The Chinese word for "challenge" also means "opportunity." I kept this in mind when my cable modem Internet connection stopped working. Fortunately, I had a review unit of the Novatel MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot, an ultra-portable modem that allows up to five mobile devices to connect through it to a 3G wireless network. I was planning to seek out a remote location to test it, but the demise of my cable modem provided me with an opportunity to test out this device in the comfort of my own home and get some work done!
The Novatel MiFi 2200
The MiFi 2200 is a compact device, weighing 2 ounces and measuring 3.5 x 2.3 x 0.4 inches. It has a single power on/off button, and its faux metal front goes well with any mobile Apple product. It connects wirelessly with up to five Wi-Fi-enabled devices. You don't need it with a 3G-enabled iPhone, but MiFi will bring broadband Internet connectivity to your iPod touch, a non-3G iPad, and other non-3G devices. You can even create a mini-LAN and piggyback off the MiFi's 3G connection.
Setting up MiFi is straightforward: On your iPad or other WiFi device, go to your network/wireless settings and enter the SSID of the unit and the password. My unit had that information on a sticker on the bottom, but the SSID was wrong. Fortunately, my iPad found the correct SSID when it did a search, and within seconds, I was connected and back in business.
There are some downsides to the MiFi approach. Although it's tiny, it's still another device you have to carry around with you. It's powered by a rechargeable battery that will give you about 4 hours of use and 40 hours of standby. If you plan on using it longer than 4 hours, you'll have to carry its micro-USB charger with you. (You can use it indefinitely when connected to the charger.) You can also plug the MiFi into the USB port of a computer, but then only that computer can go online. Finally, although the device itself is inexpensive, the data connection is not.
Verizon (verizonwireless.com/b2c/mobilebroadband) offers the MiFi for as little as $50, but to get that price you have to sign up for a two-year contract ($60/month for the 5GB data plan or a $40/month for the 250MB data plan). Sprint (shop.sprint.com/en/shop, select the "Mobile Broadband Cards" link) offers the MiFi with "Instant Savings" and a mail-in rebate that make it free. You still have to sign up for a two-year contract, and the only data plan they offer is $60/month for 5GB. Virgin Mobile (virginmobileusa.com/phones/mobile-broadband-2200.html) sells the MiFi for $150 without a long-term contract. However, they do offer pay-as-you-go plans that utilize Verizon's network. The plans start at $10/month and go up to $60/month.
To summarize, the price of the MiFi 2200 really isn't the issue—the cost of the data plans is! Over the life of a two-year contract you could end up spending $960-$1,440 for the 3G data service. To decide whether or not it's worth it, let's look at the alternatives.
Alternative #1: iPad 3G
The MiFi presents a reasonable alternative to a 3G-equipped iPad. The MiFi solution described previously assumes you already have a mobile device and that it doesn't have 3G data capability. For comparison purposes, let's say you have the 16 GB Wi-Fi-only version of the iPad which costs $499. The 16 GB iPad 3G costs $629. This means the 3G capability alone is costing you $130 more, not counting 3G service.
Data plans complicate the comparison. AT&T is no longer offering the unlimited two-year 3G data plan for $30/mo. However, if you're already signed up for it and continue to make the payments, you can keep it. That's $720 for two years of unlimited 3G data. The new data plans are $14.95/mo for 250MB (~$360/yr) or $25/mo for 2GB ($660/yr). Unlike the Verizon and Sprint data plans, the new AT&T plans are month-by-month. You don't have to sign a two-year contract.
Looking at the price of the data plans alone, it seems that the iPad 3G with data plans from AT&T are a better bargain. Even the most expensive AT&T plan, the unlimited two-year data plan, is $240 less than the least expensive Verizon data plan.
However, the AT&T plans only apply to one specific iPad. Unlike the plans associated with MiFi, the data connection cannot be shared with other devices. If you intend on sharing the connection, the Sprint/Verizon/Virgin plans with MiFi are the way to go.
Alternative #2: Tethering with AT&T
AT&T now supports tethering your iPhone with another device, but you cannot use the unlimited data plan—if you already have one—to do this. You have to sign up for one of the monthly limited plans and pay an extra $20/month for the tethering option. This would bring the two-year cost up to $840-$1,080. It's still less expensive than the Sprint/Verizon data plans, but you are limited to sharing the connection with one device at a time. If you want to share the connection with more than one device, the MiFi solution is still the way to go.
Alternative #3: Jailbreaking
Some users have "jailbroken" their iPhones to allow tethering over Wi-Fi, but I don't recommend this approach.
"Jailbreaking" refers to a process that allows users of iOS devices to run un-approved third-party apps on their devices. There was a time when Apple hadn't made some features available to iPhone users (multitasking, wallpapers, etc.), but with the release of the latest version of the iOS, many of these features are now available. Currently, I don't see very many good reasons to jailbreak an iPhone.
Alternative #4: Non-Apple smartphones
There are competitors to the iPhone that can act as a mobile Wi-Fi hub. For example, Sprint's HTC EVO 4G can act as a mobile hotspot for up to eight Wi-Fi devices, right out of the box. As much as I appreciate and recommend the iPhone, alternative smartphones like the HTC EVO 4G are attractive alternatives. If you always have your phone with you, and you're paying for data anyway, it would be nice to be able to use that plan with any Wi-Fi equipped device you have. Sprint offers unlimited 4G service. Unfortunately, its 4G is currently only available in a few large metropolitan areas.
When a Wi-Fi hotspot is available, use it!
To compare the download/upload speeds, I ran the Speedtest X HD app on my iPad (free, app2.me/2556) and used their Web service (speedtest.net) with my MacBook Pro. I used the Wi-Fi capability of both devices to connect them to my high-speed cable modem (which was working again) and to the MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot. Here are the results:
As you can see, a Wi-Fi connection to a cable modem is far faster than a Wi-Fi connection to a 3G wireless network. When a Wi-Fi hotspot is available, you will definitely want to use it as opposed to a 3G-based MiFi.
Cable Modem + Wi-Fi vs MiFi 2200 3G (Sprint) speed Comparison
Cable Modem + Wi-Fi
- MacBook Pro: 18.29Mbps download, 920kbps upload
- iPad: 11.3Mbps download, 945kbps upload
MiFi 2200 3G (Sprint)
- MacBook Pro: 940kbps download, 650kbps upload
- iPad: 528kbps download, 559kbps upload
Is MiFi worth it?
The MiFi provides a reasonably fast broadband wireless connection just about anywhere. It can be used with your iPod touch, your Wi-Fi-only iPad, and earlier iPhones. You can even use it with the iPhone 3, 3GS, and 4 for 3G data connections to Sprint or Verizon's networks. Note that you will not be able to place regular phone calls over those networks, but you could use Skype or a similar app to place VoIP calls.
The cost of the service contracts is the big hurdle with this device. This is especially true for iPhone users who already have a contract with AT&T. However, if you need wireless broadband for more than one device, MiFi might be worth a closer look.