Hands-on review: Netzero’s 4G hotspot

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Netzero’s 4G hotspot provides near 4G speeds and 200 MB a month of free bandwidth with the purchase of the $99 device. I went hands on with my iPad and my MacBook to test out the service in the Kansas City market and found it mostly delivered on its promise: If you are looking to upgrade the speed of your iPad 3G, this may be the device for you.

Netzero is continuing its tradition of low-cost Internet access by providing 200 MB a month of 4G usage for free, with paid plans starting at $9.95 up to $49.95 for 4 GB of data a month. The data pricing is comparable to AT&T,(s T) which offers 5 GB of data on its 4G mobile hotspot device for $50 (AT&T’s hotspot is $119.00 with a two-year agreement, or $269 contract-free). Pricing at other providers is similar.

Netzero’s advantage is that you can purchase the device without a contract and can purchase your Internet month to month, similiar to the Virgin MiFi I reviewed. The anemic 200-MB-for-free plan from Netzero is only available for the first year and can’t be renewed, so it’s really more of a gimmick since few people could survive on 200 MB a month. If we use Verizon’s Data Calculator, 200 MB a month would be about 200 web site views a month. That’s it.

Unlike hotspots sold by other providers, the Netzero device exclusively uses Clearwire’s 4G WiMax service, which doesn’t roam on other networks. If you aren’t in Clearwire’s 4G service area the device provides no service. This is a serious drawback for travelers since usage is wholly dependent on geography. Researching the network availability on Netzero’s coverage page is a required step before purchasing this device.

Since I live near Kansas City, I was able to test the device extensively, although I still had to drive about 25 miles into the metro area to get coverage and it was a bit spotty at times. Once I found coverage, the service was mostly excellent throughout the rest of the metro area.

Speeds were comparable to AT&T’s HSPA+ network, but nowhere close to the LTE speed Verizon(s VZW) offers in the Kansas City market. As you can see in the speed tests below done with the same iPad at the same location, Verizon’s 4G LTE network was about 50 percent faster in download speeds and over three times as fast in upload speeds.

Physically the device is 3.4″(L) x 3.4″ (W) x 0.7″(H) and weighs 4.44 ounces, which makes it larger and heavier than many other mobile hotspots; however it does offer over six hours of battery life, which gives you nearly a full workday of Internet access. The LCD display clearly shows the SSID and wireless password making it very easy to connect up to eight devices.

I liked the fact the device tells you how many devices are connected and it will even make a noise telling you when another device is connected — no worries of interlopers on your wireless! The built-in web interface is mobile enabled and is fully accessible via Safari on the iPad, including changing the SSID and password.

Overall I really liked the device, but that’s because I live close to Kansas City. In Lawrence, Kan., about 30 miles away from Clearwire’s coverage, my hotspot was unusable. It’s imperative you check your coverage on Netzero’s website because if you need to return it, the restocking fee is a hefty $35.00. If your favorite location is in a dead zone, the device is unusable.

During the trial period (with the free Internet Netzero provided) I loved being able to avoid the public Wi-Fi at my off-site work locations and not having to worry about congested speed and network sniffers. I had my own private network and could easily share files between my iPad, iPhone and MacBook since all were connected to the hotspot.

If you check coverage and the places you like having Internet are on Netzero’s coverage map, the hotspot is a great device with a long battery life and fast 4G (but not quite LTE) speeds at competitive month-to-month pricing.

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I purchased the $50 stick, was somewhat disappointed in both download and upload speeds. It is used in the fringe areas near Sacramento, CA. With very light usage, in four days 200mb was used up, 8mb just for testing, 113mb while on net downloading MS Security Essentials anti-virus signatures, 50 mb looking at Craig’s list, and 28 mb just driving around doing a site survey. Seemed like a good deal at first, something is wrong here. After a year the price goes up. I’ll probably dump the item and caulk it up to experience.

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