In the excited days which preceeded last year’s launch of the iPad, I asked whether Three’s MiFi portable wireless device – which creates a local WiFi network any WiFi capable device can use – could be a viable alternative to a data plan for the WiFi-only variant of the device.
The question was posed at a time when it was unclear whether the 3G version would be sold ‘off network’ or, as with mobile phones, with an expensive contract. In the end the device launched without a carrier tie-in and so I opted for the 3G model so I never answered my own question.
Fast forward almost a year and Three’s PR agency recently got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in trying out a MiFi unit.
It seems the device has had a bit of a makeover. From what I remember when looking at the early version in my local store, the loan MiFI is notably smaller than its predecessor and has swapped the original ‘silver plastic’ look for a more stylish black paint job.
Perhaps cosmetics shouldn’t matter but the change is definitely for the better, resulting in a device which even the most fashion conscious tech-lover will be happy to be seen with.
Setting up the MiFi was as simply as joining any password-encrypted WiFi network however the documentation unhelpfully refers to a ‘WiFi Key’ rather than an encryption type and I had to leaf through to page 13 before I was able to confirm this was a WPA key rather than a WEP or other type.
More technically aware users would probably correctly guess the connection type but many others need some degree of hand-holding when it comes to technology and using different terms from those they’re familiar with or are likely to find in their device’s settings is unhelpful.
In order to finally provide an answer to last May’s question I tested the Mifi with my iPad 3G which allowed me to compare the speeds of the built-in 3G connection (powered by one of Three’s rivals) with those of the MiFi.
To test the speeds I used the free speedtest.net app from the iTunes App Store and in an attempt to gauge the app’s accuracy I first tested my home broadband which it reported do be offering download speeds of 9.04Mbps.
This is about right on my Virgin Media connection so I was happy the app would give a decent indication of each connection’s speeds in the highly unscientific tests which followed.
The built-in 3G connection reported a download speed of .50Mbps while, placed on my desk next to my iPad, the MiFi connection reported in at .62Mbps. Repeating the tests a few times produced largely similar results – each time the Three connection was sufficiently faster and more reliable to declare it the victor.
Because not everyone will be using their MiFi in places where they have a table and because few of use are skilled at balancing both a laptop and MiFi on the same lap I also tested how the MiFi performed when it wasn’t possible to place it adjacent to the main device.
First I shoved the MiFi in my bag which I then on the floor by my desk and retested the connection. Not surprisingly the speeds dropped with the app reporting a download speed of just .20Mbps – useful for checking emails and low-demand web browsing but not too much else.
As a follow-up I then tried again with the bag under my desk – as it may be if you’re stuck with one of those weeny fold-down tables on trains or coaches – which saw the download speed fall to just 0.06Mbps.
Of course, I’d been expecting a speed drop and even home WiFi networks can fall victim to signals being blocked by walls and corners so it’d be unrealistic to expect a small, battery-powered device to do better.
What the test results do suggest is that while the MiFi is a great looking piece of kit which delivers decent mobile speeds under ideal circumstances, it suffers in comparison to a USB stick modem or built-in 3G connection in situations where space is at a premium.
Personally I wouldn’t want to routinely share the connection – Three advertises the MiFi as supporting up to five devices – as doing so merely results in lower speeds for each users but the option is useful to have and I can think of situations where it would have been useful.
In conclusion I was impressed with the look and build quality of the MiFi. The need to ensure it’s charged before leaving the home could be considered a drawback but in my experience WiFi doesn’t tend to drain batteries as fast as powering a USB modem stick which probably balances that grumble.
Overall the MiFi is a more wallet-friendly option than paying for separate data plans for – say – a tablet and laptop. Anyone likely to be moving between the two types of devices on a regular basis would be mad not to consider this as a first option.