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MiFi

As a laptop user, I have a tendency to roam. I mean, what’s the point of a laptop if you don’t? Of course, roaming means that you’ll occasionally need an internet connection too. WiFi hotspots may be more common now, but they’re not everywhere.

Enter mobile internet access.

I’ve had one of those cheap’n’cheerful USB dongles for a while now. The dongle acts as a modem and for the princely sum of £5 a month, I’ve had 1GB of data to play with - more than sufficient to access my e-mail, check the odd web-page and download a podcast or two. Unfortunately, 3’s Mac connection software is somewhat clunky at the best of times, signal strength wasn’t particularly good and I was always paranoid that I was going to give the USB port a good whack whilst the modem protruded from it. It generally worked, but I wasn’t that keen on using it very often.

However, a few weeks back something caught my eye - Three’s MiFi unit. The device is about the size of a credit-card and essentially acts as a mobile WiFi hotspot, allowing you to connect up to five devices at once and share the internet connection. Obviously it’s not going to be blazingly fast, but it’s a good way of doing the basics and sharing your connection.

As a pay-as-you-go device, it costs a few pence shy of £50, with top-ups extra. However, I bought the PAYG box and transferred my £5/month SIM into it, as it’s such a cheap deal.

This is what you get in the box:

  • Stubby USB cable.
  • Battery.
  • WiFi unit.
  • Mains charger.
  • Manuals.
  • SIM Card.

Like all mobile-phone-esque devices, you’re advised to give the battery a really good charge first. Funnily enough, the charger is probably bigger than the WiFi module.

A rough look at what's in the box...

The unit is pretty simplistic. It’s got five lights, indicating whether there’s a network connection, battery status, receipt of data, internet connection and WiFi is on. There’s just three buttons on the side - one switches it on and off, one switches on/off the WiFi and the other one forces the device to connect. It’s a pretty idiot-proof unit. There’s also a USB port to charge the unit and access the setup software, available as a mountable drive. Finally, there’s a Micro SD slot that I means you could use it like a memory stick if required.

The unit is (more or less) a simple affair to get connected. Switch on the power, wait until the network is found and then make sure the WiFi is switched on as you press the connection button. As long as you’ve got some sort of data connection available, it’ll connect in about 10 - 15 seconds. From a WiFi enabled device, the MiFi shows up as another network router called “3Wireless-Modem”, which you can simply connect to. The WEP key is on a little card in the box, although if you lose it it’s printed on the inside of the device under the battery too.

Speed seems to be reasonable, but not amazing - then again, you probably wouldn’t expect it to be. However, it can maintain enough bandwidth to stream video. I’ve streamed the live feed from the BBC News website with no problems and for day-to-day web-browsing and e-mailing, although your speeds will vary depending on network strength and connection method. Whilst the display only has five lights, they glow in a variety of different pulses and colours to tell you what’s going on - all simplistically effective.

At this point, you’re probably thinking of a purchase, because so far it sounds all good, but the device does have its drawbacks. The configuration software that I mentioned earlier (that little drive that mounts when you connect the device by a USB cable) is purely Windoze only - so there’s no Mac or Linux software on there, which is a strange thing really because all the other USB dongles sold by 3 have Mac software on them. Strange. This means that you can use the unit on a Mac/Linux/iPhone out of the box, but any advanced configuration of the MiFi will need to be done from a PC. This might be a pain in the bum for you. I guess it all comes down to how much you want to tweak.

As for the battery-life of the device, I can’t yet say. Word is that it’ll only last a day, but I can’t confirm that because my usage spells have been quite short. If the worst came to the worst, I’d just use the device from the USB cable - but of course that would mean I’d be concerned about my USB ports as I mentioned before - and I wouldn’t be wireless, either.

In summary, it’s not a bad device. I’m surprised that nobody has thought of such an idea before. The joy of it is that you can place the device in your house where the best coverage is and then use your computer wherever you see fit. I envisage that I’ll be using it a fair bit in the future as I wander about.

Pros:

  • Connect just about anything that connects via WiFi.
  • A doddle to use.

Cons:

  • You’re still subject to the Three network’s (possibly ropey) coverage.
  • Can’t be configured differently from a Mac/Linux - needs a PC for advanced configuration.
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