When we live in a world where every phone is a mobile hotspot, and you can buy a SIM card with unlimited data quite easily, I've always wondered why networking companies have bothered with portable mobile routers. Unless you have mobile broadband in your house and want to be able to take that connection wherever you go, they always seemed a bit redundant. But then I actually tried one for myself and changed my mind. They won't be for everyone, but I can see the use here.
The device I was using was Netgear's Nighthawk MR1100, a small square device that offers up to 1Gbps speeds, connects to up to 20 devices at once, and has a 5,040 mAh battery that's supposed to last for 24 hours of use. Not having a second SIM card filled with data, and refusing to go out and buy a new one, I figured the best way to test it was to stick my phone's SIM card inside. I could keep my data connection by connecting to one of the Nighthawk's two WiFi networks (2.4GHz and 5GHz), though I'd be cut off from the standard voice and text services in the process. Which isn't a huge issue since I can be contacted in any number of ways via the internet.
And yes, I still use the old-school insecure stuff where I can, because I'd rather not trust all my communication to Facebook, WhatsApp, or any other evil-looking company that runs a messaging service like that.
Setup was easy enough, and it's much like any other router. You connect to the network, navigate to a specific URL as specified in the setup menu, and go from there. Set your password if you're not feeling generous/stupid, reconnect, and away you go. You just have to make sure you're on the right frequency, because I found my devices kept defaulting to the 5GHz network that wasn't really working at the time. But the settings in the setup webpage (or the Netgear app that does the exact same thing, only not in a crappy mobile browser) let you hide one of them so you'll always be on the right one.
Once setup was complete, I popped the router into my bag, and off I went into the world to see what happened. I went armed with a SIM removal tool in my wallet, just in case things didn't work out and I had to slip the SIM card back into my phone for one reason or another. Thankfully I didn't need it, because aside from being disconnected from regular mobile airwaves, I didn't actually notice any difference. Considering I was still connected to the internet, and it was still the same signal I was used to as normal, that isn't a huge surprise. The only thing I couldn't easily do was manually switch back to 3G, which I have been known to do when Three's 4G coverage gets a bit sketchy and congested.
Of course, since I was using a single device, it wasn't any different from using my actual phone – but the router becomes much more useful if you have another device that doesn't have its own data connection. If I have to use my laptop out and about I'll generally use my phone as a hotspot because I have unlimited data, it's more secure, and probably faster than some of the free public WiFi networks that are out there. Using my phone as a hotspot isn't inconvenient as is a bit of a drain on my battery, which can get problematic after long periods of use. A dedicated device means you're getting the same end result, but without draining your phone's battery. After all, if the MR1100 lasts for 24 hours' worth of use, then you don't need to worry about it losing power and finding yourself disconnected from everything.
It was quite useful for playing Pokémon Go as well. That game is still a notorious battery drain, and throwing a hotspot connection into the mix only makes that worse. Having both my phones connected to a separate device helped stave off the inevitable battery loss, though being Pokémon Go it was only a matter of time before I needed to top them both up.
If you do find yourself without enough phone power, the MR1100 can be used as a USB battery pack, too. Obviously its battery isn't very big compared to some dedicated battery packs out there, but it'll give you a bit of a boost in an emergency. It's a nice addition, but since a large battery pack costs a fraction of the price of this thing, I'd recommend investing in one if you think you'll need it.
Interestingly, the router does flash up a notification when you get a text message, though with it stored in my bag I didn't see that until much later. Sadly the same wasn't true for phone calls, and you'd only find out if they left you a voicemail message. In a way that helps screen out the bullshit and the scammers, though I found it ended up being a slight hindrance when I needed to ring my landlord about a leak. My SIM card was in the router, not my phone, and I wasn't able to call the office as a result. Kind of annoying on those rare occasions when you need to make a proper phone call.
Annoyingly, the security on this thing isn't fantastic. While you can password protect your connections like any other wireless router, the screen on the front displays the password for anyone who can see it. It's not such a big issue if it's hidden away in a bag or a pocket, but you're not going to want to put it out on a desk for the world to see. That said, you can set it up to ask for your SIM's PIN number every time it powers on, which means losing it won't be the end of the world. It'll be a pain to replace, but it also means you know someone won't get away with using your connection for very long.
Of course, a mobile router is a very specific type of device, and if you're the kind of person that only ever uses their phone outside the scope of your home/office WiFi network then you're not going to want one because it's a completely pointless addition. For you lot, it's just connectivity with extra steps, and those extra steps are not worth it.
But if you are someone who wanders round with five phones catching Pokémon, or whatever it is you would need five phones for, along with a laptop and maybe a Nintendo Switch, this type of device might be worth looking into. They're not cheap: the MR1100 itself costs just shy of £275. If you think that's a lot, though, the slightly newer 2Gbps MR2100 costs £390. That one comes with a touchscreen, but it goes to show just how pricey portability can be.
Of course this is assuming you're a single person like me, using this router to power their own devices. It could be quite useful for families, letting multiple people share a connection without having to pay for them all to have their own SIM cards. The fact that the MR1100 itself has built in parental controls and data monitoring is another bonus, especially if you have kids that don't understand how much data is eaten up when watching the latest Netflix originals.
Another added bonus is that Netgear's mobile routers have microSD card slots that offer multimedia streaming. In other words, any media saved onto the card will be available to devices connected to the WiFi network, which is an extra bonus for everyone. Not only does it mean you can offload big video files from your phone and free up space for the thousand pictures of your dog that you just took, it also means – if we go back to the parental control angle for a second – kids can enjoy lots of pre-approved content on their own devices. No sharing (because sharing always leads to arguments over who wants to watch what), and it means someone isn't tasked with loading the same files onto multiple devices. Just sort out the one card and you're good to go.
Will I be sticking with the SIM card in a mobile router? No, because I don't really need it and it does end up being an extra device to keep charged up. It may last 24 hours on a single charge, but it also takes a while to fully recharge as well. And its use as an external battery pack is limited by the relatively meagre capacity. Plus, this thing costs a couple hundred pounds which prices out a lot of people. Yeah, there are some advantages to be had, but for the most part money is a huge factor. It's not painful to make a switch, but you just have to figure out whether coughing up that much is actually worth all the effort.