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Hot spot on the AT&T iPhone remains easy to use, but not so fast

With the iOS 4.3 update, the AT&T iPhone 4 gets the wireless hot-spot feature we first saw on the Verizon iPhone. Though the feature also is easy to use, it's not quite as fast.

The hot-spot feature appears under the main Settings menu. Once activated, the bar at the top shows you how many devices are connected. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

When the Verizon iPhone finally went on sale last month, it bested its AT&T cousin by offering a wireless hot spot that could support up to five devices. It was a welcome addition and, as we found in our Verizon iPhone review, the feature performed well. It wasn't necessarily better than other smartphone hot spots we've tested, but it offered a simple and relatively speedy way to get online.

When AT&T would join the hot-spot party became the next question, of course, but Apple offered an answer Wednesday when it delivered its latest software update a couple of days early. Though as iOS upgrades go, iOS 4.3 activates the hot spot on the AT&T iPhone 4 (earlier iPhones will not support the feature). It's almost the same experience as on Verizon's device, but there are some important and disappointing differences.

What's the same
As with Verizon's handset, AT&T users will need to activate the optional tethering plan to use the feature (if you don't have the plan, the option won't appear in your Settings menu). And, like Verizon, AT&T charges an additional $20 for the plan. Though AT&T's data cap is 4GB per month for tethering and the hot spot (Verizon has a 2GB cap), the carrier requires you to select at least the $25-per-month Data Pro plan for basic data.

Once you're set up, the interface is exactly the same as on the Verizon iPhone. You'll find the hot-spot option under the main Settings menu. After you set a password and choose which connectivity options you'd like to use, you can get started. Here again, we'd like to see a list of which devices are connected at a given time in addition to the status bar at the top of the display, which conveniently tracks how many gadgets are linked up.

The status bar will continue to show even if you switch back to the home screen. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

What's different
Though AT&T also allows you to connect up to five devices to the hot spot, it limits the number you can connect through Wi-Fi to just three. You can connect an additional two gadgets through a USB cable or Bluetooth, but Verizon still holds the advantage there for the time being. When we tested the Verizon hot-spot feature, we were able to connect five devices via Wi-Fi. What's more, other smartphones, like Sprint's HTC Evo 4G, can connect up to eight devices.

The reason for the restriction is unclear at this point. Though some sources have blamed AT&T, others suggest it's coming from Apple. And if that's the case, the Verizon iPhone could get the same limitation when it gets iOS 4.3 or the equivalent (currently, the update is for GSM iPhones only).

We tested the AT&T hot-spot feature with an iPad, a Motorola Atrix 4G, an LG Optimus U, a Samsung Galaxy S 4G, a Samsung Craft, a T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, a RIM BlackBerry Curve 3G 9300, and a laptop PC. We were able to connect all devices via Wi-Fi, including the MyTouch 3G, which we never were able to pair with the Verizon iPhone hot spot.

All devices connected immediately after we entered the password, and they reconnected quickly and automatically the next time around. The connection mostly stayed solid as well, though the Optimus U dropped off a couple of times and we had to reconnect manually. If we tried using a fourth device via Wi-Fi, we were able to get as far as inputting the password before the connection would drop. Yet, if we then removed one of the original three devices, the fourth device would connect automatically. That's a nice touch.

We also had no problems connecting to a laptop. As long as the hot spot was on, the computer was online just seconds after we plugged in the USB cable. As we found with the Verizon iPhone, however, the Bluetooth connection gave us more trouble. Though we could pair the iPhone with the Galaxy S 4G and the Atrix, for example, we couldn't establish the final connection even though we had the correct PIN. After spinning for a couple of minutes, the iPhone finally gave an error message that the format was "not supported." We're checking this out and will report back.

Unfortunately, we couldn't connect to the Atrix via Bluetooth. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

Unfortunately, we also found that data speeds over AT&T's network weren't as reliable. Unlike on the Verizon iPhone, we could barely get a signal in an interior room in CNET's offices. We showed a full five bars on the iPhone's display, but our connection usually timed out when we tried loading a Web page on the phones and on the laptop. The iPad did better, but it still took over a minute to load CNET's main site. We had the same experience when we tried loading Google Maps and the iTunes App Store on the iPad--the features took more than minute to load if they did at all.

We had better luck when we moved next to a window, but even there the speeds were much slower than they were with the Verizon hot spot. CNET's mobile site took 40 seconds to load on the Atrix, for example, and the full site took almost 2 minutes. A graphics-heavy site like loaded in 1 minute, 45 seconds on the Optimus U, while loaded in 1 minute, 50 seconds on the Craft. The iPad and laptop also performed better when we moved to the window, but we still waited a few minutes to browse the Web and it took about 30 seconds to upload a photo to Facebook. On the upside, the connection remained active up to about 25 feet away.

In contrast, we could load Web pages in under 30 seconds when we tested the Verizon hot spot and we uploaded a Facebook photo in 10 seconds. The Verizon iPhone had more trouble connecting to a couple of devices (like the MyTouch 3G), but its hot spot did offer better performance in our tests. Yes, we realize that AT&T's network is technically faster, and that AT&T has more data-hungry users in play, but the hot-spot experience simply wasn't quite as we'd hoped. Of course, your experience will vary by location. San Francisco has a well-deserved reputation for poor AT&T service so you may get faster speeds in other cities. Yet, this was our initial experience.