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What’s the Best Mobile Hotspot Smart Phone?

With so many great features packed into smart phones these days—whether it’s blazing processors, social networking integration, or HD video recording—one thing that isn’t being talked about enough is mobile hotspot integration. A mobile hotspot app allows a smart phone’s data connection to create a Wi-Fi network for multiple devices at once, including a laptop, portable media player, iPad, or digital camera. Since you’ll pay anywhere from $20 to $30 extra per month for this convenience, we wanted to know: Which of these phones provides the best speeds?

For now, only Sprint and Verizon Wireless offer mobile hotspot phones, so we took two of Sprint’s handsets and four of Verizon’s for a test drive in two locations in New York City using their 3G networks. In Sprint’s case we also used its 4G network, which provides a huge speed boost, though coverage is still limited at this point.

Ready to bathe your notebook and other Wi-Fi gear in mobile broadband goodness? Let’s get it on!

Hotspot Smart Phone Selection and Cost of Service

In the U.S., six smart phones on the Verizon Wireless Network and two smart phones on Sprint offer hotspot capabilities. We’re fairly happy with the selection on the two carriers so far, but we would like to see AT&T and T-Mobile offering hotspot-capable phones as well. Yes, you can tether a phone to your laptop via USB or connect via Bluetooth in some cases, but the former option requires that you schlepp a cable with you, while Bluetooth is harder to set up and generally acts as a bottleneck for throughput. We generally like mobile hotspot devices like the MiFi, but that’s just another device you need to carry. Your smart phone is always with you.

On Verizon, smart phones with mobile hotspot capability include the Motorola Droid X, Motorola Droid 2, HTC Droid Incredible, Samsung Fascinate, Palm Pre Plus, and Palm Pixi Plus. We decided to scratch Palm’s offerings from our testing because they are the two oldest devices of the bunch. Most of the Verizon phones enable connectivity for as many as five devices at once. The service costs $20 per month for 2GB of data. If you go over, it will cost you a whopping $50 per additional GB.

Sprint currently offers two phones with mobile hotspot functionality, the HTC Evo 4G and Samsung Epic 4G. The carrier charges $30 for its mobile hotspot service, which is pricier than Verizon’s, but the data is truly unlimited. That’s a big deal for those who plan to use this feature extensively every day. In fact, if you live in a 4G area, the data speeds might be good enough to kick your current ISP to the curb. We say “might” because Mobile WiMax doesn’t penetrate buildings that well.

How We Tested

We used the Toshiba Satellite A665 notebook as our test Wi-Fi device. To measure data performance we used Speedtest.net, averaging the download and upload speeds after three tests each in the two New York City locations. In addition, we downloaded four popular websites three times in each location and averaged the time it took for them to fully load using Google Chrome. The sites included Laptopmag.com, ESPN.com, NYTimes.com, and CNN.com.

Performance Results

Motorola Droid XMotorola Droid 2Samsung FascinateHTC Droid IncredibleHTC Evo 4G (3G/4G)Samsung Epic 4G (3G/4G)
Downloads (Mb/sec)1.3351.1911.0882.0881.988 / 5.091.779 / 2.614
Uploads (Mb/sec)0.390.4580.5690.7380.145 / 0.880.148 / 0.966
Laptopmag.com8.46.46.67.48.8 / 4.510.5 / 5
espn.go.com3.54.13.83.78.6 / 4.35.9 / 4.6
nytimes.com4.23.23.53.64.8 / 2.77.7 / 5
cnn.com4.945.73.76.2 / 3.16.1 / 5.5
Average of Sites5.254.4254.94.67.1 / 3.657.55 / 5.025

In terms of pure data speeds, the HTC Droid Incredible from Verizon Wireless came in first for downloads and uploads over 3G, delivering an impressive 2.1 Mbps on the downlink and 738 Kbps uploads. The Samsung Fascinate had the slowest average download speed of 1.1 Mbps, while the slowest upload speeds over 3G came from the Evo 4G on Sprint (145 Kbps). However, the Epic 4G wasn’t much better, with an upload speed of 148 Kbps.

If you live in an area with 4G coverage (52 markets and counting), you’re going to love the Evo 4G and really like the Epic 4G. In lower Manhattan, one of a handful of NYC locations that had 4G turned on during our testing, we achieved an lightning fast average download speed of 5.1 Mbps on the Evo 4G. The Epic 4G maxed out at 2.6 Mbps, which is about half as fast as the Evo 4G but sill more than double the speed of several other hotspot phones using 3G only. Upload speeds over 4G were dramatically better for these phones than with 3G, with the Evo 4G jumping to 880 Kbps and the Epic 4G reaching nearly 1 Mbps. Only the HTC Incredible came close over 3G.

So how about web surfing? Over 3G, the Droid 2 delivered the fastest average time of 4.4 seconds, narrowly beating the HTC Incredible. The Evo and Epic brought up the rear with average times of 7.1 and 7.5 seconds, respectively. However, the Evo 4G blew past the field when we turned on 4G, turning in an average download time of 3.7 seconds. The Epic 4G improved to 5 seconds over 4G, but that time still trails the Droid 2, Fascinate, and Incredible. We suspect that you’ll see the full benefit of 4G when downloading larger files and performing more demanding tasks, such as downloading video or streaming music while loading sites.

Verdict

If you’re looking for a good mobile hotspot phone, we’d say that the HTC Incredible is your best bet on Verizon Wireless because of its superior download and upload speeds. However, the Droid 2 is also a good choice because of its zippy web page download times.

Overall, though, Sprint’s Evo 4G impresses us most. This 4.3-inch powerhouse offers blazing performance over 4G with download speeds that are much faster than any 3G phone, and its 3G downloads were quite good as well. Plus, 4G is coming to even more cities by the end of the year. The only downside to the Evo 4G is its sluggish uploads over 3G. Yes, you pay $10 more for the hotspot plan on Sprint, and that’s on top of the $10 premium data fee for regular data usage. However, unlike Verizon Wireless, the data is unlimited, and the total cost per month when you add in 450 voice minutes and included text messages is comparable to Verizon’s plans. The only problem is that the Evo 4G is currently sold out online, so be sure to check your local stores for availability.

Testing and additional reporting by Sean Ludwig.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.