Senin, 15 Februari 2010

Hands-On With The MiFi Personal Hotspot

The MiFi is a little box, small enough to fit into a jeans pocket, and it has one function: to pluck the internet from the air using a cellular radio and share it with up to five other devices via Wi-Fi. It is essentially a wireless router with 3G inside, and it has been getting rave reviews.

I have been testing one for the last two weeks, and it turns out to be as great as everyone says, although there are a few problems which are not the fault of the MiFi itself.

Setup is easy, and if you buy it configured from your cell provider it should just be a matter of switching the thing on. There are also optional installations to use the box as a tethered USB modem, and while this means the battery will not drain, it also deactivates Wi-Fi so you can only use it with one computer. With Wi-Fi on, setup is just the same as any other router — just type 192.168.1.1 into your browser.

The battery is supposed to last four hours when in active use, but in practice I never drained it, using both a netbook and an iPod Touch. The MiFi is pre-set to switch off after five minutes without use, and although you can change this, the default setting works fine. Couple this with a fast startup time (30 seconds from switch on to gaining a 3G signal) and the emergency possibility of a USB hookup and battery life is no problem.

Until you experience a bubble of Wi-Fi that surrounds you wherever you go, you won’t know how handy it can be. Sure, having an iPhone is useful, but being able to hop onto the net anywhere using any Wi-Fi-equipped device you like is pretty addictive. You can use it on trains, in cars, or even — as I did — on a bike. Along with my iPod I used Google Maps to navigate my way around the Spanish countryside.

Yes, countryside. It’s partly due to the population density of Europe vs. that in the United States, but even in some of Barcelona’s tiny surrounding villages I was getting an almost full 3G signal, and the speed was as fast as my home connection. The MiFi also comes with proper controls, just like a real router, so you can set a strong WPA password, forward ports and most other services. You can also assign settings to a profile so you can easily swap to an open hotspot or an easy-to-share password.

And those problems? Telefonica, the provider I’m using for these tests, doesn’t work very well. For the first week, everything was fantastic, and then the internet died. The MiFi connects, but Telefonica doesn’t actually let any packets through. I’m still looking into this but this review is about the hardware, and that part works great.

There’s one more trick the MiFi has up its sleeve. It has a microSD slot, and you can access this storage over Wi-Fi or USB. It’s a gimmick, but a useful one if you need it.

The MiFi is by no means essential, but once you are used to it, its hard to give it up. I’m already sad about sending this one back, and that’s a pretty high recommendation.

Product page [Novatel]

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