Chuong’s Pick: Novatel MiFi Puts a WiFi Hotspot in Your Pocket with 3G Net Access

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The MiFi is one of my favorites for the year. The Novatel MiFi is basically a mini WiFi hotspot in your pocket. Roughly the size of a business card with the thickness of half a deck of cards, the unassuming unit packs a lot of punch, serving up a maximum of five internet connections over a 3G CDMA wireless data network over WiFi for up to 4-5 hours at a time. The device–though portable, small, and lightweight–is heavyweight on features offering the ability to fully configure and customize the router, offering choices of WPA or WEP encryptions, the ability to change the network SSID name, configure ports, and more.

The small size means that you can carry the MiFi anywhere with you, whether if it’s in a pants pocket, shirt pocket, purse, or briefcase; it is equally chic as it is functional. The CDMA versions of the router are available on both Sprint and Verizon Wireless for consumer purchase at a price of $99 with a 2-year contract agreement and data plans of 250 MB for $40 per month, or $60 will net you 5 GB of data; be careful of overages though, especially since you can share your wireless generosity with up to four other guests–playing videos and downloading media files will quickly eat away at your monthly allotments. Unfortunately at this time, Novatel does not sell direct to consumers. The company also is in talks with GSM carriers to bring a 3G GSM/HSPA version to North America.

Sprint commercial demonstrating the purpose of the MiFi

The version of the MiFi I tested is an unbranded version from Novatel Wireless, which also makes the MiFi for Verizon Wireless and Sprint in the USA; a North American HSPA version is also forthcoming. Read on to find out why the MiFi made it into my list for Chuong’s Picks as one of my personal favorite gadgets for the year.

Chuong’s Picks is a series that features electronics, gadgets, and gears that I have used and selected due to the product’s balance between performance and value, form and function. Essentially, it is my personal “Editor’s Choice” and recommendation to you to hopefully help the beginning gadgetphile pick from among the best products in a category without having to spend too much money or time researching a group of products.

Form: The unbranded version of the MiFi looks more like the Sprint branded version. The top cover is made of a brushed aluminum material with a non-slip rubberized back. The device is unassuming, yet professional, and will complement the look of many smartphones, PDAs, notebooks, netbooks, and tablets on the market.

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The Novatel MiFi is an attractive looking portable router and hotspot

that connects over a 3G wireless data network

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The Sprint branded version sports the same aesthetics as the

un-branded Novatel MiFi, except with a Sprint logo

Verizon Wireless’ branded version is more sleek and consumer-oriented, sporting a slick, fingerprint-proned glossy cover and the same non-slip rubberized coating.

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Verizon Wireless’ branded MiFi unit has a glossy black front cover,

which is prone to fingerprints

Additionally, the device can charge via an included micro USB AC adapter or via a micro USB cable through your computer’s USB port. Keep in mind, however, that if you plug the MiFi into your computer’s USB port, you will be limited to singular computer USB tethering instead of the five-tech WiFi tether party.

The unit has two lights—one on the power button and a one on the side of the device which glows green when not connected and blinks when you’re connected to a network. Here is a full list of the LED indicators and what they mean:

1. Power LED:

-LED not lit: No power to modem

-LED Blue (Solid): Modem is on and you’re roaming

-LED Green (Solid): Modem on and fully charged

-LED Freen (Glowing): Modem is in hibernate

-LED Red (Blinking): Battery is critically low

-LED Amber (Solid): Charging

-LED Amber (Blinking): Modem error

2. LED Side Light Indicator–Modem data status:

-LED not lit: No power

-LED Green (Solid): Modem is on, but not transmitting/receiving data

-LED Green (Slow blinking): Modem is on, but no service

-LED Green (Fast blinking): You’re good to go!

