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Phone-based mobile hotspots improving in speed, battery life

James Galbraith | Feb. 18, 2013
Our recent lab tests suggest that the mobile hotspots in new LTE phones compete well with dedicated mobile hotspot devices in performance and power efficiency.

Is it better to use a dedicated mobile hotspot device such as the MiFi, or to rely on the hotspot in your phone?

Although phone manufacturers have been building hotspot features into their handsets for years, such technology has often produced slow connection speeds and chewed up the phone's battery. With a dedicated hotspot, you have yet another gadget to carry in your bag, but traditionally such devices have pumped out faster data speeds.

These days, however, with the arrival of new 4G data networks and more power-efficient phones, the situation has changed.

The Novatel MiFi 5792 portable hotspot from AT&T.

To see just how much it has changed, we gathered a handful of recent phones-the HTC Droid DNA (Verizon), theMotorola Droid Razr Maxx HD (Verizon), the Nokia Lumia 822 (Verizon), and theSamsung Galaxy S III (AT&T), as well as the 18-month-old Sony Ericsson Xperia Play 4G (AT&T)-and compared their speed and battery usage with those of aNovatel MiFi 5792 portable hotspot device from AT&T. The results were surprising.

Assault on batteries

Our tests revealed impressive battery life from the MiFi mobile hotspot, no doubt due to its large battery. Nevertheless, the hotspots in the LTE phones we tested survived for well longer than a single workday on one charge.

To test the battery life of the assorted devices, we charged them up and turned on each model's hotspot feature, which forms a small Wi-Fi network with which other devices can connect. We connected an Origin P170HM laptop to the resulting networks and ran a script that kept a constant stream of webpages, movies, and music flowing to the laptop. We then noted the times at which the devices' batteries failed.

The Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD.

Our oldest phone, the Xperia Play, ran 6 hours, 47 minutes before dying. The Galaxy S III survived nearly 50 percent longer, with an impressive 10 hours of battery life. The Droid DNA lasted nearly 11 hours, while the Lumia 822 Windows Phone 8 handset ran just a few minutes longer. The Droid Razr Maxx HD was truly impressive: It lasted 16 hours, 40 minutes, just about the same as the MiFi 5792.

To look at the power efficiency of the mobile hotspots in the phones, we put all the phones into airplane mode, set the screens to the same brightness, and looped a 720p video on each device until its battery died. Comparing the hotspot tests with the video-playback tests, you can see-for most of the phones-that the video tests gobbled up battery life much sooner.


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