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Huawei B535

So here we are, all working from home. Before the lockdown I used to work one or two days a week from home, but having now gone to the point where I'm barely stepping out of the door (apart from taking my daily government sanctioned hour of exercise), I thought that perhaps my 4G router could do with being a little more "robust".

I have to say that the MiFi I've had for the last year has performed really well. I stream Netflix, Amazon Prime, do the odd bit of online gaming and RDP to servers over my work's VPN, but having an improved router would definitely give me more flexibility and reliability. I've not been able to use my Pi-based cloud storage since moving house and using anything over ethernet has been out of the question. It's time the MiFi became a backup device.

Enter the Huawei B535. It's quite a nifty little 4G router, which looks more like the usual sort of thing you hook up to a phone line.

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No phone-line required: Bear shown for size-comparison purposes.

When it comes to getting things set up, it's as easy as the MiFi was. You just pop your SIM card in and switch on. The SSID name and password is on the back of the router (which I've obviously blurred out here). On your first connection, you're prompted for a few things to finalise the setup, but you can make things as complicated or as simple as you like. My network is hidden, is not the default, I've setup dynamic DNS and am routing HTTPS traffic to my Pi so my cloud storage is back in action. Virtually anything you can do with a normal router, you can do with this one. The only extra lights you'll see on the front of this router versus a "normal" one is the network signal strength indicator. It's a pretty solid device.

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Of course, that's not all. It's got four ethernet ports at the back and connectors for antennae should you want to boost the reliability and speed of your connection. Antennae can be either internal for a little boost, or you can get larger antennae that you can fix to the side of your house if you want a big boost.

For the moment, however, I'm happy. Apart from being able to use 3G and 4G, the router will also lock on to a 4G+ signal if it can get one - and this means I've been able to get some quite good speeds at times, as you'll see below.


Speeds vary depending on the weather, who else is using the mast, time of day and a butterfly flapping its wings in China, but my download speeds very between ADSL and Fibre broadband on a fixed line. My upload speeds always seem to surpass that. The ping is the only area that I'd say could do with some improvement, staying very similar to how it was before, but I've not noticed any issues whatsoever on the odd game or two of Fortnite, so perhaps that's less of a problem these days. The connection has hopped between regular 4G and 4G+, only once or twice dropping down to 3G, but even then I've still managed 6MB as a download speed. I really can't complain.

The most pleasing aspect of this, however, is that I now have unlimited data usage (well, it's 1000GB, but even I couldn't max that out) and it's just £17 a month. Most fixed-line broadband is more expensive than this. A quick look on uSwitch right now shows PlusNet as the ones coming closest on price at £17.99, but given how they've gone downhill in recent years, no thanks.

As I'm writing this I'm streaming music and downloading a game in the background - and nothing is stuttering. The router can handle up to 64 devices at once. Should I ever move house again, I'll just pick up the router and shift it without having to think about changing telephone lines. At worst, I might have to consider using an external antenna, but that's not the end of the world.

Should 5G ever come to my area then I can really see this becoming more mainstream as it becomes faster than a fibre connection. In the meantime, though, all I can say is that I'm extremely happy with the upgrade and would definitely recommend it. With the lockdown looking like it's going to carry on for at least another month or so, a good internet connection helps you connect with people, even if you can't go out and meet them. A worthwhile investment.
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The End

As you've probably gathered by now I have a lot of technology. Of all the stuff I've got, one device has been a godsend over the years, my MiFi. It's a wonderful little widget that's about the size of a bar of soap* and works as a mobile router, allowing me to hook up my iPad, laptop or whatever in the middle of nowhere. I've had it for approximately seven years now, with the only maintenance required being a new battery after about four years. It's been great, has got me out of a hole on a regular basis and has even allowed me to happily stream Netflix. Even now, when I show it to people, they still go "oooooh", like it's witchcraft. Some pieces of technology are wonderful, and this is one of them.

After seven years, I thought I'd have a look to see what deals were out there, whether a 4G version was available and whether I could get more bandwidth for my money.

Yes, it was. And yes, I can.

So, here we are. This is my third MiFi and it's a simple-beast:

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Like most mobile routers, setup is fairly simple. If you've got a smartphone, you can just take a photo of the QR code on the inside of the back cover, which will automatically setup and join the network once switched on. As before you can get to the web interface fairly simply and change the SSID and default password if you want. Huawei also have iOS and Android apps that allow you to administer the device once you've joined the network. It really is pretty simple. You then have a mobile 4G router.

