Most smartphones (including iPhones) can serve as “wifi hotspots”

In effect, this means that the phone is acting like your wireless router at home. It can be used to allow you to connect another device to the internet (eg a laptop or a tablet) when a “normal” wifi connection is not available and when the laptop or tablet does not have its own 3G internet connectivity.

Turn on HotspotWhether this will work with your smartphone depends not only on the hardware but also on the deal you have with your mobile provider. If your phone was supplied by your provider then it’s possible they have “crippled” this feature so that it won’t work. On an iPhone, for instance, the option to turn on the personal hotspot connection may be “greyed out”. You can find this option by going to Settings and then Mobile. If yours is greyed out, my advice is to speak to your provider as they may offer a deal whereby it can be turned on.

Assuming that you have Personal Hotspot enabled on an iPhone or on an iPad with cellular access, and you wish to use either of these devices to pass an internet connection to your Macbook Pro or Air, this can now be done without even taking the phone out of your pocket. In other words, you don’t have to turn on the “Personal Hotspot” feature on your iPhone and then connect the computer to it. This new capability is known as “Instant Hotspot”. It’s part of the latest round of updates to Mac computers and devices (called “Continuity“) and it will only work if you have OSX 10.10 or later on your computer (ie the new version, known as Yosemite) and version 8.1 or later of IOS on your iPhone or iPad.

I learned the above from the blurb that Apple and various blog sites told me. So then I tried to test it – just to make sure that I’m not telling you porkies. No joy. If I manually turned on the personal hotspot on my iphone, the Mac recognised it with no problem. To do this, all you need to do is simply click on the Wifi icon on the Mac and there it is – offered as one of the available wifi connections. To try to encourage Instant Hotspot to work I tried turning off my router, just in case the Mac was favouring that over other connection possibilities. Still no joy. Then I checked the versions of the operating systems on both Mac and iPhone. Both were definitely up to date.

After much googling (and not a little profanity), I eventually found a site that tells me that the Mac needs to be 2012 or later for it to work. So, if you’ve got a Mac that’s older than that then maybe reading this blog will save you a bit of frustration – it’s not going to work. Pity that Apple didn’t make that clear in their blurb.

Look for HotspotSo, for the rest of this blog, I’m just winging it and hoping that what I read is true for Macs of 2012 or later vintage. All you have to do is click on your Wifi icon at the top of the screen and your iPhone should appear as an available network. It doesn’t even ask for a password. It doesn’t need a password as it will only work if both phone and computer are logged into the same iCloud account. After a period of inactivity, the connection is automatically dropped. This is to save the battery on the iPhone.

Instant Hotspot

Just have your iPhone reasonably close to the Mac when you look for the Instant Hotspot

It’s worth mentioning here that mobile data allowances aren’t usually very generous in comparison with your home or office broadband, so do be careful. You can always check how much of your download allowance you have used by going to Settings on the iPhone, then take the Mobile option and scroll down to the figure headed “Mobile Data Usage”. This will only be meaningful if you reset the statistics at the beginning of your “billing period”. My understanding – at least with T-mobile – is that the “current billing period” is a calendar month and not the month from one payment date to the next (but I wouldn’t actually stake my life on that being true).

Something I came across more than once when researching this item is that an initial connection to an “instant hotspot” is sometimes difficult. If this happens, the recommendation is to manually turn on the personal hotspot (on the iPhone) and make a connection that way first. Thereafter, it seems that the Instant Hotspot is more likely to work.

I’ll have to take their word for all this as I’ve got absolutely no need (otherwise) to update my perfectly good five year old Mac.

In the past, I’ve counselled buying a tablet that has 3G (cellular) access, but this may not be the best option for you

My reasoning has always been straightforward. You will quite probably wish to take your tablet around with you. That’s what it’s for. But, away from your own wi-fi setup, you may not be able to connect to anyone else’s wi-fi. if you do not have a 3G (cellular) connection available to you then you may have no internet access.

