How to choose the right mobile hotspot

Mobile hotspots can save you when you're in a pinch and need Wi-Fi, but there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to data. Here are four tips to determine what the right mobile hotspot is for your needs.

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Mobile hotpsots are a necessity these days for everyone, not just road warriors and telecommuters. Maybe you find yourself at the beach and trying to download a new book to your Kindle device without Wi-Fi. Or, maybe you are stuck somewhere without free Wi-Fi and you want to stream a show on your tablet. And if you do find yourself on the road for work, a mobile hotspot can make sure you're on top of your game no matter your location. Depending on how often you need a mobile connection, there is a hotpsot that will suit your needs.

Determine your needs

Are you planning to use your mobile hotpsot infrequently? Perhaps you know you'll need it only a couple times a month, and therefore you aren't interested in investing in a second data plan. You can always use your smartphone as a mobile hotpsot, since most devices have this feature built in. The only hitch is that it's tied to your smartphone's data plan, so you'll want to make sure you increase the amount of data you use each month, which will also increase the cost of your overall phone bill. But if you know you'll use the data, it's a quick and easy way to ensure you'll have back up internet with you no matter where you go. Just keep in mind that this will also drain your battery, in addition to quickly zapping your monthly data allowances. If you think you'll need to use it more than once or twice a month, you might want to invest in a dedicated Wi-Fi mobile hotspot device.

Choose a carrier

If you have a cell phone plan, chances are you'll want to go with the same carrier for your mobile hotspot plan. But you don't necessarily have to, because when evaluating your needs, you'll want to make sure you are getting the best bang for your buck. Sometimes carriers run deals that let you add a hotspot to your plan for a low fee, or even for free, when you sign a new contract for a smartphone. So check out the deals at your carrier to find out if you can get a good deal on a mobile hotspot.

If you go with Verizon, you can go with a device like the Verizon Jetpack MiFi 6620L, which has some great reviews. It lets you use up to 15 devices at a time or tether one device from the charging port, and you can even use it as an external battery to charge your device. It costs $49.99 with a two-year agreement or $199.99 without a contract. Plans start at $30 per month for 4GB and go up from there, adding $20 for every additional 2GB.

If you go with AT&T, you can get a device like the GoPhone Mobile Hotspot, which has no annual contract. Every year you can renew your service if you want, depending on your own needs. The plans are a little more expensive at $25 per month for 2GB, $50 for 5GB and $75 for 8GB of data. Sprint offers some options too, including the ZTE Pocket Wi-Fi Hotspot, which is free with a two year service agreement. Plans start at $20 for 1GB and go up from there with 2GB at $25 per month, 4GB at $40 and 8GB at $70; for the power users, you can get 60GB for $225 per month.

Get 'free' data

Some mobile hotspots offer a free option, but the amount of data you can use per month is generally really low. Freedompop is one of the more popular options, but it does come with a few draw backs. First, you'll only get 500MB of free internet per month, which might be enough for a backup device you know you won't need to use regularly. Second, if you decide to get a Freedom Pop hotpsot, you need to make sure you call the customer service line to enroll in the free plan. Otherwise, it sets you up with an account with a free trial, and you'll start being charged once the free trial runs out. Finally, once you max out your 500MB of data for the month, you'll need to pony up for any additional gigabytes. The pricing is pretty reasonable at $18 for 2GB or $29 for 4GB for the month. But if you want to rollover your data, that will be an extra $4 charge.

Pay as you go

If you think that you'll need significantly more data during certain months over others, you can opt for a pay as you go option like Karma Hotspot. It comes with 1GB of data loaded onto your account upon purchase, and once you use that up, you pay $14 for every 1GB of data after that. The hotspot costs $99, but the data doesn't have any limitations or expiration dates, so you can stretch out that 1GB for months if you want. You can sync eight devices at a time to the Karma Hotspot, and it runs on Sprint's 4G WiMax network and 3G roaming network.

There are plenty of options you can choose from when deciding on a mobile hotspot plan. The most important step is to evaluate your usage needs to make sure you find a device and plan that suits you best.

This story, "How to choose the right mobile hotspot " was originally published by CIO.