The speed is most certainly good, as this Speedtest illustrates:

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This is pretty much the same as most people's ADSL connections. Sure, the ping isn't the best for gaming, but apart from that it's perfectly acceptable.

This brings to mind a question - has the need for a separate fixed-line and ISP now disappeared? Well, for me it has. The bandwidth allowance is generous enough that I don't have to worry about limits and because the tariff I'm on allows the streaming of Apple Music, Deezer and Netflix without deducting from my monthly bandwidth allowance, it's a no-brainer. My only minor niggle is that I'd like to see dynamic DNS support, but given that the device is pretty small, perhaps that's asking a bit much - and I guess that if you're a family that spends its time bingeing on YouTube, then this probably isn't the device for you, but it's worked pretty damn well for me.

This costs me just £8 a month for 20GB, with the above exceptions not cutting in to my allowance. I've streamed, I've worked from home through a VPN and done loads of general browsing and have to say it's pretty great. I think this could be The End for something, the end for BT and Internet Service Providers. Perhaps the future has finally arrived.

Now, where's my flying car?

* Quite obviously, soap is the benchmark by which all technology should be gauged. More of a Cusson's Imperial Leather than a Lush affair, though.
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MiFi 2

A couple days before Christmas, I did something that I’ve never done before - I lost a mobile device.

The victim was my poor MiFi (previously reviewed here), which I’ve had for nearly two years. It’s a wonderful device and has provided me with cheap and reasonable internet access on the move. I don’t quite know what happened, but on my usual train, the 7.49 to Cardiff, I must have left it on the seat. On realisation, I went through the seven stages of grief and accepted that I probably wouldn’t see it again. If a commuter hasn’t got themselves an early Christmas present, I’ve pretty much lost it to First Great Western’s overly bureaucratic lost-property office.

Luckily, I had a pleasant surprise when I called my network provider to report the loss. The blocked the device and said they’d send me a new “up to date” version, as long as I carried on the contract.

…and so, twenty-four hours later, I had a shiny new MiFi in my hands. Huzzah!

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There are a few things that strike you when you first have a peek. Firstly, it’s been given a makeover. It’s like a little black pebble now, with a rather handy status screen to let you know what’s going on. Someone has also rather sensibly put a thingummybob to allow you to physically secure it to whatever you want to - which should prevent idiots like me from losing the damn things.

Perhaps the best improvements, though, are the web-based configuration interface (which means that anything that has a browser can set up the device) and the automatic connection that takes place as soon as you switch it on. Once on, it connects and fires up the WiFi within about five seconds. Simplicity is the best bit of it - It has even less buttons than its predecessor. The only other button is the one that displays the network ID and password. As before, you can connect up to five devices to it, but how much bandwidth everyone gets will depend on how good your coverage is. It seems that they’ve even thought about how to improve coverage too. Included in the box is a proper docking station which also charges the device and angles things for the best reception. Huawei seem to have considered everything.

In terms of performance, it’s said that with the addition of HSDPA, bandwidth is supposed to have massively improved over the previous iteration. Whilst it’s hard to give absolute values for this (because your coverage, network and computer might have some bearing on the performance), I averaged at least 3MB/s in good coverage 3G and city areas, and about 800KB/s in my “not to good” home area, which impresses me. There are still rural areas that don’t even get 512K lines with conventional wired broadband, let alone mobile versions. In most cases, the upload speed wasn’t too far off the download speed (tested with speedtest.net). It’s hard to say if the speed improvements are due to improved network coverage, a better antenna, or simply the HSPDA bit, but my hunch leads to me to think it’s a combination of all three. I used TuneIn Radio through my iPhone and car stereo as the test (6Music, I do wish you’d broadcast on FM!) and dropouts were very short and rare. The quality of connection seems to have improved.

If you’re using the device without its charger, then battery life will depend upon how much you hammer it. From full-battery to empty, you should get 6+ hours of continuous use. However, I’m just charging mine up again after a few weeks of slightly more intermittent use (about 20 mins/day). It’s got a standard USB connector if you want to charge it up on the go.

Do I recommend getting one of these? Of course I do. It’s damn good way of having mobile data, miles better than those awful USB stick affairs - and you can share it, too. Lots of small improvements have been made in every area, showing that a lot of thought has gone into the revamp. Setup is simpler, connection is simpler and the speed is better. I have to say that it’s seriously impressed me. If you’ve got an iPad, laptop or equivalent, you could do a lot worse than buy one.

Now I just need to make sure that I don’t lose this one.
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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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MiFi

A look at Three’s MiFi wireless broadband access point... Read More...
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