Which is Best? Smartphone or Mobile Hotspot Device?
Cellular data is a popular choice for RVers and boaters for online mobile connectivity.
Once you decide on the carrier(s) you want in your arsenal, you have to decide what specific equipment makes the most sense for getting online.
The basic options include devices that are restricted to data only, such as mobile hotspots and modems, - or putting cellular connected tablets and phones to work serving double duty by providing an internet connection for your computers as well.
What are the advantages and drawbacks of each? Those are the questions this article is written to answer.
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Pros & cons of smartphones and mobile hotspots:
Smartphone/Tablet Hotspotting & Tethering
- Hotspot is when you create your own WiFi hotspot.
- Tethering is when you connect directly with a USB cable.
The carriers treat both the same in terms of data usage, but you'll need to look carefully at the terms of your cellular data plan for how your carrier treats mobile hotspot use - they can vary quite a bit.
Each device will be different in how you turn this feature on, but for many, it’s just an option in the device’s settings called Personal Hotspot – and you can easily configure a network name and password to protect the connection.
- Super simple - You only have one device to manage, and your smartphone is usually with you or nearby.
- Data Plan Support - Usually included at no extra cost on many data plans (but there are generally limitations):
- On most tiered mobile share data plans direct with the carriers, mobile hotspot is included at no extra fee.
- On carrier direct postpaid "unlimited" data plans, only 10-20GB of high speed mobile hotspot may be included with your plan.
- Some budget level data plans only include hotspot use as slow speeds.
- Some reseller plans (like Straight Talk) don't officially include mobile hotspot use, and some may charge an extra fee.
- Dual SIM - Newer dual SIM phones allow you to carry multiple data plans on a single phone.
- Not Ideal for Multi-Person Households - What happens if the person with the hotspot-enabled smartphone takes it with him or her to run errands? Everyone else needs to switch internet sources, making relying on smartphone hotspotting not ideal as a primary internet source.
- Multi-Functional - Phones and tablets serve other functions than hot spotting, and sometimes those functions can interfere with keeping your other devices online. Examples include:
- Talking on your phone can sometimes take your devices offline or greatly reduce the network data-connection speed. So if you need to regularly talk on your phone AND be online, this may not be an ideal primary solution.
- Many devices go to sleep when there’s no active connection going on, so you may need to wake your device up after a period of inactivity online. Sometimes it’s as simple as clicking the 'on' button, and sometimes you may to need fiddle with hotspot settings and/or temporarily engage airplane mode to bring the connection back.
- If you have other WiFi routers in the household, the smartphone/tablet can get confused when trying to figure out if it should connect to the router or be transmitting a WiFi signal itself.
- Battery Drain - Hotspotting from a smartphone or device drains the battery pretty quickly - make sure the device is plugged in.
- Remoting In - If you have home automation systems, streaming security cameras or power systems that you can remote into - you'll want a dedicated data device left back 'at home' to provide that access. Usually, you take your smartphone with you.
- No Antenna Ports - Smartphones don't have antenna ports, which means a cellular booster will be needed to improve your signal.
- Limited Wi-Fi - Most smartphones can only create a Wi-Fi hotspot utilizing 2.4 GHz, which can oftentimes be congested and can't transmit as high as speeds as 5 GHz. (Direct tethering will oftentimes be faster as a result.)
- Hotspot Caps - If you have restrictions on your cellular plan for mobile hotspot use - this may be ok as a back-up, but not primary data option.
Recommended for: Solo travelers, for those not dependent on internet for critical tasks, for access to a secondary cellular network (ie. if your primary is Verizon with a MiFi, perhaps you access AT&T when needed from a smartphone) or for 'out and about' internet access away from home.
Mobile Hotspot Devices
Also sometimes referred to as a Jetpack or MiFi (they're just marketing brand names for the same thing - kinda like Kleenex or Puffs for facial tissues), mobile hotspots are small self- contained units that receive a cellular data signal and then broadcast a Wi-Fi hotspot that enables your other devices to get online.
They are a cellular modem and Wi-Fi router combined.
Most mobile hotspots tend to be able to serve 5–15 devices at once. They may have a battery built into the device, which allows you to take it with you when on the go, and some even allow you to charge other devices.
They can also usually be directly tethered via USB into a cellular aware router, like those from WiFiRanger, Pepwave, or Cradlepoint - becoming the internet source for your local area network.
- Self contained - You can take your internet with you with these self contained gizmos.
- Plug-n-Play - When working optimally, these can be a fairly easy plug- and-play solution ideal for users who don’t want to have to learn to manage other more complex options.
- Dedicated to Data - It's a dedicated device that can be left in your tech cabinet, plugged in, sitting next to a cellular booster antenna, and mostly forgotten about.
- Antenna Ports - Many hotspots have antenna ports, allowing you to try direct plugged in antennas for signal enhancing - giving you more options for signal enhancing.
