I’m perplexed at the widespread, comparatively anyway, adoption of 3g USB dongles in lieu of far better and more flexible alternatives. So perplexed, in fact, that I decided to try one such alternative, the MiFi 2352 from Novatel Wireless, to see if there’s really a glaring flaw keeping it from the mass market, or if it’s simply been a bit slow to catch up.
Update: The MiFi 2352 is available SIM Free from Multiplex Systems for just shy of £137. That’s officially a bargain, and a great place to buy with MPXSYS’s brilliant customer engagement and continued Twitter activity. You should be able to use this with your existing, data-enabled O2, Orange, Vodaphone, T-Mobile or other network SIMs- all without the cost of an additional contract. I still use and love mine, it’s great when the office network goes down.
If you’ve been eyeing up this particular mobile WiFi hotspot you’ll be pleased to know that there’s no such flaw, and that the MiFi is, in fact, orders of magnitude more flexible than its USB-port confined cousins. Of course, this flexibility comes at an increased price and no carrier (at least none that I’ve been able to locate in the UK) has stepped up to the plate and offered the MiFi, or similar devices, with a contract subsidy.
This could be construed as a good thing, however. If you can stomach the £210 price tag of the MiFi then you can pick up a data-only SIM on a one month rolling plan and be free to change provider on a whim, rather than being tied in to ultimately paying off that £210 through an inescapable contract.
I’m going to start with the obvious benefits to the MiFi, because they’re not often as obvious as you (or I, for that matter) might think. If you were to pick up a USB, 3g dongle you would, for the most part, be able to use it only with your laptop/netbook or tablet computer. You could potentially then share the connection via WiFi, but this would demand that the computer with the dongle attached is left on. If you wanted to connect a different machine, you would need to move the dongle from one USB port to another, and when you pack your laptop away for transport you’ve little choice but to remove it altogether and store it safely.
Ultimately, a USB dongle is going to be subject to a great deal of were. In fact, the providers themselves recommend the use of a USB extension cable to both keep your dongle pristine and prevent it simply getting knocked, and snapped off in your USB port. Believe me, the latter can and will happen.
By contrast, the MiFi can support any computer capable of connecting to an ordinary WiFi router. A router is, quite simply, exactly what it is. Of course, the MiFi provides its own internet connection with the help of a SIM card, and has a built in battery, but everything you can connect to your wireless internet at home, you will be able to connect to the MiFi. Furthermore, you’ll be able to do this with multiple devices simultaneously:- a laptop, an internet tablet, a PSP, a DS, even your smartphone if you’re so inclined, can all connect to the internet at the same time with the MiFi’s limit of up to 5 devices. And that’s a generous limit, considering that sharing a mobile broadband connection, not often renown for their speed, amongst too many clients is clearly a bad idea.
The built in battery means that not only does the MiFi not have to directly drain the battery of your device (having WiFi in use will, of course) but that it can also be powered by a portable USB power pack, a lighter socket, household mains or any device you’ve got handy with a powered USB port. This sheer level of flexibility in both connectivity and power supply really puts mobile WiFi routers head and shoulder above 3g dongle. The fact that no direct mechanical or electrical connection ever has to be made between the MiFi and your devices means there’s no risk wear and tear, or the dreaded accidental dongle snap. You can slip the MiFi into a bag, your pocket or simply leave it upon the car dashboard to get the best possible reception.
If I haven’t convinced you of its flexibility by now, and you’re a bit of a stickler for long distance travel you’ll be pleased to know that swapping SIM cards in the MiFi (which is, by its very nature, SIM unlocked out of the box) is a breeze. Like most mobile phones you still have to mess about removing and replacing the batter cover, and battery, but the software on the MiFi has several “Profile” slots for different providers. With these, you can pre-fill the necessary mobile data connection information into the MiFi for each of your regional SIM cards and then simply pick the appropriate profile when you cross the border and change SIM. This way you can easily and effectively avoid very severe roaming data charges with a bare minimum of effort and no additional hardware.
Personally I tried two different UK based providers in the MiFi. One was my own O2 SIM card, surgically extracted from my iPhone and the second, my partners T-Mobile SIM card, loaded with Web ‘n’ Walk goodness. The MiFi unit came preconfigured for me with the O2 connection information, and took little more than 5 minutes of Googling from my iPhone to set-up for T-Mobile when on the go in the car. Your providers data server, username and password are all you need to know, and these are common and generic meaning a simple Google will retrieve them if you’re in doubt. This is fortunate, because calling O2 and asking for these details so you can use your SIM card to perform an act similar to the terrible and frowned upon practise of … tethering … (I’m pretty sure it’s a myth that tethering can be easily detected by providers and that they simply look for and deal with “excessive” usage which)
T-Mobile seemed to be better, but I’m looking into getting hold of some more data only SIMs to test other providers with the MiFi for potential compatibility problems. From my own experience, however, I can be fairly sure that any SIM you dare to throw into the MiFi will do the trick- just make sure you’ve got a data only SIM, or an unlimited data plan before you try. And don’t go nuts with excessively large downloads!
If all this wasn’t enough, the MiFi is brimming with typical router features including the ability to serve up a MicroSD card up to 16GB in size as NAS (Network Accessible Storage) which you can back up and restore your data to, or use to keep your working documents available to multiple systems. Unfortunately the MiFi NAS wont appear as a network drive on your computer, instead relying on its onboard web portal to provide a simple add/remove screen for file management. Alongside this come bread and butter features such as Mac address filtering for that extra level of security, the ability to back up and restore router configuration, port filtering, port forwarding, diagnostics and, apparently, even a QoS (Quality of Service) service that insures the most important traffic gets priority- quite important on a mobile connection!
Finally, you can actually use the MiFi as a USB connected mobile broadband access point, just like an ordinary USB dongle. So, if you ever need to use it with a laptop that’s so old it somehow escaped ever receiving WiFi, al is not lost!
The theoretical maximum speed of the MiFi’s connection is 7.5mbps down and 5.5mbps up, which is the mobile data standard at the moment. Whether or not you get these speeds depends highly on your provider and their coverage but from what I can tell thus far the MiFi signal strength is as good as, if not better, than your average smart-phone.
Overall, it seems like a very solid, very flexible and very useful product that you should not pass up if you’re considering mobile broadband. I’ll bring you more coverage as I test it with the latest MIDs and as many providers as I can get my grubby paws upon. But, thus far, it gets a solid thumbs up and makes me wish I had a free data-only SIM I could use it more often with.