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Road Tested: the Verizon MiFi portable broadband router

For the last couple of weeks, I've been testing the Verizon MiFi portable WiFi hotspot. After writing about the MiFi, a few months back, I was placed on a waiting list to receive a test unit. Could the MiFi enhance the iPod touch experience to bring it into the realm of the iPhone? A unit finally came free and I finally got my hands-on experience to discover whether my assumptions would be proved right or wrong.

The MiFi, which is a portable EV-DO router, provides a 3G connection through an absolutely tiny unit. All plastic, it's about as thick as an iPhone and about two-thirds as large as its front face. The MiFi's entire user interface is its single button (seen at the bottom right of the image here). When pressed, the button switches on and glows green. Pressed again and held, the unit turns off and the green glow disappears. Sprint offers a near-identical unit, except it's finished in brushed metal instead of black.

Read on to discover how my MiFi testing went...


What the MiFi offers you is wireless connectivity on the go. It creates a protected wireless network, which you can reach with any nearby system: Mac, iPhone, PC, etc. The password for the network appears on a label physically attached to the unit and consists of an 11 number sequence. My iPod touch had no trouble remembering this sequence and automatically rejoining the network whenever it was switched on.

Coverage

3G connectivity depends on the 3G coverage in your area. AT&T dead spots seemed to be highly correlated with Verizon dead spots. I found the coverage was neither better nor worse. There were places I was hard pressed to get a steady signal. Other locations easily passed my Pandora test.

My Pandora test goes like this. You run the Pandora music application on an iPhone or iPod touch while driving through the city. Points are awarded for steady uninterrupted playback; points are deducted for hesitations, rebuffering, and any other audio glitches.

The MiFi pandoraed almost identically to the iPhone using its native AT&T 3G. Locations along the major expressways scored highest. Residential areas outside of the city center scored poorly. The "park and wait" outside my son's school and my local Albertson's stores proved completely dead, meaning I can't listen to live Pandora music when waiting for my son or shopping for food. Fortunately, my 32GB iPhone has plenty of onboard music.

Laptop Use

The MiFi absolutely rocked for laptop use. Several users can connect simultaneously and do light Web-browsing, e-mail checking, and so forth without any significant delays in good coverage zones. That's perfect for commuting in a carpool and for family trips. My kids were able to play games and watch YouTube videos on separate iPhones and iPod touch units, while sharing that MiFi access.

Admittedly, not everyone can drink at the YouTube well at once and YouTube definitely sucks up bandwidth. Like most netbook-style plans, the MiFi is capped at 5GB per month for the $60/month plan and 250 MB per month for the $40/month plan. Overages run at $0.05/MB and $0.10/MB respectively, so you want to pick a plan that matches your data consumption. Even so, my dad left sure that he was going to sign up for a MiFi as soon as he returned to Florida. That's how much he loved the convenience.

The MiFi, the Blackberry, and the iPod

One of the nice things that the MiFi does is it gives Blackberry users a sense of what it is to own an iPhone. I know many, many people who cannot, who will not, who shall not give up their Crackberry. Not for money, not for blood, not for any reason. At the same time, these people really want to experience the iPhone lifestyle. With a MiFi and an iPod touch, you do get a sense of that -- although it's not a perfect representation.

Using an iPhone, the Internet lives in your pocket. You pull out the phone and you're online. You do stuff, you turn off the phone, and stick it back into your pocket. It couldn't be simpler or more seamless.

With a MiFi, it's not quite that simple. With its 4-hour expected life, you need to switch the system on when you want to connect and wait a few moments for the system to find and connect to 3G service. There aren't any cute little bars to tell you how good your signal is. So that's a second device and there are definitely usage delays involved in getting started each time.

Also, while the MiFi fits in your pocket, you do need to take it out during use. The unit gets very warm. Not egg-cooking warm, not pants-on-fire warm, but warm nonetheless. That's an important consideration when you think about on-the-go use. There's another device you have to keep track of. The MiFi is small enough that it's easy to misplace, although I did not (fortunately!) lose the review unit at any time during the loan period.

Multiple Devices

So instead of a single iPhone, you may end up lugging around three devices at once: a phone like a Blackberry, an iPod, and the MiFi. But if you think that's a real problem, you may be surprised at the reactions of some of my friends and their capacious handbags. I recently visited California with the MiFi in hand. Dedicated Blackberry users, several of my friends already owned iPod touch units. They used them at Starbucks and other WiFi hotspots. They loved the iPod experience but didn't want to enter an iPhone contract.

Seeing the MiFi in action, where they were able to use the iPod at lunch or in the park, really appealed to them. It was like having an iPhone without actually, you know, having an iPhone or at least without having to enter into an iPhone contract.

Several already were paying Sprint for plug-in EVDO devices for use with their laptops. They hadn't known that Sprint offers the MiFi as well as Verizon, and that they could include the MiFi as part of the $150/month "Simply Everything Plan + Mobile Broadband".

"Oh yeah, of course!"

With the MiFi, the "oh yeah, of course" factor is high. Users get it right away: why the system is cool and how easy it is to use one with your equipment. MacBooks in particular work really well with the MiFi because you can stick the system into the mesh part of most backpacks and laptop bags, providing enough ventilation and close enough proximity for use while guarding against accidental loss. Juggling with handbags, iPods and MiFis isn't quite as clean, but for some people it provided the extra coverage lift they needed.

There are laptop negatives too. In its standard release configuration, you cannot use the MiFi while it is tethered via USB to your computer. Several sites offer hacking instructions to let you do so, ensuring your system can re-charge during use. But unless you're willing to deal with those kind of cable hacks, and most people are not willing, you'll have to live with the four hour limit or stop using the network as the device charges.

Conclusions

In the end, the MiFi isn't all that cheap (just $10 less than the least expensive iPhone monthly plan), and it does require a 2 year commitment. At the same time it delivers uncomplicated multi-user tethering in an extremely easy-to-use package. If you're a MacBook/iPod user, you will definitely find something to love with this device.

If you're an iPhone user, you might want to wait and see what kind of tethering options AT&T will be providing (and at what cost!) before signing into a contract. I really enjoyed using the MiFi and am definitely going to miss using it with my non-standard OS X netbook. But I appreciate even more the iPhone's single "Internet in your Pocket" portability that gives me direct net access from almost anywhere that isn't my son's school or local Albertson's supermarket.



For the last couple of weeks, I've been testing the Verizon MiFi portable WiFi hotspot. After writing about the MiFi, a few months back, I...