·Net Zero, the free ISP you may remember from back in the dial-up days, is back, and this time it's bringing the broadband. And yes, there is still a free option, as you surely must be wondering. The NetZero 4G HotSpot is a solid cellular modem, and features good data speeds and a few tiers of pricing that will satisfy the contract-free mobile broadband needs for some. But overall, you can find better deals elsewhere.
Pricing and Design Before getting into any detail about the HotSpot itself, the most important feature to highlight is price. There are five plans available. Let's start with that free plan, which is likely the reason you're reading this in the first place. Sure, NetZero offers a plan for free mobile broadband, but it's only for a small amount of data, and it isn't really free, since you need to purchase a NetZero device to use it. The free plan lasts for 12 months, and you get 200MB of data per month. That's definitely enough for email access on the go, provided attachments aren't included. And it actually works out to be cheaper than you'd spend for the same amount of data using the pay-as-you-go TruConnect MiFi ($99, 3 stars). But again, this plan is only good for a year, and that amount of data is likely too little for most users.
The rest of the prices are as follows: $9.95 per month for 500MB, $19.95 for 1GB, $34.95 for 2GB, and $49.95 for 4GB. That $10-20 range is where the NetZero HotSpot shines. The only comparable plan in that price range is from Virgin Mobile, which offers 500MB of data for $20 per month—double the price of NetZero. So if all you need is light email and Web access, NetZero's HotSpot is a good deal indeed.
But for the same $34.99 that gets you 2GB on NetZero, the Clear Spot 4G Apollo ($99.99, 4 stars) gets you unlimited data, albeit at capped speeds. But $49.99 gets you unlimited data from both Clear and Virgin Mobile, with no preset speed caps. Even Sprint offers 3GB of 3G or 4G data for $34.99 per month, 6GB for $49.99, or 12GB for $79.99, though those plans require a contract. So the larger your data needs are, the better off you are going with a different carrier. Additionally, NetZero offers its broadband through Clear, which is only available in a limited number of areas, so make sure you're covered before buying in.
As far as I can tell, the NetZero 4G HotSpot is the same exact device as the Clear Spot 4G Apollo , only with a different logo. Physically, the HotSpot is a big black box, measuring 3.4 by 3.4 by .7 inches (HWD) and 4.4 ounces. It probably won't fit into your pocket, but it'll easily slip into your bag. On the plus side, all of that space allows for a large 2200 mAh battery, which makes for some excellent battery life. I was able to get 6 hours and 23 minutes of solid 4G streaming on one charge.
The HotSpot has just two buttons: a Power button on the left, and a Mute button on the right. They're easy to mistake for one another, and the Mute button isn't necessary; that function could have been included on the Web-based management console. There's also an external antenna port on the bottom of the device for boosted reception, though I got a good signal without one. The best feature is the 2-inch LCD on the front of the HotSpot. It tells you the device's battery life, amount of data transferred, number of devices attached, password, signal strength, SSID, and the time connected. It's a lot of information, and it's all large, clear, and easy to read.
Setup and Administration To connect, simply turn the HotSpot on, and use your computer or device's wireless connection manager to connect to the HotSpot using the SSID and password displayed on its screen. Since this is a mobile hotspot, you don't need any drivers for it. You can connect up to eight devices this way; I connected three at once, and they worked fine. You can also tether the modem to a computer via USB. I tethered the HotSpot to a laptop running Windows 7 and got speeds that were about on par with Wi-Fi. You can also connect to the device while it's charging, which is a feature many hotspots lack.
There's a nice Web-based management console, which you can access by sending a connected device to http://netzerohotspot. From there, you can monitor signal strength and battery life, check out who's connected to the router, and control a wide range of router settings. It's fairly comprehensive, allowing you to change the screen backlight, set your Wi-Fi options, enable port forwarding and firewalls, and modify a host of security options. There's also a neat feature that lets you control the speed at which your data is used. Choosing Lightspeed caps your downloads to 1Mbps, while Warpspeed allows you to reach 10Mbps. Free and $9.95 plans are already set to Lightspeed, while plans that cost $19.95 are automatically set to Warpspeed. These settings can be changed at any time, and are a good way to help conserve precious data.
Performance and Conclusions
I tested the HotSpot in New York City. We didn't have another WiMAX hotspot on hand to test it against, but since this is the same hardware as the Clear Spot 4G Apollo, I expect it to perform similarly. That's a good thing, since the Apollo outperformed aNovatel Wireless MiFi 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot 4082 from Sprint (Free, 4 stars) when I tested it.
In our 21-city tests last year, we got 3Mbps average download speeds on Sprint's 4G network, which is the same as Clear's. For downloads, the HotSpot averaged a solid 4.5Mbps down. Upload speeds weren't nearly as fast, at an average of .7Mbps up, but those speeds are near identical to what we saw on the Apollo. And either way, these are respectable numbers, especially when there's a data limit in place—you don't want to eat your way through a month's worth of data in 90 minutes.
According to NetZero, the HotSpot should work within a 150-foot range. Speeds held up within at least 50 feet of the device, then started to drop off, which is common for most hotspots I've tested. It can still be used at 150 feet of distance, but speeds will be painfully slow.
The NetZero 4G Hotspot is a good choice for a very niche group of users. If all you need is 1GB or less of mobile broadband per month, the 4G HotSpot can't be beat. But if your data needs run deeper, you're better off looking elsewhere. Clear and Virgin Mobile are both good places to start. Both carriers offer unlimited data for $50 per month, which means you can even use those hotspots as a primary home internet connection.