T-Mobile Sonic 2.0 Mobile Hotspot LTE review

T-Mobile's first LTE hotspot can go all day, but it needs a firmware update to reach its true potential.

It’s tough to choose when you have no choice. T-Mobile’s only LTE hotspot is … T-Mobile’s only LTE hotspot. It has some things going for it: It’s relatively inexpensive and has terrific battery life. It supports up to 8 Wi-Fi devices, and it works as a USB modem for both PCs and Macs. But I found it unreliable in testing and especially prone to losing connections when downshifting from LTE to HSPA+. So while this is the T-Mobile hotspot to buy, we can’t give it Editor’s Choice.

The painfully awkwardly named T-Mobile Sonic 2.0 Mobile Hotspot LTE is made by ZTE, and it’s a chubby little device at 3.87 by 2.25 by .7″ (HWD) and 4.2 oz. Most of that space is taken up by a large 3000mAh battery, which gave the hotspot solid battery life: 6 hours, 11 minutes of streaming audio from an LTE network onto an Android smartphone.

The hotspot has a prominent, raised power button on the front along with a washed-out 1.77″, 160-by-128 LCD display. There are four control buttons under the display, which isn’t a touch screen. You can use the display to check your network name and password, see how much data you’ve transferred in this session, and see which devices are connected to the hotspot.

On the side of the hotspot there’s a USB port for charging, along with a microSD card slot. If you pop in a microSD card, the hotspot shares it out over DLNA, which is a lost opportunity as no human knows how to use DLNA.

Performance and Interface
The Sonic 2.0 supports T-Mobile’s HSPA+ and LTE networks, but almost nobody else’s. It can’t roam internationally. T-Mobile doesn’t have any decent international roaming plans—its only affordable data roaming option is restricted to business customers—but it would have been nice for the hotspot to work with SIM cards purchased abroad.

T-Mobile’s data prices are reasonable: $30/month for 2GB, plus $10 for each additional 2GB, with no contract. Sprint matches those prices, but requires a two-year contract; Verizon and AT&T tend to be more expensive. Only carriers that use Clearwire’s old WiMAX network offer better deals, with Virgin coming in at $35/month for 10GB and Clear offering the only truly unlimited hotspot plan for $50.

I took the hotspot to eight locations in Manhattan and Queens and compared speeds on a Samsung Galaxy S4 sitting next to the hotspot with a Samsung Galaxy Note II. On average, speeds were comparable, which is impressive considering you typically bleed off up to 20 percent of your speed when converting from 4G to Wi-Fi. I saw, on average, 8Mbps down and 7.6Mbps up with 40ms ping times on both devices.

The hotspot also handled distance well. I didn’t see much degradation even with the Galaxy S4 up to 125 feet away, as long as it wasn’t on the other side of a wall.

I ran into several stability problems with the hotspot, though. When it dropped from LTE to HSPA, the connection completely broke and the hotspot had to be rebooted. In an area with a weak LTE connection, that happened too frequently. The hotspot would latch on to a very weak LTE link, lose it, and freeze.

I didn’t see the stability problems in places with a consistent, strong connection. For instance, at home (with a strong LTE connection testing at 10-16Mbps down) I was able to stream audio for almost 20 hours without a break. The hotspot’s Web-based interface lets you kick it into an HSPA+ only mode, which could improve stability.

The Sonic 2.0 has a Web-based administrator interface that lets you see which devices are connected to the hotspot and change settings. The hotspot supports WPA2 encryption along with 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, but only on the 2.4GHz band. There’s a basic firewall with MAC filtering and port forwarding, and you can set data usage limits for individual devices connected to the hotspot. But the Web portal’s data counter was wrong when I was using it, which was disappointing. Oddly, if I drilled down, it would show me how much data was used by each individual connected device, but not the right total for the hotspot as a whole.

The Sonic 2.0 also works as a USB modem for Windows, Mac OS and Linux PCs; plug in the cable and drivers will appear. It still functions as a hotspot when in USB mode.

Conclusions
T-Mobile has growing national LTE coverage. That might make it a good carrier to check out for your hotspot needs, except that I’m concerned over the stability of this hotspot’s software. Since hotspot users are typically data hogs, an accurate data counter is also a must, and T-Mobile needs to get with the program and offer international-capable devices.

The T-Mobile Sonic 2.0 Mobile Hotspot LTE has some attractive features, but it isn’t the perfect hotspot for T-Mobile. A firmware update might help make it so. For now, obviously, this is the hotspot to get on T-Mobile—you want LTE, and it’s your only option. But I’d like to see the carrier come out with an even better choice.

Specifications
Cellular Technology LTE, HSPA+ 42
Service Provider T-Mobile
Number of Devices Supported 8
Battery Life 6 hours 11 minutes
Bands 850, 1900, 1700
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 b/g/n
microSD Slot Yes
Modem Type Hotspot
Mac Compatible Yes

Verdict
T-Mobile's first LTE hotspot can go all day, but it needs a firmware update to reach its true potential.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc