Scott Hanselman

Chasing Wi-Fi as a Remote Worker: AT&T Unite LTE Mobile Hotspot Review

May 14, '13 Comments [24] Posted in Remote Work | Reviews
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AT&T Unite HotspotI've blogged about how being a remote worker sucks. Sometimes I just need to get out of the home office and wander around town just to be near people. There's all this unspoken etiquette when you're a "homeless" remote worker and you're squatting in a café. How much do coffee does one buy in order to justified downloading an 8gig ISO over a coffee shop's bandwidth? Will a croissant cover it? You mean you don't like me showing up at 9am, taking a seat and leaving at 5pm?

Finding a spot is one thing, but finding good reliable internet is the biggest issue when you're a remote working nomad. I used to collect coffee shops and rank them by bandwidth, but often they are too unreliable. I want to be able to use Skype/Lync in HD, have a clear conversation, share my screen, remote into machines, and download and upload large files without sipping through their bandwidth straw.

I've even stopped using hotel wireless when travelling. It's just useless. For the last four years I've been carrying a Clear Hotspot around. It runs on the Sprint Network and works in all major US cities. I've been generally very happy with it. It doesn't work well inside buildings, but at a hotel if I put it in the window sill I can easily watch Netflix. It's $50 a month for unlimited internet and it's faster than tethering my iPhone 4S (with its fake 4G). Why pay so much? Because Clear is effectively unlimited, unlike my capped 5 gig iPhone plan, even though Clear isn't super fast.

The local AT&T fellow loaned me an AT&T Unite Hotspot for a few months.

The Device

The hotspot is made by Sierra Wireless. It has LTE, a lovely 2.4" color touch screen and a large battery. It's a comfortable size with a decent heft, most of which is battery. The battery for this hotspot is 2500 mAh, in fact and lasts a long time. I've accidentally left it in my bag and found it still on hours later. It's rated for up to 10 hours of continuous use and I never had it stop on me even when using it a whole work day.

You can have up to 10 devices connected to the Unite over Wi-Fi. This is great on trips with a few laptops, phones and tablets. Multiply this by a few people and you'll be happy you can fit 10.

It even has two external antenna spots, which could be useful when using in a building or the home as backup internet for the whole house.

The AT&T Unite LTE Hotspot sitting on a Clear Hotspot. The Unite is much larger

The touch screen is very nice, responsive and totally obvious to use.

photo 1

I love that this Unite hotspot shows not only the amount of data you've used but the numbers of days left until your data plan resets. This is a killer feature I miss on other hotspots.

photo 2

The Pros - Speed

Here's the bandwidth at my local McDonald's, whose Wi-Fi is ironically provided by AT&T Wireless (but clearly capped). Wi-Fi like this is is best for email and small videos, and clearly won't work for anyone who tried to push it (Skype, RDP, etc). Looks like 1.76Mbps.

image

Here's my Clear 4G Hotspot. Now, this is holding it against a window and sitting smack in the middle of 4G territory. The Clear is one of those "works great until it totally doesn't work" things. I love it and take it everywhere, but there's no middle ground. It either has an awesome connection, or you might as well use your 3G phone. The Clear gets 8.94Mbps

image

Here's my iPhone 4S with Tethering (that I pay for) over Wi-Fi. This is with 5 bars on "4G" in the same location as the other devices. It's 3G+ as far as a I'm concerned as iPhone 4S 4G is a lie. I got lucky here with 3.43Mbps, but it's usually more like 1Mbps.

image

Here's the AT&T Unite Hotspot, pumping not only 14.5Mbps down but nearly 6.5Mbps up. This was with just 3 bars of LTE!

image

My conclusion after using this for a few months? LTE is no joke. I've seen it even faster but the net result is that this Hotspot is as fast as average folks' home internet. This extra upload headroom was totally noticeable for me when using Lync or Skype whilst sharing my screen. If you're pushing HD video as well as sharing your screen things start getting choppy with just a megabit.

The Cons

A small device with a large battery pushing 15Mbs nearly anywhere in the US? What's not to like? For me, the data plan.

It's US$50 for 5GB and $10 for each additional Gig. I really like the Clear device being unlimited, and while I used the Unite HARD for two billing cycles I bumped up against the 5GB twice and ended up around 6 to 7GB. Not enough to break the bank, but enough to wish for a 10GB or 20GB plan. If I went to 10GB it would be $100. That said, I'm not the typical user.

Alternatively you can add the Unite onto an existing Mobile Share Plan for $20 a month then add buckets of data to the plan to be shared across all devices.

Conclusion

If you've already got an LTE phone with tethering it's questionable if you would need an Unite, but the battery life is the kicker. My phone can only tether for a few hours when it's being worked hard. It's nice to have a separate device that's just a hotspot. Also, considering my phone isn't LTE and I have a Clear spot I'm paying for now, the Unite is an attractive alternative with almost double the speed and easily double the battery over Clear.

