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Two personal Wi-Fi hotspots: Different strokes for different folks

Barbara Krasnoff | March 11, 2013
Two Wi-Fi mobile hotspots offer very different services: The Verizon Wireless JetPack is fast but pricey while the FreedomPop Photon is limited but free.

It goes without saying these days that the more you can be online, the better. However, not all tablets or laptops are set up for wireless connections. If you're not at home or work, or in a venue that offers Wi-Fi, you may be out of luck.

Unless you are equipped with a Wi-Fi hotspot.

These small, very mobile devices are essentially portable routers that connect to a wireless Internet service provider and provide Wi-Fi access. Some are directly associated with one of the major service providers; others piggyback on existing networks in order to provide lower-cost connectivity.

I tried out two recently introduced hotspots: the FreedomPop Photon and the Verizon Wireless JetPack MiFi 5510L. One is from a smaller company that boasts of "100% Free High Speed Internet" and the other is from a major telecommunications vendor. While both offer reasonable Wi-Fi connectivity, in this case it's very true that you get what you pay for. Which you select will depend on what you actually need.

FreedomPop Photon

FreedomPop is a communications company that says it's trying to buck the trend of high-cost Internet access by offering its customers 500MB of free 4G wireless networking per month with its mobile devices. (It also recently introduced a home router with several plans, starting at 1GB of free data each month.)

Even the devices are free of charge -- sort of. When you order either the Freedom Stick Bolt (a USB modem that plugs into your device) or the Photon (a Wi-Fi hotspot that supports up to 8 devices at once), you have to give the vendor a "refundable security deposit" of $49 for the former and $99 for the latter. There is also a Wi-Fi-equipped case for the iPod Touch that costs $99.

The Photon -- the product I reviewed -- is a small, lightweight device about 2.6-in. square and 0.5-in. deep, weighing 2.1 oz. Besides the power button, there are three LEDs: one to indicate the power status, one to indicate the strength of the 4G signal and a third that shows when the Wi-Fi hotspot is available.

I liked the Photon: It is small, simple and does what it's supposed to do. After I turned it on, it took about a minute for the hotspot light to turn green; after that, I had no trouble connecting it with several devices, and it handled most everyday Web chores without a problem. It even played a YouTube video (the trailer for The Hobbit, which has a fair amount of action) with only the occasional brief lag.

Currently, though, service availability is not very widespread. FreedomPop currently uses Clearwire's 4G WiMax network; if you look at FreedomPop's coverage map, it's limited mostly to major urban centers (and even there, you have gaps -- I noticed a few dead areas in midtown Manhattan).


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