The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Sprint Mifi 2200

Posted by Deliverator on June 14th, 2009

I went into a couple of Sprint stores this last week to check out the new Palm Pre. I got to play around with a demo unit for about a half hour. I found the finger dragging user interface easy to use and fairly fluid. The phone has a nicely rounded shape that would make it easy to keep in a front pants pocket. I found the keyboard to be ridiculously small. The keyboards on pretty much any blackberry, dash or Nokia E71 are far better imo.

While I was there, I checked out the Sprint version of the Novatel Mifi device. Verizon is selling a version of this device as well. I was intrigued by the device’s minuscule size compared to my functionally similar Cradlepoint PHS 300 solution, but disliked the absurdly low 5 GB monthly useage caps and hefty overcharge charges, which I ranted about previously. I spoke to a rep about whether it would be possible to add the device to my existing Sprint data plan, which is grandfathered in from pre-cap days. She didn’t know of any way to activate a new Mifi device onto an existing account without switch it to the new account terms, so I initially passed on the MiFi.

I did some research on various cell phone forums and discovered I might be able to purchase a MiFi and get it activated under my existing contract terms by doing what is called an ESN Swap, which is usually use to put a replacement data card on an existing account when an old one breaks. The main key to doing it this way are that you need to purchase the MiFi outright without taking any form of device price subsidy contingent on service extension. In practical terms, this meant I had to pay ~$300 + tax versus a new account with 2 year contract which would have knocked several hundred dollars off the price. The rep at the second store was significantly more adept at turboing through Sprint’s arcane account systems and getting my MiFi activated via an ESN swap on my existing data plan.

There are plenty of reviews of the Sprint and Verizon versions of the Mifi device, so I will spare the full review to those more qualified and commercially motivated. Here are a couple brief thoughts after a week’s use.

The Good:
– The MiFi is exceedingly small and fits easily into any of my pockets. I am generally keeping it in a front shirt pocket with a button-able flap in order to keep it from wandering off and visiting my missing socks and also to avoid crushing it by sitting on it.
-Does what it says. Press a button and in short order up pops your own little internet connected hotspot. The web admin for the device seems to be above average for such one-off wireless devices.
-Battery life seems true to claims at between 3-4 hours of typical web browsing useage.

The Bad:
-There isn’t much feedback on device state on the device itself save for a couple color-coded blinken lights. Some sort of graduated battery meter other than the “green I am good, red I am almost dead” light would have been nice. You can check the battery state via the web interface, but even it only gives you the not so helpful four bars of info.
-The GPS on the device can be enabled through the web interface and can provide your coordinates to a number of local search providers via the web interface, but can’t act as a gps for your computer or other connected devices.
-The MiFi only allows 5 devices to be connected via WiFi at a time, regardless of how little they might be using the connection. The Cradlepoint devices, on the other hand, don’t really place a limit on the number of connections and have advanced quality of service functions to divy up the available wwan bandwidth amongst the various connected devices.
-The Sprint version of the Mifi comes with a AC power brick with a micro USB B connector on the end. You can use the MiFi while it charges, but carrying yet another a brick around isn’t a very elegant solution if you plan on using the MiFi a lot over the course of the day or while traveling.
-One can connect a standard USB A to Micro USB B cable to a laptop and the device will show up as a WWAN modem under Windows XP. You can then create a dial up connection and dial #777 to establish a data connection. You can use the device in this USB modem mode and both charge it from a laptop and use it at the same time, but it is limiting in several ways. Firstly, the device is only active as a USB modem when plugged in like this and does not serve as a wireless access point to share with other users/other devices. Secondly, the device does not seem to include drivers for Windows Vista (32 bit, much less 64 bit). Thirdly, Verizon at least includes this cable in the box, but Sprint does not and it isn’t the easiest cable to find locally, even in a place like Seattle. I thankfully had one sitting around from my Nokia N810. Bryan Che, a project manager at Red Hat Linux notes a couple clever ways around this limitation and also how to get the modem function working in Linux. The long and short of it is that you need an adapter or cable which has only the USB power pins connected and not the usb data lines. This will leave the MiFi in WiFi access point mode while enabling it to charge from a laptop USB port. In my opinion, this should have been included by design and I hope they release new firmware to enable this without needing to use an adapter or non-standard cable.
– My throughput and latency performance while using the MiFi in WiFi mode throughout the week have been decidedly lower than with my Cradlepoint solution. I am averaging between 3/4 and 1 mbit download speeds and 1/4 megabit upload speeds with between 125 and 150ms latency. My Cradlepoint PHS 300 + Sierra Wireless 597e expresscard was significantly faster. This hasn’t really impacted my use much, but it might be a factor for some people. I haven’t tested the MiFi extensively in its USB modem mode yet.