When the iPad came out, I pondered going with the 3G option. However, buying a third data plan in addition to the one for my phone and computer was too much. Fortunately, Verizon’s MiFi mobile hotspot option made it easy to have one plan shared by my iPad, my computer and even my kids using their Nintendo DSi game machines. Below, how the mobile hotspot has worked for me, along with thoughts on tethering, broadband cards and other MiFi options including the new Sprint EVO phone and hotspot combined.
I Used To Tether
My wireless life used to be easy and cheap before I shifted to the iPhone in July 2008. I had a Windows Mobile phone on Verizon, which gave me high speed access on my phone plus tethering for my PC (see EV-DO Broadband Laptop Access Through My Verizon Phone). Of course, technically I wasn’t supposed to tether — but the third-party PdaNet software made it easy, and I never had an issue with Verizon caring that I tethered (PdaNet, by the way, today offers tethering for Android and the iPhone).
The iPhone pulled me away from Verizon, at least on the phone side. The iPhone didn’t tether, leaving me with a great phone but no option for my computer. AT&T oddly didn’t seem to have a decent broadband card that supported the Mac, at the time. Verizon did, so I stayed with them just for data.
From One Data Plan To Two
Part of me hated feeling like I was paying twice for access. But at $60 per month, my Verizon data card easily paid for itself. Hotels charge upwards to $20 per day for access, and I often travel two or three days per month. Plus, at conferences or press events, I was always the person who had access when the WiFi inevitably failed. In addition, my access wasn’t going through a WiFi connection that was often open to public eavesdropping, such as by Google Spy View, er, Street View cars 🙂
My card was a UTStarcom UM175 USB modem (newer models are now sold). About the size of my thumb, it slotted into a USB port. It was such an improvement over tethering. Tethering often had little glitches where the computer couldn’t find the phone, or the phone didn’t sync right to the wireless network. It generally worked, but there was noticeable pain involved. But my USB modem was virtually bulletproof. I’d plug it in, and I’d be online in less than a minute. No hassle, no problems.
Keep Your Tethering
That convenience further made me feel like I never wanted to go back to tethering again. For me, the money I might save using my phone as a modem might get lost in hassle. So even though the iPhone looks to finally get tethering in the US, a year later than expected, I’ll probably stay with Verizon.
Since April, I’ve been using a MiFi 2200 mobile hotspot from Verizon. This little box is about the size of a credit card, as thick as three credit cards and very light. When you turn it on, it puts out a WiFi signal that up to five devices can use. It’s like a regular WiFi router. You can broadcast the WiFi location name, and you can password protect access with a variety of security levels. You talk to the hotspot through WiFi, then it sends your data request out through Verizon’s 3G network.
Mobile Hotspots: Made For iPad
It’s an awesome solution for the iPad user. I just turn on my WiFi, and the iPad finds it with seconds. The WiFi itself finds the Verizon network in less than a minute, often in only a few seconds.
I’ve never had the problems Fraser Speirs describes. I found his post through John Gruber’s excellent The Good and the Bad Regarding AT&T’s New Data Plans article today. But I’m using Verizon in the US, while Fraser is using 3 in the UK. Different providers, different networks — that might be part of the issue.
The Verizon’s MiFi has its own battery, which is supposed to last around two or three hours. I don’t know, because so far, I’ve never run my iPad that long with it to find out. Today, I used it for 1.5 hours straight, and I still had a solid green light indicating plenty of charge. I also configured the MiFi to save power if it’s not sending or receiving data within five or ten minutes (I forget the exact configuration, but you have this option). In addition, I always turn it off when I’m not actively using it.
If I ever thought I was going to seriously need the MiFi for with the iPad for an extended time, I could also buy an extra battery for it. You can open the case and drop a fresh one in. Alternatively, you can power it off any external USB power adapter or your computer, but more on that in a bit.
While I await the Apple Store ever getting any decent iPad cases in stock, I’ve been using my Case Logic netbook Case Logic Netbook Bag. It’s got a nice little pocket that holds my MiFi perfectly. I slip my iPad out, and away I go. That link leads to Amazon, by the way, where I earn a bit if you buy one of those bags.
MiFi: A Pain For My Laptop
Life’s not so pleasant when it comes to using the MiFi with my laptop. I prefer to connect using it in what I’d call “modem mode,” rather than through WiFi. If I’m on my laptop’s battery, I don’t want some of my power being sucked down by WiFi. Instead, you just run a USB cable between your computer and the MiFi, and that lets you connect with WiFi being off.
For one, you have to use the Verizon VZAccess Manager software. That’s not a big deal. It’s free, and it’s available for both Mac and PC platforms. But for it to work, it has to see the MiFi as a device — and it’s like Russian Roulette for that to happen.
Somtimes the software sees the device right away and all goes well. Sometimes it sees it, tries to turn it on, then gives up and says there’s no device. Sometimes, it doesn’t see it at all.
