In the 5G world, wireless hotspots should be playing a larger role. These little bricks translate the 5G around you into enough Wi-Fi to power a home, office, or worksite. But limited hardware and restrictive service plans have held this potential back, so far.
Netgear may be solving the hardware problem, at least, with the Netgear Nighthawk M5, the first unlocked, multi-carrier 5G hotspot we've seen. The M5 is certified for the AT&T and T-Mobile networks, and works on both networks' sub-6GHz frequency bands, as well as the upcoming C-band. The hotspot doesn't have millimeter-wave, but our Fastest Mobile Networks 2021 results showed mid-band, including C-band, is really where most people will feel a difference with 5G.
Right now, this is the only option if you need a future-focused hotspot on AT&T. None of AT&T's existing retail hotspots support the C-band, which the carrier will start turning on in 46 markets next year. C-band is likely to bring the first widespread AT&T 5G performance that's better than 4G, so it's a big deal.
That said, I'm pretty sure AT&T will sell this hotspot at some point. AT&T has a longstanding relationship with Netgear and it's going to want devices that use its new C-band airwaves. We're just a little ahead of the curve right now.
There's a little mystery around whether the M5 works on Verizon. Netgear says it "works best" on AT&T and T-Mobile. Verizon has a sometimes-uncomfortable relationship with uncertified 5G devices. That's something people will have to test when the hotspot gets into the market, so I'd hold off for now on buying it for Verizon.
The M5 is an attractive black puck with all the frills you'd want from a hotspot. It has a touch-screen interface, easy-to-access dual external antenna ports, and both USB-C and Ethernet to act as a wired modem. It supports 32 simultaneous device connections. The 5,040mAh battery runs for up to 13 hours.
Earlier hotspots had issues with their Wi-Fi connections being too slow for the full potential of 5G. It's important to remember that a 5G hotspot isn't about delivering a bunch of gigs to one PC, it's really about powering 10 or 20 devices in an area, so the peak throughput per device doesn't have to be as fast as the source 5G connection.
The M5 does pretty well on that front, though, with 802.11ax, 802.11ac and a gigabit Ethernet port. That will give you about a gig per device, which is absolutely fine here, as sub-6 connections aren't generally much over a gig anyway.The Best 5G Phones for 2022The Best Mobile Hotspots for 2022The Best and Worst Cities for Verizon 5G
The puck's unlocked nature means it works on AT&T, T-Mobile, and virtual carriers that use those networks, such as Metro, Boost, and Google Fi. It's still frustrating that in the era of 5G you can't get an unlimited hotspot plan to serve as a home connection. T-Mobile and AT&T both sell unlimited home plans, but they have to be used in specific hardware and can't be moved around. Right now, the best hotspot deal is $50/month for 100GB at T-Mobile, which tends to appear and disappear unexpectedly.
I'd be happy, for instance, if T-Mobile allowed this hotspot to be used in place of the Nokia router it sells with its home internet service. In my review, I found that router to be unreliable, and I'd love there to be some hardware alternatives. It's also easier to hook up external antennas to this hotspot than to that router.
You're going to pay a premium for this power and flexibility. The unlocked M5 costs $699.99, around double what hotspots cost direct from carriers. (At T-Mobile, the Inseego M2000 costs $336.) If you're not in a hurry and you're an AT&T loyalist, you may want to wait until the carrier picks this up and sells it at a lower price.
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