Which Jetpack is Best?
Hotspotting off a smartphone can be the simplest way to utilize cellular data as a mobile internet solution while RVing or boating. However, many choose consumer level mobile hotspot devices for various reasons.
These devices typically are about the size of a deck of cards.
They receive a cellular signal and create your own personal private network to get online. They are generally sold by the cellular carries themselves, and require their own cellular data plan to work.
Hotspots come in a wide range of shapes, forms and features.
Understanding those features can go a long way to selecting the right gear for your setup.
For those who consider mobile internet critical to their lifestyle, we generally recommend evaluating your cellular gear (and the modems inside!) at least every year or two to keep current.
Other Cellular Options:
Mobile hotspots are just one option for utilizing cellular data in a mobile internet setup. You can also hotspot off a smartphone, or use more advanced mobile routers to share data amongst devices. All of these options come with pros and cons that might make them the right choice for you.
For more on this:
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Introduction to Mobile Hotspots
Mobile hotspots are small, self-contained units that receive a cellular data signal and transform it into an internet connection.
They are typically sold by the carrier themselves (but can also be purchased 3rd party), and require a suitable cellular data plan of their own to operate.
They don't perform any other tasks.
They can't make phone calls, they don't run apps, and while some can receive TXTs, sending them isn't possible.
Most mobile hotspots tend to be able to distribute an internet connection over Wi-Fi to 5–15 devices at once.
They can also usually be directly tethered via USB into a cellular aware router - becoming the internet source for your local area network. Some even come with an ethernet port.
They may have a battery built into the device, which allows you to take it with you when on the go. Some even allow you to charge other devices.
But, their primary purpose is being a dedicated data device for getting online with your cellular data plan.
Who Are Hotspots For?
Here are some of the scenarios in which a mobile hotspot device might make sense for you as compared to hotspotting off a smartphone or going with a higher end cellular embedded router:
- Multi Device Households - If you have more than one device in your household to keep online, then a dedicated data source might be more reliable and easier to use than hotspotting off a smartphone.
- More Signal Enhancing Options - Many mobile hotspot models come with antenna ports, giving you the option to use external antennas as an additional signal enhancing option. Smartphones don't have ports, so you can only use cellular boosters with them.
- Remote Monitoring - If you want remote access to your RV or boat while you are out exploring, having a data plan on a dedicated data device means you can leave it behind, and take your smartphone with you.
- Portability - If you want to take your internet with you, mobile hotspots are very mobile. Many have built in batteries, so they're great for sticking in a bag or car if you need to go find a better signal than at your campsite.
- Data Plan Requirements - Some data plans are only available on mobile hotspot devices, so you may not have a choice.
- Easy Upgradability - Consumer devices tend to be updated more often than enterprise solutions, so if you want the latest modem features, using hotspot devices is a more affordable way to quickly upgrade your mobile internet arsenal. They tend to be priced from $50-300, as opposed to expensive cellular embedded mobile routers in the $600-3000 range.
Downsides of Mobile Hotspots
Here are some cons of using mobile hotspots devices to keep in mind:
- Additional Device - You'll have the expense of a hardware purchase in addition to the smartphone you might carry with you already, and the hotspot will also need its own data plan.
- Consumer Grade - Most mobile hotspots are intended for consumers and will have limited networking functionality. And they may be of lower build quality. If you want more complex options or professional level gear, you'll want to look to mobile routers instead.
- 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. 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.
- Swollen Batteries - Some models with batteries require the battery be inserted to operate, which means you'll need to regularly inspect the health of the battery for optimal operation, and potentially replace once or twice a year.
What's in a Name? Jetpack, MiFi or Hotspot?
Mobile hotspot devices are also commonly known as Jetpacks and MiFis. However these just are trademarked branded names.
- Jetpack - Owned by Verizon to refer to any mobile hotspot they sell for their network.
- MiFi - Owned by Inseego (formerly Novatel) referring to any mobile hotspot device they make.
- Aircard - Owned by Netgear and refers to any mobile hotspot device they make.
Mobile hotspot device is the more generic name to refer to this class of device. Using terms like Jetpack or MiFi is like calling all facial tissues a Kleenex or Puff. While most will know what you're talking about, it's not technically accurate.
It's also possible that if you're using a product made by Inseego on the Verizon network that using the term Jetpack and MiFi are both correct.
It can also be a confusing term, as smartphones also have a personal mobile hotspot feature to use its connection to get other devices online. The industry in general uses the term 'mobile hotspot' interchangeably to refer to specific data devices (like Jetpacks and MiFis) and the feature on a smartphone.
An integrated cellular modem is the core of every cellular device - it's what gets you connected to your carrier's network.
And since modem technology is constantly advancing, it is important to know what your device is capable of.
You'll want to check the following technical details:
Most mobile hotspots are designed specifically for a primary carrier.
Although a device is branded for one carrier, it might actually have a modem that is compatible with other carriers as well.
For more on using carrier specific devices on other networks:
LTE Modem Features
An integrated cellular modem is the core of every cellular device. It's what gets you connected to your carrier's network.
Since modem technology is constantly advancing, it is important to know what your device is capable of.
Some of the modem specifications and features to pay particular attention to include:
To go deeper into modem specifications:
This video goes over the modem specs that most impact performance: LTE Category, Frequency Bands, Carrier Aggregation, and MIMO antennas.
We then wrap it up with a real world head to head comparison of three modems (the Verizon 8800L, 7730L and MHS900L) to show performance impacts. While this video uses Jetpacks as an example, the concepts apply to all cellular modems.
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SIM Card Size
Battery Life & Special Features
We discuss some considerations of the anticipated battery life of hotspots and smartphones, and any special power charging features.
Local Networking & Standards
Most devices with an integrated cellular modem can also be part of your local area network. In this section we discuss Wi-Fi features, wireless range, and connected devices.
What about 5G?
With 5G on the horizon, does it make sense to wait before investing in LTE modems? This section is kept updated as 5G becomes a reality.
Summary: Evaluate Features Every 2 Years
Understanding the features of a cellular device is one of the most important criteria for determining how well it will perform for your needs.
Features like LTE Category, Cellular Frequency Bands, Carrier Aggregation and MIMO antennas will have an impact.
As technology advances and changes frequently, we recommend evaluating your cellular modem at least every couple of years to make sure you have the right and best equipment for your needs.
Mobile Hotspot Guide
The grid below features some of the current popular mobile hotspots and USB modems that we are tracking on the market that might be of interest to RVers and Cruisers.
- To view all of the hotspots we are tracking, head on over to our Mobile Hotspot & Modem Gear Center.
- For cellular embedded routers, be sure to check our Mobile Routers Guide.
We have tested many of these hotspots extensively, and we offer free quick overviews to everyone - as well as in-depth reviews (and even video tutorials) to our premium members.
The guides below have been hand-picked to help further your education about selecting mobile hotspots and best utilizing them in your mobile internet setup.
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