2011.08.18

MiFi

About 6 month ago I picked up a Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 Intelligent Mobile Hotspot. I just call it a MiFi, as do most people. It’s basically a 3G modem which lets you connect up to 5 devices (via wifi) and get them online.

The decision to get the MiFi was driven by the service of Time Warner Cable… after a two-day outage that is. The work I do requires an Internet connection, and I thought the MiFi would be a good backup for Time Warner failures, as well as the occasional traveling I do.

Now, there’s plenty of reviews of this model, in fact, here’s one, and here’s another. You can also find review on Amazon and elsewhere, but hey, this is my personal experience, rather than a straight-up review.

I liked the idea of a prepaid account because I just wanted to buy the device and the “pay as you go” model fit my usage. Of course you can’t predict the future, and those Virgin Mobile folks have changed the pricing more than once. When I was planning to buy one, the 3 options were $10, $20, and $40, and by the time I bought one weeks later, it was $20, $40, and $50. And who know? They may change again…. Urgh.

Anyway, since I’m an AT&T iPhone customer with only occasional needs for tethering, this is still a better (cheaper!) option for me at this point in time.

So here’s my review (which isn’t a review.)

When I first tried using the MiFi at my house, it seemed to work fine. I was satisfied that it would be a good backup solution to another Time Warner outage. My next use was at the Milwaukee Makerspace where I used it as backup for the sometimes unreliable wifi there. It seemed to work OK, though a little slow. I wasn’t sure if it was the building, or the location, or what. I was less than impressed this time. Next was a grade school near West Allis, and the results were similar to at the Makerspace, a bit slow, but better than nothing. I’d also seen then device get really hot a few times. I’m not sure what causes this, as sometimes it happens, but it’s not consistent. I should note that on all of these occasions, it was my MacBook that was connected to it.

The thing is, I’ve seen crappy 3G connections on my AT&T iPhone around Milwaukee as well, so I don’t know if it’s saturation of the network, or the buildings, or what.

My next big test was on a drive from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. This time I used the iPad instead of the MacBook, and I really didn’t notice any connection problems. I don’t know if any of it had to do with how iOS works, but using Reeder, Oosfora, and Mobile Safari was pretty smooth. Sadly, Maps did not work the way it does on an iPhone, or how I assume it works with a 3G iPad. It just showed my location back in Pewaukee. (Oh, my daughter actually used her iPod with the MiFi as well, though I think she just spent a few minutes Facebooking.)

We stayed in Minneapolis at a hotel that did not have free wifi. (Yes, sadly, they still exist.) The MiFi was a champ here, providing us with our own Internet connection. Again, we just used the iPad and I didn’t notice any connection problems.

Now, on to the east coast… where I wish I could say the experience was just as good. I didn’t need to use the MiFi until I got to Preston, Maryland, and the house we stayed at had no Internet connection. Being able to connect was totally hit-and-miss. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. Placing the MiFi up against a window seemed to help. I formulated in my head getting a rubber suction cup so sticking it onto a window were possible. On the last day we were there, the MiFi would not connect at all. It was raining pretty badly, so I wasn’t sure if that was the cause, but then realized that it kept showing the device as “Not Activated” and for some reason, I had to go through the whole activation process again. Luckily Mobile Safari (yes, still using the iPad) managed to maintain the needed activation codes so I didn’t need to type in anything. Still, this “reactivation” was a pain to deal with, and I hope I don’t need to do it again. After the reactivation, all was well again. I even ended up using it on the plane at BWI while we sat on the runway for 30 minutes.

In the end, when the MiFi works, it works well, though occasionally a bit slow. The ability to connect seems to depend on a number of factors, and I just need to live with the fact that there is no guarantee it will work at all. I suppose that’s better than nothing… right?

I’d love to hear others’ experiences using this MiFi device, or any others.

3 Responses to “Virgin Mobile MiFi”

  1. nickhacksNo Gravatar says:

    My job provided those of us who travel with the Verizon Novatel 2200 MiFi devices. As far as I can tell, everything is the same as yours except for the carrier.

    I had similar issues with the 2200 MiFi – overheating, slow connections. Occasionally I could get a fast enough and consistent connection with it to stream Netflix or Hulu, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

    2 months ago work upgraded all of us to the 4G MiFi (Novatel 4510L) and it has performed GREAT! Earlier this week in the Detroit suburbs I did a speed test and got 25 Mb down / 8 Mb up! I’ve surprisingly had 4G in most of the places I’ve been so far and it still supports 3G and older protocols in case 4G isn’t around. It’s not perfect, but I’ve found the 4G MiFi to be a huge improvement in terms of speed and reliability over the old one. I’d suggest upgrading if you can.

    I’d even cancel my Road Runner if it weren’t for the throttling and 5GB/month limit on the MiFi.

  2. RayNo Gravatar says:

    I have been using this device for months now. I never seen a speed over about 90 KB/sec. That’s kilobytes. The website promises something like speeds anywhere from 600kbps-1200kbps I believe. I’m getting an average of about 500kbps or so. Not sure where I’d have to be to get the 1200kbps, but I never seen it!

    Lately, there have been Virgin Mobile outages. When this occurs and is resolved it appears you have to reprogram your device. What a pain! Its happened 3 times this month! Lets not get into the price changes they implemented some months ago.

  3. My experience (and my wife’s) has/have been pretty much the same. Random periods of hotness, slow speeds sometimes for no apparent reason, and terrible customer service. 95% of the usage is via iDevices or other portable/mobile electronics.

    We have to reactivate about once every, oh, six weeks or so. This is most often a result of having let the battery charge completely discharge. Sometimes the total discharge is our fault, and other times, it’s dead after a period of random hotness. Usually we can just walk through the web interface wizard and be OK. Twice (three times?) we’ve had to call in and let them do something on their end. One of those times it took several-several hours for our account to be active again.

    I’m really glad they have the $20/mo tier now, btw; the lower tier wasn’t enough, and the “unlimited” seems a ripoff with all the restrictions and throttling they’re now doing. $20 cuts it close sometimes, but we’ve started to control usage better and it’s working out OK.

    VM replied to me via Twitter earlier today saying their experiencing a nation-wide 3G outage. No ETA on a fix, either. We’ve had no mifi use since around mid-day Friday now.

    So we basically have a love/hate relationship with it. It’s handy when it works. And frustrating, of course, when it doesn’t. Which seems too often, but there aren’t really any “cheap” alternatives.

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