Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200Virgin Mobile may not have been the first company to deliver a mobile wireless hotspot wrapped up in a tiny device called a MiFi, but it is the first to make that little piece of portable magic affordable. It’s a real gift to those of us who have lusted after on-the-road wireless but baulked at the corporate-level pricing usually associated with the various solutions on offer.

Virgin’s MiFi 2200 gives you your own wireless hotspot, capable of connecting five devices simultaneously to the Internet. It latches onto Sprint’s 3G data network, so anywhere in the USA where you can get Sprint data coverage, your MiFi will get you online. That’s certainly not the whole country, but it includes all major cities plus a lot of out-of-the-way places as well. (Sprint has a horrible data coverage map – really nasty to use – which will give you some idea of the coverage area; it works best if you zoom in on a specific city.)

The MiFi itself is a mere sliver of a thing, a device you can quite easily slip into a pocket. That’s what I do with it: put it in my pocket and head out knowing that anywhere I go I can get instant Internet access with a press of its power button. Even better, it provides secure access, so there’s no longer any need to worry about eavesdroppers at Starbucks or in the airport lounge.

Its battery lasts about 4 hours on a full charge, less if you connect multiple devices to it. It comes with a compact cable for recharging from an outlet or you can use the microUSB cable to recharge it from your notebook or through an iPhone or iPad charger.

(Almost) smart pricing

Virgin has done two very smart things with its MiFi: eliminated contracts and offered a truly affordable, all-you-can-eat data smorgasbord. For $40 you get unlimited data for a month. Because there’s no contract, you can buy a month of data when you know you’ll be on the road, with no need to pay any more until the next time you’re in need of a connection. You can also set up automatic top-up to keep the data flowing if you’re on the road a lot. That compares very favourably with all Virgin’s competitors.

What’s not so smart, or, at least, not so consumer-friendly, is the second tier of pricing. If you don’t need unlimited data, you can pay $10 for 100 megabytes of data over a 10-day period. That’s pretty skimpy – a few hours browsing and a few emails containing largish attachments and you’ve chewn through it. I’d rather see a more workable option of, say, $20 for 500MB or even $20 for 250MB. I guess Virgin thinks the current two tiers will force more people into opting for the $40 unlimited plan, and they’re probably right.

Taking the MiFi for a spin

I’ve been using the MiFi for about a month, around my neighbourhood in New Orleans and on the road in the back woods of Texas and New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, I really put it to the test during my wish-it-were-annual, leaf-peeping trip. With the MiFi, for the first time I was able to get Internet access at the little cabin where I stay in an area with almost no cell phone coverage, let alone data services. Sprint has no voice coverage in the area, but it does have data and so the MiFi jumped online without a problem. I connected my notebook, iPad and iPhone and one of my family connected another computer and another iPad. (If you have a wi-fi-only iPad, as one of my family members does, the MiFi becomes an even more useful on-the-road companion.) We were able to do some serious work and I really tested Virgin’s “unlimited” data claim by uploading hundreds of photos via Picasa.

Over a two week period, I uploaded around 4 gigabytes of data and downloaded around the same amount, without a squeak from the network. It’s not fast – I got around 1.2 megabits/second – but it’s fast enough for most applications.

During the New Hampshire trip, every now and then I lost Internet access and had to reboot either the MiFi or my computer to get back online. Once I had to reset the MiFi by poking a needle into a tiny hole on its back, to get things working again. But on the whole, it was very smooth.

The only time I’ve really had a problem with the MiFi was when I was initially activating it. Virgin’s servers are atrociously slow and I had to repeat the procedure several times due to timeouts. I finally got things working without the need for a support call, but it’d be good to see Virgin make this process smoother.

MiFi Configuration Screen

The MiFi has a browser-based configuration panel.

A network as well

An advantage the MiFi offers over other mobile wireless solutions is that it not only provides Internet access for your computer and four playmates, it also gives you a portable wireless network. So even if you don’t need to use the Internet, you can use the MiFi to set up an adhoc home or office network wherever you are. That makes it very easy to transfer files between your devices, print to a wireless printer and do a bunch of other network-dependent tasks.

Tips for the road

The MiFi comes with a quick start guide which is enough to get you going, and its network name and default password are displayed on a label on the back. But if you want to know how to change your network name (SSID) and password or making any other adjustments, you’ll need to download the manual. It’s worth getting that manual before you head off on a trip, because it contains a lot of useful information. I also recommend you travel with a safety pin, paper clip or something similar in case you need to reset your MiFi on the road.

A hot item

I snapped up a MiFi as soon as Virgin put them on the market. I’m glad I did so, because they quickly sold out. If you’re in need of an affordable, peripatetic wireless hotspot, keep an eye out for when the MiFi becomes available again; it really is a wonderful little device.

Oh, I almost forgot: the price. Given how useful this device is and the cost-effectiveness of Virgin’s no-contract data, the upfront cost of $149.99 seems like a no-brainer.