The Unite also has a bandwidth meter and shows the date your plan resets. This is such a nice touch. If you're in the market for a hotspot I can recommend the AT&T Unite. Even easier if you are already an AT&T customer and just want to add the line. The Unite hardware is really impressive. I'm sad to send this device back. The perfect price point for me would be 10GB for $75. At that point I'd switch off Clear in a second as a portable 15Mbps a second for 10 hours is almost too fabulous to resist.


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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. I am a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013 1:50:18 AM UTC
Scott have you tried either device "on the go"? My kids are always asking when will we have a car with wifi :)
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 1:57:24 AM UTC
Ranking public wifi locations by bandwidth is a reasonable measure - but McDonald's, really?

At least at a SBUX or coffee shop you have the chance to get a comfortable chair and Muzak.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 2:56:45 AM UTC
Derek - McDonald's uses the same AT&T WiFi as Starbucks, and they have soda for $1. I don't drink coffee.

Brian - Yes, both of them work great in the car.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 6:17:51 AM UTC
I have been contemplating getting iPad mini for this exact purpose - tether over Verizon 4G. To my knowledge AT&T does not allow this unless you are part of mobile share plan. The iPad has huge battery life - 25 hours as hotspot with screen turned off and can be used as a standalone device when connection to work is not required.

Any thoughts?
iPad waanabe
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 11:32:39 AM UTC
As always, great review Scott. I've been thinking about something like this to have for travelling with the kids as well as remote working.

Again, the problem doesn't come down to technology though, but the business behind the technology. These caps by some of the carriers are ridiculous. As much as I hate sounding like a conspiracy nut, my intuition screams that these caps are artificially imposed. Of course, I have no proof of that and don't have the time or energy to validate my intuition, but if the offending carriers ever came to their senses, they might have me as a customer for devices like this. I just can't justify spending the money with those limits in place. I would hit them fast the way I use the internet. :-)
Brian Hall
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 1:02:53 PM UTC
What tool (and on what device) did you use to measure the network aspects in the article above??

Fixed wireless is a challenge even though the pundits predicted years ago it would take over by now :-).
Ken
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 3:14:31 PM UTC
Not that it will fix all your issues but consider a hybrid tablet/laptop with a 4G (LTE) card? I know the Lenovo Helix has a 4G option and has enough oomph to to be in the same category as your Carbon.

I know I saw some Win8 apps to turn your PC into a WAP, but I haven't tried them to know if they are any good.

Michael
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 3:43:06 PM UTC
My windows phone Lumia 820 pumps the same speed and I can charge it via X1 USB port. One less device to use is always better. If you have ATT Mobile Share you automatically get tethering enabled on your phone. have you tried this setup, Scott?

Alex
Alex
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 4:19:43 PM UTC
Do you know if there's a Verizon equivalent? I just tested my LTE speed using my Verizon iPhone 5 with 4 bars of signal strength. Ping: 108 ms. Download: 20.81 Mbps. Upload: 13.06 Mbps. So with speeds like that (slower download than my home cable modem, but faster upload) it would work great, assuming that a Verizon equivalent even existed.
Jon
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 7:12:37 PM UTC
Suggestion: the local public library

Pro: many have Wi-Fi. They don't care if you are there all day.

Con: hours are often restricted (not open in the early AM, for example, or on Friday). Reliability has been a problem for me.

Don't know the speed or capping etc. Just know that they've been free and the folks there don't care if you are there all day.

Another con: you might need to be quiet.
Hal
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 10:03:30 PM UTC
Have you looked into co-working or hot desking? In Liverpool, UK where I live for example there is this:

http://doesliverpool.com/prices/

Maybe there's something similar where you are.
John
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 10:22:29 PM UTC
I always wondered what is wrong with people coming to cofee shop and pretending they work.
AreYouKidding?
Wednesday, May 15, 2013 4:07:08 PM UTC
Another option:

http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-33153_7-57581139-10391733/freedompop-introduces-nationwide-3g-$40-hot-spot/

In general, these guys leave a too-pushy impression (doing a great job of hiding the $1/month 'inactivity fee' if you don't use 5mb, aggressively pushing their affiliate program, etc.).
Jed
Monday, May 20, 2013 12:26:07 AM UTC
I just got one of these today, so far I'm happy with it. It's sat upstairs on a window sill, and I still get the connection all the way down here in my basement. Been able to load sites just fine too, quite fast. I used to have an AT&T Elevate 4G hotspot, and that thing did the job, but not nearly as good as this one. We were also able to upgrade to an apparent new plan they offer, so we're able to get 20gigs a month for like $100 or something. Pretty decent if you ask me. AND, we got the Unite for only .99 cents, as our Elevate was due for an upgrade :). So far, I'm super pleased.
Kayleigh
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 8:17:08 AM UTC
Ouch, Scott! The data plans over there are really expensive!

