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Summary:

Virgin Mobile provides a MiFi option that doesn’t require a contract, ideal for use with your iPad. It even uses the same hardware as Verizon’s. Best of all this gives you access to a whole new network (specifically, Sprint’s). Too good to be true?

virgin-mifi

Virgin Mobile provides a MiFi option that doesn’t require a contract, ideal for use with your iPad. It even uses the same hardware as Verizon’s. Best of all this gives you access to a whole new network (specifically, Sprint’s). Too good to be true?

The Wallet Angle

The Virgin MiFi is priced attractively at a MSRP of $150 (but can often be found for $129 or less) and does not require a contract — service can be bought on an as-needed basis. Compared to Verizon’s non-contract price of $269.99, it’s a great value. When compared to their bundle pricing with an iPad Wifi + MiFi, the price is exactly the same. Verizon also offers their MiFi for $49 along with a 2-year contract if you’re willing to make a commitment.

Data pricing plans for the Virgin MiFi is tricky. Because it’s a pay-as-you-go program, you aren’t locked into a pricing plan. This means Virgin can change the terms of the contract at will. When I first started testing the unit back in December, they offered an unlimited data plan for $40.00 for 30 days. It seemed too good to be true, and eventually, it was. Whether due to the recent changes regarding net neutrality, or simply because Virgin is following industry trends, the company will now “throttle” you after 5 GB of usage and new users can no longer get this plan. As with AT&T’s policy changes, those currently on a $40 plan can renew at that rate. Should they ever fail to renew, or switch to the $10 plan, they’ll only be able to buy the $50 plan and will be throttled after 2.5 GB. Of course, that could change again, and you may or may not be able to lock in. Without a contract, both sides share a bit of risk.

For light users, Virgin offers 10 days of usage, up to 100 MB, for $10. That’s the lowest data plan available to any iPad user, though it’s not a great value compared to AT&T’s $14.99 for 250 MB or Verizon’s $20 for 1 GB (both of these last 30 days). But if you purchase the device at Wal-Mart, a third pricing option is available: $20 for 1 GB per month.

Technical Considerations

Verizon and Virgin’s MiFi are the same Novatel product with different branding. However, as the ads often say, the network makes a difference. When I used the device in San Fransisco at Macworld Expo, coverage was more adequate compared to the oversaturated AT&T network. The Virgin MiFi came in handy for checking email as my iPhone could barely even handle that on AT&T.

Outside of Moscone, both in San Fransisco and in Kansas City, AT&T and Verizon were much faster. Ironically, Sprint is actually based in the Kansas City area. Many reviewers online complained about the slower speeds. For email and basic web surfing, performance OK, but simply couldn’t keep up to the offerings from AT&T and Verizon. Video streaming is unacceptably slow (though FaceTime seemed to work well from my iPhone). On occasion, for example in crowded coffee shop, the MiFi was slightly faster than the provided WiFi. I also liked being able to have a more private Wi-Fi experience when working on confidential data.

Other aspects of the MiFi are identical to those I reported in the review of the Verizon version. GPS functionality won’t always work. I also failed to notice while doing the Verizon review that the unit will not charge via the USB port on your Mac. You either need to bring their charger or use a charge-only USB cable.

If you do purchase this unit, be sure to set everything up in advance, because when I tried to renew my plan via my iPad’s browser, the site didn’t work. I had to go to my desktop to re-up. This was annoying, but it might have been a temporary glitch.

Conclusion

The Virgin MiFi is a great option for iPad users who occasionally find themselves without a WiFi connection and need to do basic web surfing or email. As AT&T and Verizon are offering options for turning your iPhone into a portable hotspot, the need for devices like the Virgin (or Verizon) MiFi will become less necessary. Given it’s relatively low cost, especially when you can find it on sale for less than $100, and lack of contract, it’s a good tool to have in your bag just in case. Just be sure to set it up before you need it.

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  1. My view is that anybody who pay for data plan are simply fools. I have Ipad for a year. It is wifi model, I do not feel limited in any way to wait until I am home, or near free hotspot. If companies like sprint and other want my money, it is going to be unlimited data for 5 bucks or less per month. If more would adapt this attitude, the prices would be much, much cheaper. Let’s face it. They robbing us blind!

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  2. I’m with Shogun on this. I’ve never felt the need to invest in a data plan, since I exclusively use my iPad offline when on the go. But still, this iPhone hotspot update sounds interesting…

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  3. It is a good price, but it definitely has its annoying quirks. Here are some issues most reviews don’t cover.
    I’ve been using the Virgin MiFi with my iPad a few months now. I use it because the AT&T signal is very weak where I work. I am thinking of dropping it in favor of the Verizon iPad.
    It has worked OK for the most part, but the past few weeks, it’s been very flakey. It’s had some flakey spells in the past, but not like this. I’ve had to reboot it about 6 times a day recently. It’s got a built in web page to administer it and to check its status. It says it is connected, shows 5 bars, and it’s got an IP address, but it just doesn’t work. Reboot gets it going again.
    In the past it would occasionally stop working. When I checked the status it would say “disconnected” without an IP address. Reboot solved that too.
    Even more rarely, a reboot would not work. I would have to go through the setup wizard as though it was brand new to get it working.
    For the price, the occasional problems I can deal with. But I’ve been rebooting constantly the past few weeks, and that’s getting very old. I just want trouble free internet access, and it’s not delivering that.
    There are a few more minor irritations. First is that cannot charge it with it turned off. As soon as you plug it in, the power comes on. At home this is a problem, because my devices want to connect through it instead of my home WiFi. My 3G signal is very weak at home and it is much slower than my home WiFi if it even works at all. So I charge it in the car or at work to avoid this.
    Second, it’s hard to turn off. Press the button, the green light goes off, and then it immediately turns back on by itself. It doesn’t matter how long you press the button. Press it again and then it stays off. It sucks when I leave it in my car charging or it has come back on without me noticing it. Then my iPad can’t get to the internet because it’s connected to the MiFi instead of my home WiFi. I’ve got to get off the couch and go downstairs to the garage to turn it off.
    A friend of mine has one also, and his experiences are the same as mine.

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    1. Excellent points Rob and spot on. I too found the problem with reboots and disconnects-but I hadn’t heard of others having the problem. Ad yes, it asked me to re-setup my account multiple times, but I assumed this was because it was a demo unit.

      I also was annoyed with it staying on while charging. I just told the devices to forget about the MiFi after testing.

      Turning on only happened to me once, but what was funny was it was in the car, and I got a Facetime call and was able to chat via Facetime. Ok, the other person saw me but I wasn’t driving with my phone in hand. I couldn’t figure out why it was working over 3G until I realized the MiFI had turned itself on.

      Thanks for commenting and adding to the article.

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      1. It seems that it stops working when it is charging. Every morning, without exception, I plug it in and it works for about 5-10 minutes and stops working and I have to reboot.

        Today, I ran it off battery and it is still working. I seem to have far less problems running off battery.

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  4. @W8ingonanipad Monday, March 7, 2011

    Hey anyone that will be waiting in line for an ipad2 that has a twiter, follow @w8ingonanipad and see pics and stories from all over of how it’s going everywhere else where other people are waiting. Just for kicks and giggles.

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