These little gadgets combine a wireless cellular modem, a router, and a battery into a tiny package about the size of a deck of cards. Turn one on, and you have an Internet connected WiFi network ready for all your devices to join, no matter where (with signal) you are.
For most, a hotspot device should be a simple “turn it on and surf” experience.
But up until now, I’ve never used a mobile hotspot that didn’t regularly make me want to pull my hair out. Because their functionality is so tightly integrated, so much depends on the quality of the firmware (the software inside that controls everything).
Since we depend on the Millenicom Hotspot plan on Verizon (the link leads to our full overview of the plan) as the foundation of our mobile internet connectivity, we have always been constrained to the hotspots being offered along with this plan.
The first one we tried from Millenicom was the Samsung SCH-LC11 in 2011 – it was so buggy and unreliable that we actually sent it back, preferring to stay with a slow 3G USB modem rather than a frustrating 4G LTE hotspot.
When they switched to shipping the Novatel 4620L in 2012, we gave it another shot – and while it also was riddled with bugs and performance issues, we concluded that:
[pull_quote_center]Overall the Novatel 4620L isn’t that great of a device – it is buggy and has more issues than I care to count. … While the 4620L may not be great, it is ‘good enough, for now’.[/pull_quote_center]
For light use – it was a usable solution. But the 4620L would fall apart under heavy surfing or while having multiple devices connected – often failing to even load pages completely, or even hanging entirely until reset.
Fortunately, we discovered a workaround – taking the SIM out of the Novatel 4620L and putting it into a compatible LTE data device. For us it was our Verizon iPad, letting our iPad double as a Personal Hotspot. Others report great success using a Pantech U290 USB stick cellular modem, or other Verizon LTE capable devices.
But in weak signal areas, it was awkward having to leave an iPad in the tech cabinet balanced against the booster. And if one of us wanted to leave the bus with the iPad, the entire bus network would go offline.
If only there was a MiFi-style device that actually lived up to its potential…
At last – there is.
The Pantech MHS291L
Millenicom sent us one to test out, and…
At last, a hotspot worth getting hot and bothered about!!!
I’ve been testing the MSH291L for the past few weeks, and so far it has performed just as reliably as an iPad acting as a router. I’ve tried some torture tests opening up dozens of windows and tabs simultaneously, and the Pantech doesn’t run screaming like the 4620 would. It actually works!
The feature set is pretty impressive too. The Pantech has a 15hr battery, charges via USB, and has a very simple and intuitive user interface via both the front LCD panel and via a web browser (accessed via the my.jetpack special URL).
Here are some of the other exciting features:
- 5Gz WiFi – The MHS291 is the first hotspot I have seen that supports creating a 5GHz WiFi network, as opposed to the more typical 2.5GHz. The 2.5GHz spectrum is an overcrowded mess – with all 2.5GHz WiFi devices in an area sharing just three discrete channels. This spectrum is also shared with bluetooth, and is drown out by microwave ovens too. In many convention centers, there is so much WiFi noise that personal hotspots using 2.5GHz can become literally useless.
By comparison, 5GHz is wide open, un-congested, and fast. Unfortunately – the MHS291 does not support 2.5GHz and 5GHz simultaneously – you need to choose one.
If all the devices you are using support 5GHz, switching the MHS291 is a great way to get away from all the noise.
- Future-Proof LTE – The MHS291L is the first hotspot on Verizon’s network to support the AWS LTE bands. These are new LTE channels that Verizon is just starting to roll out in major metro areas that provide for more capacity and speed. Very few devices support these channels yet, this is one of the first.
- International Roaming – In addition to supporting Verizon’s 3G and LTE networks, the MHS291L is “Global Ready” and also supports roaming onto many GSM/EDGE 2G, UMTS/HSPA 3G/4G, and LTE networks around the world. The device seems to not be SIM locked, allowing for this use with cheaper local data plans. Testing this, I was able to use a T-Mobile SIM and got online with a slow 2G connection here in Cedar Key. The MHS291 also recognized our AT&T iPad SIM, but this network connection was refused.
Usage Tracking – One of the biggest frustrations (especially for Millenicom users) has been how challenging it has been to monitor data usage to avoid going over your monthly caps. But the MHS291 makes it easy – giving you a view (not up to the minute, but updated at least daily in my testing) of your current period’s usage via both the front LCD and web interface.
