Up to now, mobile broadband users have been stuck with the awkward compromise of USB modem dongles to get data-on-the-move, but the MiFi from US company Novatel Wireless offers a fascinating alternative. The idea is simple: combine the 3G dongle bit with a Wi-Fi router and package it up in a portable form with its own rechargeable battery. Its maker calls it a ‘mobile hotspot'.

The device itself is incredibly simple, with a single on/off button, which doubles as a status light, a mini-USB port and a tiny slot for a microSDHC storage card of up to 16GB. Physically smaller and lighter than most mobile phones, the rear of the unit has a battery cover under which lies a 1530mAh Li-Ion battery (a charger is supplied) and a slot for the mobile broadband SIM card.

What are the advantages of the Wi-Fi-router approach? Apart from allowing the user to connect using the faster wireless interface built into any laptop, the MiFi can also support up to five users at once, enabling sharing of the connection. That could be quite flexible because it assumes not just a mobile state but a temporary but fixed one, such as when a group of colleagues need to connect from a hotel, say. It also allows connections from any Wi-Fi device, including PDAs and smartphones. Compared to the limitations of a dongle, it is no contest.

The Mi-Fi's has a few other tricks that might or might not be useful. The storage slot allows basic backup on the move for one or more users, while the unit has comes with built-in GPS. The latter appears to be a feature that will need a firmware update to be useful, and even then a separate app will be required, but it's still intriguing.

Configuration

The MiFi is set up and managed through a Spartan interface which includes settings for obvious things such as wireless encryption (WPA2 being supported), and enabling of specific protocols and applications, including VPN, http, email and FTP. Access and sharing of the storage is also managed here as is power management, and which of the mobile networks is being used. There little to get confused about here though the security settings might be better handled under a separate tab rather than buried in the Wi-Fi menu.

In use, the MiFi booted up quickly, found its 3G network (in this case, 3) rapidly and worked without any obvious hitches. Battery life seemed good enough for 2-3 hours of modest Wi-Fi use, but the mains lead can also be used to extend this indefinitely.

Conclusion

The MiFi is a wonderful idea, but it does have wrinkles, the main one being cost. Bought standalone, street prices are around the £220 ($360) mark, which will be far too high to tempt many users. More likely, users will buy it as part of a mobile deal in which the cost is buried in service element.

The unit is also being bundled free by T-Mobile as long as the user signs up for a £20 per month mobile broadband contract with an 18-month term, a deal that will doubtless be taken up i some form by Orange when and if the two networks merge. Meanwhile, three offers a branded version for a £70 upfront cost on a £15 per month tariff. Vodafone is using its own branded version of the MiFi but has not launched in the UK yet.

As for the technology, it would the inclusion of faster 802.11n Wi-Fi would be nice at this price; the unit is 802.11g/b only. This makes no odds at the MiFi's stated range of up to 10 metres, and is probably wise to save on battery life, but add a few devices and users and extend that a bit and the hotspot might start to go a little flat.

Perhaps that's the biggest problem of all is mobile broadband itself. Coverage can be patchy with data rates and latency varying from reasonable to awful depending on where the user happens to be. That qualification put on the record, assuming that the user is happy with mobile broadband, there is no question that the MiFi is the way to access it.

OUR VERDICT

A superb idea well executed. It's a bit too dear unless you're willing to buy it on a contract, but still the most civilised way to connect to mobile broadband yet invented.