By Lisa Phifer
June 10, 2009
Novatel’s tidy little 3G/Wi-Fi pocket router, available from Verizon Wireless and Sprint, creates personal mobile hotspots for up to five users at a time. It lived up to our expectations–with a few anticipated caveats.
Novatel Wireless MiFi 2200 for CDMA 1x EV-DO Networks
Price: $99.99 after rebate, plus mobile broadband service
Pros: Compact and clean; fuss-free mobile Internet for five Wi-Fi devices
Cons: Constrained by 3G coverage; short battery life in multi-user scenarios
We anxiously awaited the MiFi “intelligent mobile hotspot” ever since Novatel Wireless announced it last December. This elegant little 3G router promised to put a carrier-blessed, turn-key Wi-Fi hotspot literally in your pocket. After six months of certification, Novatel finally delivered when channel partner Verizon Wireless sent us our very own MiFi 2200. Days, miles, and gigabytes later, we can report that the MiFi 2200 met our hopes—with a few anticipated caveats.
Common ingredients; prettier packaging
The MiFi is hardly the first compact Wi-Fi router for on-the-go use. For example, the PosiMotion G-Fi is a pocket Wi-Fi router that creates personal hotspots—but lacks a 3G uplink. Morose Media’s WMWiFiRouter software turns a Wi-Fi capable Windows Mobile handheld into a 3G router—but frequently froze our smartphone. Many paperback-sized AC-powered routers can be outfitted with 3G Express Cards—but most are more portable than mobile.
Like the handsome kid who spouts the same old lines, but somehow steals the show, the MiFi draws eyeballs by bundling 3G and Wi-Fi into a neater, sexier package. But don’t let its good looks fool you—inside this 3.5×2.3×0.4 inch, 2.05-ounce shell lies a router that’s surprisingly friendly and robust. While Novatel did not miraculously overcome 3G coverage or battery technology limitations, the MiFi successfully dissolves many other common pain-points.
No assembly required
For starters, there are no pluggable 3G adapters to buy, break, or lose. The MiFi is a fully integrated 3G router/modem, purchased directly from a mobile broadband carrier. In the US, the CDMA 1x EV-DO capable MiFi 2200 is now available from Verizon Wireless and Sprint for $99 (after $50 rebate, with a service contract). The HSPA capable MiFi 2352 will soon be available from carriers that operate GSM networks.
Sure, this all-in-one architecture means that you can’t buy your own 3G adapter. But thankfully Novatel didn’t strike an exclusive deal that limits coverage or price competition. Instead, MiFi owners get a head-to-toe warranty and tech support from their chosen carrier, along with a 3G service agreement that explicitly permits up to five simultaneous users.
In fact, the MiFi can bring 3G to a myriad of otherwise isolated mobile devices and users. We used our MiFi to deliver Internet access to not only conventional notebooks and desktops, but also to PDAs, smartphones, MP3 players, and even a Wii game console. We had no trouble connecting the MiFi to any 802.11bg client we tried, including backwards-compatible 802.11n clients using 2.4 GHz. Don’t have the AT&T Wireless coverage required to surf on an iPhone? Consider using the MiFi 2200 to add Verizon/Sprint 3G Internet to your iPod touch!
The sky’s the limit
The MiFi’s “personal Wi-Fi cloud” concept is appealing. Since several devices can be connected to each MiFi, customers can get more from a single 3G subscription. Verizon and Sprint charge $59.99/month for a MiFi mobile broadband plan with a 5GB allowance. Users on a tighter budget can opt for Verizon’s $39.99/250MB plan or buy $15 DayPasses. The latter is welcome relief from the usual contract ‘cuffs, but misses out on a $50 Mi-Fi purchase rebate.
A 5GB allowance is fairly typical for a 3G single-user contract. However, five users connected through one MiFi will inevitably consume more bits and may incur overage charges (five cents per MB). The MiFi maintains cumulative traffic counters that can help customers monitor consumption, but warns that the carrier’s site should always be consulted for billable usage data.
3G mobile broadband blows away 2G services like 1xRTT and EDGE, but still pales in comparison to terrestrial broadband and Wi-Fi. According to Verizon’s MiFi User Guide, download/upload throughput depends on coverage. A MiFi connected via EV-DO Rev.A should average 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps down; 500 to 800 Kbps up. In EV-DO Rev.0 coverage areas, those averages drop to 400 to 700 Kbps down; 60 to 80 Kbps up. Outside Mobile Broadband coverage areas, the MiFi can fall back to the more widely available 1xRTT, which averages just 60 to 80 Kbps downstream.
