Netgear Zing Mobile Hotspot (Sprint) review

The Netgear Zing is a great-looking, very easy to manage wireless hotspot for Sprint's LTE network.
249.99

Zing! Netgear’s new Zing hotspot for Sprint ($49.99 with contract) pours on some of the flashiest features we’ve ever seen, but they’re genuinely useful. This hotspot’s flexibility and manageability, combined with its support of external antennas, global roaming, and Sprint’s new tri-band LTE network, make it our new Editor’s Choice for a Sprint hotspot over the competing Novatel MiFi 500.

First of all, about this Netgear thing: In April 2013, Netgear bought Sierra Wireless’s AirCard division. Sierra was one of the “big two” hotspot and modem makers, along with Novatel Wireless, and I’ve been reviewing its Sprint modems for eight years. So while Netgear is a new name in the hotspot business, it’s really an old player.

Physical Features and Management
The Zing, also known as the AirCard 771S, is an attractive gray plastic brick at 4.3 by 2.7 by .6″ (HWD) and 3.95 ounces. The recessed power button is on the top edge. On the bottom, dual plastic sliders protect external antenna ports—always a welcome sight. You can boost the Zing’s reception and Wi-Fi range with a third-party antenna or Netgear’s external cradle, the 77XS, which unfortunately isn’t on sale yet.

Snap off the back and you come upon a large 2500mAh, removable battery. Why so big? There’s a 2.4-inch, 320-by-240 passive resistive color LCD on the front, and it’s on a lot of the time.

Power up the hotspot and you’re presented with a pretty rich range of options. Immediately, you see signal strength, battery percentage (not just bars), your network name and password, and how much data you’ve used for the month. Since Sprint’s “unlimited” promises don’t extend to hotspots, that’s helpful. All of Sprint’s hotspot plans are capped, costing $34.99 for 3GB, $49.99 for 6GB, or $79.99 for 12GB.

On-screen settings let you change the SSID and password using an on-screen keyboard, block devices, and set up a “guest Wi-Fi” network where the devices can’t see your main network. The hotspot supports up to 10 devices total, plus one plugged in via USB. Using Ethernet-over-USB, the hotspot worked as a USB modem for both a Windows 8 PC and a Mac.

More management is available from a Web-based management console. There, you can more closely monitor your data usage by network type, control Wi-Fi setup, encryption and MAC filtering, and implement UPnP, VPN, port forwarding, and filtering and a basic firewall.

Netgear also offers an “AirCard Watcher” Android and iOS app which lets you manage most of the hotspot’s settings through an attractive native interface. Between the on-screen menus, the Web-based interface, and the app, this is the most easily managed hotspot I’ve seen.

Performance
Testing Sprint’s new LTE network in New York City is an exercise in frustration. It’s spotty and inconsistent, strongest in remote parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn. I had to use the Sensorly mapping app to find individual towers that Sprint had activated in Manhattan and Queens, and even then, the network showed a weird behavior with upload tests truncating early.

The reason to buy the new Zing and MiFi is that they support Sprint’s new tri-band approach to LTE. Sprint has been taking its existing 1900MHz LTE network and supplementing it with 800MHz, which does much better at penetrating buildings, and 2600MHz, which should provide scorching speed in urban areas. Unfortunately, Sprint’s buildout there is even less developed than its 1900MHz buildout, and we haven’t had a chance to test the mixed coverage.

But you get what you get, and you try not to get upset. We tested LTE with the Zing and MiFi in five locations. In three of them, the MiFi was considerably faster. In one, the Zing prevailed, and in the last one, the MiFi dropped to 3G while the Zing pulled out decent LTE speeds.

Indoors, the MiFi showed much better range than the Zing. While the Zing’s speeds started to drop off after about 50 feet, the MiFi held on well to about 100 feet.

The Zing also showed slightly longer battery life than the MiFi. I got 7 hours, 40 minutes with the MiFi compared to 7 hours, 55 minutes with the Zing.

Finally, the Zing works on foreign (900/2100MHz) HSPA+ networks, and even on AT&T’s (850/1900MHz) HSPA+ network if you get the SIM card slot unlocked by Sprint. That takes 90 days of on-contract use from your purchase date.

Conclusions
Netgear designed an attractive, flexible and capable hotspot here, and we think it’s the best choice for Sprint. No matter how bad Sprint’s LTE network is at the moment, it’s only going to get better, and the 800MHz and 2600MHz bands will play key roles in that improvement. The Zing’s easy-to-use on-screen data counter and management tools let you get the most out of your Sprint connection, even if it isn’t unlimited.

We’d only turn to the Novatel MiFi 500 if we need range and don’t want to drop the Zing into a cradle, as it showed better Wi-Fi range than the Zing did. And if you have a Sierra Wireless Tri-Fi, I’d say hold onto it for now. Sprint just hasn’t built out enough of its tri-band LTE network for the advantages to kick in quite yet. I’d peg early 2014 for when these hotspots will start opening up speed and coverage advantages over the Tri-Fi.

Specifications
Cellular Technology EDGE, UMTS, CDMA 1X, LTE, EV-DO Rev A, HSPA+ 21
Service Provider Sprint
Number of Devices Supported 10
Battery Life 7
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 b/g/n
microSD Slot No
Bands 800, 850, 900, 1900, 2100, 2600
Mac Compatible Yes

Verdict
The Netgear Zing is a great-looking, very easy to manage wireless hotspot for Sprint's LTE network.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc