How We Test Cellular Modems and Hotspots
The increasing reach of expansive network infrastructure and rapid data transmission capabilities has led to greater connectivity through mobile cellular modems and hotspots. In this context, it's crucial to understand the testing procedures we employ when evaluating these modems and hotspots.
Living in an era of perpetual connectivity, where social media updates, location check-ins, and a ceaseless influx of emails dominate our lives, a dependable cellular modem has become an indispensable tool for those who are constantly on the digital move. The availability of extensive network coverage coupled with ever-escalating data speeds that can rival traditional home broadband services has elevated these gadgets to the status of common necessities. Here’s an insight into our hotspot testing methodology.
In addition to rigorous controlled assessments, we have intentionally chosen to evaluate these interconnected devices across a spectrum of real-world scenarios. After all, the true value of a modem lies not merely in its performance against a single piece of laboratory equipment, but in how effectively it functions when linked to a carrier’s intricate web of existing base stations and transmission equipment.
Throughout history, cellular modems have typically fallen into two categories: USB sticks and wireless hotspots. The former is designed to plug into a standard full-sized USB port on a laptop, bestowing cellular connectivity upon a single device. The latter, on the other hand, can establish connections either via USB to a single device or function autonomously as a Wi-Fi hotspot. This functionality allows it to transmit cellular data to and from any Wi-Fi-enabled device, such as tablets, smartphones, or computers.
Device Selection Process at Consumerreviews.tv
At Consumerreviews.tv, our approach to selecting devices for evaluation takes into account the evolving landscape of the cellular modem market. Given the relatively sluggish pace of new device releases, we focus on testing hotspots that exhibit exceptional modem quality or showcase innovative features. This includes attributes such as novel Wi-Fi capabilities or access to emerging 5G networks. We prioritize devices that offer notable advancements, steering clear of those with lackluster performance due to subpar modems, particularly among budget-friendly options. Such underperforming devices, identifiable through their specification sheets, are excluded from our testing as they do not meet our recommended standards. Additionally, we have discontinued testing dedicated USB modems, a category that has seen diminished relevance. Hotspots, which can also function as USB modems while offering enhanced functionalities, have become our primary focus.
Our comprehensive testing process involves subjecting each device to rigorous evaluation through a series of ten rounds spread across multiple days and conducted in at least four distinct locations, each spaced at least half a mile apart. The testing setup employs an Android smartphone equipped with 802.11ax Wi-Fi support to run the Ookla Speedtest.net application. It’s worth noting that Ookla is a subsidiary of Ziff Davis, the parent company of PCMag.com. The testing sequence involves successive trials of several devices before transitioning to a new location for the subsequent round. Notably, external antenna ports are not considered in our tests.
Three primary parameters guide our assessment: speed (both download and upload), range (encompassing both cellular and Wi-Fi signal strength), and battery life. To evaluate speed, we employ Speedtest, which measures metrics such as latency (ping time) and download and upload speeds, quantified in megabits per second (Mbps). We conduct this test a minimum of ten times consecutively, calculating average values for each parameter. Wi-Fi range is scrutinized in a controlled laboratory environment where signal strength and speed are gauged on connected devices at increasing distances until connectivity is lost. Furthermore, we utilize the carrier’s software to measure the RF signal strength of the device.
Battery life assessment involves a methodical depletion test, wherein we stream online media on a device connected to a fully charged cellular modem until the battery is entirely drained.
Interpreting the Results
Our testing methodology prioritizes the sequence-based evaluation of multiple devices within the same location. This approach minimizes the impact of varying network conditions on individual outcomes. For results to be considered truly valid and comparable, it’s essential that the tests are conducted in the same location and approximately the same timeframe.
Typically, it takes approximately five to six rounds of testing before discernible patterns emerge, with one modem consistently outperforming others by margins ranging from 5 to 20%. Smaller discrepancies in speed results are often insignificant as they could be reversed in subsequent testing rounds.
It’s important to acknowledge that our testing strategy is not ideally suited for providing an all-encompassing assessment of network performance. Our evaluations are conducted over a few days in a specific city, typically New York, where our operations are based. While the results offer valid grounds for modem comparison, they do not provide insights into network coverage or speeds beyond the confines of our test city. For a comprehensive analysis of network performance on a broader scale, we recommend consulting our annual Fastest Mobile Networks test.