As a result, any MiFi personal hotspot’s performance will be constrained not by its 802.11b/g (LAN) data rates, but by your mobile broadband (WAN) coverage. We sampled our MiFi’s performance throughout the greater Philadelphia area (southeastern PA, northern DE, central NJ). The following chart illustrates a typical 50-mile road-trip, where downloads/uploads averaged 1.46 and 0.49 Mbps respectively—nearly the best one should expect from EV-DO Rev.A.
Note the variability encountered along this test drive. Performance is fairly constant when stationary. But when it comes to providing in-vehicle Internet access for an entire family, inconsistency is the MiFi’s Achilles heel. Don’t expect everyone in your car to stream video simultaneously and be happy. Unless within a strong Rev.A area or parked, we found watching YouTube rather frustrating. On the other hand, e-mail, Web surfing, Flickr slideshows, and even Skype calls fared well, even when two or three users were active.
Taking it to the streets
Given these throughput limits and usage caps, we don’t recommend the MiFi as a full-time home router unless terrestrial broadband is not an option. Nor do we recommend the MiFi to connect a single device that already has satisfactory integrated 3G. Rather, consider the MiFi wherever mobile or temporary Internet access is required by more than one Wi-Fi client.
The MiFi can make family vacations more pleasant, but everyone will need to share bandwidth fairly and exercise considerable patience in rural (1xRTT) areas. For continuous use on drives lasting over three hours, invest in a MiFi vehicle charger or DC/AC power inverter. (The latter can also be used to keep all of those mobile Wi-Fi clients juiced.)
Travelers who carry multiple devices can use the MiFi to reduce Internet access costs. For example, we connected our notebook and smartphone to the MiFi in our pocket. One MiFi subscription would certainly be cheaper than paying for mobile broadband service on both. However, Wi-Fi rapidly depletes our phone’s battery, so we’ll stick with integrated 3G there. On the other hand, we’d rather buy one MiFi than pay for integrated mobile broadband on any of our notebooks.
Why? There are many scenarios where the MiFi could prove useful for workgroup Internet access: colleagues that gather to collaborate on a project at a public venue; workers that need on-location Internet at a construction or disaster site; sales teams that demonstrate on-line products at client sites or tradeshows.
In such scenarios, the MiFi can get small groups on-line quickly, without having to beg for permission or passwords on a private WLAN or find and pay for a public Wi-Fi hotspot. We’ve tried other Internet sharing methods, such as Bluetooth LAN gateways and using a phone as a tethered modem, but found Wi-Fi to the MiFi easier to configure, more convenient to use, and less error-prone. MiFi diagnostics also provide decent insight into modem status, activity, and usage.
Power to the people
That said, we found that power considerations make the MiFi more appealing in situations that call for brief and/or nomadic use rather than lengthy continuous on-the-go use.
According to specs, the MiFi’s 1150 mAh battery should last about four hours with a single user or 40 hours on stand-by. But we never got more than 2.5 active hours out of our MiFi. Of course, we usually connected at least two Wi-Fi devices—after all, multi-user is the MiFi’s market.
Fortunately, the MiFi’s battery is removable, so carrying extra batteries is one extended use option. Groups that gather indoors can easily plug the MiFi into an AC wall socket; normal operation continues when charged this way. Ditto for in-vehicle coupling to a DC power source.
We’d love to recharge via USB while still using Wi-Fi, but the MiFi’s Wi-Fi is temporarily disabled when connected to a USB host. As a result, only the PC or Mac on the far end of the USB cable can get on-line when charging this way, using the MiFi as an ordinary 3G modem.
Keeping life simple
Beyond these fairly common mobile power and coverage limitations, the MiFi does an excellent job of simplifying as-needed multi-user Internet access. After activation, the MiFi immediately starts to operate as a secure Wi-Fi router with on-demand 3G Internet. To use the MiFi, just push the unit’s one and only button. This enables the MiFi’s internal 802.11g AP, configured to secure traffic with TKIP and the handy pre-shared key inscribed on the unit’s back.
Whenever any Wi-Fi client associates, it receives an IP address from the MiFi’s internal DHCP server. Client traffic is then scrutinized by the MiFi’s stateful packet inspection firewall. If the 3G uplink is disconnected, the MiFi automatically tries to connect to EV-DO first, 1xRTT second. If an uplink cannot be established or gets interrupted, the MiFi automatically retries, attempting to maintain connectivity without user assistance. To conserve power, the 3G uplink is dropped in the absence of traffic; after 30 minutes of inactivity, the Wi-Fi AP also stops beaconing.
