I vaguely mentioned this a week ago, but now I’ve given it a proper test, it’s time for a more detailed review.
When I travel anywhere, I like to have internet access available. It’s also useful to have a connection to fall back on in the event that my cable service breaks. I’ve previously used a USB 3G dongle thingy. Now these work well enough, but they have a few drawbacks:
- You have to let them install their drivers and software on any computer that needs to use them
- Unless you faff around with connection sharing – in effect turning one of your computers into a router – you can only use them on one device at a time
- You can’t use them to connect your iPhone, iPad or other such devices, unless you do more fiddling around
- You might have to move your computer to an awkward location to pick up a good signal
So, when I saw a review of the MiFi dongle that 3 were offering, I was interested. What you get is a small device that looks something like a mobile phone without a keypad, a USB cable and a charger. If you’re going to use it regularly, there are various contract deals available, or if, like me, your use is more likely to be intermittent, you can buy the device and top up with data as and when you need to. So, after a quick look in my local 3 shop, I bought one. I paid £49.99 for the device, and £10 for 1GB of data. I have to point out that data top-ups expire after 30 days, so it’s not worth buying more data than you’re going to use.
The device I got has five icons which light up on the front to display various status information – battery, 3G signal strength, wireless network on, 3G connection. To conserve battery life, these turn themselves off quite soon after a connection is made. The model now on sale has a fancy OLED display which I believe is able to keep its lights on all the time. Otherwise, it’s essentially identical.
There is some inbuilt software on the device which allows for more advanced configuration (change the SSID and wireless key, send and receive text messages, etc), but this is Windows only. However, you don’t actually need to run it to use the device, so that’s not a problem for Mac users. I’ve heard that it’s possible to update the firmware to a version that allows you to use a web interface to manage it, but I haven’t tried it, so I can’t comment on that.
Anyway, enough preamble – how does it work? Well, you turn it on, press a button to make it connect to the 3G network, then turn on the wireless function. Your computers (up to five at a time!) can then connect to the new wireless network. The SSID and key are provided on a card that comes in the box, and are also on a label inside the battery compartment.
So, once you’re connected, how good is it? Well, if you’re in a good signal area, it’s actually very good. I connected my work laptop to one and found that access to websites was generally faster than using the office’s shared internet connection. Quite a lot faster, in fact. At home, I found that it connected with a good signal more reliably than the USB dongle I had lying in a drawer.
But the real test was the Aberystwyth trip. I wanted to be able to keep up with email, make some posts and upload a few pictures, and I knew the hotel only had WiFi available in the bar, so a dongle was needed. And it worked perfectly. No problem getting a connection – admittedly this was in the heart of the town, but I’ve suffered from poor mobile signals in bigger and busier places than Aber, so I had been prepared for some problems, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Battery life – you can probably get half a day out of a full charge, but it’ll happily take power from a USB port if necessary, and if you take the charger along, you can charge it overnight.
I found I used a lot less data than I was anticipating – according to the 3 website, I used less than 500MB, despite doing a lot of email, web browsing, picture uploading and the like.
The only downside of this device is the fact that you need to press a button to make the status lights come back on if you want to check the battery or signal status, but as that seems to have been addressed in the new model, I can give this full marks. Good technology, well implemented.
Oh, and they generally let you take it back for a refund within two weeks of purchase if it doesn’t do what you want.
 Doesn’t happen often, but it’s frustrating when it does
 Seems to be a combination of “Mobile” and “WiFi”. Presumably they though MoFi might be a problem….
 Having been impressed by my personal one, we got some for work to replace the O2 dongles we’ve had for a few years
 My MacBook detected it as a verrrrrry weak network from my room
 As the locals tend to call it
 You can always top up from the site, even if your credit has run out