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Summary:

The first I heard of the Novatel Wireless (NVTL) MiFi 3G modem/router, I realized how big an impact it could make with my mobile work. The only negative was that I am a longtime Verizon 3G customer and I needed a version from them. You can […]

CIMG1496The first I heard of the Novatel Wireless (NVTL) MiFi 3G modem/router, I realized how big an impact it could make with my mobile work. The only negative was that I am a longtime Verizon 3G customer and I needed a version from them. You can understand my excitement when I heard that Verizon would be releasing their branded version of the MiFi on May 17, and that excitement was increased when the good folks at Verizon asked if I wanted to get an early look at it. I’ve only had the Verizon MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot for a day, but I can state emphatically it is everything I thought it would be and more. The MiFi is mobile broadband done right. Read on to see why I am definitely buying one of these.

I have been using Verizon 3G service for years. I started with a PC Card modem, migrated to an ExpressCard solution, and most recently I switched to a USB modem (USB727). These have all worked fine, but a little limiting for me given the multiple devices I use while mobile. These all require the Verizon Access Manager software to be installed on each laptop so the modem can be used. The process with a new device is to download and install the Access Manager, unless the software is already included on the device. In that case, you still need to install the software. This process installs all of the modem drivers for the given notebook. Once everything is installed, connections can be manually started as desired once the modem is inserted into the system. It’s not bad for a one-shot process, but it’s a pain given all the various notebooks and UMPCs I evaluate.

CIMG1493The Verizon MiFi is a combination 3G modem and Wi-Fi router that is battery-operated for full mobility. Once the MiFi has been activated (more on that later) the device connects to the Verizon Mobile Broadband network (renamed from BroadbandAccess) simply by pushing the power button. In just a few seconds, the MiFi is connected to the 3G high-speed network and the Wi-Fi router takes over. The MiFi appears as a hotspot to any device with Wi-Fi capability, and making the Wi-Fi connection is as simple as entering the network security code which is printed on the back of the MiFi. That’s it: The notebook or other device is now connected to the Verizon network via Wi-Fi. The network code only has to be entered to make the first connection, after which it’s an automatic process. That’s the beauty of the MiFi method: Push the power button and the laptop/UMPC/phone is connected to 3G.

Taking a look at the specs of the MiFi shows just how small yet full-featured this device is:

  • Dimensions: 3.5″ x 2.3″ x 0.4″ (90 mm x 60 mm x 8.8 mm)
  • Weight: 2.05 ounces (58 g)
  • Battery: 1,150 mAh (user replaceable)
  • Antennas: internal; 800/1,900 MHz, CDMA (EV-DO Rev. A)
  • WiFi: 802.11 b/g
  • Usage: four hours (one Wi-Fi client); 40 hours standby; charge time 2.5 hours charger, 7-8 hours USB cable
  • LEDs: Power- 4 color; Status- one color
  • Connectivity Features: auto connect; EVDO/1xRTT; VPN compatible; dial-up; NDIS support
  • Text messaging: VZAccess manager in USB mode required; message received notification; delete/reply/forward
  • Security: CDMA authentication; dynamic MIP key update; CHAP; Wi-Fi- WEP/WPA/WPA2-PSK, SPi firewall; MAC/ port filtering; NAPT/DHCP server enable; VPN pass-through
  • OSes supported: Windows 2000, XP, Vista; Mac OS X 10.4 or higher

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The MiFi is not much bigger than a credit card and can be easily carried around. Verizon is offering three ways to get the 3G data service:

  • $39.99 month for 250 MB with $0.10 per MB overage
  • $59.99 month for 5 GB with $0.05 per MB overage
  • $15 per day with no contract

Those expecting to use the service more than a few days per month will likely want to consider one of the monthly options, but it’s nice to see the day option for those who don’t travel much. The MiFi will be available online and in Verizon stores on May 17 and will cost $99.99 after a $50 rebate. Those who want to go the daily rate route can pick up the MiFi from Verizon for full retail price: $269.99 without a contract.

Getting going with the MiFi

The MiFi ships from Verizon with the device, battery, USB cable, power adapter and cloth carrying pouch. The unit is glossy black, and the pouch can be used to clean fingerprint smudges from the surface. It’s a simple process to open the battery compartment and pop a battery into the MiFi. The next step to get going is to connect the MiFi to the either a Windows or Mac system via the short USB cable. Windows recognizes the MiFi as an EVDO modem and auto-installs all the drivers needed to use the modem via USB. The VZAccess Manager software must be run once to activate the modem and prepare it for use, and it auto-installs from the MiFi. The whole process takes just a few minutes, and the MiFi is ready to go.

