A while back I took a look at the MiFi 2352. Since then, the idea of a mobile 3G WiFi hotspot has become widespread, with carriers offering various solutions. However, none of these solutions really represent a proper 3G “router” and are, for the most part, fairly dumb access points with very limited enterprise functionality. The features they do boast are consumer centric and not exactly what you’d expect to find in a “router.”
I’ve always recommended these devices over buying the 3G alternative of any mobile device, be it a tablet or a laptop. This is simply because it’s far more flexible. If you buy a 3G iPad, you’ve got an always-connected iPad, but you’re probably already got an always-connected phone periodically checking your email, so what’s the point? Yes, a 3G device is slightly more convenient, but if you add up all those £100+ premiums from 3G device purchases you’ve very quickly paid enough not only for a separate 3G router, but for your data connection too! I keep the MiFi 2352 handy, plus a portable battery to charge it up if necessary. 4 hours is usually enough airtime for an iPad and the things I’m likely to do on it whilst on the go, and more often than not I use it to replace my phones data-connection on the go, so Spotify doesn’t eat through my paltry 500mb limit.
The Solwise “NET-3G-183n”, as its name might allude, is a far more professional alternative to the common MiFi. It is, first and foremost, a router. It’s still portable, however, and battery powered, but its thoroughbred heritage as a router leaves it somewhat more bulky than you might expect from a such a device.
It more than makes up for this bulk with features, including even a Cat-5 ethernet port for wired connections. This, combined with its size and unassuming, utilitarian appearance cements it as the professional alternative to a MiFi, but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good choice for the average consumer, too.
Despite its complexity, the core functionality of the Solwise NET-3G-183n 3G Router is quick and easy to set up, as long as you have a reasonable idea what you’re doing. Most 3G routers, any that you don’t buy direct from a network in fact, require APN Settings from your carrier which are usually a short Google search away. This is the only information you absolutely need to put in, but you can explore the settings and secure the 3G Router as you see fit. Setting up a WiFi password is a few clicks away and can be done in the browser-based configuration utility, WEP/WPA and WPA2 are supported, and you’ll generally want to use one of the latter.
Features of note include 802.11n support, that’s “Wireless N” or “Really fast (actually 300mbps if you’re lucky) WiFi” to the less technically orientated. This means that the devices connected together via the Solwise 183n have a decently fast connection to each other, very handy for sharing files on the go. In practise it’s rarely possible to attain a full 300mbps, with half that speed usually being the norm but that’s still faster than most home wired connections and more than enough for HD streaming. The main reason for this half-speed is that the router is best run in B+G+N mode, that means it supports wireless devices all the way back to the good ol’ 54mbps days at the expense of some performance for newer devices. As you would expect, however, B+G, B+N, B-only, G-only and N-only modes are available, too, if these letters mean anything to you, you’ll know that’s a good thing but most people will be happy with the defaults.
Next up, the USB port. This allows you to tap into the plentiful battery life of the 183n to charge up your phone. I wouldn’t recommend this if you actually plan on using it for a sustained wireless connection, as you’ll seriously eat into that 6 hours of battery life, but if you need an emergency charge for your phone it’s very handy. A regular mini USB port is available for charging the 183n, in addition to a 12v mains input for fast charging or prolonged use where power is available. You can also run the 183n from the USB port, and I’ve successfully run it using an iPad mains adaptor and appropriate USB cable… although I dare say the 10w I’m feeding it might be a little north of its actual requirements.
The Ethernet port is not just for hooking up a desktop computer, or ancient laptop, but can also hook the 183n to your regular, non-portable router. This is hugely beneficial if you have a patchy office internet connection, for example, because your network can fail over to using 3G when it needs to. It also works the other way, however, letting the 183n connect to an ethernet cable and used its internet connection. Part of my testing of the Solwise 183n included using it to circumvent troubles connecting to a friends WiFi network, I simply borrowed a spare network cable, plugged it in and sat the router upstairs in a corner to serve its WiFi goodness- my own personal hotspot, without burning through my mobile data allowance.
This test revealed another feature of the 183n, the signal. With the router upstairs at the front of the house, and my laptop downstairs at the back I still received a decent signal and snappy network performance. Having a range suitable for serving a whole house is quite impressive, and is more than a MiFi or other pocket-sized portable router could achieve.
Now it’s time to get technical. The 183n has a full admin website, of the ilk you would expect to find on a normal home or prosumer router, it’s extremely comprehensive and supplies more features than you could possibly ever demand of such a device. There’s Port Filtering, URL Filtering, MAC Filtering and IP Filtering for extra security. Port forwarding and DMZ are also available, useful for running internet-facing services on your computer. Backing this up is Dynamic DNS support, a really surprising and extremely useful feature.
If all this is starting to swamp you, then you’ll be grateful for the “One Button Setup” feature. It simply presents a single page of the most important and commonly set options, from configuring how the router should connect to the internet, including entering your 3G connection details, to changing the admin pass and setting up WiFi security. If you don’t want to get too technical, this screen should get you up and running pronto.
The only thing that seems to be missing from the web interface is, strangely, a battery status indicator. The 183n will last about 6 hours with a 3G connection going. At the very moment I write this sentence it has been diligently running on battery for about 5 hours. It’s not currently serving a 3G connection, however, so it is likely to last quite a bit longer. The battery can be charged via Mini-USB (a lot sturdier than the Micro USB on the MiFi 2352) or via a 12v mains adaptor.
Overall, the 183n is far, far better than your average pocket-sized mobile router, but most of the features that set it apart will be useless, if not outright dumbfounding to the average user. If you err on the technical side, and possess a man-bag to ferry it around in, then this really is the swiss-army-knife of portable routers and I wholly recommend it. It’s also a handy tool in the office, allowing a flaky connection to fall back onto 3G, or sharing a 3G connection amongst multiple users. Finally, if you frequent trade shows or travel a lot, its usefulness cannot be overstated.