The AT&T Unite Pro 4G LTE Mobile WiFi Hotspot released at the end of 2013 is a compact, lightweight and versatile hotspot device that's great for wandering tech workers or just as a backup for your home Internet connection. Here's my full review:
In preparing for my recent adventure living in Washington D.C. for three weeks, I became aware of the possibility that - are you sitting down? - there wouldn't be any broadband Internet access available at the apartment where we would be staying. I know, right? Since I was going to be working I needed fast and reliable connectivity, I started researching options for bringing my own bandwidth.
My ideal solution was something that would integrate with my existing AT&T mobile plan, be a solution that used standard and flexible ways of connecting devices instead of proprietary or platform-specific drivers, and that would be reusable for future traveling adventures without me having to make a significant financial commitment in the form of a contract or other fees.
The Unite Pro, which is actually manufactured by Netgear, seems to have been created just for my purposes.
It's easily added to an existing AT&T shared data plan for just $20/month as long as you have it active, and if you buy it at the contract-free price, otherwise just uses the data you're already paying for. It creates its own wifi network to which you can connect up to 15 devices, great for the ridiculous mix of laptops, tablets and smartphones that my wife and I had in tow.
The Unite Pro has a simple touch-screen interface with surprisingly good user interface design, and a more powerful web-based administrative interface that you can access once you're on the network. Weighing just 4.5 ounces and with the form factor similar to my iPhone, it's an incredibly portable device that's easy to throw into my bag and have with me at all times in case there's not free wifi where I am (including in 200 countries around the world, assuming I get an international data plan). Wow!
But the feature list keeps on going: The Unite Pro's battery charge, which lasted for at least a full day of continuous use without problems, can also be used to charge other USB-connecting devices such as a smartphone if you run out of juice while on the road. It even has an airplane mode so you can show your friendly flight attendant that you're just charging, not connecting, while in the air. I'd been looking for portable battery devices for a while but hadn't found one I liked yet, so I was pleased that this functionality came built in. The Unite Pro can set up guest networks, handle some kinds of routing and firewall rule management usually seen on home/small-business routers, be attached to a laptop via USB for direct tethering, and has ports for auxiliary antennae if you want to improve its connectivity to the cellular broadband network. There's a free iOS app that will let you manage some of its features and functions that way too.
One simple thing that really impressed me was a small bar on the main home screen that showed our data usage during the current plan billing period, broken down by data consumed by the Unite Pro and data consumed by our actual phones. Given that I normally have to log in to an AT&T app or website and click several times to get to this information, it made me wonder why such an accounting isn't more standard on easy-to-reach parts of our mobile phone interfaces.
How did all this go in practice for doing Internet-dependent professional work for three weeks? Really well.
Despite the D.C. apartment being in a coverage area where I couldn't always get LTE data on my iPhone, once I found the right spot by the window for the Unite Pro (and told it to only use LTE, not just 4G), it found and stayed connected at LTE speeds with no problem. With three bars of signal strength, I saw 50ms ping times to Google servers and easily used the connection for web browsing, video conferencing, large file uploads and downloads and much more. There were even times where multiple devices were using high-bandwidth applications at once and things just worked. On a few days I experienced 5-6% packet loss at a couple of points and there were a few times where the Unite Pro seemed to reboot itself after many hours of usage, but it still exceeded my expectations.
In short, I felt like I was connected to my home or office broadband service and could do what I needed to do without worry. I didn't think we had reached that point with mobile hotspots, but the Unite Pro is there.
There were a few parts of the initial ordering and setup process that weren't as fun. I purchased the Unite Pro from Amazon.com without a contract, calling AT&T beforehand to verify it was okay to do so and that it would just be able to connect to my account once I received it and turned it on (they said yes). But when I received the Unite Pro, despite having a simcard already installed and seemingly ready to go, there was no discernible way to associate it with my existing AT&T account - no login screen, no instructions in the box, nothing.
I called AT&T and the first two representatives I talked to had no idea how to even talk about this situation - one pivoted to asking me if I was happy with my iPhone and would I be interested in an upgrade, ugh. On a third call I reached someone who knew what the Unite Pro was and said that the pre-sales rep I'd talked to should not have told me I would be able to activate the device myself, because indeed I would need to take it to an AT&T store to get a new simcard for it and then have that associated with my account.
So, it's a little confusing that a vendor like Amazon.com is selling a contract-free version of the Unite Pro with no indication from Amazon or AT&T what to do to actually get it activated. Fortunately I have an AT&T store in my town and they had me connected in about 15 minutes once I visited.
Let me say here that I was impressed with how easy AT&T has made it to adjust your data plan up and down with the click of a button. Such changes have historically involved painful calls to a customer service center, the constant risk of having irreversible changes made to your mobile plan, or other tricky situations that resulted in confusing billing or hidden fees. Now, their website takes into account your total number of devices and associated monthly fees and just lets you pick the data amount that makes sense for you. Yes, the prices can feel high, but not inconsistent with the industry - here's what the shared plan options look like for two smartphones and the Unite Pro:
Overall, my initial experience with the Unite Pro has been very positive, perhaps in part because my expectations for a device with the name of a major mobile carrier on it were initially so low. I don't have much experience with other product offerings out there, but between the quality hardware from Netgear, the well done UI on the device itself, the increased flexibility in AT&T plan pricing and, most importantly, the reliability of the network connectivity itself, it seems like a win for anyone needing bandwidth on the go.
The Unite Pro is currently $250 at Amazon without contract, and from $0.01 with a 2-year contract.