06
Feb
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Mobile data hotspots aren't the world's most exciting products, though if you travel consistently, they can be an absolute lifesaver. But let's be brutally honest: the average mobile data consumer really doesn't care about the hotspot itself - as long as it works. They care about the network, and the monthly pricing. That's really it.

The hotspot is basically just a tiny little Wi-Fi router with a cellular modem and a lithium-ion battery inside. If it functions properly, you only remember it exists when the battery dies. If it doesn't, it's the worst thing in the universe, and you actively contemplate just how many pieces it would shatter into after a fall from the 4th story window of Homewood Suites.

The point I'm making is this: getting fancy with a mobile hotspot is risky. You create a real possibility of confusing and upsetting consumers by changing things around. The Mi-Fi Liberate undoubtedly changes the standard hotspot formula, but it seems to have done it damn near perfectly.

The AT&T MiFi Liberate

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The MiFi Liberate is a new hotspot from Novatel Wireless, designed for the AT&T network. Its big talking point is a full-color 2.8" capacitive touch display that allows you to explore and configure many aspects of the Liberate that would traditionally require a web page (the Liberate still needs a web page to actually set up the wireless security). It costs $50 with a 2-year agreement on AT&T, or $200 off contract.

The Good

Holy crap - it has a full-color capacitive touchscreen! And something resembling a kind of proto-OS, complete with features like slide-to-unlock, and tiles that kind-of-sort-of look like apps. Are we in the future?

The good news is that this touchscreen makes interacting with the hotspot and finding out basically any information about it really, really ridiculously easy. Here's a list of all the info at your fingertips on the actual hotspot:

  • Network name, network password, security type, maximum devices allowed
  • Data usage
  • Toggles for: airplane mode, cell data, roaming, screen timeout, screen brightness, sound alerts, Wi-Fi power output, USB connection mode
  • Network status, connection type, signal strength
  • Wireless number, model number, IMEI, SIM #, software version
  • WPS mode (toggle on/off)
  • GPS (toggle on/off)
  • Media Center mode (basically, it's DLNA compatible)
  • Network file sharing mode
  • SMS messages (receive only)
  • Connected devices

All in all, that's a lot of stuff that you really just don't get on your average hotspot. No more writing your password on a piece of tape attached to the back, no more opening up your account page to see how many gee-bees you've devoured. This stuff alone makes the Liberate a pretty attractive choice - I can't see any major downside to all these extras.

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Even with the touchscreen, battery life on the Liberate was mindblowingly good. Novatel rates it at 11 hours, and I'm inclined to say that number is probably accurate for basic tasks like browsing. Put more stress on it (eg, video uploads), and you will see the battery bar drain itself a little more expeditiously. Still, this is easily the longest-lasting hotspot I've ever seen.

We used it at CES, drinking down well over 16GB of data in under a week, and for the most part, it performed like a champ. The web interface for actually configuring the wireless setup is pretty standard, and I even tested out the file sharing mode (it has a microSD card slot!), which worked fine with my Windows 8 laptop.

The Not So Good

I'm struggling to find any flaws I'd consider truly major concerns, aside from the pricing, which we'll get to in a moment.

The Liberate did require occasional reboots in the field (the packets just kind of stopped flowing), though Ron and I were tasking the little guy with 1GB+ video uploads on some evenings, which is certainly a tall order for a mobile hotspot. It got pretty hot when doing this, too, so maybe that played a role. Either way, after a restart it was generally fine again.

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Signal strength was generally very good, but I did experience the rather standard (and highly annoying) difficulty in getting the Liberate to switch back from HSPA+ to LTE after it had been in an area with weak signal. A reboot, again, usually resolved this.

Otherwise, no complaints here - this hotspot is bar-none the best I've ever used.

Unfortunately, the Liberate probably isn't fiscally practical for anyone but businesses or highly mobile professionals: while it's only $50 on AT&T, that comes with a 2-year contract, meaning at least $50 a month for 24 months, unless you're on one of AT&T's share data plans (in which case, the Liberate is a $20/month add-on to your existing data bucket). The alternative is shelling out $200 to do pay-as-you-go, and that still entails the same data pricing I mentioned, though with the option to only activate the plan for the months you'll need it.

Conclusion

This is easily the best mobile hotspot on the market right now. There just isn't anything out there to compete with the Liberate, and it shows. If you absolutely need a mobile hotspot, and want the very best hardware, this is the one to get - period. But network coverage and data pricing are still going to be the first concerns for many would-be buyers, and that's where the buck stops. AT&T just doesn't have the LTE footprint of Verizon at this point, yet it charges basically the same for hotspot data (Verizon is $50 for 4GB, AT&T is $50 for 5GB).

All in all, the decision to buy is best left to your personal needs, but if the Liberate and AT&T meet yours, don't hesitate - this thing is amazing.

