Once, the most exciting part of a long family trip was guessing how long it would be until the next rest stop. But not for a family that has a MiFi.
The battery-operated MiFi, which is the size of a few stacked credit cards, creates a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to five devices just about anywhere.
No longer are you limited to using the Internet on-the-go in places such as a coffee shop. The MiFi will be available from Verizon Wireless first, with Sprint following soon after.
Now, dad can pipe Internet radio into the car from an iPod touch. Mom can send pictures directly from a digital camera to the Web, and the kids can download game content onto their PlayStation Portable or Nintendo DS.
Setting up the MiFi is pretty straightforward, but it could be simpler. After first connecting it to your Mac or PC, it appears as a CD drive and lets you launch its software installer.
MiFi Creates Wireless Networks Like Those at Home or Starbucks
The software installer's options can be a little confusing, but fortunately all the default choices work.
After the installer runs, you must load Verizon's software and "activate" the MiFi. From there, it's smooth sailing and you don't have to worry about Verizon's program.
Simply turn on the MiFi and it shows up as a standard wireless network just like those at home or coffee shops, such as Starbucks.
The default password is printed on the bottom of the device, but can be changed to something a bit simpler if you access a Web page that shows the settings for the MiFi.
The MiFi, which has just a simple power button and no screen, lasts for about four hours when a single device is connected to it, but URL HERE" target="external">usage time decreases if multiple devices are connecting simultaneously.
However, the battery is replaceable and the device charges with a standard USB charger.
The MiFi comes close to being the road to mobile Internet paradise, but there are a few roadblocks to contend with. With a two-year contract, it costs $100 after a $50 rebate and the standard 3G Internet service from Verizon or Sprint costs $60 per month.
MiFi Connections Good But Not as Fast as Most Home Connections
That may not be so bad if you use it at home in place of a cable modem, but it's not as fast as most home broadband connections and many people have limited cellular coverage at home.
You may be able to improve the 3G reception by putting the MiFi closer to a window.
But you also have to be careful not to use the MiFi too much. There's a cap of five gigabytes per month after which overage charges kick in, and that might be particularly hard to monitor with multiple people accessing the service at the same time.
Verizon offers an even more restrictive plan -- just 250 megabytes per month, but it costs only $40 per month.
Still, the MiFi is an easy to use, effective device that extends the benefits of mobile broadband to PCs and almost anything else that can operate over a Wi-Fi network.
It offers a glimpse at what life may be like when practically any device can connect online at any time.