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Novatel MiFi shown with micro USB charging plug, green power LED light, and status indicator LED light on the side of the unit next to the micro USB charging port

Function: While most reviews on the net credit Sprint or Verizon Wireless for the device’s superb performance, I feel Novatel, as the creator of the MiFi, should be for its portable size, attractive form, and ease of use. There isn’t much fault to find with the unit–it does what it claims to do with a zen-like simplicity and two indicators that show charge, battery level, and modem status for data transmissions.

On the back of the device, a sticker with the device’s network ID name (SSID) and password are enclosed. Simply point your computer, handheld, or WiFi-enabled smartphone to the network, key in the password, and in a few seconds, you’re connected. Aside from the sticker, the back of the device is clean save for the battery cover, which slides to reveal a sizable 1150 mAh battery. Underneath the battery is a sticker with the device’s Mac address.

In addition to hardware, there is software, which comes in two parts—a web interface for configuring the router and software for the modem to monitor data usage. The web interface can easily be accessed by typing http://192.168.1.1 and entering “admin” as the password. After you login, you can change the ports, configure Mac addresses, set WEP/WPA passwords, and more. Basic users need not worry about all these advanced features if they don’t need or want to.

Initially, I had a problem with instant messaging clients like AOL-IM/AIM, Yahoo!, and MSN disconnecting on me every few minutes if there wasn’t an active upload or download in the background. I found out that the modem entered an “idle” state to save battery power when not doing anything. Novatel told me that the idle settings could be changed via the web interface. Changing that, the unit stayed on and I remain logged on to my IM clients. I didn’t notice any significant drain on battery power by changing the idle settings.

Connecting the modem via USB, users will notice that the device also mounts as a flash drive with drivers to install, making it easy to connect the MiFi and tether over USB. Tethering over USB offers users an easy solution to keep the MiFi charged over their laptop’s USB port while tethering (you can plug the AC connector to the MiFi for WiFi tethering). Just remember that if the MiFi is connected to your computer, the device shuts off WiFi for tethering and you must tether over USB, limiting your connection to just one device.

Novatel also offers a MobiLink Communications Suite on their website for users to monitor data speeds, download limits, and wireless status through a graphical user interface. MobiLink is similar to the Verizon Wireless Access Manager software or the Sprint Connection Manager, but unlike the carriers’ softwares, MobiLink is currently PC only and I didn’t have an opportunity to test the software suite.

Additionally, unlike the Verizon Wireless and Sprint branded version, the unbranded Novatel MiFi stresses ease of use over complicated software packages. Instead, there were no software CDs as Novatel encourages you to use the WiFi function. In truth, I only connected over USB once, and it was to test out the software. I find the WiFi connection so much simpler and Novatel did a great job with the entire package—drivers, software, connection.

Connection can’t be simpler over WiFi and you should be able to muster around 4 hours of continuous use tethering one device on a single charge. The device did get really warm, so I suggest keeping it on a table and not in a pants or shirt pocket.

Although the Novatel MiFi I used was un-branded, Novatel informed me that the unit connects to Verizon Wireless’ towers to obtain EVDO data speeds. In my use, I find that Verizon’s speeds were adequate, but weren’t mind-blowing, clocking in at less than 1 Mbps each time, well less than the 1.4 Mbps obtained on my AT&T iPhone 3GS over WiFi tethering. That’s really a problem with Verizon’s network more so than with Novatel’s hardware. The Sprint-branded MiFi using Sprint’s towers was able to perform at faster speeds on Sprint’s network here in the Bay Area.

Additionally, with CDMA/EVDO connections, users will experience data bursts where there are speed spikes. This means that the speed is more variable and can jump between fast and slow a lot. The experience is different on GSM/HSPA where speed is more constant. Again, this isn’t a problem with the MiFi unit itself and is a limitation on the technology behind CDMA/EVDO networks. The speed spikes were present on the Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and Novatel unbranded models that I tested.

