I have been using AT&T's new MiFi Liberate mobile hotspot, made by Novatel, and have found it reasonably easy to use and capable of some really fast feeds when connected to the AT&T LTE network.
This hotspot is also different from previous models because it has a touchscreen, and it's able to tether to your device so that you don't have to rely on the wireless connection from hotspot to the device if you don't want to.
Touchscreen display is OK
The small touchscreen is not as responsive or pretty as an iPad screen, but it's good enough to facilitate some basic interaction with the device. The screen first shows you four large icons labeled Connection Details, Data Usage, Connected Devices and Settings. Touch any of these buttons to drill down for more information or settings options.
The top bar of the home screen shows you your connection strength (number of bars out of five), the current time, number of devices currently connected to the hotspot, and battery level.
I liked the fact that when you touch the Connection Details icon, you can immediately see a lot of information that will help you use the device. These bits include the name of the Wi-Fi network the MiFi creates (so you can recognize it in the network options of the device you're trying to connect), the Wi-Fi password you'll need to connect, the type of security you're running, and the maximum number of devices you can connect (10).
You'll also find the URL for a page where you can drill down and tweak a lot of the finer settings of the device, along with the password you'll need to access the page.
Touch the Setting icon and you can mess with other settings like the screen time-out time and brightness, airplane mode on/off, roaming on/off, sound alerts and others.
Hotspot as media server?
There's a slot for a 32GB microSD card slot on the front of the device. The content on that card (sold separately) can be accessed by any device connected to the hotspot. AT&T and MiFi suggest using it to store entertainment stuff like movies, music and photos. Connected devices access that content using a Web browser or via DLNA (a wireless standard allowing devices to share media).
I found the experience of using the MiFi as a media server to be a little clunky, and far from plug and play. A mobile hotspot just does not seem like an ideal media server device because of its limited capacity and limited user interface for file management. Moreover, most modern smartphones and tablets offer as much or more memory, so why not just store your media on those? I suppose that if you have large movie files that you absolutely must play back simultaneously on multiple devices, storing them on the MiFi might work.
But for the most part, this function seems like a solution in search of a problem, and not something you'd come to rely on in everyday usage.
The hotspot is GPS enabled so that location information can be shared by connected devices that don't have their GPS capability. OK.
The device can also receive text messages, but, again, why would you want to receive those on your MiFi when you can just receive them on your phone? I suspect that capability is there mainly so that AT&T can send you messages about your data usage and other billing issues.
Impressive connection speeds
One thing you've got to like about the Liberate is the connection speed. The device connected with the AT&T LTE network here in San Francisco quickly, even in some tough coverage environments (basements, parking garages, between tall buildings). A colleague of mine used the device in a crowded exhibit hall at CES (with lots of competing wireless signal in the air) and had no problem connecting at high speeds to file stories and tweet updates.
Testing here in the TechHive offices in the middle of the workday, I saw average download speeds in the 12 megabits per second (mbps) range, and upload speeds averaging around 10 mbps. However, testing from my home in the evening I saw download speeds routinely approaching the 20 mbps mark, and upload speeds in the 15 mbps range.
This is more than enough speed for fast downloading of music and movie files, and streaming media at high definition rates.
The speed is very important for mobile hotspots, because while the device can connect up to 10 devices at once, all those devices must share the same single pool of cellular data bandwidth tapped by the hotspot.
Epic battery life
To test the battery life of the MiFi we charged it up and turned on the Wi-Fi network, then connected an Origin P170HM laptop to that network. On the Origin we ran a script that kept a constant stream of web pages, movies, and music flowing to the laptop. We then noted the time when the Liberate's battery failed.
The results were pretty stunning. The Liberate's 2900 mAh battery outlasted every other phone-based mobile hotspot or freestanding hotspot we tested, with 16 hours and 40 minutes of constant operation on one charge. In my tests at home, the device charged back up in about 4 hours when connected directly to the laptop using an USB cable.
Overall, I found the Liberate easy enough to use and I liked the speed and reliability of the device's connection to the AT&T LTE network. Above all I like the long battery life of the device, which becomes a very important metric when you regularly use a mobile hotspot as your main connection to the internet.
The device lists for $170 but you can get it for $20 if you buy it with a two-year DataConnect plan from AT&T. That plan will run you $50 per month for 5GB of data, with a $10 charge for every gigabyte of data you go over. The plan also includes free access to 25,000 AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots scattered around the more populated areas of the U.S.