Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots: Your questions, answeredLike the idea of wherever-you-go Wi-Fi? If so, consider a mobile hotspot: a compact, portable gadget that bathes you in a personal cloud of wireless data, perfect for on-the-go laptop and tablet users.

So, how do mobile hotspots work, what are their drawbacks, and how much do they cost? Read on for answers to those questions, and more.

Related: 7 (more) of your mobile Wi-Fi hotspot questions, answered

What exactly is a mobile hotspot, anyway?
Think of it as a tiny, battery-powered Wi-Fi base station that fits in your pocket. Generally, mobile hotspots come in two forms: either as a dedicated rechargable gadget (often no larger than a small stack of credit cards) or built into a smartphone.

How does a mobile hotspot work?
Put simply, a portable hotspot taps into 3G and/or 4G cellular networks, just like a smartphone does, and then wirelessly shares its data connection with other nearby (within 30 feet or so) Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets—typically, between three and 8 or more at a time, depending on the device and the carrier.

Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots: Your questions, answered

Most portable hotspots (like this one from Verizon) are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

Huh. So what would I need a mobile hotspot for?
Well, here’s a question for you: Do you ever use your laptop on the road? If so, you can use a mobile hotspot to connect your laptop to the Internet, without having to hunt around for a public Wi-Fi hotspot. And since multiple Wi-Fi gadgets can connect to a mobile hotspot simultaneously, you could be surfing on your laptop while a friend streams music on her Wi-Fi-only iPad.

Wait, does that mean anyone can connect to my mobile hotspot, even strangers?
Just like your Wi-Fi hotspot at home, any good mobile hotspot will come with a full suite of security tools, including WEP and WPA encryption—so as long as you’ve enabled your wireless security and set a password, your hotspot should be reasonably safe from hackers and freeloaders.

Pretty neat, but how much does a mobile hotspot cost?
Well, that depends. You can get a compact, dedicated mobile hotspot for anywhere from $100 to free through your wireless carrier (including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless) … as long as you’re willing to sign a two-year service contract, that is. If you’d rather not sign a contract, expect to pay more—as in $200 and up.

Meanwhile, many high-end smartphones, including the iPhone 4 and 4S and several recent Android phones, can double as mobile hotspots—indeed, you may have a portable hotspot sitting in your pocket right now. Check your phone’s documentation to see if your handset comes with a mobile hotspot feature.

Do I need a wireless plan to go with my mobile hotspot?
Oh yes, and they’re not cheap. Wireless plans for dedicated mobile hotspots will cost you anywhere from $35 to $80 a month and up, depending on the plan. Verizon Wireless, for example, charges $50 a month for 5GB of mobile hotspot data—and if you go over your monthly limit, you’ll have to pay $10 for each additional gigabyte.

And don’t forget: a data plan for a mobile hotspot is entirely separate from your smartphone data plan. In other words, if you’re already paying AT&T $30 a month for data on your iPhone, you’ll have to pay an additional $50 a month for data through a mobile hotspot.

Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots: Your questions, answered

Many smartphones, including the iPhone 4 and 4S, double as mobile hotspots, but you'll have to pay extra for the privilege.

Ouch. What about using my smartphone as a mobile hotspot—would that be any cheaper?
Yes, although you’ll still pay more than you would for a typical smartphone data plan.

Related: Smartphone data plans compared

Both AT&T and Verizon offer bundled smartphone data plans that include mobile hotspot use for anywhere form $50 to $100 a month, plus any overage fees (again, usually $10 for each additional GB). AT&T, for example, requires a 5GB, $50-a-month “Data Pro” plan for using yur smartphone as a portable hostpot. Verizon’s smartphone-plus-hotspot plans start a $50 a month for 4G, versus $50 a month for 5GB of standard smartphone data.

T-Mobile, meanwhile, will let you add the hotspot feature to your standard smartphone plan for $15 a month extra (or you can choose bundled smartphone/hotspot plans starting at $30), while Sprint charges $30 a month for 5GB of mobile hotspot use on top of its unlimited data bundles (which start at $80 a month).

How much battery life can I expect out of a mobile hotspot?
That depends on the device, of course—but in my experience, you’ll typically get about four hours of juice from a stand-alone mobile hotspot. Your mileage will also vary depending on the strength of the wireless signal (the weaker the signal, the more power it takes to lock onto it), as well as whether you’re using just a little data (for, say, surfing the web) or a lot (streaming YouTube videos, for example).

Using your smartphone as a mobile hotspot will generally get you a little more battery life than you would on a dedicated portable hotspot—think four or five hours rather than three or four. Then again, draining your smartphone’s battery while using it as a hotspot means no more phone calls, either.

I’d like to go ahead and use my smartphone as a mobile hotspot. How do I get started?
First, make sure you’re signed up for a data plan that allows for mobile hotspot use; just check your account online, or call your carrier and ask. In most cases, your carrier should let you switch plans without a fee, as well as let you switch back if you decide you don’t need your phone’s hotspot feature for a given month.

Once you data plan is all set, you can configure your phone’s mobile hotspot in its settings menu. For the iPhone, tap Settings, Personal Hotspot; for Android phones, tap Settings, then Wi-Fi (depending on the make and model of your Android handset).

Wait, I have more questions!
No problem; just post ’em below, and I’ll get back to you.

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