I recently spent a few weeks with the new Verizon 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi 4510L. I did a lot of travel during this period, so I really put the device through its paces. I took it camping in the relatively remote tri-state corner of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virgina. It also travelled with me on a two-day business trip to Cincinnati, and then accompanied my family on a drive from North East Ohio to Chicago and back again.
The 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot uses a SIM card. My demo unit was already assembled and activated when I took possession of the device.
The first thing I noticed is that the 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFi has a much better build quality than the various 3G MiFi 2200 devices that came before it. The device has a very polished look and feels high quality in the hand, whereas the 2200 felt kind of cheap and flimsy. However, the MiFi 4510L is about twice as thick as the 2200. For that extra heft, the 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot has a graphic display that shows your signal strength and battery life, which is a very nice touch.
Despite the detailed graphic display, the 4G MiFi indicates what kind of signal it has by changing the color of the blinking LED on the side of the device. It took me awhile to figure out exactly what it was trying to convey as it went through a veritable rainbow of LED displays. Ultimately, the important detail seems to be that purple indicates a 3G signal, green signifies 4G signal, and flashing between the two colors probably means there's a 1x network connection.
How did it stack up?
I had mixed results over a three week period. Near my home, in a rural suburb about 20 minutes from a 4G metro area, my signal was dismal. Driving around my neighborhood, my daughter was unable to surf the web with satisfactory results. It seemed to me that the 3G signal on the 4510L was possibly less reliable than on my Virgin Mobile MiFi M220 Mobile Hotspot. It was certainly slower side-by-side than my Droid 2 and a Droid 3 I was also testing during this time.
At my office, if I placed the device just right, I was able to get a 4G LTE signal — and Wooo-Boy was that nice! During a series of benchmarks, the fastest speed I got was a 14MB down and 7MB up, although the 4G speeds at my office were consistently at least 7MB down, 7MB up. It made our public DSL line look absolutely pokey — and at 14MB, it was nipping at the heels of our main fiber trunk into our datacenter.
I was surprised that my daughter had better results surfing with her iPod Touch connected to the 4G Hotspot when we drove to the Pennsylvania/West Virgina/Ohio border. She was able to surf YouTube fairly consistently with decent download speeds and 3G signals. At our campsite, my wife even watched a NetFlix movie on her iPad with no pauses for rebuffering.
On the trip to and back from Cincinnati, a colleague used the 4G Hotspot to work remotely. She complained about very poor performance and lost the signal completely at one point. I had to pull over to get her disconnected and reconnected to the device.
However, in downtown Chicago, it performed flawlessly, which was exactly what I expected. I didn't even bother with the free Wi-Fi or Ethernet that was available at my hotel.
Who is it for?
The idle rich and business professionals who simply must have reliable private mobile Internet connectivity, possibly for multiple Wi-Fi-enabled devices.
- 4G LTE speed, when available, is capable of outrageously fast throughput
- The device is very attractive, and feels well-built
- The graphic display tells you the signal strength and remaining battery life at a glance
- 3G speeds and signal seem less reliable than 3G phones, running side-by-side
- The multi-colored LED Signal Type/Data Transfer indicator is confusing, especially since there's a beautiful digital display that could have easily indicated a 1x, 3G, or 4G connection
- Battery life isn't much improved over the 2200 MiFi, so you'll want a charger nearby
The bottom line
The truth of the matter is, the Verizon network is much more reliable and consistent than any other carrier in the United States. If you plan on traveling and need reliable connectivity, Verizon is your best bet. However, mobile coverage — 3G and 4G — is still spotty and inconsistent, even in very well developed regions. You're going to pay dearly for this level of service though, and for most users outside of professionals who must have a reliable connection with them at all times, that makes a 3G or a 4G mobile connection unreasonable.
When you add this the paltry bandwidth caps on broadband plans that carriers enforce, all 4G speed means is that you're likely to hit your cap quicker if you use the device frequently, because you can quickly consume so much more bandwidth with a 4G connection. Having access to a demo vendor unit with no cap and no charges was an awesome experience. If the device was available for anywhere between $45 and $75 a month for a truly unlimited data plan, and it supplied at least a decent 3G connection at my home, I'd be cutting the cord today. I might even pay slightly more, based on the mobility and the benefit of 4G speeds where those are available.
But until Verizon has a reality check and figures out how to price mobile broadband competitively with wired ISPs, mobile hotspots will remain toys for the rich or for those who have a very practical business need. So, if you have money to burn or simply have no other choice, the Verizon 4G LTE is probably your best option at this point. It seems clear that Verizon knows this and that you'll pay a premium for the privilege.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.