It’s hard to remember a time not long ago when Web browsing required sitting in one place and using a computer plugged into a cable. Now, people expect to hop online whenever they want from wherever they want using wireless Internet connections. But it isn’t always easy. Mobile devices lose their capabilities when the carrier’s signal drops out; laptop users struggle to find a public Wi-Fi network that will work; and the Wi-Fi networks that are available get slowed down by overcrowding.
Why not bring your own Wi-Fi? I’m not talking about stuffing a cumbersome router and cables into a backpack with hopes of setting up shop wherever you go. I’m referring to a new product called MiFi. It is what it sounds like: a private Wi-Fi network for you. It’s a one-button gadget that measures about the surface size of an Altoids tin, only thinner and lighter.
This week, while I was traveling, I used Verizon Wireless’s MiFi 2200, made for the phone carrier by Novatel Wireless. The MiFi brings in the Internet using Verizon’s 3G network and creates a Wi-Fi zone that can be reached from up to 50 feet away, even through thick hotel walls. Its connection can be used by up to five devices at once. At one point, I had a Lenovo ThinkPad, Apple MacBook, iPhone, Palm Pre and iPod Touch simultaneously using the Web via the MiFi’s connection. Although video playback stuttered under these busy conditions, other tasks did well. And with just three devices using the connection at once, the connection worked normally.
The luxury of MiFi doesn’t come cheap. The device itself costs $100 with a two-year service agreement and after a $50 rebate. Two monthly plan options are available: $40 buys 250 megabytes with a charge of 10 cents per megabyte over that allotment; and $60 buys five gigabytes with a five-cent charge per megabyte of overage. Users who don’t want to mess with the monthly service plan can buy the device at its full retail price of $400 and pay $15 per 24-hour access period, which is called a Verizon Wireless Mobile Broadband DayPass.
Of course, you already can get online over cellphone networks for similar monthly fees and at similar speeds, with external or internal laptop cards that usually cost less upfront. So why would anyone want or need MiFi? The answer is that it serves multiple devices at once, without requiring you to buy multiple cards or pay a separate fee for each.
I can imagine plenty of scenarios where the MiFi would come in handy, including colleagues traveling together, college students studying together with laptops on a campus lawn and families riding in a car with multiple laptops and/or portable game devices. In my trip alone, I used my MiFi and avoided paying for wireless Internet fees in the airport and four days of my hotel’s expensive in-room Internet charges. As long as there’s a Verizon network in the area, the MiFi will work.
Last week, Sprint Nextel entered the MiFi fray by offering its own MiFi 2200, also from Novatel Wireless. Like Verizon’s MiFi, Sprint’s costs $100 after a rebate and with a two-year contract. While Verizon offers all-data plans, Sprint offers a monthly plan of broadband-only for $60 as well as a $150 monthly Simply Everything Plan + Mobile Broadband for data and phone use. Both of these plans include five gigabytes a month with a five-cents-a-megabyte charge for overage. Sprint’s device isn’t available with pay-as-you-go options, like Verizon’s MiFi. Unlike Verizon’s MiFi, the Sprint device has built-in GPS.
The Verizon MiFi looks unassuming. It weighs just over two ounces, so it really could be held unnoticed in a pocket. In fact, it’s so small, you could easily misplace it. Its glossy black exterior is interrupted only by a Verizon Wireless logo and a power button, which changes colors to indicate different things, like red for low battery and blue for when it’s on. A separate indicator light blinks green when the MiFi is transmitting or receiving data. The MiFi runs on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery; spare batteries cost $40. Its battery charges when MiFi plugs into a Windows PC or Mac using a USB cable or plugs into a wall adapter.
After the initial registration of the MiFi device, which happens the first time you plug it into a Mac or Windows PC and takes just five minutes, the device is set to work without any wires simply by pressing its power button on. The personal Wi-Fi network shows up in a list of available networks on your device and requires a password, which is written on the back of each MiFi. Users can change this password to something more memorable by adjusting wireless security settings in a browser menu.
Verizon estimates that if just one device is tapped into a fully charged MiFi, the tiny gadget’s battery will last for about four hours, and this was the case in my tests. The battery is designed to last 40 hours in standby, a plus for busy travelers who might not think to charge the MiFi each night.
Even when two laptops and a Palm Pre were connected to the MiFi, speed tests showed positive results of about 1.4 megabytes per second for downloads and roughly 500 kilobits per second for uploads. Verizon says its device uses something called NovaSpeed, which enhances upload and download performance.
The MiFi offers reliable Web access for you and the four lucky souls who are sitting near you, if you’re feeling generous. Its ease of use — take out, turn on, start surfing the Web — means there aren’t any excuses for not hopping online from anywhere at any time. And it comes just in time for those summer vacations that were meant to let you get away from it all.
Edited By Walter S. Mossberg