On the other hand, buying a tablet with 3G access will, typically, cost you about £100 more than a tablet that relies solely on wi-fi access. You will also need to subscribe to a 3G plan costing from £5-£15 a month. So, it’s not exactly cheap to have 3G access.

iPhone with wi-fi iconWith a newish smartphone, though, you may have an alternative method of connecting your tablet to the internet. You may be able to configure the smartphone so that it becomes a “personal hotspot”. In other words, your smartphone broadcasts a wi-fi signal that your tablet can use. If you manage to connect this way then the data downloaded to the tablet will, of course, count against your data download allowance for the smartphone providing the wi-fi. But it means that you only need one device with 3G access to get internet access on both devices.

In years gone by, the mobile service providers (Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile etc) used to “cripple” the phones that they provided to stop you from doing this. The small print of their contracts also expressly forbade using their data plans in this way unless explicitly stated otherwise. I remember about five years ago paying-T-Mobile about £10 per month more so that I could pass an Internet connection from my Windows mobile phone to my netbook via a USB cable (it was known as “tethering” then). In fact, I think I’m still on the same plan, but it’s much cheaper now.

I have just carried out a very quick survey of Orange and Vodaphone plans on their websites and can’t find any reference to personal hotspots so maybe they no longer worry about whether you are using your data allowance on your smartphone or on a connected device (and why should they?). It’s still possible, though, that if your iPhone was supplied as part of your contract, then the method detailed below will not be available to you. It may also be good advice to check the details of your plan to ensure that you won’t get hit by large charges.

It wouldn’t work for me, anyway, as I use an iPhone 3GS. This does have the option to create a personal hotspot, but the connection is via a USB cable or bluetooth. I have, in the past, used the connection via a USB cable to a Windows netbook, but I’ve never had much luck with bluetooth.

iPhone Personal Hotspot settingsHowever, if you have an iPhone 4 or 5 then your “Personal Hotspot” settings include an option to “connect using wifi”. This is simple and secure. Just follow the instructions (as illustrated). If you go into “Settings” and then “Personal Hotspot” but do not see the option to “connect using Wi-Fi” then it is either being blocked by your provider or you have iPhone 3 or earlier.

This potentially very handy facility was pointed out to me by a reader, and it caused a little lightbulb to ping into life in my head. I bought a 3G data plan with my first tablet last year. It came with a mobile broadband USB “dongle” so that you can put the 3G SIM into this and connect a Windows machine (such as a netbook) to the internet. So, if I needed an internet connection on either of my Sony tablet or netbook, I would fiddle about, removing the SIM from one device and putting it in the other.

When I moved to an iPad Mini I carried on with the same method. This was made even more fiddly by the fact that the iPad Mini uses a “nano” SIM, whereas the dongle is made for a “micro” SIM, so the SIM has to be put into an adaptor before fitting to the dongle. All rather tedious and just the sort of thing I don’t want to be doing in front of a client in their time.

So, this lightbulb moment consisted of realising that the iPad may be able to serve as a “personal hotspot” and give the netbook an internet connection just like an iPhone 4 or 5 can. And it can! Magic! The SIM now stays in the iPad. Giving internet access to the netbook (or even a client’s machine) consists of just going into “Settings” and “Personal Hotspot” on the iPad and then connecting to that wi-fi signal on the other machine.

If you have an Android smartphone, then you may or may not be able to create a personal hotspot. Go into “Wireless and Network Settings” and look for “tethering and portable hotspot”. On a Windows mobile phone go into settings and look for “Internet sharing”. I understand that newer Blackberries with the latest operating system can also provide a wi-fi personal hotspot.

Conclusion: you don’t necessarily need 3G access on a device if you can create a wi-fi personal hotspot from another device. You could even use this method to give internet access to your home setup if your home broadband service went down.

… and I’ve just found out what “SIM” stands for – it’s a “Subscriber Identity Module”.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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