Same mobile router, different approaches

The scoop: MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot, by Verizon Wireless, about $100 (after rebates, two-year-agreement, plus data service, at $40 per month for 250MB of data, or $60 per month for 5GB of data).

What it is: About the size of a credit-card (but slightly thicker too), the MiFi 2200 from Verizon Wireless includes a 3G wireless connection (Verizon's EV-DO Rev. A network) and a Wi-Fi router built into it. Mobile users can connect to the device via Wi-Fi or USB and access the Internet through the 3G wireless connection. Multiple users can connect via Wi-Fi and share the data connection. The device includes a rechargeable battery, which means you can operate it without plugging it into an outlet, although one is provided. You can also power and use the device via USB cable.

Why it's cool: Does this device sound familiar to you? It should, as Sprint has the same device -- Novatel Wireless makes the basic device, and then each carrier adds its own imprint. The difference then becomes the carrier's network connection, and additional software, features, functions, etc.

So what's different? The biggest surprise was seeing how each carrier approached the functions of the device. On the Verizon device, the main goal is for mobile workers to use the device as a USB 3G wireless modem (it installs the VZAccess Manager software on your PC and then treats the device as a 3G modem, just as if you were using a PC Card or USB stick). The Sprint version assumes you're going to connect to the MiFi via Wi-Fi, so it doesn't install any software on the machine -- configuration is done through a Web browser. You can also configure the Verizon device through a browser (for adjusting the Wi-Fi settings, changing security, doing port forwarding, etc.), but the main purpose, again, from Verizon's perspective, seems to be to use the device as a 3G wireless access device, with the Wi-Fi a secondary function. I preferred, slightly, the Verizon method of installation/configuration via the USB cable, as it meant less time digging through the manuals looking for passwords and such.

One big difference was access speed to the 3G wireless networks -- I tested the Verizon Wireless device on a road trip from Boston to New York, and was able to get more than 1Mbps of download speed and about 380Kbps of upload speed on average during the trip (average for the Sprint device was about 428Kbps download and 232Kbps upload). I had good EV-DO Rev. A coverage during most of my trip on Verizon's network.

When I disconnected the USB cable and connected via Wi-Fi, the speed seemed to go down. I got an average of about 200Kbps download and about 120Kbps upload. However, I did the Wi-Fi tests inside my New York City hotel room, not on the road as I did with the 3G. This is the problem with speed testing wireless devices and networks, conditions and locations always change. Take the speeds with a grain of salt. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Some caveats: I've got the same complaints that I had with the Sprint version of the MiFi. There should be a signal strength indicator as well as some kind of LCD screen on the device that tells you how good your 3G wireless is in your location. If the intent is for people to use this to create their own personal Wi-Fi, it will help them to know whether they're in a good zone or a "dead zone" before they try to connect via Wi-Fi.

Grade: 4.5 stars (out of five).

Shaw can be reached at kshaw@nww.com. Follow Keith on Twitter.

This story, "Same mobile router, different approaches" was originally published by Network World.

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