The MiFi is designed to be used as a modem via Wi-Fi, and it shows up as a Verizon Secure hotspot to any device. It is encrypted, and the password is printed on the back of the MiFi for one-time entry: After that, the notebook or device will connect automatically like it does to any other Wi-Fi hotspot. It’s simple and hassle-free, which is the strength of the MiFi over traditional modems.

Since the MiFi works as a Wi-Fi router, the Verizon 3G network appears to all devices as a simple hotspot. This means the MiFi can be used with any notebook, netbook, UMPC or phone, with no software required. It is, thus, the only 3G modem solution that has both Wi-Fi and 3G integrated, so it can be used easily by any phone with Wi-Fi capability, and also with Linux-based netbooks, without worrying if drivers are needed. This makes the MiFi the most versatile 3G solution currently available — and why I say it is “mobile broadband done right.”

Up to five devices can share the MiFi connection simultaneously, although they share the single 3G pipe. I have connected three devices with no detectable lag, so I don’t think five would be too heavy a burden for the MiFi. Just remember that the monthly data cap (250 MB or 5 GB) will be tapped by the total throughput, so I wouldn’t have five devices running around the clock. I personally have the 5 GB option with my current Verizon plan, and I don’t see that being a problem with the MiFi.

The MiFi can be used with a USB connection should the battery run out during the day. This requires using the VZAccess Manager program to connect to the network, however, so it will need to be installed on whatever device it is connected to. Remember, this is done automatically when setting up the MiFi, so it’s not a big deal.

The status LED flashes green to indicate data transmit/receive during normal usage. The power button on the MiFi changes among four colors to indicate the following conditions:

  • LED not lit — no power to modem
  • LED Blue — modem is powered on and roaming
  • LED Green solid — modem is powered on and fully charged
  • LED Green glowing — modem is in hibernate
  • LED Red blinking — modem battery is critically low
  • LED Amber solid — modem battery is charging
  • LED Amber blinking — modem error, see user manual

The MiFi can be used on Macs without the VZAccess Manager software, according to Verizon, but I did not try that since I had already activated using Windows. It’s a standard Wi-Fi hotspot after activation, so it will work on anything that can access hotspots.

Conclusion

MiFi cardThe Verizon MiFi is a simple-to-use 3G method that allows up to five devices to access the 3G network at a time. It is a full-blown Wi-Fi router and can be controlled via a web browser interface the same as any other router. I am able to access the MiFi easily on any device within ~30 feet, farther than that and the signal strength drops dramatically, which is expected for such a small router.

I have been so impressed with the operation of the MiFi I intend to get one as soon as this evaluation unit goes back to Verizon. I feel it is worth the subsidized pricing, and the 5 GB plan is adequate for my needs. Bear in mind I am already paying the $60 per month, so in my case, I am simply going to switch from a USB stick modem to the MiFi. Your needs are likely different, and you need to weigh those needs with the various costs associated with the Verizon plans.

  1. i had the opportunity to play with the mifi while at CTIA cellular show in vegas last april, and i also think its a cool device… but i will only recommend it to ‘suburban soccer moms’ where cellular signal is not likely to be a concern.

    for the serious roadwarriors whose mobile lifestyle takes them further into rural areas where cellular signal is sure to be weak on a regular basis, the mifi is not a great solution because it lacks a cellular rf/antenna jack.

    i have other concerns as well, most of which would apply to any router that has an embedded radio/module:

    — embedded 3G radio with no upgrade path. when 4G is available, must buy new.
    — locked to one carrier. If you buy from verizon. Stuck with verizon.
    — NO antenna jack. more expensive wireless amp needed when signal sucks.
    — NO ethernet port. All connections via WiFi or USB to single computer
    — limited range compared to any cradlepoint. Max of about 30ft.
    — max # of users is five. (cradlepoint is 16, 32 or 64)

    with the urgency by carriers to roll out 4G as soon as they can afford to, it makes little sense to buy a router that cannot take advantage of 4G devices that will become available.

    the cradlepoint phs300 also has a rechargeable battery and there is already a version that supports the Clear 4G USB modem.

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    1. Soccer moms. Hardly. Many roadwarriors travel to large cities where 3G signal is prevalent, especially that of Verizon. I see this solution as good as any USB modem that is the norm today.

      The cradlepoint is a nice system but the MiFi is self-contained and requires no other modem to be bought/ activated/ carried/ attached.

      By way of disclosure Alex runs the 3G Store where competing products (like the Cradlepoint) are sold.

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    2. I’m looking to get one of these now.

      I travel a lot and spend time in airports, etc–i.e. in cities. You know in many airports WiFi is not free. So, rather than paying $X a day at these airport hotspots, just get a Mifi and take it with you.

