For travelers who juggle a number of connected devices while on the road, Novatel’s MiFi 2200 mobile hotspot may be a little gift from tech heaven. The device connects to Sprint’s 3G EvDO network, then creates a mobile bubble of Wi-Fi that can connect up to five devices at the same time. And best of all, you can get the device with a pre-paid, no-contract data plan from Virgin Mobile.
I am a devoted user of multiple Wi-Fi devices -- a MacBook Pro, an iPad, an iPhone, and, occasionally, Windows notebooks and netbooks -- and I travel often. Only the iPhone has a mobile WAN connection. The rest rely on a local area network to connect.
But when travelling, I find that most hotel and airport connections for Wi-Fi are either hideously overpriced or not very dependable, or both. It’s at such times that my soul cries out for a dependable mobile hotspot, and that’s exactly what the MiFi 2200 is.
I tested the device for a couple of weeks, both at home and on the road, and found myself appreciating the device’s size, ease of use, speed, and pricing.
To begin with, the MiFi 2200 was nearly plug-and-play. A push of the clearly labeled power button brought the MiFi up in less than 2 seconds. A pair of green LEDs assured me that the MiFi was on and working.
Almost instantaneously, my other devices detected a new Wi-Fi network labeled “Virgin Mobile." That network can connect with 802.11b and 802.11g Wi-Fi devices and is secured by WPA2-PSK and an SPI firewall. I selected the Virgin Mobile network in one of my devices' wireless settings, punched in the password printed on the back of the MiFi, and my device was connected to the network.
When I opened a browser window I was automatically redirected to a Virgin Mobile Web portal where I could purchase the connection time I needed.
Virgin Mobile offers two Broadband2Go prepaid data plans. You can pay $40 per month for unlimited data, or $10 for ten days of data service capped at 100MB (that’s enough to do 5 hours of Web surfing, or to send 10,000 e-mail messages). The price of the MiFi itself is $150 from Virgin Mobile.
Then I was connected to the Internet. The whole process, from unboxing the MiFi to setting up the Internet connection, took about 5 minutes. A “quick start” guide is the only users manual you’ll find in the box, but that’s all you need. Complete documentation is available online in case you need a special configuration, but I found the factory settings worked just fine.
Wi-Fi Speed Everywhere
Since my profession is to design and evaluate wireless networks, I put the MiFi through an unusually rigorous testing regime, entailing several hundred performance tests using a variety of Wi-Fi devices in a variety of indoor and outdoor locations.
Testing in San Francisco, I found that the MiFi delivered better-than-expected download speeds. Virgin Mobile says MiFi users will see download speeds of between 600 and 1400 kbps, depending on location and network capacity--and you might think you'll get only the low end of that range.
But I repeatedly saw download speeds of more than 1 mbps when connecting with my laptop. Smaller devices (with less processor speed and different radios) connected at slower speeds. My iPhone 3GS, iPad, and Sprint HTC Hero all got around 500 kbps of download speed.
It’s important to note, also, that devices connected to the same Wi-Fi hotspot share a single pool of bandwidth. So if one device is streaming high-def video, other connected devices may run more slowly.
The device’s battery will last about 4 hours without a charge, but the greater the number of devices connected to the hotspot, the faster the battery will run down. The battery can be recharged via microUSB cable either from a laptop or from an iPad or iPhone charger.
Since I already carry too much stuff on the road, I relish the chance to either trim the weight and volume of my device bag or minimize any additions to it. The MiFi is half the size and weight of the iPhone, measuring 3.5 inches by 2.3 inches, with a thickness of a third of an inch -- or about the width of four stacked credit cards. It weighs roughly 2 ounces.
Filling a Niche
Virgin’s prepaid $40 unlimited data plan essentially pays for itself after eliminating your Internet charges for three hotel nights. The prepaid, no-contract approach allows me to pay for the access I know I’ll need when I’m travelling outside reliable Wi-Fi coverage, and pay nothing during months when I’m not travelling.
Carrying separate 3G contracts to connect each of my devices is simply out of the question. And sharing the 3G connection of one device, like a smartphone, with my other devices can not only mean slower connection speeds, but also a considerably higher data service bill each month as part of a 2-year contract.
I estimate that based on my expected usage over the next 12 months, the MiFi will be about half the cost of the tethering or contract-based mobile hotspot plans I would otherwise have to buy from a wireless carrier.
So for a gadget nut who travels a lot and craves consistent connection speeds, the MiFi is a great piece of gear. And now that Virgin Mobile has sweetened the deal by offering the device and data plan with no commitments, the MiFi is hard to resist.