Wi-Fi Gets Personal With Mi-Fi

The scoop: Sprint Mi-Fi 2200 mobile wireless hot spot, by Sprint (and Novatel Wireless), about $100 (after rebates, plus data service).

What it is: The Sprint Mi-Fi is a credit-card-sized device that includes a 3G wireless (Sprint's EV-DO Rev. A) connection combined with a Wi-Fi router and GPS radio. The device is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and does not require an external power source (although it has a power cord for recharging the battery or if you want to keep it powered during use). The 3G/Wi-Fi combination lets users take advantage of 3G network access and provide Wi-Fi LAN coverage for as many as five other users. This can be advantageous in locations where Wi-Fi or other network access is unavailable, yet 3G coverage is.

Why it's cool: This isn't the first time I've seen a mobile router that provides this functionality, but it is the smallest one I've seen, and one that works off a rechargeable battery. This creates an extremely mobile device that you can place into a car or even your shirt pocket to guarantee 3G wireless coverage for your notebook PC. In my tests with a notebook, I averaged 670Kbps of download speed and 539Kbps of upload speed with the Mi-Fi device.

Mobile devices with Wi-Fi (such as an iPhone or other smartphone) make the Mi-Fi more interesting, as it gives users an option for connecting to a different 3G network than the one on their device. But before you think the Sprint 3G was faster than the AT&T 3G network on my iPhone, I averaged 1.28Mbps of download and 205Kbps of upload speed on my AT&T iPhone, vs. 428Kbps of download and 232Kbps of upload speed with the iPhone via Wi-Fi / Mi-Fi. I'd love to try the same tests with the Verizon Wireless version of the Mi-Fi (coming soon), because I live in New England, where Verizon is known for better 3G coverage/speed than Sprint's network. I was pleasantly surprised at the AT&T performance on my iPhone 3G.Configuring the device is done through the PC's browser interface, and you can create a new SSID, along with all of the security settings and Wi-Fi options that you'd get on a normal Wi-Fi router. You can even create a temporary hot spot and the system will generate a random SSID and security key.

Some caveats: The only way to determine your 3G wireless signal strength is by connecting to the router via the notebook browser. An indication (LED lights?) would have been nice to see how strong the coverage was during my tests. In addition, at times the Wi-Fi connection on the Mi-Fi would just stop if I wasn't using it (maybe there's a standby mode that shuts off the Wi-Fi?). I had to reset the device and then reconnect my mobile device to get it going again.

Bottom line: The added mobility and scenarios where the Mi-Fi can be used effectively make this an intriguing device. For groups of mobile workers or for adding additional Wi-Fi coverage in 3G-only areas, it's a cool option.

Grade: 4 stars (out of five).

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