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MiFi - A real test.

You might have noticed a few posts ago that I made reference to my new little gadget - the MiFi. Whilst I gave something that resembled a review, the one thing I hadn’t done was an extensive real-world test. Is the coverage any good? What are the data-speeds like? What about battery-life? Would I recommend it as a purchase to anyone else?

I decided that a more thorough test was required and after a bit of deliberation, I thought of a simple one - streaming audio, set up using:

  • One car.
  • One car-stereo.
  • One MiFi.
  • One iPhone/iPod-Touch - with last.fm installed upon it.

I’d stream a channel through last-fm over WiFi using the MiFi unit. As I drive along, I get a good idea of how coverage is sustained, as well as whether transfer rates over the journey are useable.

My journey covered approximately 55 miles and was a mixture of city, town, dual-carriageway and rural driving. So how did it fare?

  • Of the 55 miles, the connection was held for approximately 65% of the journey. What was rather good was that the gap was pretty much in one chunk (more or less, about 15 miles or so). Over this stretch, there was no network coverage whatsoever.
  • The connection whilst in the city was maintained - but very slow. I suspect this was a capacity issue. Data transfer speeds were really low and the iPod continually had to buffer the connection - evidently the problem of shared bandwidth in a built-up area.
  • For the latter part of the journey speeds were good and audio continued all the way to home, resulting in a very short gap over the 35 minute stretch. This was particularly impressive given that this section of the drive was fairly rural.
  • I repeated the drive for a couple of days and didn’t recharge the battery. I’d guess that working hard, you’ll get about five hours from the lithium-polymer battery. It does get rather warm when it’s busy for a continued period of time, but not dangerously so.
  • As a guess, I’d say that streaming audio uses about 1MB/min. I’ve streamed about 10hrs of audio this week and reckon that it’s used about 550MB of my allowance.

The device is nice and simple to use, my only grizzle being that it doesn’t always automatically reconnect as quickly as it should if a disconnect happens.

Would I recommend it? That depends. If you live in a highly built-up area and want to use it in a static location, then possibly not. It would appear that 3 have either throttled the bandwidth significantly, or they have serious capacity issues. This would probably result in you tearing your hair out when using it for sustained periods. Of course, the same would be true if you live in an extremely remote area - you’ll probably find that your coverage just isn’t good enough. There’s always a significant degree of variance between coverage checkers and reality, so you may need to look at them in a more pessimistic light to get a true reflection of the MiFi’s capabilities.

However, if you’re looking for something that provides reasonable coverage for those ad-hoc situations where you require internet access, or you happen to live in a smaller town, you’ll probably find that it doesn’t do a bad job at all. Lightning fast broadband this ain’t, but it’s more than adequate for web-browsing, low-bandwidth streaming and the odd download - just don’t push your luck with anything as hungry as iPlayer.

Is this ready to replace your fixed-line broadband? The answer is “maybe”.
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