      I can’t think of the last time I’ve been somewhere where I didn’t get a good EVDO signal on my BlackBerry–does this make me a “suburban soccer mom” just because I don’t often venture out into the middle of soybean fields?? Maybe we should call you the “country hick farmer”

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      1. Yet even in so called “soybean fields” (rural Iowa…) 3G service is in many areas (more and more rural areas in fact) around the state. As the Network continues to grow, this device will appear to be more and more useful.

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    3. I’ve tried cradlepoint and it went back to Best Buy the very next morning. PEICE OF CRAP!!! Very Pricey too. I’ve had great luck with the MiFi, and I live out in the boonies. I don’t get very good cell phone reception, but the MiFi works great. I would definetely recommend.

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      1. I’m not a soccer mom but I do live outside town. I agree. The MiFi signal has been great! I have run my laptop, desktop, and iTouch at the same time. Now if my cell phone would quit dropping calls, I’d be really happy with Verizon. On the MiFi, i’m fortunate. I’m on the old unlimited plan.

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  2. Any word on real life battery life?

    – on full surfing
    – on but only updating emails etc ( ie umpc on inside pocket but connected )

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    1. I haven’t had it long enough to get a real picture but so far the quoted 4 hours for one WiFi client seems to be about accurate.

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      1. James – always enjoyed and learning lots from reading your website daily. I just bought Verizon MiFi due to reading your article (maybe you should get a commission!).

        Questions – have you (or any of your reader) tried MiFi on US290 (Houston – Austin)? ATT does not have broadband there and I wonder if Sprint or Verizon has broadband established on US 290. I am deciding between Sprint or Verizon MiFi. Your advice will be greatly appreciated. TIA

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    2. I have used this for 3 months almost and the battery will last for about 4 hours maybe 5. I have had 2 or 3 people on it and it last 5 hrs. We would email and surf. I would say it works nice. I find myself in spots where I can plug it into a cigarette lighter or a wall outlet and just leave it there for others to use.

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  3. yes, i do work for 3gstore, and the bulk of our business is sales of high-gain 3G antennas and amps to RVers and truckers who frequently find themselves in challenging signal areas.

    without the ability to directly attach an antenna to the MiFi, these folks are forced to buy more expensive wireless signal amplifiers, which is why i consider the MiFi handicapped when compared to other USB modem solutions that have an rf/antenna jack.

    i completely agree with you that (so long as signal is not an issue), the MiFi is every bit as capable as USB modem offerings, and its compact size and built in WiFi router gives it a clear advantage. i’m sure i’ll have a MiFi in my bag since i hardly ever get out of DFW proper.

    but once a MiFi user ventures away from metropolitan areas and into more rural coverage where signal can suck… they are very likely to wish they has some easy/cheap way to improve cellular signal to their MiFi.

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    1. EVDOAlex,

      Your assertion that most true road warriors venture into rural areas is absurd. Just because your personal experience skews to RVers and truckers does not mean that only they are “serious road warriors”; the term is not meant to be taken literally as “those that drive on the road”. It means people that travel a lot, usually for business via air.

      Most road warriors don’t venture to rural areas, but rather to urban or suburban areas where 3G signals are prevalent. Instead of trashing the product as only being fit for soccer moms, try to frame your comments in a way that raises concerns for that limited market that you are writing about without painting them as representative of frequent travelers as a whole.

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      1. Julio

        You should really cut Alex some slack,he did state that it was not a bad product for those of us that do not travel into these more rural areas.Some of us DO travel into these areas and our concerns are just and legitimate as your own.Please relax!

        I DO find myself in these situations quite regularly.I am very interested in Alex’s input.My thanks to him!

        My business takes me to these places and having a dependable internet connection makes my job much easier and so much more productive.In essence this allows me to do my part to assist many people that contribute greatly to the economy that,also,depend on my services.

        There are many people who live and work in rural,out of the way places that keep those of you in urban settings supplied,fed and working.It is far past time that our wireless needs are recognized,appreciated and met.

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    2. The attraction of this device is the size and convenience, slip it in your pocket and you’ve 4 hours of 3g access for any wifi enabled device you have on you.

      The cradlepoint solutions are bulkier with poorer battery life.

      The truckers etc. shall buy a solution that works for them. The rest of us will get a MiFi.

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    3. @julio,

      i said “for the serious roadwarriors whose mobile lifestyle takes them further into rural areas”

      i did not mean to imply that _only_ those who travel rurally, were “true roadwarriors”

      your definition of a roadwarrior is just as valid, and the MiFi would most certainly be suited to them.

      whatever you would call those whose lifestyle takes them rurally more often than not, would find the MiFi to occasionally be signal challenged, just as any cellular device — and at that point, they’ll likely wish their cellular device had an antenna jack.