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Verizon Wireless’ network speed

Utility: While Windows Mobile phone users have had ways to tether their devices with solutions like WMWiFiRouter, the ease of use of Novatel’s hardware and software solution is unparalleled. The MiFi offers longevity in battery life, versus the former’s quick battery drain on your smartphone. Also, with the CDMA limits of either talking on the phone or being connected to data, the MiFi will offer CDMA users the ability to remain connected on their laptops while continuing to gab on their smartphones. All this comes at a cost, and the cost is on par across the major carriers with $60 netting you 5 GB of data. This really isn’t Novatel’s fault, but we wish wireless data was more affordable.

The main advantage that the MiFi has over smartphone tethering software is a longer battery life. While the MiFi can last for a little over four hours with a single device connected to it on battery power, drawing data over 3G, and transmitting data over WiFi, tethering in the same manner with my Windows Mobile AT&T Fuze/Touch Pro over 3G would last me under 2 hours on a single charge. The downside: a second data plan to be had.

Compared to a USB modem or a PC Card modem, the data pricing for the MiFi is just about right. While you’re essentially paying the same data prices (blame the carriers), you’re able to share your connection with more than one device, making it more cost-effective than other solutions on the market. The device would be fun to have in a car too, with one person driving, another browsing on a WiFi-enabled smartphone, one user on a laptop, and another on a WiFi-enabled portable gaming solution. That’s 1 wireless connection for $60, versus having to pay $60 per connection for each USB or PC Card modem.

Conclusion: You’ll have to decide whether the cost of an extra data plan, which can be pricey, is right for you, though there are many uses for the MiFi, from student study groups to business meetings in areas where there is no WiFi coverage. The MiFi provides a great alternative to hunting for a WiFi hotspot or being tethered to an Ethernet port. The only downside is the expensive data plans, which really isn’t Novatel’s fault. In actuality, the data pricing is comparable across most carriers, with Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless offering 5 GB of data on a USB modem or PC Card modem for the same price, the MiFi offers you the flexibility of sharing your data connection with more than one device. Verizon Wireless also offers daily passes for $10 for those reluctant to sign a two-year deal, though you’ll have to spend substantially more to get your MiFi hardware.

I find it unfortunate that Novatel doesn’t sell directly to consumers. They have a winning product and the only sour side to the proposition is dealing with a cell phone company. Few reviewers credit the MiFi’s elegance to Novatel, instead focusing on the carriers for bringing the device to the market–however, the hardware implementation is as equally compelling as the network’s fast data connections.

Novatel should have lots of success with this device and I am eager to test out how their forthcoming HSPA MiFi 2372 fares against the CDMA/EVDO 3G data speeds.

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The GSM/HSPA version of the MiFi is expected soon, once a carrier partner is announced

I have been extremely pleased with Novatel’s MiFi solution that I am awarding it my personal choice with a “Chuong’s Pick.”

Pros:

-Ease of use

-Connects up to 5 devices on a single data plan

-Long battery life: 4 hours for single WiFi connection

-Fast EVDO speeds

-Small size, attractive package

-Did I mention simple to use? Just thought it deserves a second mention.

Cons:

-None really, except the carriers charge quite a bit for a data plan

-I personally recommend the $60/month data plan to avoid overages; $60 is a bit of money to spend in this economy, even among corporate consumers

-Novatel doesn’t sell directly to consumers; you’ll still need to navigate the contract and legalese with your local carriers–in this case Sprint and Verizon Wireless for the CDMA version.

About Novatel Wireless: Novatel Wireless, Inc. is a leader in the design and development of innovative wireless broadband access solutions based on 3G and 4G WCDMA (HSPA & UMTS), CDMA and GSM technologies. Novatel Wireless’ USB modems, embedded modules, Intelligent Mobile Hotspot products and software enable high-speed wireless Internet access on leading wireless data networks. The Company delivers specialized wireless solutions to carriers, distributors, OEMs and vertical markets worldwide. Headquartered in San Diego, California, Novatel Wireless is listed on NASDAQ: NVTL. For more information please visit www.novatelwireless.com.

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About The Author
Chuong Nguyen