speeds, but only in certain areas. The device averaged 11.3 Mbps downloads in Union Square. However in our office, the hotspot only reached 5.3 Mbps. Madison Square Park was even worse at 2.9 Mbps. By comparison, the MiFi 4510L from Verizon Wireless averaged a blazing 23.5 Mbps.
Upload speeds were not nearly as fast, though we expected that from a WiMax device. At Madison Square Park, the hotspot averaged 1.5 Mbps. In Union Square, it was an even lower 1.04 Mbps, and at our office, the NetZero averaged a dismal 0.53 Mbps. Again, Verizon's MiFi was much faster, with average uploads of 4.7 Mbps.
Downloading and Uploading Large Files
Downloading a 151 MB OpenOffice file took 2 minutes and 31 seconds with the NetZero 4G hotspot in our office and 3:03 at Madison Square Park. Things got dramatically faster in Union Square Park, taking only 1:30 seconds to download. The Verizon MiFi took 1:21 on average.
Uploading was an exercise in patience, with the NetZero 4G hotspot taking 3 minutes and 20 seconds to upload a 6.5 MB file at Madison Square Park. In our office, the file uploaded in 1:10, but it only took 62 seconds in Union Square.
Web Surfing Speed
With the HP Envy 14 Spectre connected to the HotSpot, we were able to surf the web at a reasonable clip. On Loadtimer.org, the NetZero 4G hotspot averaged speeds of 9.7 seconds in Madison Square Park and 8.2 seconds in our office. We got a blistering 6.7 seconds in Union Square. That's slightly better than the Verizon MiFi's average of 6.8 seconds, but just in one location.
NetZero claims that the NetZero 4G Hotspot can last more than 6 hours on a charge. During our testing, where we ran the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing), the hopspot ran for 4.5 hours, and two bars remained on the battery indicator.
NetZero's grand comeback has a few wrinkles. The $99 NetZero 4G Hotspot delivers good download speeds in some locations but not others, and you don't get 3G as a fallback when traveling. Also, while the promise of free wireless data is almost too tempting to pass up, the reality is that 200MB isn't a lot. However, if you can live with 1GB or 2GB of data, the NetZero 4G Hotspot is worth a look for those who don't want to spend more than $35 per month for mobile Internet access.