Mobile broadband is a traveller’s best friend, but is it better packaged as a hotspot, a dongle or something else entirely? Gizmodo and Lifehacker debate the issues.
Giz: A while back, you wrote up the Telstra Elite Mobile Prepaid WiFi Hotspot, and decided it wasn't the wireless connectivity option for you. I've long been a big fan of portable WiFi hotspots and nowhere near as fond of USB dongles. Care to elaborate on why you think hotspots aren't so hot?
LH: As that post suggests, the main reason I’m not so hot on hotspots is that they’re far too hot. Putting one in your shirt pocket feels dangerously warm, to the point where I’m not only worrying about my burnt nipples, I’m also wondering what mysterious rays are emanating from the device. Before you ask, I haven’t found it anywhere near as satisfactory to put the device in a bag: you want it easily accessible if you’re using it on the move so that you can work out if there’s actually signal to be had.
I’ve had the same experience with the Vodafone and Vivid Wireless hotspot, so it’s an issue endemic to the category, not just one particular model. Charred tits aside, the overheating highlights another issue with hotspots: they’re only good as long as the battery runs, and I’ve often managed to run them down well before any other device. How has your experience been in that area?
Giz: The battery thing is a concern, but it’s rarely been a big concern for me, and certainly not one that I’d say was any more of an issue than using a USB dongle. I can usually get a few hours out of any hotspot, and typically that’s the gap between when I’d next have access to wireless services. I’ve used USB dongles in the same circumstances, and given they’re drawing power straight from the laptop, I’d be more concerned with my laptop running out of juice because of the USB power draw than I would the hotspot going flat!
I guess my other issue with USB dongles versus hotspots is that the hotspot connection model is so stupidly simple. Switch on hotspot, wait for connection (typically the same amount of time you’d wait for a USB connection, as it’s the same network) and then just hook up multiple devices at will. Compare that to a USB dongle, where I’ve not only got to wait for the OS to recognise it, I’ve then (all too often) got to fight connection manager software in order to get it running. You’re in real trouble if you need to run multiple dongles, or have older versions of the same software on a laptop, and on the road, there’s no real way to fix that — you don’t have a net connection, after all.
LH: I’m certainly not going to argue about the benefits of a simpler connection — loathing mobile broadband connection software is something I’ve been doing for a long time, and it’s especially annoying given that there are actually functions built into WIndows which no-one writing the stuff ever bothers to use. But I am going to dispute the battery point for laptops.
In my experience, running Wi-Fi draws at least as much power as running a dongle, and often more. And I’ve actually had hotspots run out of power on the road every time I’ve tested one. Yes, I could connect them via USB to the notebook, but that means stuff hanging off in an ungainly fashion, which sucks if you’re on trains and planes.
Connecting multiple devices could be handy (especially for us gadget-testing types), but it raises another issue: are you getting the best value from your existing data allowances if you use a hotspot to connect your phone? If your hotspot can get a signal, chances are your mobile can too, so chewing up your mobile broadband allowance for the sake of not using the phone option could be fiddly. (That said, if you have a stingy data allowance, it could make a lot of sense.)
I guess the bigger related problem is this: given most of us will be carrying a phone anyway, are we both barking up the wrong tree? Would it make more sense to tether than to carry any kind of separate device?
Giz: I’ve done more than my fair share of phone tethering (on those models that support it; it’s almost always one of the questions I’ll ask about a new phone platform) when needed, and it’s certainly handy. But along with every other function the phone’s running, it’s a battery hog. I’m running a Galaxy S2, already something of a battery pig, and asking it to feed data out is a push if I want it to last an entire day. This is exactly where having a hotspot is handy; I can run that and its data allowance (typically a little cheaper than a mobile plan, but not always) down to battery exhaustion point, and then use my phone if I have to. I wouldn’t do the reverse, because then my phone stops working.
But you raise the other issue that I’ve got with dongles in your reply, and that’s the fact that they stick out of your laptop in an ungainly fashion. I’m a big fan of window seats on trains, not so much for the view, but simply because the odds of some wandering goon bumping my USB stick and ripping it out are lessened. Whereas a hotspot can warm my little pink nipples, sit in my pocket, sit in my bag or rest on my head. Well, maybe not that last one.
LH: I’ve been a lot less worried by dongles sticking out since they stopped having cables attached — before that, I used to hack together some rather ungainly solutions. But I must say I’ve never had to worry about a drive-by dongle dropout on a train. It probably helps that I tend to travel with smaller, netbook-sized machines — it would definitely be a problem if you had 17 inches to contend with. (Insert your own size gag here.)
I’ve been wondering recently if providers will shift entirely away from dongles, simply to dodge the software maintenance cost. However, the fact that Telstra has gone with a “dongle first, hotspot later” approach for LTE suggests that we’re going to be able to choose between them for quite a while yet. So we should both be happy. But I might have to recommend some soothing cream for you in the meantime, or see if the Sugar girls have some spare nipple tape.
Giz: No way am I wearing nipple tape.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman admits it: he’s often got both a dongle and a hotspot in his pocket. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.