For no reason whatsoever, it's mobile WiFi week here at TechGoesStrong.com. Today, Thursday and Friday I'll be discussing three mobile WiFi products, each designed to help you connect your laptop, tablet – even a digital camera – to the internet while away from home.
(Tomorrow, interrupting my mobile WiFi-fest, we'll have the weekly App of the Week, which will have only a tangential relationship to mobile WiFi in that apps are used on smart phones that have mobile WiFi connectivity. But I digress.)
Today's featured mobile WiFi product is the 4G MiFi. What's a 4G MiFi? A MiFi (which is actually a Novatel trademark, but for the sake of simplicity I'll be using as a generic term) is a small device that receives a cellular signal and transforms it into WiFi. You then can connect your laptop or tablet to the MiFi's WiFi signal like you would to any WiFi signal at home, in a Starbucks or a hotel room. It's the handiest travel gadget accessory ever.
Pictured at left are the 4G MiFis are sold by three of the four major cell phone carriers – the Verizon 4G LTE MiFi made by Novatel, the T-Mobile 4G "mobile hot spot" made by ZTE, and the Sprint WiMax 4G MiFi also made by Novatel (hence its similarity with the Verizon MiFi); AT&T Wireless does not yet offer a 4G mobile hot spot device.
Each 4G MiFi can supply WiFi internet connectivity for up to five devices within a 150-foot range, depending on conditions. If no 4G signal is available, each MiFi then provides WiFi via 3G service.
I put each of the three 4G MiFis through a series of decidedly unscientific tests; I connected an iPad 2, desktop iMac, and a Sony VAIO Windows laptop to each MiFi simultaneously.
Drum roll, please: the Verizon 4G MiFi delivered results consistently a few seconds faster than the other two 4G MiFis, in some cases twice as fast. The fatter the file, the greater the time savings.
My biggest test was uploading and downloading a 30-second high def video I shot. It took the Sprint MiFi 60 seconds to upload (send) the clip (to myself), the T-Mobile MiFi 43 seconds and the Verizon just 22 seconds. It then took the Sprint MiFi 28 seconds to download the clip, T-Mobile 23.5 second and Verizon 22 seconds.
But all three delivered faster connectivity than my own home WiFi network, which really cheeses me off. In fact, in a couple of instances, the Verizon MiFi actually loaded Web pages faster than my WIRED cable modem connection.
The Verizon and Sprint MiFis supply around four hours and change of 4G-to-WiFi service on a single battery charge. T-Mobile's WiFi last nearly seven hours.
Even though both the Verizon and T-Mobile MiFis delivered data substantially faster than the Sprint, all three MiFis are faster than any other mobile wireless connection available, other than the mobile hot spot capabilities built into most 4G smart phones. Each 4G MiFi also can be used in case your home wired internet connection goes down, a frequent occurrence with some cable company-supplied internet service.
You don't have to buy a MiFi from your current cell phone carrier. For instance, I have an iPhone from AT&T, but I pay for mobile 4G service from Verizon.
Which MiFi you choose comes down to three intersecting factors: price (duh), how much you intend to use it, and where you intend to use it – 4G service from each carrier is available in different markets. And arguably the best deal comes from Sprint for one reason – Sprint doesn't cap how much data you can download.
Verizon offers not only the fastest 4G MiFi, it's the most expensive; its Novatel MiFi costs $100 after rebates with a two-year contract, and you choose between a 5 GB/$50 or 10/$80 monthly plan. If you go over your monthly subscription limit, you pay $10 for each additional GB.
T-Mobile's 4G MiFi device runs $80 after rebates, and you subscribe to one of four monthly data plans: 200 MB/$30, 2 GB $40, 5 GB $50, 10 GB/$85. Instead of charging extra if you surpass your 4G data limit, T-Mobile simply slows the service down to 3G.
Sprint's 4G MiFi device also is priced at $80, and there is just one plan – $50 for all the data you want to use. But for some reason, I had trouble pairing the Sprint MiFi with my iPad 2. But the Sprint MiFi also offers a microSD card slot, which means it also doubles as portable memory.
I know what you're going to ask. How much – stuff (email, attachments, Web pages, streaming music or video, et al) – does 5 or 10 GB cover? Excellent question and not an easy one to answer, but a topic I'll be tackling soon. Stay tuned.