- More Wi-Fi Options - Many hotspot devices can transmit their Wi-Fi network over 2.4 or 5 GHz frequencies, giving you more options for higher speeds and/or avoiding Wi-Fi congestion. Some hotspots even have built in ethernet ports for direct connections to a computer or router, and almost all support USB tethering.
- Up to Date Tech - Most of the newest cellular technology seems to be released on this style of device rather quickly, so this is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to update a mobile internet arsenal and to stay current.
- Complex Firmware - They have a good amount of complex software installed inside them to allow them to function as a router and create a hotspot. Newer ones seem to be better, but they can still be prone to annoying bugs. A bad pushed firmware release can potentially create issues that are slow to fix by the manufacturer & carrier.
- Limited Wi-Fi Range - Their WiFi range will reach most areas of typical sized RVs and boats and sometimes outside, but there is limited range as the WiFi antennas just aren't overly strong. This solution isn't optimal for those who want a solid signal further away than the size of a moderate household room.
- Limited Data Plan Options - Check your cellular data plan carefully, some carriers will allow these devices to be added to an "unlimited" data plan - but actually place data caps on the plan. In general however, carrier direct plans on these devices will have capped high speed data - so you'll need to obtain a truly unlimited plan for these devices by alternate ways (Guide: Unlimited Cellular Data Plans: Understanding the Limits)
- Carrier Specific - Most hotspot devices are optimized for a specific carrier in the frequency bands they support, so you'll likely need one for each carrier you want. There is some cross over support however that can work in a pinch.
Recommended for: Multi-person or multi-device households, those who depend on cellular data for critical tasks, those who want access to the latest network technology, those who don't want to fiddle with tethering from a smartphone, those who need their RV to have internet access even while they're away (such as remoting in to check on home automation systems).
USB stick device (or older style Express Card): These need to plug into something in order to be functional – either your computer or a compatible cellular-aware router. If you’re traveling solo and just need to keep a laptop online, this may be an ideal solution on its own. If you plan to keep it plugged into a router most of the time anyway, it makes for a very elegant solution.
- Connected Car: Some vehicles also have a mobile hotspot built in, perhaps as part of an OnStar (or similar) service for safety and information. Not only does the internet connection allow the service to connect, it can provide an internet connection for passengers in the car to check e-mail, routing, etc.
For vehicles without this built in, there are also devices that plug directly into the vehicle's diagnostic port (OBD-2) that enable this functionality. The downside is, in order to utilize the connection - generally the ignition has to be on, making it less than ideal for an RV connection when parked.
To learn more about selecting a mobile hotspot device and view the current top recommended models for each carrier:
Last, but not least, are higher end options for sharing a cellular data plan and creating a local area network capable of supporting multiple devices, and even integrating in other data sources.
This is certainly a pricier alternative – but for some mobile professionals, the increased reliability may be an essential business expense. It can also introduce some additional complexities.
Here are the basic flavors that mobile routers come in:
Tetherable Mobile Routers: Most home & office based networking routers don't include features that mobile consumers are likely to encounter - such as cellular and WiFi hotspots. There are, however, routers designed specifically for this that can tether directly to devices like smartphones & MiFis. These devices can then securely distribute whatever the internet source is to your local laptops, tablets, gaming devices, printers and streaming devices.
Cellular Integrated Router: There are also routers with built in cellular modems and SIM slots, removing the complexity of tethering in MiFis and smartphones for cellular access. They range from consumer grade to commercial grade, some even supporting multiple carriers in one device.
- Advanced Networking - Ability to create more robust local area wired and/or wireless networks - with ability to support printers, streaming devices, local network features for media & back-up storage and more.
- Centralizing Multiple WAN Connections - Combining and/or distributing multiple sources of internet into one central point, potentially simplifying the individual login information needed on each connecting device.
- Extended Wi-Fi Range - Creating a stronger WiFi signal beyond what a smartphone or MiFi alone can provide.
- Carrier Agnostic - Many mobile routers have modems that can support most of the major carriers.
- Dual SIM/Modem - Some models have dual SIM slots, so you can switch between carriers. And some models even have dual modems, so you can use multiple carriers at once.
- Slower to Update - Cellular-integrated routers tend to be updated infrequently, so they often lag a year (or more) behind mobile hotspots and smartphones in supporting the latest cellular frequency bands and technologies.
- Advanced - Require some networking knowledge to install and manage.
- Expensive - Higher costs of acquisition.
- Limited Data Plan Options - Requires a data-only cellular data plan to utilize, which can be difficult or expensive to acquire.
Recommended for: Those with multiple devices to keep connected, those desiring a local based network, those who have more complex needs and those who are a bit more tech savvy and comfortable with basic networking.
For a list & full overview of current Mobile & Integrated Router options, check our guide:
Regardless of which method you decide on, for maximum coverage and speed we recommend purchasing the newest cellular devices you can and plan on replacing your hardware as often as every year or two to stay current.
All of the carriers are expanding their networks, and newer equipment is what gets you access to the latest frequencies and bands.
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