Hunting down a wireless Internet connection is priority No. 1 for many travelers. But while Wi-Fi hot spots are common at airports, hotels, coffeehouses and conference centers, it'd be way more convenient if a hot spot could somehow follow you around. And also be available to the family members, friends or colleagues hanging out with you.
That's precisely the allure behind the MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot I've been testing. This credit-card-size, 2-ounce cellular modem — it's just a tad thicker than a pencil — arrives Sunday from Novatel Wireless and Verizon Wireless. It costs $100 after a mail-in rebate and with a two-year data plan. Sprint plans to bring out its own MiFi version at the end of the month.
By tapping into Verizon's 3G Mobile broadband network, the version I tested creates a personal Wi-Fi "cloud" to a theoretical range of up to 50 feet. You could use it on your commute (bus, train or car), vacation (lake house, beach) or working in a wayward location.
MiFi could be faster at times. It could have a longer-lasting battery. But considering the hassles often associated with wireless networking, MiFi is a winner.
The first obvious question is how MiFi differs from all those USB cellular modems that connect to cyberspace, or the wireless modems built into some laptops. The biggest and most important difference is that MiFi can be shared by up to five computers and/or other Wi-Fi-capable devices, including smartphones, digital cameras and portable game machines.
A USB modem, by contrast, is tethered to a given machine, and is often awkward; the Verizon Pantech 3G modem I own has an antenna that juts out precariously, an accident waiting to happen.
MiFi is an attractive little thing you can conceal in your pocket. You don't hook it up to anything. It has a single on/off button and a couple of status lights that blink or change color to indicate the quality of your connection and alert you when its battery is about to poop out.
MiFi is reasonably zippy, too, at least when you're in Verizon's 3G coverage area, what geeks refer to as "EV-DO Rev. A."
Verizon says its 3G area blankets more than 281 million people in the USA. If you're out of range, MiFi can connect to a pokier Verizon network.
A closer look at MiFi:
For the most part, I had a decent experience testing MiFi in and around New York City, though speeds did vary a lot. At different times, I used two Mac computers, an IBM ThinkPad and an iPhone.
On the iPhone, it took about one minute, 45 seconds to download a three-minute, three-second song on iTunes.
I ran a bunch of speed tests at Speedtest.net. One test on a Mac in the same room as MiFi said it would take 21 seconds to download an MP3 file, two minutes to grab a video clip, and 56 minutes to fetch a movie. In another under the same conditions, the numbers were far worse, about five minutes to fetch the MP3 file, 37 minutes for the video clip and 853 minutes for the movie.
With MiFi in my basement, I was able to get a signal, albeit a spotty one, in a bedroom two stories above.
As I drove in rush hour from northern New Jersey into New York City, a passenger in my car watched speeches from the White House correspondence dinner on Hulu, with only occasional buffering hiccups.
Battery life is a potential drawback for some customers. Verizon says you'll get about 40 hours of standby but only four hours in typical use, which seemed in line with my tests. What's more, the battery is likely to wimp out even faster if you're connecting multiple devices wirelessly.
It takes about 2½ hours to juice up the battery (using the supplied AC wall charger). The battery can be replaced. MiFi is set to "sleep" during periods of inactivity. Fortunately, you can use MiFi as a hot spot while it's charging.
MiFi costs $100, with a two year-contract, after a $50 mail-in rebate. A $40 monthly plan gives you a 250-megabyte monthly allowance. You'll pay a dime extra for each MB above that limit. A better deal may be the $60, 5-gigabyte plan, with a nickel charge per MB if you go over. To put it in perspective, Verizon estimates that 5 GB would let you look up nearly 35,000 Web pages or exchange more than 1.7 million text-only e-mails. You could bump up against the limit if you and your cohorts slog through lots of video.
If you need to use MiFi only here and there, you can opt for a $15 DayPass good for 24 hours. But then you're stuck paying full retail for MiFi ($270).
There's no need to fret about just any passerby getting on your Wi-Fi cloud. Security is built in. In fact, the network password is written on a sticker on the bottom of the MiFi itself, which simplifies things. If the sticker makes you uncomfortable you can alter the passkey and configure other geeky network settings, by typing 192.168.1.1 in your Web browser address bar.
I'm eager to ditch my 3G USB modem for MiFi once my own Verizon contract expires in several months. MiFi isn't flawless. But it's a smart, sensible solution for road warriors tired of hunting down Wi-Fi.