Inseego’s MiFi M2100 5G UW ($399.99) is the first real gigabit 5G hotspot widely available in the US. It shows the true potential of millimeter-wave 5G as wireless fiber, a connection that’s fast enough to bring broadband speeds not just to one device, but to groups, classes, or teams of gadgets. With a 30-device limit and Wi-Fi 6 to reduce interference, the M2100 is ready for team connectivity. Verizon’s millimeter-wave network, unfortunately, still isn’t.
Verizon’s first M1000 was a massive hotspot with a noisy fan and performance problems. The M2100, on the other hand, is the size and shape of a regular hotspot, if a large one, at 5.9 by 2.2 by 0.7 inches (HWD) and 7.4 ounces, and it actually delivers gigabit speeds from Verizon 5G cell sites.
All of my hotspot reviews usually have a section on why you should buy a hotspot, but the reason is clearer for the M2100 than for other devices. Using the hotspot mode on your phone tends to have a relatively low device limit—5 or 10 connected at the same time—and the Wi-Fi signal isn’t particularly powerful. The M2100, which supports 30 devices and works well to a tested distance of around 80 feet, isn’t a hotspot for just you—it’s a hotspot for sharing with a group.
The team-oriented appeal of the M2100 also underscores the other reason people usually buy hotspots. Often, hotspots are paid for by groups, businesses, or institutions that want to offer internet access, but don’t want to pay for each individual employee or user’s cell phone bill. That’s going to be the major market here, too.
Verizon’s current unlimited plans offer truly unlimited 5G usage, including on hotspots. That’s great for a team, as long as you’re in a 5G coverage area. The plans only offer up to 30GB/month of 4G hotspot usage, which isn’t enough for a primary home or team connection.
The M2100 has a clear, sharp monochrome touch screen on its front face. The screen lets you monitor your data usage, change Wi-Fi settings, and keep track of who’s connected to your hotspot. More options are available through a web portal, including port filtering and forwarding, guest network, Wi-Fi band usage and channels, bandwidth (up to 80MHz, not the 160MHz maximum allowed in Wi-Fi 6), firewall, MAC filter, and manual DNS. The one major category you’ll find on a home Wi-Fi hotspot that you don’t get here is parental controls.
The hotspot doesn’t have any TS9 external antenna ports. In general, you’re not going to see those on millimeter-wave 5G hotspots because TS9-compatible antennas don’t support millimeter-wave.
I got about 9.5 hours of steady 4G LTE streaming on the hotspot before it gave up. That’s far short of Inseego’s stated 24 hours, and I don’t really have an explanation for that. I also haven’t been impressed with the M2100’s standby time. In general, it went down to zero battery about two days after having 80 percent, which isn’t great performance. On the other hand, the 3,500mAh battery is easily removable, so you can bring several. Inseego promises an 8,500mAh accessory battery later this year, which should bring the hotspot well past 24 hours of use.
The M2100 is billed as having 5G bands 2/5/66/260/261 and LTE bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/12/13/14/17/20/28/46/48/66. That will work well on Verizon’s existing mmWave and upcoming DSS 5G networks (more on that later), as well as 4G networks on Verizon, AT&T, and most international carriers. LTE bands 46 and 48 are newish, short range 4G bands that can give Verizon’s 4G network multi-hundred-megabit performance in denser areas where they’re installed.
It’s also important to note what networks the M2100 won’t work on. It won’t work on T-Mobile’s 5G network, international 5G networks, or the upcoming C-band networks (more on that later). For T-Mobile, we’d want to see band n41; for the international and C-band networks, we’d want to see n77 and n78.
4G performance is on par with the latest top-of-the-line smartphones, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (which I compared it with), or to the existing MiFi 8800L on Verizon’s network. No big surprises there. Verizon’s 4G network clocks in with average speeds at 90-100Mbps in many cities nowadays, with peaks in the 200s or 300s (take a look at our Fastest Mobile Networks results from Boston for an example). That’s plenty if you have only one laptop to serve.
The 5G connection coming into the M2100 is faster than fiber, but you’re almost certainly not going to experience those maximum speeds with one laptop. Rather, the M2100 comes into its own when serving a group of laptops and phones—for instance, as a primary home connection or as an office or worksite connection—which makes the fact that Verizon’s network doesn’t work well indoors all that much more frustrating.
I brought a Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra to my test site. On the phone itself, I saw speeds of 1.5 to 1.7Gbps. Let’s take that as the raw capability of Verizon’s network, which is breathtaking. But after connecting the Note to the M2100, I got 405 to 526Mbps.
The M2100 isn’t at fault here—what we hit was the limit of a single Wi-Fi connection. Because of the size and number of their antennas, phones and laptops in general can get around 500 to 600Mbps on a Wi-Fi connection, even if they support Wi-Fi 6 (which both the Note and the M2100 do).
Range is okay. I got decent if somewhat attenuated signal strength at 50 feet, and was able to maintain a connection but saw a significant drop in performance at 75 feet. This is a large room or office solution, not a whole-home or whole-building router. But that’s obvious from just looking at it—the hotspot doesn’t have the big antennas that a whole-home router does.
