I was sent an AT&T Unite Explore WiFi Hotspot by NETGEAR to facilitate this review.
You might think that in 2016, when everybody has a cell phone, a mobile hotspot just isn’t necessary. But after using one for the past six weeks, I can tell you two things: a mobile hotspot is a much more practical WiFi solution than a phone, and this hotspot is a great choice, especially if you want parental controls.
Phone as Hotspot
I pretty much never ever go on public WiFi. I don’t feel safe using a public signal in a coffee shop or subway station, and they’re not always available anyway. So when I’m not home and need to get my computer online, I use my phone as a hotspot.
If you only need a hotspot occasionally, your phone might do just fine. I’ve used my cell phone as a hotspot many, many times on solo business trips over the years, and it’s worked well, although it does kick me off periodically.
I’m not always alone, though, and I’m not always in conditions where I would want to use my phone.
Over the summer we spent many weekends at a lake house that had no WiFi. For the first couple of times, when it was just me and my husband, we used my phone as a hotspot. Or I should say I did. He didn’t have a computer with him.
But on the other weekends, when our kids were with us, it quickly became apparent that my phone was not going to work, for the following reasons:
-If I wanted to make a phone call, everybody had to stop using the internet.
-If I left the house with my phone, nobody else could use the internet on their computers.
-On our drives to and from the lake house, my phone was doing double duty with both the hotspot and Waze running. The charger couldn’t keep up, and the phone got really hot.
-We all had to be relatively close to my phone in order to use the hotspot.
-We quickly went through my monthly data allowance, and each extra gigabyte was $15.
-My phone isn’t made to be around water, dust, or sand.
Benefits of the Unite Explore Hotspot
It was around this time that NETGEAR sent me the AT&T Unite Explore by NETGEAR to review. After activating it, I took it around the house to see where the strongest signal was. It turned out to be a window on the second floor, relatively far from where we usually used our computers. But there were no walls or windows between Unite Explore and most of the downstairs, and the signal was very strong.
There are two external antenna ports (on either side of the charging port, covered with little rubber plugs), so that you can boost your signal with an external antenna (not included).
The Unite Explore gets a 4G LTE/4G signal where available, which will give you download speeds many times faster than a 3G signal. We were able to stream Netflix using the hotspot with no problem. (Just make sure you adjust your Netflix playback settings first, so that you’re not streaming in HD, which could easily use a month’s worth of data in an hour; that setting is in “My Profile” on your Netflix account.)
Connect Multiple Devices
You can connect up to 15 devices at a time to this hotpot. I cannot imagine a scenario where you would want 15 different computers all using your metered WiFi at the same time, but there are many devices that can connect without really using much data the vast majority of the time (for example, security cameras that don’t constantly stream video, WiFi devices that monitor for things like water leaks, Wifi thermostats, and printers). With that in mind, the high number is a nice cushion. I mean, you wouldn’t want to remove your printer from WiFi every time you wanted to put another device on.
Don’t want to give out your WiFi password? You can give out a temporary guest password. You can even set a timer to disconnect the guest WiFi after a certain amount of time, while leaving the main WiFi operational.
Long Battery Life
The Unite Explore’s battery can last up to 22 hours on a signal charge. It comes with a charging cord.
It also has a handy feature where you can use the hotspot itself to charge your phone. It comes with a little adapter cord that attaches to the charging port, and you can plug in a USB charging cord to the other end. Don’t lose that adapter!
You have to turn on the Battery Boost feature when you want to charge your phone. You can find it at the bottom of the home screen.
The Unite Explore is not a dainty electronic device. It’s shock resistant in case you accidentally drop it from a few feet. It’s water resistant (it’s not waterproof, though, so if it gets wet, dry it off). And it’s dustproof. Bring it to the beach, the pool the lake, camping, whatever.
You can set a password on the hotspot itself, so that nobody can mess with the settings.
The Unite Explore has some pretty robust content control and scheduling features, but you have to set them up from a browser, not from the device itself.
While connected to the hotspot you go to http://attwifimanager and sign in. The password can be found on a sticker under the battery in the hotspot. It’s a pretty generic password so you’ll want to reset it, which you can do in the manager.
In the manager, under security, you can set up different schedules for when the WiFi is on. For example, if you wanted the WiFi to be on every day from 8am to 10pm, you could set that up to happen automatically.
If you sign up for an Open DNS account (which is free and just takes a minute), you can set a content filtering level for your hotspot. For example, you could set it on low and just filter out phishing sites, or you could put it on higher settings and also block porn and social media sites.
The website filter doesn’t need an outside account and works by either whitelisting (allowing) a list of sites that the hotspot can access (very handy with young children), or blacklisting sites that you don’t want.
The great part is, you can make exceptions for certain devices. So if you want to be able to go on all sites without restriction while your kids’ access is blacklisted or whitelisted, you can mark your device as unrestricted.
You can choose which band you want your hotspot to run on, or make it dual band. Or disable the WiFi altogether and make the internet accessible only through tethering (connecting a device directly to the hotspot instead of using WiFi). You can change screen brightness and time-out options for the hotspot. And you can change all sorts of settings that I don’t even understand. Don’t mess with those unless you know what you’re doing.
The cost for the device itself is only $49, with a 2-year contract (there may be an activation fee – check with AT&T). You can also buy the hotspot outright for $199.
There are multiple data plans to choose from, and how much each gigabyte of data costs is going to depend on your plan. I did find, however, that every single plan cost less per gigabyte than adding a gigabyte to my phone’s data plan. In most cases, much less. For example, the 5GB plan costs $50 per month, or $10 per GB.
You may also be able to add it to your cell phone data plan (NOT unlimited plans, though – that would be too good to be true) for a $20 monthly fee, and then share your monthly pool of data with the hotspot just like you would another cell phone.
To sum up, if you find yourself using your phone as a hotspot more than occasionally, or you don’t have that option and need to get online when you’re not at home, the AT&T Unite Explore is a great option with some serious parental controls and other features that you won’t find in most hotspots.