Hey Look, I’m a (WiFi) Hotspot!

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    For this year’s Black Friday spots on the WBIR morning show I decided to look for a handful of devices that I thought were either going to be a big hit over the holiday season or at least had HUGE potential.  This is different from the years past when we did the “shotgun approach” of doing just quick little highlights of tons of stuff… and to be honest, I think I like this better.  I reserve the right to change my mind down the road, but for now… lets dig in. :)  The first device we’ll have a look at is the MiFi 2200 Mobile Hotspot from Sprint.

    Manufactured by Novatel Wireless for Sprint, the MiFi 2200 Mobile Hotspot is just what you would imagine it is… a mobile spot.  The device itself is roughly the size of a credit card and about a quarter of an inch thick (guessing here), and is about as simple as you can get.  You push a button; it connects to the internet via Sprint’s 3G network and then begins broadcasting an 802.11 b/g WiFi signal which you can connect up to 5 devices to.  Once connected, you can surf till your heart is content… or until the battery dies (approximately 4 hours of constant use), whichever happens first.  Pretty sweet.  The days of driving around town trying to find a restaurant with WiFi are over, now you can go wherever the cellular signal takes you.  Granted, you could do this with an air card of some nature as well, but four of your friends couldn’t join you (okay… so you could turn your laptop into an access point, but really, only an ubergeek would do such a thing).  Also, consider this: there are no drivers to install!  You’ll never find yourself in a bind because you just reloaded the OS on your laptop and it didn’t occur to you to install the air card drivers until after you’ve already hit the road.  You simply connect to it like you would any other accesspoint and you’re off to the races.

Setup and Use 

    The MiFi setup is as straightforward as any other wireless AP.  On first use, you connect to the wireless SSID (Sprint Mifi 2200…) and browse to http://192.168.1.1.  You will be prompted to login with the default login password (admin) and then a setup wizard takes over.

Capture1 The setup wizard allows you to configure a new login password, followed by the WiFi profiles setup, and then you are finished!

    The WiFi profiles are actually a neat and interesting feature of the device.  The unit comes with three different profile types available for you to choose from (only one can be in use at a time): Open, Secure, and Temporary Hotspot.  Open is just a traditional WiFi hotspot with no security and any device within “earshot” of it can connect.  The Secure profile allows you to configure a protected wireless network with WEP 64, WEP 128 (seriously people… can we please stop referring to WEP as secure?  It’s not… let it go already), WPA Personal/PSK, WPA2 Personal/PSK, or WPA/WPA2 Mixed Mode (which is nice if you’ve got two laptops, one that supports WPA2 and one that only supports WPA. Otherwise, WPA2 Personal is what you should be using).  Think of this as your own little personal wireless network that only you connect to and one that allows you to do sensitive transactions over the air.  The last option, the Temporary Hotspot, generates a WEP 64 key that you can then share with your friends.  This is great if you are hanging out in a public place and want to maintain some control over who connects and who doesn’t.  Keep in mind though that this is using WEP, so I wouldn’t recommend doing anything sensitive over this connection.  It’s merely an option to keep the casual laptop user off your network.  A determined user will be able to jump on given enough time (which really only requires a few minutes if the person knows what they are doing).

Capture2When you go back home, or your friends leave, you can jump back in the administration interface and switch the profile back to Secure.  Really cool idea.

    After the initial setup of the device, you can also enable GPS on the unit which opens up some fun functionality.  With GPS enabled you can do searches, based on your location, for things like the nearest coffee shops, hotels, banks, and of course the nearest Sprint store.

GPS The search results will be displayed on the selected provider’s maps page, which can then be used to get directions from your current location.  Very handy idea for those who’ll be using this as their internet access while on the road.

    Additionally you can do things like setup port forwarding, change the wireless IP settings, manage how the unit uses power, AND backup the configuration.  That is a WHOLE lot more than I was expecting.

But is it fast??

    The most common question I’ve been asked since demoing the unit is “How fast is the internet connection?”  Fortunately since it connects to Sprint’s 3G network, the answer is a good one.  I found the connectivity to be roughly that of my home DSL connection (the upload speed was actually faster) and have been able to consistently get just under 1Mb download speeds from the device as compared to 1.14Mb download speed on my Bellsouth DSL.  Now, we’re not setting any records here by today’s standards, but it is certainly fast enough to download a song or two from iTunes while you’re at the park or watch your favorite YouTube or Hulu videos.  From a business use perspective, you’ll be able to connect to your corporate email system or VPN without a hitch.

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    Another common question is “What is the range of the wireless?”.  Novatel actually advertises it to be around 30 feet but I would say that is a tad conservative.  As I’m writing this, I’m actually connected to the device which is sitting in another room in my house and is definitely farther than 30 feet away and through a couple walls.  I admittedly only have 1 bar from this distance, as compared to my home wireless AP which has 4 bars from the same distance, but it is working just fine considering the fact that the MiFi has no external antennas and is drastically smaller than the ‘ole Linksys (and much more mobile!).  This is great news for businesses as they could send one device with a sales team to use while they are on the road together and it wouldn’t require them to be in the same hotel room in order to share the connection.  A lower number devices obviously equals a lower total cost of ownership for mobile wireless internet connectivity.

Okay… what’s it cost?

    Posting prices of things always gets a little tricky with blogs so I’ll say “as of this writing”; the local Sprint corporate store has them for $199 with a $100 mail-in rebate and the online Sprint store has them at $249 with an instant $100 rebate and a $50 mail-in rebate… either way you cut it, they are $99.  Both the online store AND the local store are offering a $59 per month data plan for the unit with a 2 year contract and the local store also offers a $79 per month plan if you just want to pay monthly with no contracts.  When you consider the cost of DSL plans today and then throw in the mobility factor, that’s a pretty good deal in my opinion.

 

So what’s the final word?  I personally think this is an awesome device and a great value for personal or business use (especially business use actually).  Given the size, price, and the overall functionality of the unit I don’t think you could go wrong picking one of these up for yourself or a loved one this holiday season.  Check one out and let me know what you think!  Also, keep an eye out for the spot on WBIR (and on this blog), it will be airing Thanksgiving morning at around 6:40AM-ish.  Till next time!

– Dan Thompson

P.S. Special thanks to Alissa Phillips, store manager at my local Sprint corporate store, for letting me borrow a MiFi 2200 Mobile Hotspot!

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