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Road Tested: Novatel Wireless MiFi 2200 from Sprint

Back in August of this year, my local TUAW blogging buddy Erica Sadun posted some information about the Verizon MiFi portable broadband router. The MiFi device, created by Novatel Wireless, is a tiny Wi-Fi router with a built-in EVDO 3G modem. Essentially, what this means is that anywhere you go with the device, you become a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to 4 other users. Erica found that the Verizon version of this box is quite useful, but is dependent on both the 3G signal quality and the user's desire to pay extra for broadband.

For me, the decision to get the Sprint version of this product was a no-brainer. I have used a Sierra Wireless 595U USB broadband modem for the past two years, and I frankly couldn't do my business without it. I travel a lot, and I don't trust public Wi-Fi services. The Sprint Mobile Broadband service and USB dongle have made it possible for me to work at fairly fast speeds in airports and have kept me from spending money on the ridiculously-priced Wi-Fi service that more upscale hotels charge US$10 - 15 dollars a day for. I was even able, with an earlier version of Sprint's SmartView software, to share my connection with students in some of my Business Analysis classes (this capability disappeared a while ago). The USB dongle also made it possible for me to download drivers and look up troubleshooting information when working with consulting clients who were having network issues.

Read along as I take you on a quick review of Sprint's version of the MiFi, and whether or not you might want to consider it for a Christmas present.
While the USB modem was still perfectly fine for me, I found that I missed being able to share my connection. Since I had been a Sprint Mobile Broadband customer for two years, I could get the MiFi for $99 (after mail-in rebate) and retain the same service plan I had been using. That service plan, at $59.99 per month, allegedly gives me unlimited data usage, but it appears that Sprint reserves the right to throttle my usage above 5 GB per month. Sixty bucks a month may sound pricey, but the plan has more than paid for itself in terms of convenience, security, and not having to shell out for Wi-Fi in some hotels.

One question I asked myself before committing to another two year plan was "What if AT&T finally approves tethering for the iPhone?" We've discussed tethering a lot on TUAW in the past. In light of the beating that AT&T's network has taken from the bandwidth-hungry iPhone, some of us think that if AT&T does allow tethering, it will be just as expensive as a dedicated data account like Sprint is providing with the MiFi.

The MiFi came with free overnight shipping, so once I had made the decision to move to this new device, it was a short wait before the doorbell rang and a small box was left on my doorstep. The first thing that surprised me was just how tiny the MiFi is -- it's about 3/4 of the size of an iPhone. For aluminum MacBook/Pro/Air users, you're going to love the finish on the Sprint device, since it matches your favorite laptop. The MiFi has a single power button on top and a micro-USB connector on the side for charging. There's also a small green LED on the side that is used to indicate connectivity with the EVDO network.

Sprint advertises the battery life of the MiFi as 4 hours with a full charge, and that was about correct during my testing. You can either use the device "standalone" or plugged into a wall socket; for long-term use it's probably not a bad idea to just plug it in. I was able to use a car plug that I have with the USB to microUSB cable from my Amazon Kindle to charge the device, and it would be a great idea for keeping the MiFi powered up on road trips.

Setup and activation was simple and fast. Since I was already set up with a Sprint account, all I needed to do was go to their website and "activate a new phone." That involved putting the ESN number for the device into a place on the website, then clicking "Next" a few times. Once Sprint said I was ready to roll, I powered up the unit and went to the default IP address for it in my web browser. After entering the default password that was listed in the owner's manual, I was able to bring up the configuration screen:
Here I set up the Wi-Fi encryption (both WEP and WPA are available), changed the device SSID to something I liked (I named it IM4MACS HotSpot), and could set up port forwarding or filtering if I wanted to. The configuration screen is also where you can enable or disable the GPS receiver in the device. That's right, I said GPS receiver -- the MiFi has a GPSr inside it and can provide your location for searches that are available from Google, Bing, and Yahoo!

In terms of using the device, it's incredibly easy to use. You simply turn the device on by pressing the one button on it. The power button turns green, the Sprint logo lights up, and then the activity LED will turn on. If you find all of the lights distracting, there's a setting for turning them off. Once the device is showing that it's ready, you simply go to your AirPort icon in the menu bar and then either select the network or Join Other Network.

Speed-wise, it is important to remember that you're not going to get the same type of speed via a 3G connection that you would with a DSL or Cable Modem connection. In other words, just because this device is using Wi-Fi as the transport mechanism to your laptop or other Wi-Fi device, it's still limited by the speed of the EVDO connection. I did tests of the MiFi from my home, which is probably one of the worst possible locations to test a 3G device. It's located on the side of a slight hill, "shaded" from cell phone signals from almost every carrier.

The tests showed an average download speed of 320 Kbps, and an average upload speed almost twice that amount - 608 Kbps. That second number should be taken with a large amount of skepticism, since the test noted that "Upload compression by the ISP has been detected and your speed may be inaccurate." These are not typical speeds and are very indicative of the lousy cell service I have at my home office. EVDO Rev. A speeds are generally in the 600 to 1,400 Kbps range for downloads. I did another set of tests at the office of one of my clients, and the average download / upload speeds were 1,018 Kbps / 737 Kbps respectively.

I don't know about your home or office download speed, but this is about a fifth of what I usually see with my Cable Modem service. Is this speed sufficient to get work done? Absolutely. When I'm on the road, I'm usually not downloading or uploading huge files; instead, I'm writing posts, sending and receiving email, sending tweets, doing light surfing, and IM'ing the rest of the TUAW staff. There's one final bonus of using the MiFi -- if you live in a cold-weather area and you're using the MiFi in your car or outdoors, it makes a great hand warmer as it runs a little on the hot side!

For iPod touch owners, this might be a great way to get the mobile experience (with the exception of making phone calls) that iPhone 3G / 3GS owners see every day. In fact, if you're willing to use the free Skype app [iTunes Link] for making VoIP phone calls, you could theoretically use your iPod touch as a full-fledged "iPhone" and pay just $60 a month for your service.

In conclusion, if your Christmas shopping list includes a road warrior and they don't currently have a MiFi, you can make that someone very happy by purchasing them one of these little wonders. Whether you get Sprint or Verizon service in the US is up to you, but the device itself is a great accessory for any laptop owner and can also be pressed into action if your main internet connection goes down. Since pricing varies greatly depending on whether or not the person already has a Sprint or Verizon account, how long a contract they wish to have, and (on Verizon) how much data service they intend to use, I suggest visiting the website for the two carriers to see which has the best deal.

Check the gallery below for some shots of the MiFi in action, and we'd love to hear from other MiFi owners in the comments section.

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