If you're a Windows user with a taste for Starbucks lattes, you'll love T-Mobile's slick, safe, and easy-to-use HotSpot service, although you'll pay a premium to use it. With about 6,598 locations in the United States--many of them in Starbucks cafes--plus a sleek (but Windows-only) connection utility, nationwide WPA and 802.1x protection, and free 24/7 phone support, T-Mobile HotSpot caters to serious mobile warriors who need solid, no-fuss Wi-Fi on the road. That said, T-Mobile's monthly rates are a bit pricey, and it has fewer U.S. access points than Boingo Wireless.
Setup with T-Mobile HotSpot is simple; if you're at a T-Mobile HotSpot location, just launch your browser, and you'll automatically arrive at the sign-up page, where you can either sign in or set up an account. Windows users can also download T-Mobile's Connection Manager, a slick Wi-Fi signal detector that makes it relatively easy to get connected. (T-Mobile has yet to offer a Mac or handheld version of its connection app.)
The utility's main screen shows you the name of the access point you're associated with (or the number of available signals if you're not connected), along with your connection time, whether you're associated with a "preferred" network (that is, one you've configured in the Profiles menu), and the security protocols you're using, such as 802.1x and WPA. If the Connection Manager detects a T-Mobile signal in the vicinity, a pop-up window will appear, asking whether you'd like to associate; otherwise, you can click the big purple Connect button to associate with the strongest access point in the area or click Networks to see a detailed listing of local access points. (We'd prefer that all the available networks were listed in the main interface as they are with Boingo's client, but that's a quibble.) One feature we like about T-Mobile's U.S. HotSpots is that they all support WPA and 802.1x encryption, and the Connection Manager will bump you up to those tighter security protocols automatically. (Mac users can take solace in Tiger's native 802.1x support under the Internet Connect app.) The Connection Manager also supports corporate and personal VPNs, but T-Mobile doesn't offer its own VPN--handy when you're roaming on an international network under the T-Mobile umbrella that's lacking WPA and 802.1x protection. Profile settings let you set preferences for access points at home or the office, including automatically launching a browser or a set of applications.
We were impressed by T-Mobile's HotSpot Locator (accessible offline), which lets you search by address, area, or zip code or click a regional map for an Explorer-style list of locations. Clicking a particular locale gives you the address, the phone number, and the location notes, but no map or photos à la Boingo. The Connection Manager also comes with some snazzy personalization options, including transparency (from solid to 20 percent) and a second skin that looks like a slick boombox console. Pretty nice.
T-Mobile has a respectable U.S. and international footprint, including roughly 6,598 U.S. HotSpots. Not bad, but it falls a bit short of Boingo's 7,000 U.S. access points.
T-Mobile's HotSpot service rates are pretty steep compared to the competition's. You can get monthly access for $40 with no contract or $30 with a one-year commitment--considerably pricier than Boingo's no-contract $22-per-month rate or Toshiba MyConnect's no-contract $30-per-month plan. You can also buy a $10-per-day pass (comparable to Boingo's) or go the hourly way at $6 for the first hour and 10 cents for each additional minute--a bit much compared to MyConnect's $4-per-hour rate.
Back on the plus side, T-Mobile comes up aces with its 24/7 toll-free phone support, comparable to MyConnect's support and much better than Boingo's limited-hours phone help.