The Karma portable 4G WiFi hotspot provides cellular Internet to any WiFi device. It can even share its connection with friends and strangers alike ó and be rewarded a bonus for doing so. Unique in its field, sharing Karma’s connection gets you extra data. Karma Mobility Inc. is more than a portable hotspot company, it’s also a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (what’s an MVNO?), which rents cellular/WiMAX broadcast spectrum from Clearwire and sells it to consumers at a substantial discount.
Karma offers three identical devices, with different data caps: The cheapest costs $99, with 1 GB of data; the mid-tier device costs $149 and comes with 7 GB of data; the most expensive comes with 20 GB and costs $279. It carries the smallest price tag out of all hotspot devices on the Clearwire network. It should be noted that Karma only operates in the US.
Portable WiFi hotspots generally charge a great deal for data. Although many Android devices can enable what’s referred to as “tethering”, they do so with resistance from carriers and cause a great deal of battery life and overheating issues. A separate device often gets extremely long periods of battery life. Karma, for example,.
With its lack of expiration dates, bonus data scheme and low data costs, Karma possesses the potential to change the mobile hotspot landscape.
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Making Use of Karma
Karma consists of two components: First, a WiFi router, and second, a 4G cellular-like modem. It uses the modem to receive a city-wide Internet connection and transmits this via WiFi to any device capable of connecting to it. On smartphones, we refer to this as “tethering” or as a “hotspot”.
To fully test out Karma, I disposed of my beloved Nexus 4 smartphone and subsisted entirely on three tablets: A rooted Nook Simple Touch, an ASUS Transformer Infinity and a second generation Nexus 7. For communication, I use Skype and Google Voice ñ a potent combination providing me with a texting and phone service. Combined, the two apps allow me to work from any environment, provided my Internet holds out.
But how did Karma perform?
The Karma hotspot offers a stylish aesthetic design and good build quality. It’s also tiny.
Feel and Aesthetics
The build quality of Karma feels quite high. It’s constructed from a white, high-rigidity plastic ringed by a black bezel. It feels remarkably solid and heavy relative to its tiny size. Another interesting feature is its LED lights which display, in spartan fashion, WiFi connectivity, 4G connectivity and power status. Holding the power button for three seconds toggles it on or off.
Karma’s size falls somewhere between small and tiny, measuring in at less than the size of a credit card. It also fits comfortably in your hand, your pocket or even wallet ó if you don’t use credit cards.
Overall, this feels like a more expensive device than $99. Unfortunately, I couldn’t verify this theory as the Karma doesn’t appear to be user-serviceable. After some abortive attempts, I gave up on prying it open to uncover its internal components.
Living with Karma
I didn’t realize why Karma is so aptly named until I actually gave it an extended test run. By giving away free Internet access, I received free Internet access. That’s karma, man.
Aside from producing literal karma, the hotspot produces remarkably little heat for a device that transmits and receives both WiMAX and WiFi signals simultaneously. Karma also runs a long time without charging. In my experience, it operated over four hours, while supplying Internet to three other individuals.
I field-tested Karma with a group of friends. Four individuals simultaneously used the hotspot for over four hours, without managing to exhaust the battery. I also used it with my GPS-enabled tablet for guidance throughout a 20-mile drive. It never once lost signal.
Overall, Karma has great battery life and connectivity, while producing only small amounts of heat. In areas with good coverage, it performs reliably, with no issues to speak of.
Like most portable WiFi hotspots, the Karma gets warm after several minutes of activity. This is partly because it uses both a WiFi component and a WiMAX radio ñ together, and in such a small space, these pump out quite a bit of heat. However, the Karma device never really feels more than warm while in my pocket. Compared to my Nexus 4, before modding it to reduce its heat profile, its thermal properties were quite bearable. My unmodded Nexus 4 scalded my leg!
Living with Karma’s Data
Karma offers a lot of positive incentives for using its service. It includes a novel means of reducing your costs through social networking, dirt-cheap pricing and good coverage (although your mileage may vary).
The social networking component of Karma can actually give you free data. For every person who connects to your hotspot, you get 100 MB of additional data. Additionally, the person who connects to your hotspot, be it friend or stranger, also receives 100 MB. You keep separate data pools, although you can allow your friends to use your account by sharing your credentials with them. Alternatively, you can log in through Facebook.
Price per Gigabyte
Purchasing additional data is dirt-cheap. At $14 per gigabyte, the Karma Wi-Fi hotspot compares favorably to similar devices in data pricing. For example, T-Mobile recently included tethering as a part of its basic plans, but its prices remain a fair amount higher. Particularly so, if you consider that tethering comes out of your plan. Prices from MVNO networks, like Virgin Mobile are a bit more competitive.
For example, Virgin Mobile’s $119 Overdrive Pro hotspot charges $55/month for 6 GB a month. Like Karma, it operates on the Clearwire 4G WiMAX network and costs slightly less, at around $9 per gigabyte. Unfortunately, it includes monthly expiration and the device itself is more expensive. Unless you’re using the full 6 GB per month, there’s little reason to use Virgin Mobile’s hotspot service.
Coverage of the Network
According to Karma, their 4G network covers 95% of my city. In my tests, this proved true ñ nowhere did I experience a data outage, except when near tall buildings or inside multistory apartment structures. On the other hand, Clearwire’s coverage compares poorly to the major carriers. I simply had the good fortune of living in a city with wide coverage.
On the downside, spotty connectivity, a lack of user-serviceability and privacy issues slightly dampened what would otherwise make for a perfect WiFi hotspot experience.
Spotty Coverage (Your Mileage May Vary)
On the downside, because Karma currently uses the Clearwire WiMAX network for 4G connectivity, your mileage may vary in connection stability and speed. My experiences in my neighborhood on the network yielded 2 MB/s download speeds and around 0.25 MB/s upload speeds. Clearwire advertises speeds of 3-6 MB/s, which I was able to hit, but only in urban areas. To check your own coverage, here’s Clearwire’s official 4G coverage map.
Here’s the good news: Karma has recently announced that they’ll be expanding to Sprint’s 4G LTE network in 2014, covering 230 new cities across the US. Naturally, existing users will be offered the option to upgrade as the current device runs on WiMAX technology.
You can’t Block Unwanted Users
The biggest downside, the only issue that really bothered me, is that you won’t be able to block unwanted users. So if someone wants to jump on your device and stream Netflix, it may slow your connection. Even so, you won’t receive any billing from their use of your device ó and you might get 100 MB of data.
Not User Serviceable
As mentioned earlier, you can’t pop open Karma without incurring some risk. From a cursory inspection and aborted pry attempt, the device doesn’t appear to be user-serviceable.
Should you buy Karma?
The Karma 4G hotspot offers its users Internet access to any WiFi device, on the go. It includes stylish design, solid performance and great battery life for industry-low prices. On the other hand, its coverage is spotty, there are some privacy issues and it’s not user serviceable.
For anyone looking to purchase a mobile hotspot, you cannot go wrong with Karma, unless your area lacks Clearwire’s WiMAX. While there remains some hesitation on my part regarding its open access, the fact that I received 400 megabytes of additional data that never expires for doing absolutely nothing is phenomenal. However, Karma isn’t perfect for everyone. For those who consume data in great volume, I would recommend Verizon’s 12 GB monthly plan.
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