Virgin Mobile (s vm) provides a MiFi option that doesn’t require a contract, ideal for use with your iPad(s aapl). It even uses the same hardware as Verizon’s. Best of all this gives you access to a whole new network (specifically, Sprint’s (s 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 (s vz) 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 (s t) 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 (s wmt), a third pricing option is available: $20 for 1 GB per month.
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.
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.
Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):