I’ve tried every type of technological chicken sacrifice to figure out the logic of getting things to work consistently. I’ve tried:
- Plugging it in with the software loaded and the device off
- Plugging it in with the software loaded and the device on
- Turning it off, then on after plugging it in — and with the software loaded
- Turning it off, then on after plugging it in — then loading the software
And other things. Sometimes, I just give up and just use WiFi. That ALWAYS works. At least, it always works after I did an easy reconfiguration.
Using WiFi & Charging At The Same Time
See, I still want the darn thing plugged into something, even if I’m using it in WiFi mode. If it’s plugged in, then it keeps the MiFi’s battery charged. I’m paranoid about batteries. I always try to keep them topped up for that worse case scenario for when I have no power.
If you plug it into your computer, it might not charge. Part of that might be down to the USB cable your using. There are some types designed to supply power only, apparently. Some are designed to supply data. Here’s some discussion about this. I once grabbed the wrong type, and I had great difficulty getting the thing to charge off my laptop. Now I always take the cable that originally came with it, and I have no issues.
It also comes with a standalone charger. But apparently, if you use that, it won’t put out a WiFi signal. That’s easily solved by following the instructions described by CNET here. I did that, and now I have WiFi whenever I want, even if it’s charging.
I sure miss the simplicity of the USB modem I used to have. However, having the single device that works with both my laptop, my iPad or any other wireless gadget I want to use is great.
How About One Phone To Drive Them All?
When I was at the Verizon store in April, I pondered getting a Palm Pixi phone that also works as a mobile hotspot. How awesome is that? Use your phone’s data plan to also run your laptop and your iPad. That’s how it should be!
Yeah, but I wasn’t going to shift over to the Palm. My iPhone, even my old creaky iPhone 3G, has been doing its job just fine, even compared to a nice shiny Nexus One (see No, Your First Impression Isn’t Wrong: Android ISN’T As Nice As The iPhone). And I speak as someone who lived with the Nexus One exclusively for a week, when I was traveling in Europe in April. I still preferred the iPhone — though I really, really hated the lack of multitasking when I went back to the iPhone.
Ah, but since then, the Nexus One has gained the ability to tether and be a hotspot! Pity Verizon doesn’t have the Nexus One, though. Then I’d be more tempted. Verizon does have phones like the Droid Incredible, but I don’t think they’ve yet been updated with the latest Android 2.2 “Froyo” software that provides tethering. And when they do get it, I’m expecting Verizon will do some stupid thing like try to charge you an amount equal to having a completely separate data plan.
How About A 4G Phone & Hotspot?
Well, I’ve got one of those. Google handed them out at their Google I/O event last month, so I got one for free. So far, I still find it to be like the Nexus One — kind of clunky compared to the iPhone. In addition, it’s slightly larger and thicker than the iPhone, but that’s still enough to feel huge when you hold it in your hand. It reminds me of my old Dell Axim PDA in size. Big screen, very pretty, but perhaps too much phone for me.
I’ve used the hotspot feature on three occasions, in San Francisco, at San Francisco International Airport and at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Each time, I’ve given up and shifted back to my Verizon card. I can connect OK to the phone very easily. But if there’s a 4G signal, as it says at times, I don’t see the speed difference. What I have noticed is that it often “stalls” and fails to load things at all.
Other people might have much better experiences. Other locations might be much better. Others might tolerate the occasional glitches for one device that does it all.
Heck, it’s very tempting. For $70 per month, Sprint offers the same number of minutes I get on my iPhone (450) plus unlimited data for my phone and my computer and iPad. In contrast, I pay $60 per month to Verizon to power my non-phone devices on top of the $70 I pay to AT&T for phone service.
Waiting & Watching
Personally, I’m waiting to see how the summer plays out. I’d like a new phone, one that actually can record video and which works nearly as well as my current iPhone. I expect all that from the iPhone 4. But I’ve also had it with AT&T. I’m tired of going places where, if more than three iPhones are in the same place, they suddenly emit a distortion field that seems to disable all of them. If Verizon announced it had the iPhone 4 tomorrow, I’d be there, in line ready to go.
Apparently, Apple will announce the new iPhone next week — and we should be seeing it from AT&T soon after, from what I’ve read in various places. From what I’ve also read, I don’t get the impression we’ll be seeing a Verizon-version immediately. Personally, I’m holding out hope that Apple will give AT&T a month or two longer of exclusivity, so that AT&T can get people to renew under a contract (one they’ve just made more expensive to break). Then maybe after that, Verizon will get its shot.
I’ll wait and see. I don’t need that new phone as soon as it’s out. Sometimes patience is best, in things Apple. My existing phone still works pretty well. If the iPhone doesn’t come to Verizon, screw it — I might very well go the Android route.
Why not Sprint? I’ve used Verizon for a very long time. I know that its mobile broadband network works. Works really, really well. I’ve been all over the US, and I almost always get a good, solid broadband connection. I’ve been at many conferences, and very rarely do I have problems (last month’s Google I/O was a notable exception. Verizon sucked there.
Maybe in a year or two, I’ll feel like enough people are going wow over Sprint’s 4G network that I’ll make the plunge. But since mobile data is my primary need, on my phone — on my computer — on my iPad — Verizon remains my personal top choice.
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