Testing AT&T's "Dual 4G" Mobile Hotspot: The Elevate
The newest 4G mobile hotspot to enter the fast moving mobile broadband market is the Elevate, by Sierra Wireless, a company that has been successfully supplying mobile hotspots to the big mobile providers for a few years now. The Elevate is available exclusively on AT&T for their 4G networks. What the deal with AT&T's support for both LTE and HSPA+ 4G in one package, and how does this little guy stand up againt Verizon's flagship hotspot - the Jetpack 4G? Lets take a look...
Compared to Verizon, Sprint and even T-Mobile, AT&T was pretty late in releasing a dedicated 4G mobile hotspot. The Elevate became available to consumers in September of 2011. Prior to the Elevate, AT&T was mainly pushing the 3G MiFi 2372. The AT&T version MiFi was causing a lot of confusion, with some customers thinking they were getting a 4G hotspot. This is probably because the MiFi 2372 uses HPSA , not HSPA+ (the “+” indicating 4G).
With the Elevate, there is no question that the hotspot is 4G. The Elevate is actually the first 4G mobile hotspot to use “Dual 4G”, meaning it supports the older AT&T 4G network (HSPA+), but also supports the new LTE 4G that AT&T is in the process of rolling out nationwide. My feeling is that the Elevate is "transitional" device - keeping their subscribers placated with 4G HSPA+, so they can buy some time in rolling out LTE to enough cities to be on par with Verizon. It's a good deal for their subscribers, as they wouldn't need to upgrade to a new LTE compatible hotspot in the not so distant future.
Is it a good idea to crash the AT&T 4G party, even while they are still setting up the chairs, so to speak? In my opinion the good news is this: While HSPA+4G is not nearly as fast as LTE, AT&T’s HSPA+ is the most widely available 4G network in the United States. So if you choose to invest in the Elevate, you can rest assured that you’ll likely have access to a massive network of reasonably fast HSPA+ 4G while you're waiting for AT&T to come to your city.
I'm thinking that Sierra Wireless and AT&T were late on bringing the Elevate to market for good reason: They did their homework when designing a mobile hotspot device that provides so many useful features that customers really use. This hotspot is perhaps the most feature loaded device of it's kind we have ever seen. There's plenty of cool features to satisfy the techie (like me), but at the same time designed so a grandma who never touched a computer could probably figure out what everything is in a few minutes (sort of reminds me of Apple iPhone design philosophy)
Features and Engineering
Looking at the Elevate in a photo seems to give the impression that the device is bigger than it actually is. In reality, the Elevate hotspot is about the same size as all other comparable hotspots, including the 4G MiFi and Verizon Jetpack. That's about the same size as a small stack of business cards, or to my own calculation, the size of 8 stacked credit cards. The outer dimensions are 2.2” x 2.8” by 0.7”. It weights in at just over 3 ½ ounces. The design of the Elevate is really thought out well, with a nice visual appeal and a super comfortable feeling in the hands or pocket.
On the longer size-edge of the hotspot, you’ll find the power button, two external antenna ports, a standard Micro-USB port, and an audio switch, which allows you to adjust the volume of the audible alerts. The highlight of the device itself is the beautiful 1.75 inch high contrast LCD display panel. Every conceivable piece of related information is displayed in a very easy to read manner. Included is the SSID network ID, signal strength, battery charge, GPS signal indictor, number of connected devices, and a real-time "data usage meter" that actually provides meaningful insight into how much data you have consumed, as well as how much you have remaining for the current billing cycle. Quite a few other mobile hotspots that have the data meter feature require you to log into the devices web based administration page - the fact that the Elevate mobile hotspot puts it right up in front of you is a nice feature.
This feature will be a huge help for subscribers in managing the “pace” of their data usage, so they can avoid data overage fees. Like all other mobile hotspots, the setup and administration is done through the device's internal web server, which can be accessed at http://att.elevate. What's cool about the Elevate, is that you'll probably rarely find your self using the browser page because many of the common info/settings can be accessed from the devices display panel. From the web based management screen, you can control all settings, including the Wi-Fi encryption mode, the SSID network ID, and GPS utilities.
The Elevate has several options that can help optimize battery use, such as allowing the user to set the idle time for the radio to shut down, as well as the ability to adjust the power output of the Wi-Fi radio in low/intermediate/high increments. If you know you will be using the Elevate only short distances from connected devices, the Wi-Fi radio can output only minimal power, perhaps adding as much as 30 minutes of additional maximum battery life. For me, the chance to conserve battery power by turning down the onboard radio signal was perfect, since I'm never working more than a couple of feet away from the mobile hotspot.
The Elevate supports the newest Wireless “N” protocol, which offers the fastest transfer rates, as well as the most penetration of interior walls and objects. The Elevate's WiFi network settings were a breeze to setup. The unit is programmed to find AT&T’s 4G or 3G networks, and did so within 10 to 15 seconds . For users who want to connect their WiFi enabled devices to the internet using the Elevate, doing so is exactly the same as the WiFi router at hone or work. For each device you want to connect to the internet, browse for the Elevate’s SSID network name, and enter Wi-Fi password. It took no more than a few seconds for each device to establish a connection to the Elevate hotspot. I connected five devices ( two iPod Touch, one HP Tablet, one HP laptop, one iPad) to the elevate for most of the tests I did. In total, it took less then 60 seconds to marry all five to the tiny portable 4G hotspot.
The devices "ready" state, meaning from being powered off to actually browsing the web on an Elevate connected device never took more than 20 seconds in total. I noticed it took only around 15 seconds to become ready when on the LTE network. The reason I'm dwelling on the "bootup time" is because it's one of the best out there. I've had some older 3G and 4G mobile hotspots that would take an incredibly frustrating 60 seconds or so to complete the startup cycle.
The AT&T Elevate supports adding Micro-SD memory to the card slot located underneath the battery cover. This means you can add up to 32 GB of non-volatile storage, that can be accessed by connected devices like laptops. The on-board memory is also accessible via connected USB cable. While this feature is not unique (the MiFi and Sprint hotspots also have it), it’s nonetheless a nice bonus feature that comes in handy to store presentation files, device drivers, and other business documents that you might want to share with you connected colleagues.
AT&T 4G Data Plans for the Elevate Hotspot
Much like Verizon, AT&T decided to offer a simple 4G data plan: $50 a month gets you 5GB. You pay $10 per GB, for all usage over 5GB. AT&T does not offer fractional billing for data overage, so your bill will always be rounded up to the next gigabyte. As for price, AT&T is pretty much in line with Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. The other carriers all offer 4G services at a rate of $50 to $60 per month.
It would have been nice to see AT&T offer some lower data usage tiers that might be more suited for users who never approach 5GB per month use, but all in all, 50 bucks for 5 gigs works out to a penny a megabyte, which in that perspective is not too bad.
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