Phone-based mobile hotspots improving in speed, battery life

Is it better to use a dedicated mobile hotspot device such as the MiFi, or to rely on the hotspot in your phone?

Although phone manufacturers have been building hotspot features into their handsets for years, such technology has often produced slow connection speeds and chewed up the phone’s battery. With a dedicated hotspot, you have yet another gadget to carry in your bag, but traditionally such devices have pumped out faster data speeds.

These days, however, with the arrival of new 4G data networks and more power-efficient phones, the situation has changed.

The Novatel MiFi 5792 portable hotspot from AT&T.

To see just how much it has changed, we gathered a handful of recent phones—the HTC Droid DNA (Verizon), the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD (Verizon), the Nokia Lumia 822 (Verizon), and the Samsung Galaxy S III (AT&T), as well as the 18-month-old Sony Ericsson Xperia Play 4G (AT&T)—and compared their speed and battery usage with those of a Novatel MiFi 5792 portable hotspot device from AT&T. The results were surprising.

Assault on batteries

Our tests revealed impressive battery life from the MiFi mobile hotspot, no doubt due to its large battery. Nevertheless, the hotspots in the LTE phones we tested survived for well longer than a single workday on one charge.

To test the battery life of the assorted devices, we charged them up and turned on each model's hotspot feature, which forms a small Wi-Fi network with which other devices can connect. We connected an Origin P170HM laptop to the resulting networks and ran a script that kept a constant stream of webpages, movies, and music flowing to the laptop. We then noted the times at which the devices’ batteries failed.

The Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD.

Our oldest phone, the Xperia Play, ran 6 hours, 47 minutes before dying. The Galaxy S III survived nearly 50 percent longer, with an impressive 10 hours of battery life. The Droid DNA lasted nearly 11 hours, while the Lumia 822 Windows Phone 8 handset ran just a few minutes longer. The Droid Razr Maxx HD was truly impressive: It lasted 16 hours, 40 minutes, just about the same as the MiFi 5792.

To look at the power efficiency of the mobile hotspots in the phones, we put all the phones into airplane mode, set the screens to the same brightness, and looped a 720p video on each device until its battery died. Comparing the hotspot tests with the video-playback tests, you can see—for most of the phones—that the video tests gobbled up battery life much sooner.

Although the Motorola phone's video results fell short of its hotspot results by 4.5 hours, it still lasted longer than any other phone. The video results for the Nokia and HTC phones scaled pretty well with their hotspot results. The Samsung handset, however, ranked second in our video test but landed behind the Nokia and HTC in our hotspot test, which means that the hotspot feature on that phone is relatively less efficient. Also interesting is the fact that the test results for the Sony Ericsson phone were almost identical—that is, acting as a hotspot was just as taxing on that phone's battery as playing a high-definition movie file for nearly 7 hours.

DeviceBattery
capacity
Battery life:
Hotspot mode
Battery life:
Video streaming
Novatel MiFi 5792 (AT&T) 2900mAh 16 hours, 41 minutes n/a
Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD (Verizon) 3300mAh 16 hours, 40 minutes 12 hours, 11 minutes
Nokia Lumia 822 (Verizon) 1800mAh 11 hours, 7 minutes 7 hours, 5 minutes
HTC Droid DNA (Verizon) 2020mAh 10 hours, 51 minutes 6 hours, 5 minutes
Samsung Galaxy S III (AT&T) 2100mAh 9 hours, 59 minutes 7 hours, 33 minutes
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play 4G (AT&T) 1500mAh 6 hours, 47 minutes 6 hours, 50 minutes

n/a = Not applicable.

Phones rival dedicated hotspot in data speeds

In our data-speed tests, the new LTE phones kept pace with the mobile hotspot in download speed, and exceeded the MiFi in upload speed.

The Xperia Play was sluggish, with a download speed of just 2.8 megabits per second and an upload speed of 1.0 mbps. Although the Xperia Play promises 4G performance, its AT&T HSPA+ service was simply unable to match the LTE speeds of the more recent devices we tested. The MiFi proved to be nine times faster than the Xperia Play, with download speeds averaging 25.2 mbps and uploads averaging around 10.6 mbps.

Across the recent phones, results were relatively flat. The Galaxy S III was the slowest, with 19.2-mbps downloads and 9.5-mbps uploads. The Droid Razr Maxx HD was the fastest among the phones in downloads, clocking in at 23.9 mbps, while the Lumia 822 posted the fastest average upload speed, reaching 13.9 mbps.

DeviceDownload speed (mbps)Upload speed (mbps)
Novatel MiFi 5792 (AT&T) 25.2 10.6
Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD (Verizon) 23.9 13.6
Nokia Lumia 822 (Verizon) 21.8 13.9
HTC Droid DNA (Verizon) 21.4 12.3
Samsung Galaxy S III (AT&T) 19.2 9.5
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play 4G (AT&T) 2.8 1.0

Our test results suggest that recent smartphones do a respectable job as portable hotspots. Their batteries lasted long enough to survive through most workdays, and their data speeds were similar to those of the stand-alone Novatel MiFi. Notably, all of the LTE phones we tested were much closer to the MiFi in battery life and data speeds than the older, non-LTE Sony Ericsson Xperia Play.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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