Car Buying

Should You Buy a Car With a Built-In Wi-Fi Hotspot?

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author photo by Russ Heaps January 2016

Does a Wi-Fi hotspot built into your car make sense for you? When it comes to digital technology, sense doesn't always enter into the equation. Let's face it, most of us probably at one time or another have bought something that didn't make much sense. What we want and what we need aren't always the same. For most of us, having a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot in our car is probably more of a want than a need, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't figure into the planning for a new car.

Alternatives

An abundance of today's new cars have smartphone integration that allows the phone to operate through the car's infotainment system, sharing apps and so forth. For those who don't insist on being on technology's cutting edge and don't want to do much beyond call, text and stream some music, a smartphone with its own hotspot is all the connectivity needed.

The next step up in car connectivity is a mobile hotspot device available from most service providers, such as AT&T and Verizon. Their major advantage is speed and the capability of serving multiple devices. Also, as the name implies, they are portable. About the size of a deck of cards, they typically require additional service plans and monthly fees. Their disadvantage, though, is that, like a smartphone, they have a battery that requires recharging and have small antennas, limiting signal consistency and strength. Again, the average user will probably be satisfied with the service and performance.

But what if you want or need more?

Built-In Wi-Fi

GM and FCA lead the charge in bringing homelike Wi-Fi quality to the masses of on-the-road users by offering the most accessible and inclusive built-in Wi-Fi hotspots -- GM through its OnStar system and FCA through its Uconnect 8.4. Both require additional data plans, but with GM, for example, the cost is as low as $5 per month. Both also provide access for multiple devices and extend that access to several feet around the connected vehicle.

Because these are original equipment manufacturer (OEM), factory-installed, they are designed specifically to perform in the vehicles in which they are installed. Carmakers locate the units in their cars for optimum efficiency. Moreover, they integrate more completely with the car's infotainment systems. The significantly larger antennas mean much stronger and more consistent signals. This is particularly important when streaming video and downloading. Our experience with them is that they provide nearly flawless connections with little signal fade or dropout.

GM's Wi-Fi hotspot-capable vehicles include just about every car and truck in its stable from the Chevrolet Sonic to the Cadillac Escalade. At FCA, the model lineup with built-in hotspot capability is nearly as inclusive, featuring models from Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep. Audi and Mercedes-Benz, as well as others, have built-in hotspots in at least some models.

Aftermarket-Installed Wi-Fi

Offering nearly the signal strength and quality of OEM built-in hotspots, aftermarket-installed routers don't integrate with a car's current touchscreens or systems. They target users who either don't want to buy a new make-and-model car offering a built-in hotspot or want to add it to a currently owned vehicle. These wireless routers do deliver connections comparable to OEM's factory units with impressive signal strength, but they are rather expensive to buy and should be professionally installed. They also require a data plan.

What it means to you: Not everyone needs the signal strength and speed of an OEM Wi-Fi hotspot. However, it sure beats the performance of the alternatives where you need to connect multiple devices and download or stream large quantities of data. The OEM setups are the most efficient way to go.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Should You Buy a Car With a Built-In Wi-Fi Hotspot? - Autotrader