Like the idea of wherever-you-go Wi-Fi? If so, consider a Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi hotspots work, what are their drawbacks, and how much do they cost? Read on for answers to those questions, and more.

Update [3/2017]: The mobile hotspot landscape has changed dramatically since I first wrote this post back in 2012. I’ll do a full refresh of this article in the near future; in the meantime, I’ve edited this post to address the most outdated info.

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 do mobile Wi-Fi hotspots 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.

wi-fi hotspots - Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots: Your questions, answered

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 do mobile Wi-Fi hotspots 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, most recent iPhones and Android phones can double as mobile hotspots—indeed, you probably 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, and if you go over your monthly limit, you’ll pay the price (usually about $10 per extra GB).

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. If you plan on using your phone as a hotspot, any hotspot data you use will (generally speaking) come out of your overall monthly data allowance; check with your carrier to be sure.

Related: Smartphone data plans compared

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.

You can configure your phone’s mobile hotspot in its settings menu. For the iPhone, tap Settings, Personal Hotspot; for Android phones, tap Settings, Wi-Fi, then Tethering & mobile hotspot (depending on the make and model of your Android handset).

You’ll generally have the option to customize the name of your phone’s hotspot, as well as change the password. Once that’s done, you’ll be able to connect to your iPhone or Android hotspot just like you would any other; find its name in the list of available Wi-Fi networks, then enter the password.

Wait, I have more questions!

No problem; just post ’em below, and I’ll get back to you.

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