Review: ZTE Mobley

Several years ago, I worked for a company that sold Sprint service. As part of my job, a “perk” was a company issued phone and then when the MiFi mobile hotspot was released, I got one of them for experimentation and use. (I use perk lightly because having a company issued phone or device is more of a tether keeping you connected all the time.) When I left the company in 2010, my boss said that I could use the company discount to purchase a device and plan; I purchased a MiFi and had a $45/month plan for 5 GB of data. After about a year, I realized that I wasn’t using the device much and cancelled the plan.

For the most part, I haven’t had a need or desire for a mobile hotspot and my iPhone’s mobile hotspot has worked fine when I needed it. Over the last year or so, I’ve heard advertisement after advertisement about “built in 4G/LTE” in cars which seemed like a way just to keep the kids in the back quiet and I ignored the ads. Earlier this year, I saw that AT&T was dropping the price of their “Connected Car” plans to $20/month for unlimited data (22 GB, in reality and then de-prioritization). Now things were starting to get interesting in pricing.

AT&T offered this plan on cars that had built in cellular, as well as with the ZTE Mobley which plugs into a car’s OBD-II port. The only problem with this, for me, is that I have an Automatic plugged into the port and only being able to use the device in the car had limited utility. Luckily, I read on forums that people were buying adapters to plug it into USB or AC. Since the cables looked like someone hand made them, I decided to make my own so that I could choose the parts. I picked up an OBDII Connector Cable Pigtail and a 5v to Dc 12v USB Converter (I picked this one because any heat generated from the electronics wouldn’t be right at the end of the cable). I soldered the pieces together and had a USB to OBD-II power cable.

I purchased the Mobley outright ($99) with no activation fee. When it arrived, I plugged it into my cable and into USB and it powered right up without problems. My first few uses of it were when I went to the car dealer and had to wait around; I plugged it into a USB battery (at peak power consumption, it uses something like 700 mW). It performed quite well and I got acceptable speeds without having to worry about jumping on an unknown WiFi network and dealing with my VPN.

The next test was when we drove about an hour to go camping; my wife was in the passenger seat and my son was in the back seat. My son had an iPad and was entertained for the trip. My wife started out the drive just saying that she would use her phone, but about 10 minutes down the road, she asked my son to hand up her iPad. From that point on, I think the hotspot gained a permanent place in our longer car rides! This past week we went on a driving vacation and covered about 1500 miles. The hotspot powered up when the car started (it was plugged into one of the USB ports; my car has 2 USB ports, but I bought a 2 port cigarette lighter to USB adapter, so I had a total of 4 ports) and was available wherever we had AT&T coverage which turned out to be maybe 75% of the total time in the car.

In one of the hotels we were staying, I was able to get over 20 Mbps down which to me is amazing considering my first cable modem was 5 Mbps down and the first cellular data links I worked with at QUALCOMM were 9.6 Kbps.

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While $20/month seems like an unnecessary expense for times that I won’t use it, I can justify the expense.

Pros

  • Easy to use (just plug it in and connect to WiFi).
  • Coverage wherever AT&T has coverage.
  • Hard to use up 22 GB a month in normal usage (we used about 17 GB on our last trip and that was using it in the car and hotel).
  • Device is reasonably priced ($99).
  • Monthly fee is reasonable ($20/month).
  • Automatically turns on when power is applied.

Cons

  • Have to buy or make a cable to use outside of the car.
  • Limited to 5 devices at a time. This seems like a lot of devices, but we had a total of 6 and some devices always stay connected to WiFi causing me to have to block/unblock a device).
  • Doesn’t support carrier aggregation which would support higher data rates.

Summary

As much as I didn’t want to think that a mobile hotspot would fit into my usage, it has proven to be an excellent device. I’m sure that my review (except for the auto power on) would be the same with any mobile hotspot, but the price of the device and the price of this plan make the ZTE Mobley a keeper. Even though you can turn your phone into a hotspot, it doesn’t stay on all the time and uses data from your plan. By having a separate device, you don’t have to worry about going over your usage and being throttled and don’t have to worry about turning on the hotspot.

I would be interested in trying out the other mobile hotspots that AT&T has to offer as they would look neater than my soldered set of cables and be more compact, but I have to check the terms and conditions to see if there is a problem moving my SIM to a different device and keeping the same plan.

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