Verizon’s network doesn’t perform nearly as well at uplink as at downlink. Using the Note in native mode, I got 33Mbps up. The hotspot to the Note gave me about 52Mbps up. When I tried to do simultaneous speed tests on three devices, one of the apps always grabbed the whole uplink so I couldn’t see how it would have split with normal applications. With three or more devices, you’ll likely have 10Mbps or less uplink per device, which may create issues if everyone is trying to do a Zoom call with video at once. We’ve seen better uplink in other locations, but Verizon doesn’t offer a map of where it has good or bad uplink.
Linking up a laptop via USB-C, I got 765 to 846Mbps down, which is better, but not the maximum capacity of the link. The gigabit strength of millimeter-wave showed up when I attached multiple devices to the hotspot and told them all to stress test the link simultaneously. With two devices attached, they gave me 631 and 552Mbps, a total of 1,183Mbps. With three devices attached, I got 365Mbps, 305Mbps, and 298Mbps, a total of 946Mbps.
So this is where the M2100’s 30-device capacity comes in handy. Verizon’s millimeter-wave system is a great way to serve lots of devices in one place. That is, if it’s available.
The M2100 becomes a lot less useful because you can’t get that wireless fiber into buildings, and you can’t get it much of anywhere at all. In our 26-city Fastest Mobile Networks tests, we found that Verizon has a single-digit percentage of 5G availability even in cities where it has coverage, and in previous tests we’ve seen speeds get sliced in half, or more, as soon as you step inside a building.
This isn’t necessarily the case with all millimeter-wave technology. I’ve seen better implementations both in Verizon and Qualcomm demos. But it is the case with the live, commercial network that Verizon has deployed on American streets.
Even Verizon’s very limited coverage maps seem to overstate its reach. In my neighborhood, Verizon’s 5G map shows a continuous corridor of coverage along Northern Boulevard from 83rd to 93rd Streets. I got 1.7Gbps speeds between 84th and 85th Streets, but when I walked to 89th Street, I couldn’t get a reliable 5G signal on either the M2100 or the Galaxy Note.
Verizon is working with companies like Qualcomm, Samsung, and Pivotal Commware to build in-home routers, repeaters, and indoor micro-cells that can help its coverage problems in the future. Those will make the M2100, and hotspots like it, much more useful. But it’s frustrating that, especially as schools and students scramble desperately for ways to keep millions of kids online this year, we aren’t innovating faster in terms of how to get these wireless connections to more people.
The carrier will probably announce “nationwide” 5G later this year, but I don’t anticipate that form of 5G will offer any real benefits over 4G. Verizon will be using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) to share existing 4G channels with the 5G system, and if you don’t make the channels bigger than 4G, 5G doesn’t offer faster speeds. The carrier’s best chance at greatly expanding 5G coverage is with a new channel called C-band, which will be auctioned at the end of this year for launch in 2021. Unfortunately, no one could confirm whether or not the M2100 would work with Verizon’s future C-band network, so for now, let’s assume it won’t.
That will make 2021, not 2020, the year to buy a Verizon 5G hotspot for most people.
The M2100 is the first hotspot for a new, gigabit wireless world. But right now, that’s a very small world. Verizon’s millimeter-wave network can be mind-blowing, but it had four percent availability in our 26-city tests—enough to ensure the carrier’s position as America’s fastest mobile network, but not enough to make it a technology with broad appeal. If you intend to use multiple devices outdoors in an area with 5G coverage, the M2100 vaults you to the next level of internet speed. But the vast majority of people supporting single devices, or a few devices at a time, will be satisfied with the also-excellent 4G speeds coming from Verizon’s MiFi 8800L.
I’d like to note here that T-Mobile has nothing to crow about, although it will crow. Verizon has hardware but almost no network; T-Mobile has a network, but no hardware. While T-Mobile has superior 5G coverage that will get faster with time, it sells no 5G hotspots and only offers the slowest possible 4G hotspots, with hardware that’s far less capable and far less speedy than Verizon’s or AT&T’s 4G hotspots. It’s a frustrating situation.
For people in more outlying or rural areas, or in places with weak overall wireless coverage, the MiFi 8800L is also still a better bet. It supports TS9 external antennas, which can greatly improve 4G LTE coverage in fringe areas. As it’s half the price of the M2100 and there’s still so little millimeter-wave coverage, the 8800L remains our Editors’ Choice hotspot for most people on Verizon.
The Inseego M2100 shows the promise of millimeter-wave as true, multi-user wireless fiber. More than a year after it launched the network, Verizon still needs to bring that promise to more people for this hotspot’s potential to be realized.
PCMag.com’s lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has reviewed hundreds of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets in more than 9 years with PCMag. He’s the head of our Fastest Mobile Networks project, one of the hosts of the daily PCMag Live Web show and speaks frequently in mass media on cell-phone-related issues. His commentary has appeared on ABC, the BBC, the CBC, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, and in newspapers from San Antonio, Texas to Edmonton, Alberta.
Segan is also a multiple award-winning travel writer, having contributed to the Frommer’s series of travel guides and Web sites for more than a decade. Other than his home town of New York, his favorite …
PCMag is obsessed with culture and tech, offering smart, spirited coverage of the products and innovations that shape our connected lives and the digital trends that keep us talking.
5G, MiFi, Cellco Partnership, Inc., Hotspot
World news – GB – Verizon MiFi M2100 5G UW