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TheStreet Open House

Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspots Can Be Draining

Stocks in this article: S VZ T

Getting mobile WiFi is easy. Getting it to actually work? Not so easy.

Here is one big, fat, glorious gimme for us business users from the smart-device wars: Mobile hotspots are getting baked into everything from mega devices like the Motorola (MOT) Droid and HTC EVO to portable mobile modems like Sprint's (S) Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot from Sierra Wireless (SWIR - Get Report) and Verizon's (VZ) MiFi 2200. (Sprint also has a MiFi.) I, along with members of my digital content company, have been testing these devices in markets across the country since they hit the market at the beginning of last year. Without question, when it works, mobile Wi-Fi jumps to the top of the dang-handy list: These devices turn even the most basic notebook computer, portable camera, or even an Apple (AAPL - Get Report) iPod Touch into a Web-enabled tool that works in an airport, a job site or even driving down the road.

That assumes, of course, that you can actually get these hotspots to work. Mobile Wi-Fi is dependent on the same inherently unstable cellular networks that consistently frustrate phone users. Carrier coverage can be uneven, local cells get overloaded, batteries fade and system upgrades degrade overall quality of older devices.

So to keep you connected -- and sane -- on the road, here is my guide to making the most of your spiffy new mobile hotspot:

It's a 30-day purchase process.
Commercials, branding and network huffing and puffing aside, the fact is, there really is no way to know if Verizon, Sprint or AT&T (T) mobile hotspots will work for you unless you actually test them in your home, office or town. Most carriers offer a 30-day trial period on sales before sealing a two-year contract. Take advantage of it. Shop around, get the device you think best matches your needs, then use it like a mad person for a few weeks. If you get reasonable coverage, keep the device. If not, return it and move on to the next carrier. I realize we all have better things to do with our lives than test cell phones and modems, but we live in free market. If you buy a mobile hotspot and just assume it will work -- and it doesn't -- you really only have yourself to blame.

It's battery assisted, not battery powered
No matter what phone or modem you use, turning cellular networks into local Wi-Fi hotspots is a power-intensive process. Even stripped-down modems such as the Sprint Overdrive and super phones such as the HTC EVO can have battery lives as awful as three hours when in Wi-Fi mode. But a big note: You do not want to leave your device all the time. When its charged fully, unplug it. (If your device doesn't tell you when it's fully charged, like the Sprint MiFi, good luck.) Don't start your car when your phone is plugged into a car charger. And for heavens sake don't leave your smartphone baking in a hot vehicle. That literally kills your battery in just a few hours.

Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade
Mobile hotspots are a fast-moving, fast-developing market in which carriers are improving service, tinkering with settings and otherwise messing with their networks to offer more services. That means you have to spend time keeping your device in sync with what carriers are doing with their networks. So read the manuals, find the upgrade screens on your smartphones and make sure the latest firmware is installed, the up-to-date operating systems are running and overall, your device has as much network resources, such as memory, as it can have. Mobile Wi-Fi gets stupid fast. So you need to be smart.

Bottom Line: Mobile Wi-Fi is a handy business tool. But it takes a real time to keep it sharp.

>To submit a news tip, email: tips@thestreet.com.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on Fox News and The WB.

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