AT&T was due for a new hotspot. The Elevate 4G is more than a year old, and, well, just isn’t that exciting—not that cellular modems are particularly exhilarating. But Novatel Wireless has managed to shake things up with the $49.99 MiFi Liberate, the first mobile hotspot to feature a touch screen. That screen puts a lot more information at your fingertips than usual, like data usage, though you’ll still need to manage your modem using a connected Web browser. Still, the MiFi Liberate gets you fast 4G LTE data speeds for more than 10 hours on a single charge, plus loads of additional features. It’s the best hotspot on AT&T, and our Editors’ Choice.
Design, Touch Screen, and Features
Made by Novatel Wireless, the MiFi Liberate is probably the most interesting-looking hotspot to ever grace the PCMag Lab. The shape is sort of like a folded paperback book—it’s basically a flat rectangle with a big circular bump on the back. That bump is home to the 2,900mAh battery, and it allows the hotspot to curve up at a more readable angle when you set it down. It measures 4.05 by 2.88 by 0.34 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.26 ounces, but the unique shape doesn’t make it particularly pocketable.
The device itself is constructed from faintly patterned matte black plastic, along with shiny black plastic around the 2.8-inch display. There’s a Power button on the top left, a microSD card slot on the bottom, and a SIM card slot on the back that’s accessible when you remove the battery.
Most important is that display. The MiFi Liberate marks the first time a touch screen has been married to a mobile hotspot, and judging from my experience, it won’t be the last. The capacitive 2.8-inch color TFT LCD features 400-by-240-pixel resolution. It’s a little reflective, and viewing angles are pretty limited, but text and images look clear and sharp enough.
The screen is responsive to the touch, though animations aren’t particularly fluid. After waking the screen up with the Power button, you must slide a lock screen over to access the main menu, which comprises ten large icons that slide back and forth horizontally. At the top of the screen there’s a battery icon and connected users in the right corner, time in the middle, and network and reception in the left. But if you want more than that, it’s only a tap or two away. There are menu options for Connection Details, Data Usage, Connected Devices, Settings, Messages, File Sharing, Media Center, GPS, Wi-Fi Protected Setup, and About.
Each of these options pulls up a vertical page with the information of your choice. Data usage, for instance, gives you a bar graph showing how much data you’ve used. Above that is the numerical breakdown, as well as the percentage of data you have remaining. Underneath is the amount of days remaining on your monthly plan. This is really useful information to be able to access easily, especially when data costs so much (more on that in a bit).
Most of the other menu options are just as helpful, and Novatel has done an admirable job in making this hotspot accessible to all users; nearly every setting comes with an explanation. You can modify some settings on the Liberate itself, like screen brightness, Wi-Fi range, and Airplane Mode. Like most hotspots, more advanced features must be modified by sending a connected device to a Web-based management console.
From there, you can see all of the same information as you can on the Liberate’s display, but you also get access to advanced settings. You can change the Wi-Fi encryption (WPA2 Personal AES and WPA/WPA2 Personal are supported) along with the network ID and password. You also get MAC address filtering, port forwarding, and more.
Plans and Performance
The MiFi Liberate may only cost $49.99 with a two-year contract, but chances are you’ll be spending a lot more than that in monthly data fees. AT&T’s Mobile Share Device data plans start at $40 per month for 1GB of data, plus $20 per month to use the device itself. $60 per month for 1GB of data is very expensive, regardless of speed. The plans get more reasonable as you add more data. 4GB per month costs $70 per month, plus the $20 to use the hotspot. Prices become slightly less painful the further up you go, but in general, AT&T data isn’t cheap.
In my tests, the hotspot booted up in under 30 seconds, and automatically connected to the fastest AT&T network it could find, which, in New York City, is 4G LTE. If LTE is not available, it will fall back to HSPA+ 21. The MiFi Liberate is global-ready, and offers connectivity in more than 200 countries.
The hotspot supports Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n. I connected it to a laptop running Windows 7, a tablet, and a few different smartphones. Connection details, including your Wi-Fi network name and password, are accessible via the Liberate’s display, and you can connect to the hotspot as you would with any other Wi-Fi connection. Once connected, I saw average speeds of around 6Mbps down and 2Mbps up, which is actually on the slow side for AT&T, which scored high in our tests for the Fastest Mobile Networks. But I tested it next to other AT&T LTE devices, and they all pulled in similar numbers, which could be chalked up to the string of lousy weather in New York recently. I did experience a couple of connection drops while testing the Liberate’s battery life, but those were the only two times it occurred.
The Liberate’s battery lasted 10 hours and 21 minutes of streaming over LTE, which is the longest battery life we’ve ever seen on a hotspot. As for distance, it has a range of roughly 100 feet, which is standard. Speeds began to slow after about 50 feet of distance, which, again, is standard.
Additional Features and Conclusions
But wait, there’s more. The Liberate’s microSD card slot means you can share files like audio, pictures, and video with connected devices. It worked fine with our 32 and 64GB SanDisk cards. DLNA support means you can play those files using DLNA-compatible TVs, Blu-ray players, sound systems, and other devices. I played music and viewed photos from the Liberate’s SD card on a Sony HDTV and, while it required quite a few steps to set up, it worked without issue.
You can even connect the hotspot to WPS-enabled devices like speakers and play music stored on the microSD card using a Windows PC. While this worked fine in my tests, it required enough steps to make using DLNA look easy. And I’m just not quite sure I see the utility in it. Still, the inclusion of these features just gets you more bang for your buck.
The MiFi Liberate for AT&T takes mobile hotspots to the next level. The use of a touch screen offers a degree of interactivity and control that you can’t get with any other hotspot right now. It’s a solid improvement over the Elevate 4G, as well as many other hotspots on other carriers. There are less expensive monthly options out there, like the contract-free FreedomPop Freedom Spot Photon and the Clear Spot Voyager, but they are much more limited in terms of usability and service coverage area. That makes the MiFi Liberate an easy pick for our Editors’ Choice award.
More Cellular Modem Reviews:
|Cellular Technology||LTE, HSPA+ 21, HSPA+ 42|
|Number of Devices Supported||10|
|Battery Life||10 hours 21 minutes|
|Bands||850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc