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Karma Hotspot review: A mobile data plan with no-nonsense pricing

John P. Mello Jr. | May 14, 2014
It seems "pay as you go" means one thing to mobile carriers and something else to the rest of the human race.

Karma's hotspot is the size of a lady's powder compact: 2.25 inches square and a quarter-inch thick. The case is white with a black edge. LEDs on the edge display power information (red indicates two or less hours of power remaining; yellow means two- to four hours; and green, four- to eight hours), Wi-Fi connectivity (blinking green, no devices connected, and green, devices connected) and 4G coverage (red, poor coverage; yellow, weak coverage; and green, excellent coverage).

There are fancier and lower priced hotspots on the market than Karma's but they don't exactly square up with what Karma offers. For example, AT&T offers the MiFi Liberate hotspot, which has a touchscreen, for $30 with a two-year contract or $180 without one. Walmart has an " Internet on the Go" package with an $80 hotspot, but it's limited to 3G service on StraightTalk.

Near-LTE speed

Karma relies on the Clearwire network. The 4G WiMax net is part of Sprint, which bought it for $2.2 billion at the end of 2012. That limits the coverage of Karma to about 80 U.S. cities. However, Schouwenburg said Karma will expand to the full Sprint network sometime this summer, which will give it full nationwide coverage and access to LTE speeds.

According to Karma, its hotspot will deliver download speeds between three- and six megabits per second, and upload speeds of about 1.5 Mbps. Speed tests I performed with Ookla Speedtest and Speedof.me backed up those claims.

Running the Speedtest app on an iPad Air showed download speeds in the neighborhood of 6.9 Mbps and upload speeds of 1.74 Mbps. On a 2009 MacBook Air, test website Speedof.me showed a download speed of 4.09 Mbps and an upload speed of 1.51 Mbps. Speedtest's online tool returned higher download speeds for the MacBook Air — 9.31 Mbps — but lower upload speeds: 1.36 Mbps.

Those are near-LTE speeds. According to a recent report by OpenSignal, LTE download speeds of the four major U.S. carriers range from 4.3- to 11.5 Mbps.

For common Internet tasks, such as Web surfing and email, Karma's hotspot with excellent coverage proved to be perky with no noticeable latency. Video clips also played smoothly, as did streaming audio.

Karma is designed for people with an occasional need for Internet access on the go and don't stray too far from major metropolitan areas — although that will change once Karma gains access to the full Sprint network. At $14 per gigabyte, its data prices are more expensive than alternatives with more restrictions, but less expensive than travel spots where online access may be needed like hotels and airports. What's most appealing about Karma is its "buy it and forget it" model for data usage, which allows you to truly pay as you go for your data.

 

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