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    4. I do a lot of travaling in remote areas (Colorado mountains, Utah, Wyoming) and frequently find that I can get an data signal even when I can’t get a voice signal. I also used to use a USB727, but got tired of constantly switching it from my laptop to my netbook. I wish it had an antenna conection, but has not been a problem so far. i also wish it could be pluged into the USB port of one computer and work wireless with the other at the same time, then the battery would never discharge, but I have adapted. Overall I it far superior to the USB stick.

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  4. Battery life? One of my chief complaints about the Cradlepoint (user, I don’t sell or profit from them) is that the battery is user replaceable – but not without a screwdriver. That and the fact it tends to heat up over time.

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    1. It’s quoted at 4 hours with one client on WiFi. I haven’t tapped it out but that’s about right from what I’ve seen so far. The battery is easily replaceable as I showed in the video yesterday, no screwdriver needed. I’ve felt no heat during my usage either.

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    2. The battery will heat up when it is used but who cares. Most electronics (with RF transceivers) will do the same.

      Nothing is perfect, but this is pretty nice. If I were to redesign this I would allow it to fit into a PC Card slot and take a mini/micro usb.

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  5. Can it charge via USB? If so, that’s a really big draw for me (I am seriously considering limiting all future device purchases, not counting PCs, to USB-charging only). If not, missed opportunity.

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    1. Yes, it charges via USB. In fact, the power adapter plugs into the mini-USB port too.

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    2. When charging via USB, can it still serve as a wifi hotspot? From your (James Kendrick’s) text one can conclude that when you plug it into USB, only the USB connection is available. Is this true?

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      1. Yes it can. There are posts on this topic that show how to do it. There is a software and a hardware way to do it.

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  6. It seems like a good first generation device but I would prefer to see ‘n’ wireless and greater than 4 hours battery life.

    What is the data transfer rate? How does the speed compare to USB or PC-Card 3G modems?

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    1. Nomo.

      N would suck up more battery, plus it’s certainly not needed for current 3G speeds. 5GHz N is great for home use where you can benefit from the lack of interference with other 2.4GHz devices but on the road I don’t see any benefit. Were you thinking of any advantage I’ve missed?

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    2. Nonproductive Tuesday, May 12, 2009

      N wireless is also meaningless when the EVDO throughput is a fraction of the available speed. G is already something like 10x faster then what EVDO Rev A can support at present.

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    3. Thanks for the comments. Sounds like 3G is the constraint. Would be nice to see quantitative specs on data transfer rate with this device compared to other options.

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  7. Can you run it indefinitely with the USB power adapter? I wouldn’t want to have to keep it tethered to a laptop when I needed an all day internet connection.

    Certainly looks like it ha it’s uses, but I see them as somewhat limited.

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  8. Nonproductive Tuesday, May 12, 2009

    With regard to Cradlepoint routers – I own both a PHS300 and a CTR500. They are both fantastic devices. I will be buying a MiFi the second I can get my hands on one.

    While the point about an external antenna is valid, I think it’s a different market then those interested in the MiFi. I want portability and am normally in good coverage. If I were in an RV, size and battery life would be less important.

    The ability to Charge via USB and the extremely compact size of the MiFi make it a winner for me.

    Being able to use 4G devices is also a non issue. The MiFi is $100… in 2 years you can replace it via Verizon’s upgrade program with the “next” MiFi that will support 4G. If you were using a USB device and a cradlepoint you would still have to replace that USB device with a 4G one.

    The single advantage the PHS300 has over the MiFi for a user in decent coverage is that it will let me tap into my blackberry’s data plan – which is unlimited for the $15 a month “tethering” fee Verizon charges. For that reason, I will keep my Cradlepoint routers around in the event I find myself going over 5gb often enough to warrant switching back.

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    1. Good point – there’s really no reason in putting off the purchase of a device that has an immediate benefit for you just because you ‘might’ want upgrade in ‘possibly’ two years or more for a service that ‘may’ be available!.

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  9. Just unboxing one of these babies myself. Can’t believe they’ve managed to make it so small!

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  10. i dont have an RV but if i did i would rather enjoy nature and the outdoors rather then worry about getting online but anyhoo…i have the cradle point PHS300 and think this is better solution because its smaller and apparantly has twice the battery life of the cradlepoint. the cradlepoint also doesn’t function as a usb modem when connected via usb which is something i would do if the battery runs out. jk, I would like to see if 4hrs is correct.
    also it charges via usb.
    the only thing the cradlepoint has over the mifi is its not carrier locked. if im not mistaken i can use an hsdpa usb modem or an evdo. wish the mifi came out a year and a half ago.

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