T-Mobile doesn't charge you for going over your monthly data quota with your Sonic mobile hotspot device, but the device's isn't always consistent in its performance.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I have spent the last week testing the latest main entry into the stand-alone mobile hotspot category, the Sonic from T-Mobile (a unit of Deutsche Telekom(:DT)).
For those of you unfamiliar with this type of device, it creates a WiFi hotspot that connects to a cellular data network, allowing users to connect laptops and tablets that lack wireless data connectivity to the Internet remotely.
They allow users to avoid the "public" WiFi at places such as cafes, airports and hotels and the related security issues, which include identity theft.
These devices are often referred to generically as "MiFi," after the initial product with this functionality, from Novatel(:NVTL). But MiFi is a trademarked name, so using it broadly for these devices is like calling all tablets "iPads" or every Android a "Droid," which is a Verizon(:VZ)-licensed trademark that does not mean anything except a royalty payment from Verizon to Lucasfilm.
So what is significant about the Sonic device and why does it warrant a prominent review?
Well, T-Mobile is the only remaining carrier to offer a service plan that does not charge the owner for going over the monthly quota.
Let's say you buy a 5 gigabyte plan for $50 per month. If you exceed this quota, T-Mobile will slow down your service dramatically instead of charging you per unit of data consumed. I think many customers will find this kind of plan to be much more attractive than those from the competition: Sprint Nextel(:S), Verizon and AT&T(:T). Yes, I know Sprint gives you 6 gigabytes for $50 instead of 5 gig, but still.
Aside from the price, what about the performance of this latest T-Mobile mobile hotspot product? First, I need to tell you how I tested the product. I conducted all speed tests using speedtest.net on an Apple(:AAPL) iPad 1, three different Google(:GOOG) Chromebooks, one MacBook Pro and one Dell(:DELL) Windows PC laptop. I set the server to be one of the closest ones consistently in all tests. I compared the speeds of the T-Mobile Sonic with the the following products: Novatel MiFi LTE on Verizon, Novatel MiFi WiMAX on Sprint, Samsung LTE mobile hotspot on Verizon, Motorola(:MMI) Droid Pro on Verizon, Samsung Nexus S WiMAX on Sprint, Samsung Galaxy S II on AT&T, and the embedded AT&T HSPA modem on the Apple iPad 1.
So what's the verdict on speed?
The T-Mobile Sonic HSPA mobile hotspot delivered a dramatically wide range of speeds. Download speeds ranged from dial-up speeds to 15 megabytes. Upstream speeds ranged from dial-up speeds to 2 meg. Latency ranged mostly from 50 to 200 milliseconds, although sometimes materially more.
With those wide ranges, what were the averages? I found that a "normal" or "average" scenario was 8 meg down and 1.5 meg up, with an 80ms ping latency. Those are decent numbers, especially considering the favorable pricing described earlier.
They don't, however, touch the performance of the Verizon LTE devices, which deliver a relatively consistent 15 meg symmetric, with a low 40ms latency ping. The performance of Verizon's LTE network is simply in a class by itself.
All the other devices delivered performance inferior to the T-Mobile Sonic. Whether Sprint, AT&T or Verizon's EVDO network, none of them could touch 8 meg average download speeds, although some of them largely matched the T-Mobile Sonic's upstream and ping latency performance data.
I found one major problem with the T-Mobile Sonic: consistency. As far as the performance is concerned, the throughput and latency varied widely. An average downstream/upstream speed of 8meg/1.5meg is simply not worth as much as an average of less than half of those numbers, if often enough you get speeds that resemble dial-up. Yes, sometimes I got 15 meg down, but sometimes I got 15K down. That's a variance of 1,000 times. Same with upstream speeds and the ping latency.
In contrast, I found most of the other devices on most of the other networks to be a lot more consistent. Verizon's LTE performance is almost scary in its consistency, delivering the same kind of in-a-class-by-itself performance everywhere I went.
In addition to the speeds, I also encountered random connectivity errors with the T-Mobile Sonic. Sometimes it would not connect at all. Sometimes it would connect -- or at least so it said -- but there would be no throughput at all.
There is no way for me to know right now whether these wide variances in performance and the various glitches in consistency and connectivity are the fault of the T-Mobile network or this particular device. Perhaps this unit is a little bit of a lemon, perhaps not. I will continue to test this device for another two weeks so that I can continue to refine my results and conclusion.
Speaking of continued testing, while I tested the T-Mobile Sonic in several towns, I will be having the opportunity to widen the scope of the geographic inquiry in the coming days and weeks. It will be interesting to see whether my test results, both in terms of consistency and speeds, will change in these additional geographies.
On the positive side, the T-Mobile Sonic comes with a thick 2,200 mAh battery, bigger than that of any other competitor as far as I can recall. Indeed, the battery life seemed to be very good, moderately better than the Novatel products. Everyone including Samsung should copy the approach of using a battery that's 2,200 mAh or larger.
I do have one major complaint about T-Mobile's pricing plans. While T-Mobile should be lauded for its lack of overage charges, it does penalize some users of this product for seemingly no good reason. Specifically, if you sign up for a two-year contract, you pay $50 for 5 gig per month of service. However, if you bring your own device or want to pay month by month, you get only 3 gig per month. Why shouldn't you get 5 gig for the same $50 then too? If you bring your own device, you're not taking a subsidy, so really you should get more bits or pay less -- not the other way around.
How does this pricing compare to Verizon? If you don't want to sign up for a two-year contract, Verizon offers you the ability to simply pay month by month, and the price is $50 for 5 gig -- the same as the contract price.
T-Mobile does have some very good options if you are willing to commit to a two-year contract, however. If you are willing to pay the full up-front price of the device -- $175 -- you pay only $40 for 5 gig. In addition, if you also have a circuit-switched phone plan with T-Mobile, the price drops another $10 to $30. These are excellent prices for two-year contracts. It's too sad that T-Mobile penalizes people who are going month to month, when Verizon doesn't.
Overall, my conclusion is mixed. On the one hand, the T-Mobile Sonic has a bigger (i.e., better) battery than any other product of its kind. In addition, the speeds are faster than all competitors save for Verizon's LTE products. Lastly, for a customer willing to sign up for a two-year contract, the pricing policy is the most favorable in the market. All in all, these are very strong points that should yield close to an 8 out of 10 or perhaps even a 9 out of 10.
The most serious drawback is the inconsistency in performance and connectivity. It's not yet possible for me to tell to which extent this is as a result of T-Mobile's network or this particular device. The other drawback is the price penalty you have to pay if you bring your own device to T-Mobile and want to pay on a month-to-month basis.
If I can get convinced that the stability/consistency of this T-Mobile Sonic device is improved to a level on par with most of its competitors, I would award it at least an 8 out of 10. In the meantime, however I have to leave it at a good -- but far from excellent -- 6 out of 10.
My advice for a potential buyer: Buy this device and see if you can get comfortable with its consistency of performance and stability of connection. If after 10 or so days you are not happy, you can always hand it back to T-Mobile. If you are happy with the consistency and stability, you likely will be a very happy customer overall, given the product's other very strong attributes and benefits.
At the time of writing, Wahlman was long Apple, Google and Qualcomm.