Travelers in need of frequent Internet access have more options than ever these days, but the choices aren’t always satisfactory. You can try to find a Wi-Fi hotspot, but sometimes one isn’t handy. You can get a mobile broadband USB modem from a major carrier, but that typically requires installing special software, which can be a hassle–and some gadgets don’t have USB ports.
Novatel Wireless’s MiFi 2200, a pocketable gadget that marries the convenience of Wi-Fi to the ubiquity of mobile broadband, elegantly sidesteps these issues. Not only does it require no special software–you connect to it just as you would to any Wi-Fi hotspot–but it lets you share a single mobile broadband account with several of your buddies.
I recently bought a MiFi 2200 from Sprint, and so far I’m as impressed with it as I’ve been with any tech purchase I’ve made in recent years. Small and thin–about the size of three stacked credit cards–the MiFi is actually a compact Wi-Fi router that derives its Internet access from a single mobile broadband account (instead of DSL or cable). Turn it on within range of a 3G signal, and it instantly creates a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to five users at any given moment. The ability to share such mobile broadband access is a major selling point, but even if you’re flying solo, the MiFi’s ease of use–and its support for all Wi-Fi devices, not just PCs–makes it enormously appealing.
Perhaps the only downside is that because it is a stand-alone device, the MiFi runs on its own power source, giving you one more gadget to remember to recharge at night. It took about 2.5 hours to fully charge the MiFi’s internal battery via the included micro-USB AC adapter, after which I was able to use it for about 4 hours, as advertised. (Novatel Wireless’s manual states that the device will run down more quickly if multiple devices are using it for broadband access, but I was unable to test this.) However, if a wall outlet is handy, the MiFi can run while connected to the charger.
My Sprint unit, which cost $150 online with a two-year contract (after instant rebates), came preactivated: All I had to do after charging the device was perform the same type of setup as one would do with any Wi-Fi router, changing the SSID and setting an encryption code via a browser interface. I then pressed the big round “On” button to power up the MiFi 2200, and it connected to Sprint’s 3G network–no further action required. Accessing the unit’s hot spot via Windows Vista’s Wi-Fi utility took another few seconds, after which I had excellent broadband access even in areas of my downtown San Francisco loft where my AT&T iPhone can’t maintain a voice call for more than a few seconds.
Service was generally zippy on a range of sites; a YouTube video froze at one point, but otherwise ran as smoothly as it did on my cable broadband-based home network. Speed tests showed my downloads ranging from 700 kbps to 1.2 mbps (about what Sprint claims) and uploads of between 130 mbps and 230 mbps (a little slower than Sprint’s advertised performance range for EvDO Rev. A).
Sprint charges $60 a month for up to 5GB of bandwidth usage, the same as Verizon Wireless; however, Sprint does not offer a cheaper option (Verizon has a plan that costs $40 a month for 250 megabits of bandwidth), which makes Sprint’s MiFi more suitable for people who expect to use it frequently than for occasional travelers. Sprint does offer roaming service, but it’s costly–and given the dearth of compatible networks overseas (most use the GSM family of wireless technologies, while Sprint and Verizon Wireless use CDMA), I would not recommend the service for overseas travelers.
The MiFi service costs aren’t cheap, but taking into account the hotel and airport Wi-Fi fees I expect to save–not to mention the convenience–I’d happily recommend it to business people who seek reliable Internet access on their domestic travels.