Gadling Gear Review: NetZero 4G Mobile Hotspot

There was a terrible noise this morning at our house – the garbage truck ripped out our cable hub and left us without an Internet connection. This is, to put it mildly, a problem at our house where we have two work-at-home Internet junkies. I had been intending to test NetZero’s mobile hotspot for a while but with a fat connection at home, I lacked the motivation and I don’t have upcoming travel on deck. This unexpected accident gave me the incentive I needed to check it out.

Set up is very easy. Plug in the device to charge it and turn it on. You’re done. Like other mobile Internet devices I’ve tried, your success with the hardware doesn’t indicate success with connecting to the web. The hotspot works best near a window – walking around the house revealed that it picked up a stronger signal in some places than others. And my neighborhood, while it does, indeed, have NetZero service, is not very strong. Placement is key.

Connecting to the signal takes as long as it takes. At my house it took about five minutes to hook up to the network – your mileage may vary depending on where you live. Once you’re connected, you might want to look under the hood at the settings. My hub was set to the lowest transmission power by default and it was glacial, I could barely load my email in the basic HTML view. Not useful for a harried Internet junkie. It’s not hard to change the settings, but it’s also not that easy to find the information on how to change them, you’ll have to do some digging.Once you’re all up and running, you can connect up to eight devices to the hotspot. At my house, things started to bog down with two computers hooked up – if you’re in a location with a more powerful signal, you can support more gadgets. So, geographic limitations aside, this thing is easy to set up, easy for nerds to configure for a better experience, and easy to connect to.

The catch here is, of course, your data use, and that’s where the expense is. The hub hotspot is currently on sale for $49.95, but you’ll need a data plan, too. The top tier plan is currently $49.95 for 4GB of data per month. The hub itself costs $49.95 (it’s currently on sale, down from $99.95.) In our house, we use easily ten times that much data. Streaming video is our biggest burner, but I post high res photos, I move documents over a virtual private network (VPN) connection … I’m a data hog. I’d burn through that 4GB in no time.

Given my data excesses, it’s difficult for me to make a case for this device as part of my kit. It feels almost like it’s best for exactly what I’m using it for today – Internet backup. I could see throwing it in the car for camping trips or in my bag from places that charge extra for Wi-Fi. It’s cheaper than a data plan for my phone when it comes to international roaming, but the coverage is US only, so it doesn’t help me with data roaming.

NetZero is essentially offering pay-as-you-go Internet. This is handy for folks wandering the US who want to manage their own access and have it whenever they want, wherever they are (that there’s NetZero coverage). You don’t have to have a contract, so that’s an advantage as well. I’m not sold though, on the idea as a concept. Hotels and even campgrounds increasingly offer Wi-Fi, as does that coffee shop you stopped at on your road trip. A casual user can drop into a public library or even a McDonald’s to get free Wi-Fi.

I’m very happy to have this service to try out today, given that we’re unhooked from the grid at home. I’d file this under casual or emergency user and call it good.

[Image credit: NetZero]

Wiki catalogues pay-as-you-go SIM cards by country

Our good friend and technomad Paul Oppenheim stopped by this week with a dispatch from Germany and some more info on his current holy quest: to find an international phone plan that supports data and that doesn’t cost more than the mortgage on his condo in San Francisco.

Those familiar with data plans and roaming charges outside of the US might be familiar with the sad details: taking one’s smartphone outside of one’s home country can be an expensive endeavor. Sure, there’s international infrastructure and partnerships to forge, but is that all worth a twelve thousand dollar phone bill? Probably not.

As a result, many opt to use a different Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card while abroad — something, perhaps, with less aggressive data charges. The problems with that notion though are that you need to have a different (local) phone number and that until recently there wasn’t a great place to research carriers internationally. Spanish providers, for example, tend to provide all of their subscriber info and instructions on local, Spanish sites.

Part of that has changed with the paygsimwithdata repository over at wikia. There, travelers can leaf through a wide spectrum of providers sorted by country and service, with many vendors broken down by availability, pricing and value. And yes, it’s all in English.

Bear in mind that while traveling you’ll still have to suffer with a different, local phone number, but having connectivity for a reasonable cost is a small price to pay.

[Flickr image via mroach]