These sensible defaults are all reconfigurable through the MiFi’s Web admin interface (below). Many MiFi owners will never need to touch these screens, but those who do will find parameters common to entry-level broadband routers, including MAC ACLs, port forwarding, and VPN pass-through. 3G auto-connection and Wi-Fi timeout can also be adjusted to conserve battery.
There are no other knobs to tune connection management, but we didn’t miss them. During out trial, the MiFi managed 3G in a manner that rarely caused page timeouts or application disconnects, even when barreling down the highway. Having used many other cellular data devices with far less success, we know this kind of transparency cannot be taken for granted.
Although not available in the Verizon MiFi that we tested, Sprint’s MiFi admin interface includes a GPS panel, which leverages the unit’s GPS receiver to display current latitude/longitude and perform location-aware Web searches using Google, MSN, or Yahoo!. This is a good start; we expect to see carriers making more use of the MiFi’s GPS in the future.
Wi-Fi bare necessities
Each MiFi ships with three predefined Wi-Fi profiles: open, secure, and temporary hotspot.
The first is exactly what you’d expect: an unencrypted, unauthenticated wide-open WLAN, identified by a unique SSID (e.g., Verizon MiFi2200 F423). Customers who use this profile should really avoid accessing unencrypted applications (including the MiFi’s admin pages).
We give Novatel kudos for encouraging encrypted WLANs instead. The MiFi defaults to a secure profile that uses TKIP and a WPA-PSK passphrase printed right on the device. That default profile can also be reconfigured for AES/WPA2-PSK and/or a custom passphrase. Not surprisingly, the MiFi does not support 802.1X (Enterprise) authentication.
The MiFi’s oddly-named temporary hotspot profile corresponds to 64-bit WEP with an auto-generated key. We locked ourselves out when trying this profile because Verizon’s User Guide does not identify the default WEP key. We quickly recovered by resetting our MiFi to its default secure profile (and well-documented PSK). This approach makes using a stolen MiFi trivial, but it also makes WPA very convenient for as-needed on-the-go workgroups.
It’s no surprise that the MiFi uses battery-friendly 802.11g instead of 802.11n—3G users can’t exploit n speed anyway. But the MiFi surprised us with its range. We had expected this credit card-sized, battery-powered router to have short reach like most Wi-Fi-capable smartphones. But we found that our MiFi covered most of one floor at home and offered plenty of room to spread out at a local cafe with no less than good signal strength.
Ultimately, the only thing complicated about our MiFi test drive was initial activation. Sprint customers must activate the MiFi by calling customer service. A MiFi from Verizon Wireless can also be activated by phone, at point of purchase, or over the Web.
To enable Web-based activation, every Verizon MiFi contains a VZAccess Manager installer that auto-launches whenever the unit is connected via USB to a Windows XP SP2+ or Vista PC. (Mac OS X 10.4.0 users are exempt from VZAccess.) Our MiFi installed an old version of VZAccess and immediately tried to activate itself—but failed because no Internet connections were active.
Apparently you need to have Internet to get Internet. This may explain why one cannot activate the MiFi directly through its Web admin interface. However, requiring customers to install a Windows program purely for activation seems overly complex. Prompting customers to do so every single time their MiFi connects to USB adds insult to injury.
In fairness, VZAccess can add value for customers who use the MiFi as an ordinary USB modem. For example, VZAccess can manage a PC’s wireless adapters, auto-connecting them in a preferred order. VZAccess can also send and receive text messages conveyed by the MiFi. But we doubt that many customers will spend a lot of time texting through a USB-connected MiFi. We’d prefer to perform both Web activation and SMS through the MiFi’s admin interface.
The bottom line
Much ado has been made about the MiFi since its announcement. Based on our trial, much of that applause is deserved—the MiFi makes multi-user 3G Internet access surprisingly hassle-free. But some key limitations remain. Battery life will be an issue for some users, but can be avoided wherever AC/DC is available. Mobile broadband coverage or lack thereof will impact more early adopters. If you live and work in an area that gets only or mostly 1xRTT (or EDGE), the MiFi is not for you; but if you frequent a region blessed with EV-DO (or HSUPA), the MiFi can help you more fully exploit high-speed mobile broadband with minimal investment.
Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. Lisa has been testing mobile wireless handheld devices since 1997, when she surfed the web from her first CDPD-based WAP phone.