Update (10/23/2020): This was written before “5G”, the real 5G, rolled out. I am waiting on the new Netgear Nighthawk for AT&T.
I have been looking in to several options for family that are in a very rural area with excellent LTE coverage but zero practical options for internet service. I’m not going to go in to the SIM car process but rather, discuss the actual devices I have tested.
Long story short, the AT&T Netgear Nighthawk M1 aka MR1100 is by far the BEST option out there for speed but fewer advanced options. How good? Well my phone got (best numbers down/up) 168/40 and the Netgear got 140/24. It SMOKED the Mofi 4500 that got 50/50 which never got Carrier Aggregation working. Using built in domain blocking makes things faster, safer and more secure.
The devices I tried were an unlocked Netgear ($150) and a Mofi 4500 V2 ($320), both from eBay. The Mofi holds its value quite well, so you’d think it is the better unit considering retail prices for each are pretty close.
MOFI4500–4GXeLTE V2 is one hell of a device. If you really want to get in to a permanent solution you can wall mount, add multiple Ethernet cables, and really want to get in to advanced tuning for reliability and speed, this is it. The GUI for the admin is a little confusing for folks that use just wizards to set up their devices in an automated way, but it is a serious device to maintain guest networks and even throttle specific devices.
The Mofi was plagued with problems when I updated to the latest firmware (as of 11/2019), after that the device would not recognize the SIM as fast as it did before. It went from 5 minutes to nearly 45 minutes. I reset the Sierra module a few times, tried to use generic and other firmware, but I could not get it to work reliably again. Even before the firmware I had real issues with it never using Carrier Aggregation, so my download speeds capped at 70Mbps once, however, the uploads were better than the Netgear at up to 50Mbps.
I say that maybe I have a bad device that was abused by the previous owner and should have bought new.
The Netgear Nighthawk on AT&T LTE was just BONKERS GOOD. Out of the box, without the Mimo add-on antenna, it was nailing 280Mbps in outside Google in Sunnyvale CA, and then in parts of Oregon 160Mbps was reliable. I sailed way over 40gb of data including streaming John Wick 3 in 4k on an Apple TV with skipping, pausing and jumping the timeline randomly exhibiting virtually no lag.
The downsides for the device are few, but also noteworthy for the nerds among you. The battery has a known overheating issue while charging, this is a fire hazard. I got a 2.4a charger and used it to bypass the battery; problem solved. The reboot of the device means you need to unplug the ethernet and reconnect it. Some firmware was supposed to fix it, but I needed this about 50% of the time. The admin panel is not very advanced when it comes to advanced configs, but that is only if you get nit-picky, however enough to block the biggest offenders. The 5ghz network band for wifi is faster than the 2.4ghz, but without a password and open it is the best f both worlds. I personally prefer wiring it via ethernet to a mesh router because the range is weak for wifi. Also, this is a mobile device, you really don’t have a great permanent mounting option. The MicroSD car is not really a NAS as much as it requires you to go through the admin panel to get to it. Maybe I am doing it wrong.
There is a Mimo antenna that you can use to improve the signal, but universally my experience is that the inbound speed tends to take a hit while the upload speed increases. There may be areas where it makes no difference at all. Save your money.
MAKE MY HOTSPOT FASTER:
Ok, so here is something a lot of you didn’t really dive in to that can #1 increase speed and #2 increase your privacy. In the admin panels of these devices you can block domains, think of it like a net nanny or parental controls that you can add to. I go and block dozens of ad servers and trackers that make sites bloated and slow. I’ll go in to that in more detail in a second, but just know, you can speed things up by blocking ads in the device and NOT using a browser adblocker.
Browser based adblockers are bad, DNS is good:
When you go to a web site a sequence of events happens. The first is sending the name of the site you are looking for to a domain name server (aka DNS). This resolves the name of your site to the IP address of the server it resides on. After that there is a connection open and another handshake between the server and the browser occurs, resulting in content being sent (“served”) to you. Then it gets rendered (aka “painted”) in the browser. Now the adblocker you may have in the browser is the last line of defense before the content gets painted in the browser. The problem is that you have taken all that time to look up and retrieve stuff and WORSE YET, there are adblocker-blockers. NY Times for one detects most adblockers and hits you with a paywall that nags you to donate or subscribe. To be clear, paywalls will exist regardless of any method that does not log you in automatically. All of this needs processing power and memory, but most people these days are powerful enough to be immune from this. Blocking a site/ad with DNS does not trigger an adblocker-blocker.
There are services like OpenDNS that have built-in ad site blockers, but they offer fewer options than manually blocking things.
So by using a net nanny/parental controls or editing the blocklist yourself, the device will stop the process from the moment it is requested. There is additional upside to this. In the process of rendering/painting to the browser, we get what is known as render-blocking. This is the proces that prevents items from loading, or blocks your ability to click on something until some code in the background is ready to let you procede. There are analytics services like CrazyEgg that track your mouse’s every movement. Then there are others that attach themselves to buttons that detect clicks, sometimes click-jacking and sending you someplace else. You’ve been there, click on something and get something else, it stinks.
All of this also increases your privacy when you block some of the bigest offenders like Googleadservices, Doubleclick, Taboola, Outbrain, Optimizely, Crashlytics, Scorecardresearch, just to name a few.
So what we have done here is make the loading faster, increased your privacy, and decreased your data usage, that while on an unlimited plan may not be a big deal, but if you get poor bandwidth, every little bit helps.
Level-up with PiHole and VPN:
Ok, so you may not want to do this unless you want to get techie, but believe me, it is super worth it. You can build a PiHole (https://pi-hole.net/) It is a mini computer based on a $10 Raspberry Pi (https://www.raspberrypi.org/) that is the DNS server for your home network. There are blacklists and user contributed forums with all sorts of amazing information. These are updated frequently, and you can even see the traffic and simply click a link to block suspicious domains, or deactivate it for a specified period of time. It really makes my life easier.
There is also OnionPi and PiVPN (http://www.pivpn.io/) that can do a lot for privacy though it does not block ads.