AT&T’s Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot: great if you can keep those 5G expectations in check

Posted November 20th, 2017

Let us for a moment consider the magic and mystery of Wi-Fi. It’s all around us. Many of us use it every day. Perhaps we thought it was some sort of crazy magic when it first was unleashed to us 20 years ago, but now it’s something to get annoyed at when there’s too little of it, when it’s unavailable at all or when you’re asked to pay for it after you’ve already put in money to be somewhere such as an airport or hotel. We basically treat Wi-Fi like alcohol at a wedding.

But when it comes to how it works or what mystical signals have to bounce in our direction for us to stream “Stranger Things” in HD on an iPad, your guess is as good as mine. I’ve been covering tech for decades and I understand Wi-Fi about as well as I understand the combustion engine. (Spoiler: not super well.)

But one thing I have learned is that getting good Wi-Fi is all about the variables. A very good Wi-Fi device can be hampered by bad placement in a home, by interference, by bad router settings. A very cheap $30 Wi-Fi device might outperform a $400 super-router under the right (or very wrong) conditions and network settings. Sometimes it takes a lot of experimenting and guesswork and patience to get the best Wi-Fi performance.

I tried to keep that in mind as I played around with AT&T’s latest mobile hotspot device, the Nighthawk Mobile LTE Hotspot.  Despite its grippy outer surface and aspirational name, it’s basically the same kind of square-puck Wi-Fi travel buddy that many people have been using for years. You carry it around with you and it creates a Wi-Fi zone that your multiple phones, tablets, laptops and other devices can connect to wirelessly.

To do this, the Nighthawk uses AT&T’s 4G LTE network, accessing those streams of Internet to share with its connected clients. And that’s where things get interesting with the Nighthawk, especially if you live in Austin.

Austin is one of two cities (the other is Indianapolis) where AT&T is rolling out what it calls “5G Evolution,” a way to double LTE speeds by making the network denser with what it calls “Small cells” and by using software that adjusts to its surroundings. 

From AT&T: “... we continue to invest in upgrading our wireless network by adding small cells and using advanced technologies like carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM and layering on LTE-LAA capabilities. This denser, more advanced network enables the current evolution toward 5G. Small Cells are engineered to operate with the macro network to add coverage and capacity wherever it is needed Small cells inherently have Self Organizing Network (SON) capabilities built into the software which allow them to automatically adjust to their surroundings.”

Got all that? AT&T is using a variety of hardware and software techniques to squeeze more bandwidth out of its existing 4G LTE network and calling that “5G Evolution.” 

Speedtest.netDepending on what part of Austin you're trying to get online, the AT&T Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot can reach speeds of anywhere from 25 to 40 Mbps. This screenshot was taken near the Austin Convention Center.

But it’s not actually 5G. 5G is a standard that’s still being worked on, and if you begin to believe that buying a Nighthawk means you’ll be accessing a next-generation 5G network that will give you a jump in speed comparable to when 3G networks gave way to 4G, you’re going to be very disappointed. You’re going to have unrealistic expectations. You might get mad and throw this thing across the room; it certainly is shaped in a way that invites doing that.

AT&T’s perhaps-too-aggressive marketing — putting the phrase “5G” anywhere near this thing — feels like a mistake. If you charged admission for people to attend an advance screening of “The Last Jedi” but showed the audience a slightly enhanced version of 2015’s “The Force Awakens” with the title scratched out and replaced with “The Last Jedi (Evolution),” you’d have some very upset “Star Wars” fans.

Which is a shame because the Nighthawk is a very good Wi-Fi device, versatile and easy to carry around, and perfectly capable of giving most people what they want in a portable hotspot without the added hype and expectations of “5G Evolution.”

But that’s with one very big caveat: like any hotspot, it’s subject to the variables of wireless life. If you carry this thing with you a lot and you roam a lot all over town, you might find wildly inconsistent performance, particularly if you aren’t using it in areas with dense LTE service.

I took the Nighthawk with me walking and driving all over Austin, from the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail to northwest MoPac to deepest downtown. I drove it up and down IH-35, across 183, and into neighborhoods, stopping every so often to do speed tests on a phone, tablet and laptop multiple times.

It wasn’t scientific: I limited my testing to daytime and didn’t keep returning to the same spots, but I transferred large files to services such as Dropbox, used and Netflix’s to get a general idea of how the Nighthawk performs in different parts of Austin.

Fast.comDepending on what part of Austin you're trying to get online, the AT&T Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot can reach speeds of anywhere from 25 to 40 Mbps. This screenshot was taken at a Starbuck’s near the University of Texas at Austin.

The verdict: with a few small hitches, it performed as expected, with download speeds typically ranging from 15 Mbps to just topping 40 Mbps and upload speeds ranging anywhere from about 10 Mbps to about 30 Mbps. In a few dead spots around down near MoPac in West Austin, speeds slowed to less than 3 Mbps for downloads and uploads, but I only ran into those lower speeds a few times and only once or twice did the speeds drop so low it made the Internet unusable.

The Nighthawk provides two Wi-Fi networks, a 5Ghz band and a 2.4Ghz band. I tried both to make sure they were both usable, but typically I favored the speedier 5Ghz network.

When I asked AT&T where the best place in town would be to test out “5G Evolution,” I was told that the west campus area near the University of Texas and the area between the Austin Convention Center and Austin Hilton Downtown are dense spots, and that was confirmed with speeds of about 25-35 Mbps downloading and about 13-33 Mbps on uploads.

Dropbox.comDepending on what part of Austin you're trying to get online, the AT&T Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot can reach speeds of anywhere from 25 to 40 Mbps.

Uploading a 1-gigabyte video file to Dropbox took about 10 minutes near the Convention Center and about 14 minutes at a Starbucks on west campus.

But even testing multiple times on the same device produced different results only minutes later with different speed tests. The lesson being: don’t expect Wi-Fi to be rock-solid-consistent all the time, even if you stay in the same spot and use the same equipment. 

So what’s a potential customer of a product like the Nighthawk to do? My suggestion, if this is something you might want to buy, is to try it out and do your own testing. Take the device to your home, work and any coffee shops or social hangouts where you think you might use it. Not getting the results you think you’d want? AT&T says it’ll only charge you a restocking fee if you return the device within 14 days of a purchase.

The Nighthawk costs $50 with a two-year contract or $200 without one and wireless data plans for it start at about $38 a month.