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David Ruddock
David's phone is an HTC One. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, imparting a legal perspective on tech news, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • spydie

    so I'm confused... how is a hotspot better than just buying a mobile card for your laptop? You don't have to reboot the card and you get always-on internet without the problems of a hot spot, right?

    • cy_n_ic

      Hotspots arent really for always on internet. You definately want to turn them off when not in use. Data overage charges can get out of hand easily. And you cant take an aircard with you and work without the laptop.

      • spydie

        so you are working, what? on your phone? But it already has internet. Still not seeing the reason for hot spot. If your bandwidth is too limited on your phone but you can buy more MB on the hotspot, why not just buy it for your phone, root your phone and use it for a hot spot (or get a carrier with real unlimited data and do the same thing)?

        • cy_n_ic

          I have a nexus 4 and its gsm. Cant get verizon lte on it. But you can with a hotspot. Phone service through net10 i get 2gb a month. Fine for when im away from home but when im home i use the hotspot for blazing 4g on all my devices, phone(s) laptop, ps3, xbox and im not limited and dont get throttled

          • spydie

            so hotspots don't have a bandwidth limit? wow We have a Nexus also, but it's on ATT so we have LTE

          • cy_n_ic

            Everything has a limit these days. I purchase a data package close to what i use a month. If i go over i get charged for another gig (and another and another if you keep going over) opposed to being throttled down. So you can get hit with some hefty charges if you dont watch yourself. The hotspot us my home internet. I live in the country so ots the best option. Sattelite sucks balls

    • http://www.facebook.com/truthkillszz Michael Berrios

      i do alot of my school work while im on my break at work on my tablet this mobile hotspot would be alot better than paying for boingo and getting ridiculously slow speeds

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      You can share hotspot connections with multiple devices. For example, tablets, multiple laptops, phones on slower connections, etc. Also they have their own power source.

      If you're only going to always use it on one device for sure, perhaps a hotspot is not for you and a card is better.

      Personally, I bought an unlocked AT&T hotspot and ended up using it in Spain to share the connection between 2 phones and a laptop. It was a lifesaver.

      • spydie

        I see, thanks Artem. But can't you use your rooted phone to do the same thing? I do all the time!

        • Jonathan

          Using your phone also drains its battery like little else, so you would have to choose between a dead phone or no connectivity for other devices.

          • spydie

            OK, so I'm starting to see a few advantages for people that need it. Of course you could have a spare phone battery or plug the phone in!

        • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com/ Cody Toombs

          There's also an issue that the hotspot feature is a pretty major issue to some carriers. AT&T seems to overlook it with most people if it's not abusive, but some T-Mobile plans and most MVNOs will cut your service if they detect you tethering.

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

          Yeah, but then the battery gets demolished.

  • Scott

    I am moving to a rural place that has ATT 4G available but virtually no other internet options for my home. Would this be a decent alternative? Better than Satellite?

    • sc2pilot

      My wife and I are in the same boat. We opted for this over Satellite since we could also use the Mifi on trips. I just don't like that it does not allow port forwarding, so you will have absolutely no access to your equipment at home without taking an alternative approach.

  • sc2pilot

    Does not support Port Forwarding. Defective by Design.

  • Good Life

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    I called AT&T Wireless... they don't allow you to "add it onto your existing data bucket" - they said it has to have it's own dedicated line added to support the mifi Liberate. I didn't want to believe them, but after calling back 2 more times, they repeated the same thing - I can't add it to my own data plan. Bummer. I still bought one - it looks sweet!

    • Bjchicago

      Do unused data usage roll over?

    • Err0xx

      They let me add it to my existing mobile share plan via the att website...took 5 minutes to set up during checkout. Don't know what you're talking about.

  • Chris Dethloff Greene

    Have had nothing but trouble with this thing. You can't leave it plugged in all the time. It will stop working and tell you to unplug the device. Of course when the battery runs low it will stop working as well. Several times it will not power on at all. The only way to power it on at that point is to remove the battery. ATT sent me a new device without a new battery, same problem. Then they sent me a new battery for the new device, same problem.

    • John Flowers

      I have one at a weekend cabin and so far so good - would like tho to leave it on so I ca monitor the place with webcams - I had read somewhere if you take the battery out you can leave it plugged in all the time - don't wanna burn the place down tho. Thoughts? I think the message comes up saying to unplug it so you don't wear out teh battery prematurely. Seems like they did have initial issues that are now resolved too.

    • clay kowalczyk

      I have one of these and it is awesome when it works. BUT it always shuts it self down at random and like you said you have to rig it to come back on. I have to take the battery out.. connect the charger.. wait for the "charging screen" to come on.. reinsert battery.. then power it back on. It is rediculous. I need fast interenet for work but I live out in the country and the speed is amazing 4Glte. but it is unreliable over long periods of time.

  • Bob

    These things stop sending/receiving packet constantly. It shows a strong 4G-LTE connection but nothing is coming across. After searching the Net, it appears many people have this problem (including with Verizon and ATT.) None of them report any solutions other then multiple replacements.