Here in the UK, we can take out a 1 month rolling contract of 10GB at DC-HDPA speeds (average 16 - 25 Mbit down) for £15/month (~$23).
Adam Lynas
Tuesday, July 09, 2013 2:04:09 PM UTC
The unite will rip you off for several G's it will reset and jump when you turn it off and do not us it for several days. the at&t costumer service tell you there is nothing they can do about it because their is no way to track usage. they sneak that past you very subtly to push you over your limits so that you are paying $10 for those extra 1G. be careful they got me for .88g so far and climbing and it has been 2 weeks in this last billing cycle. it may not seem like a lot to some people but I have a small budget that I have to stay in.
it rippes you off
Wednesday, July 31, 2013 11:03:27 PM UTC
I don't recommend Verizon. That 4g device powers down when you least expect it and when you are in the middle of a project. ATT is the way to go.
Bruce
Friday, August 16, 2013 6:56:11 PM UTC
Does anybody know if the device works outside the U.S., i.e. Italy, using a local SIM card with a local Internet service? I'm going there for 2 weeks and I would like to have Internet access without having to buy ANOTHER device...
Cristina
Sunday, September 08, 2013 11:05:06 PM UTC
I've had the Unite hot spot since it came out. Had the Elevate before it. You can get a fabulous external antenna from Sierra Wireless, who make both of these. It's around 5 or 6 inches square, and plugs into both antenna ports. Comes with suction cups to attach to a window. The external antenna helps immensely in fringe areas.
Dan
Sunday, September 08, 2013 11:08:55 PM UTC
As to the international question, I'm still trying to figure this out. I was just in Canada, and wasn't able to even buy an AT&T international plan for the Unite. AT&T rep said that device isn't eligible. Of course the device would work in Canada and if I'd allowed it to connect, AT&T would have been happy to charge me standard roaming rates. As it turned out, I was close enough to the border that about 1/2 the time, I got a 2 bar edge signal. Lousy, but it was enough to keep iMessage and email headers arriving on my iPhone, so I could tell if there was anything important to address. I also asked about unlocking and didn't get anywhere on that yet. I also haven't found a vendor for a SIM that'd work in Canada that they'd sell me for per-day use or prepaid. I'd sure like to find a way to address this before the next time we go up to Canada.
Dan
Monday, September 30, 2013 12:02:19 AM UTC
Another thing to comment on is that there is a 2 year contract with this device, AND if your service is not great your stuck with it. I have had this device for 4 months and never get close to the 5GB cap because I can seldom get signal and it changes networks every 10 min or so. So if you sign up for this and your signal sucks-I live in Arizona in a remote type area (the ATT store is only 20 miles away)and signal is very poor here so I am just stuck with it for 2 years or have to pay the fee to cancel it. I suppose if I traveled more it would be great for my kindle fire.
IF I had good service in this area I would love it. ATT is this area has become very poor over the last 6 months! any idea on that? I live in Topock/Mohave Valley/Bullhead City area.
Betty
Wednesday, October 02, 2013 7:36:31 PM UTC
I am actually a Clear Wireless owner for about 6 months. Before i purchased my Clear Voyager Wifi Hotspot, I did some research and saw that many of the other devices from other companies were capped. Today i am still using my clear device. I pay $50.00/month and get Unlimited Data. I mainly use my internet for my PS3 online gaming, watching Hulu and Netflick on the train to work.


Pros

- As long as your in a Clear 4G zone, Your good with non stop internet.
- No Capping.
- No Contract

Cons

-Not the Fastest device out in terms up upload/Download speeds
but if I can play Call of Duty Black ops 2, its good enough for me.
-Sprint got Bought out by Sprint. Therefore Clear Wireless no longer takes on new clients. Which is a bummer because for the last 6 months, I have been literally taking my internet with me everywhere.
- Clear service is not available everywhere
- Better service if device is placed near window if your indoors.

-----------
PS: I lost my clear deevice and can't find a single company equivalent... Maybe H2O Wireless...Maybe
Jeffrey Fleurantin
Friday, October 11, 2013 2:10:13 AM UTC
I recently "misplaced" my AT&T Unite device. It's has a mobile # that comes with a SIM card and IMEI # and you can send text messages to the device.

WHY CAN'T SOMEONE JUST PING IT so I can find it??? Called AT&T without the 3rd party insurance I cannot replace the device and FYI: They cannot gps the location of any MIFI devices regardless of what anyone tries to tell you.

I contact Netgear (Sierra Wireless) to do some recon for me since they have an app to measure usage etc. That does not work unless you have the device in hand.

I am tracking the usage of my device via AT&T so far no usage since I've lost it on 10/4.

Info is greatly appreciated.
Lost_my_Unite
Saturday, November 09, 2013 8:09:14 AM UTC
Scott, have you checked into this recently?

I just got off live-chat with an AT&T rep. She claims that if I purchase a used Unite hotspot I can sign up with a month-to-month Mobile Share Data-Only plan.

The Mobile Share plans offer 4GB for $30, 6GB for $40, and 10GB for $60 (and up).

I'm highly considering grabbing a Unite on eBay (based on your review), and getting the Mobile Share plan for the months that I travel.

Thanks for a great review!
Brennan
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.