Friday, November 13, 2009

First Impressions of the MiFi

I love me my MiFi.

I don't mean to wax rhapsodic like some central government-backed campaign, but the MiFi has brought me harmonious and glorifying wisdom, in order that my lymphatic system feels cleaner.

Or something like that.

Ever since Novatel introduced the MiFi earlier this year, I knew that it (or a derivative) would end up in my bag. If you're not familiar with the MiFi, think of a WiFi hotspot, but mobile--small enough to fit in your business card case. Seriously. The device itself is astonishingly simple--a CDMA 3G radio, a WiFi radio, and a battery. Simple, but elegant.

Over the past couple of months (or the last decade, really), I've found myself in airports, hotels, meetings, and conferences where WiFi wasn't available, or was priced annoyingly high. About two years ago, I set up Bluetooth tethering with my 2G T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve, which has three major drawbacks--2G means sloooooow; the battery drains ridiculously quickly; and T-Mobile's network is, uh, lacking. Wednesday afternoon, I'd finally had enough, so I ran to the Verizon store on University Avenue in Palo Alto to grab a MiFi. I only had about 20 minutes between meetings, so I was hopeful that I'd be able to get in and out of the store quickly--something that rarely happens when making a transaction with a mobile carrier.

Lo and behold, I got what I wanted. I walked in, told the sales the guy that I needed a MiFi with the two-year, 5 GB per month contract, and handed him my driver's license and credit card. After a double-take, he walked to the back, came out with the device, and had me out the door in less than ten minutes. THAT'S the way I like things to work.

By the way, for those of you who might ask why I went with Verizon...I seriously, seriously considered going with Sprint, since they'll be shipping a MiFi in Q1 which has both 3G and 4G support; a Verizon 4G MiFi will mean LTE, which will mean a really long wait. But, in weighing the lost productivity of the next few months without a MiFi while waiting for a 4G version, I simply said "Verizon it is". Plus, having suffered with such ridiculously poor mobile coverage (and a brutal UMA experience, which is a diatribe for another time) for the last two years, I wanted to have the best network behind me, dorky "Can you hear me now" guy and all.

One thing which had held me back is that for whatever reason, I've only seen one MiFi in the wild--a friend of a friend bought one the day it shipped, but I hadn't seen one since. I could attribute it to the fact that it's so unobtrusive, you can have it in your shirt pocket and no one will ever know you're a walking hotspot. That, or the math just didn't work for many people, but this one was easy for me to justify.

If you know me, you'll know that I'm a big out of box experience guy, and typically photograph each step of the process. Not this time--I was like a kid on Christmas day. That said, the OOBE is exceptional.
  • Open the box
  • Remove the battery door
  • Insert the battery (which was the toughest part...I see redesign in their future)
  • Replace the battery door
  • Press the power button
  • Plug it into the USB port on my Mac (I assume it works on Windows too, but hey, I don't really care)
  • Launch the disk image resident on the device itself (BRILLIANT--no CD/DVD media to mess around with)
  • Install the software
  • Activate the device using the Verizon Connection Manager (which was great--seamless self-install and activation...again, BRILLIANT)
  • Eject the drive image
  • Unplug from the USB
  • Plug into the wall (I could've just stayed plugged into USB, but I needed to charge the battery for its first time, plus I wanted to get rolling untethered on WiFi)
  • Find and attach to the SSID listed on the sticker on both the device and in the one page box insert
  • Enter the password provided on the sticker
  • Configure security (hello, WPA2; despite the WPA-TKIP I show in the screen shot, WPA2 works just fine)
  • Enjoy!
Seriously, this couldn't have been easier. From box to live in less than ten minutes, which would've taken less time if the battery installation had been a little more straightforward.

Like most folks, I was a little concerned by the 5 GB per month cap, since I really have no idea how much Internet I slurp at any given time. Thankfully, you have three mechanisms to determine your data usage: by logging into your account on the Verizon website; by logging into the device's local management screen when connected via Wi-Fi; and by clicking the "Usage" tab when physically tethered to the device via USB. I'm definitely surprised at how much traffic I'm using just by checking e-mail, but then again, I have 11 accounts in Mac Mail, and I check every minute. I'll likely kick the interval down; at 5 GB a month, that's more than 160 MB a day, but at the rate I'm going, I could envision chewing through that fairly quickly.

All in all, I'm enamored. The device occasionally disconnects, despite the fact that I've set it not to, but I simply pop into the management window and hit the connect button, and all is well in the world again. Further updates as events warrant, but for now, color me a fan. Next up: determining whether an iPod Touch + a MiFi = a Verizon iPhone. Wired did some brief testing this summer, but I hope to be able to dig more deeply soon.


  1. Hey Mike,

    What does this cost? Me and a couple of consultants were talking about getting something like this to share when we're at the client site with no WiFi.

  2. Hi Lisa...right now, Verizon is running it for $79.99 (down from $129.99), with a monthly service charge of $59.99 for 5 GB of transfer. And yes, the ability to share among five devices is key--the only caveat is that when plugged into USB, the WiFi radio is disabled. Meaning, bring the AC adapter when you want to share with multiple devices. I had two UMA BlackBerries, an iPod Touch, and my MacBook on it the other day, and it worked great.

  3. Mike,

    I think what this really showed is just that you had been too long between getting your new gadget "fix". You only had 20 minutes between meetings yet you ran (Mike - run???) to go get it. I guess it's better than most drugs but with less harmful side effects.

  4. Coop,

    I considered MiFi but I saw it as a limited product aligneded to the specific wireless broadand chip that it contains. I ultimately chose the Cradlepoint CTR 500 device that accepts almost all available wireless broadband devices to include USB, express card and tethered mobile device. Additionally, it already has support for WiMAX, with LTE on the horizon. The only downside with this model is that it needs external power. I am working on a capability to provide that from existing USB computer ports. But, they are all empowering devices that allow us to "bring a network" with us virtually wherever we go; cool tools ;)