So far, our readings on the MHS291L are tracking fairly well with Millenicom’s three-times weekly reporting on our online account. At last – easy usage tracking!!!! (Update: Apparently, newer Millenicom accounts are no longer set up to display usage tracking. Seems the cut-off was somewhere around late January 2014.)
- Tethering – The MHS291 also supports USB tethering, allowing you to get online in a wired fashion without creating a local WiFi hotspot. Pantech is only officially supporting tethering to Windows machines (and I was not able to find a workaround for Mac), but the ability of all modern Mac’s to use 5GHz to connect minimizes the potential for 2.5GHz WiFi interference making the lack of Mac tethering less of an issue.Tethering is also very handy for using a hotspot with a more capable local router – like a WiFiRanger or a Pepwave Surf SoHo. Initially, none of our WiFiRanger products or the Pepwave would tether to the MHS291 – so I reported the issue to both companies. WiFiRanger immediately sent us an updated beta 6.6.5 firmware to test out (hopefully to be released broadly very soon) and it has been working great. Pepwave tech support has also been following up on the issue and I am hoping that they will have an update out soon too.
Updated January 24th: Pepwave has sent us a new firmware (6.1.0m46 build 1421) that now supports tethering too!
(Both WiFiRanger and Pepwave work great connected to the Pantech over WiFi.)
Issues & Limitations
I’ve only managed to find two areas of annoyance with the MHS291L.
First off – unlike with the Novatel 4620L, there is no way to force the Pantech to ignore an LTE signal and use 3G instead. This means that you can no longer use the trick of forcing your hotspot into the slow lane to avoid burning through your data cap too quickly. If this is a data management method you’ve been using, it can make a big difference in how fast you burn through your data since many sites automically scale the resolution of the graphics & video they serve based on your connection speed. And of course, at 3G speeds you may actually click away from a page before it’s fully loaded, or stop a slow going large file transfer to wait until you find a faster connection.
The other issue – there is no way through the my.jetpack control panel to ask the Pantech to reboot or renegotiate its connection. I’ve discovered that often when we turn on the LTE booster, the modem takes an exceedingly long while to notice and switch from 3G to the LTE signal. Power-cycling the modem works, and I also discovered that toggling from Global to CDMA/LTE mode in the advanced control panel also serves the same purpose – without needing to get up from the desk.
There was only one technical issue in our two weeks of heavy testing – one morning the MHS291 indicated that it was connected, but no data would flow. Nothing would get it to recover until I power-cycled the hotspot, and then within a moment everything was fine. While this may be a one-off glitch or the fault of Verizon’s network upstream getting confused, I will be keeping an eye on things over the next few weeks to see if this repeats.
So far – these are the only issues I’ve found. Overall the Pantech MHS291L has been a rock solid delight – especially when compared the old 4620.
The Pantech doesn’t even have any annoying blinking status lights – which we needed to cover up on the 4620L with black electrical tape! Even the nice red glow around the edges turns off automatically after a minute, leaving the device totally dark while in use.
Getting a Pantech MHS291L
Directly from Verizon, the Pantech is MHS291L is currently $49.99 with a two year contract – or $229.99 without. And it looks like slightly used ones are selling on eBay for $150+.
For new Millenicom customers, purchasing a brand new MHS291L is a requirement to activate service. They charge $99.99 for the device (plus $49.99 activation and $15 shipping), but with no contract required. And via Millenicom, you get a much better deal on a data plan than you can get directly from Verizon.
(And yes – it is the exact same device on the exact same network with the exact same coverage… read our Millenicom Survival Guide for all the details.)
Current Millenicom customers who are ready to ditch their 4620L can also order the MHS291L from Millenicom at the discounted $99.99 rate (plus shipping) and get the activation fee reduced to $19.99.
Is it worth upgrading? If your current hotspot is meeting your needs, perhaps not.
But I couldn’t be happier having a hotspot worth using full time.
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[quote_box_center]Disclosure: We are not affiliated with Millenicom, we’re just customers ourselves. We don’t get any kickbacks if you sign-up with them. We share because we depend on technology in our full time travels, and we enjoy sharing what we’ve learned. It’s our gift.[/quote_box_center]
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