A recent sunny and unseasonably warm day in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park provided the perfect opportunity to test AT&T’s latest mobile hotspot, the MiFi Liberate. After settling down in a sufficiently isolated spot with decent cell reception, I put the mobile Wi-Fi maker through its paces to see if it truly lived up to its name.
Like other hotspots, the Liberate lets you connect up to 10 devices to the internet via a cellular network. Unlike other hotspots, AT&T’s newest 4G-LTE version comes with a large 2.8-inch touchscreen and a microSD slot for sharing or streaming videos, music, and photos.
The touchscreen definitely makes the Liberate bulky. At about 4 x 3 x 0.34 inches, it’s similar in size and shape to Apple’s Magic Trackpad. That means you probably won’t be stuffing it in most pockets. Still, the value that touchscreen adds more than makes up for the Liberate’s lack of portability. Even in the noonday sunlight the bright LCD was easy to read. There are 10 icons you can scroll through, each giving you quick access to things like data usage, connected devices, and general settings. The touchscreen also made setup a cinch. I was able to connect both my iPad and iPhone in about 30 seconds.
But the big draw for any hotspot is battery life and speed. And this is where Liberate really delivers. On average I got about 9 Mbps down and 11 Mbps up in my testing, spectacular for any mobile hotspot. Battery life is an equally impressive 16 hours (57 in standby). This gets reduced as you increase the number of connected devices, but it should still last you days before needing a recharge.
The Liberate claims to offer a 30-foot reception range, which I found to be accurate. I played YouTube videos simultaneously on my tablet and phone and walked 35 feet before the four Wi-Fi bars were reduced to one. The videos played hiccup free until that point on both devices.
Also unique to the Liberate MiFi is a microSD expansion slot, which basically lets you turn it into a 32GB media streamer. To start streaming content on a microSD card, you simply touch the Media Center icon, enter an ATT URL into your mobile device’s browser, and enter the MiFi admin password. There’s no additional app needed to view the pictures and videos on the card.
Like many of its subsidized phones, AT&T practically gives away the Liberate. It currently costs $30 with a two-year contract, but the price quickly goes up from there. You can expect to pay anywhere from $40 to $70 extra per month depending on your data needs. That’s in addition to the $20/month you’ll pay just to use the device. It’s not cheap, but if you travel a lot and need to bring Wi-Fi wherever you go, we haven’t tested anything better then the Liberate.