I'm a small business owner who travels erratically. I might get on a plane ten times in two months and then not fly again for four months. If that description also applies to you, Virgin Mobile's Broadband2Go MiFi 2200 (list price: $150) is your best option for affordable, flexible, Wi-Fi on the go.
Virgin's MiFi is a rebranded version of the Novatel MiFi, a compact, pocket-sized gadget that converts Sprint's 3G mobile broadband network into a Wi-Fi hotspot connecting up to five devices at once. You can share the password-protected Wi-Fi network with colleagues; use it to get online with your iPad and/or your laptop where you wouldn't otherwise have Wi-Fi access.
Though the MiFi 2200 has been around for more than a year, the great news is that Virgin recently began offering no-contract data plans for use with the MiFi -- $10 for 100MB over a 10-day period and $40 for unlimited data. You can stop and start either plan as needed -- ideal for anyone with only an occasional need for 3G mobile broadband.
While there are other pay-as-you mobile broadband options, Virgin Mobile's MiFi has them beat. Verizon and other mobile broadband providers offer similar MiFi devices. But they require service contracts and often impose limits on data consumption.
Virgin Mobile's Broadband2Go MiFi 2200.
(Click for larger image).
Clear's Clear Spot 4G+ turns a 3G or 4G mobile broadband connection into a Wi-Fi network for $55 per month without a contract. You pay $225 for the device, however -- $75 more than Virgin Mobile's MiFi 2200. And Clear's plan tops out at 5GB for 3G connectivity.
While the Clearspot's 4G data usage is unlimited, there isn't a lot of 4G coverage available yet in the U.S. Also, if you discontinue your plan for more than 90 days, you pay a $35 activation fee to restart it. (Virgin Mobile doesn't charge to restart service.)
Meanwhile, the Rover Puck ($150) is a 4G device that supports up to eight connected Wi-Fi gadgets at one time, and for which you can buy no-contract plans starting at $5 per day. However, the Rover is a 4G-only device, so for now, its usefulness is limited to the few cities that have 4G coverage.
One important caveat about the Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200: At the moment, the Virgin Mobile site lists the MiFi 2200 as "temporarily out of stock." The same is true at RadioShack.com and BestBuy.com. A Virgin Mobile PR representative said the shortages are due to "really popular demand" and added that the MiFi 2200 is available in most retail stores, including Radio Shack and Best Buy.
Here are the pros and cons of the Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200.
Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200: The Pros
Reliable service: I tested the MiFi 2200 and Virgin Mobile service in San Francisco and Boston and had no trouble connecting or staying connected in either city.
Sleek and compact: The silvery MiFi 2200 is roughly two-thirds the dimensions of an iPhone and slightly thinner. However, you'll probably want to pack the MiFi 2200's AC adapter to recharge the device (USB recharging is slow). The good news: The charger is light and compact, too.
Configurable: Type http://virginmobile.mifi into your browser while using the MiFi 2200 to adjust default settings. For example, you can tell the device to turn itself off when idle after a certain amount of time to conserve battery power.
Sufficient battery power: I've been able to use the MiFi 2200 for two or three hours on a charge. That's probably all you'd need in most instances, but it's not quite up to the four hours Virgin Mobile promises.
Good customer support -- at least for me: I've called the Virgin Mobile toll-free support line at least three times in the past year and at different times of day. I made one call on a recent Monday morning -- usually a busy time for tech-support. In all cases, I've spoken to a friendly, helpful representative right away. (The customer service reps had no idea I was a reviewer.)
However, a reader who'd seen an earlier article of mine mentioning the Virgin Mobile MiFi told me he'd had a completely different experience. He said the 3G service "dropped three to five times per hour even though I had five-bar reception," and that he'd had many frustrating experiences with Virgin Mobile's customer support via e-mail and phone. I've read comments from similarly displeased, as well as from extremely happy, customers in user reviews on the Internet.
So your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.
Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200: The Cons
It's not for speed demons: I didn't expect to get blazing fast Internet access with the MiFi 2200 --and I wasn't disappointed. I tested it on five devices: an iMac computer; a Windows XP netbook; a MacBook Air laptop; an iPhone 3G; and an iPad. I also compared the MiFi 2200 connection speed against other forms of connectivity, such as Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and AT&T's 3G mobile broadband. In every test, the MiFi 2200's 3G connection was the slowest.
Consider the iPad. When connected to my 802.11n home wireless network, my iPad hit up to 2.18 mbps download and 0.61 upload speeds, according to Speedtest.net. On the AT&T 3G network, my iPad reached 1.45 mbps download and 0.46 upload speeds. But when connected to the MiFi 2200, the iPad maxed out at 0.42 mbps download and 0.23 upload speeds. That's pretty lackluster -- though perfectly acceptable for email and basic Web surfing.
More flexible data plans would be nice: While this almost feels ungrateful to ask for, I wish the $10 plan didn't expire in 10 days. And I wish there were an option somewhere between the $10 and $40 plans -- say, a $25 plan for 2GB of data. Virgin Mobile used to offer multiple options for its Broadband2Go USB modem ($80) but recently discontinued them in favor of the same $10 and $40 plans as the MiFi 2200.
No power lock switch: There's no way to prevent the MiFi 2200 from inadvertently switching on while getting bumped around in your bag. Though I never experienced that problem, to be safe, I always remove the battery before leaving the house -- and especially before boarding a flight.
The Wrap Up
You've got plenty of options for getting wireless Internet these days when you're not near a Wi-Fi hotspot. Some Android smartphones can become Wi-Fi hotspots themselves. Many smartphones can be tethered to laptops as USB modems.
But Virgin Mobile's MiFi 2200 is in a class by itself, providing small businesses with the most flexible, affordable way to connect one or more devices to the Internet on the go.
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