Tech Review: Sierra Wireless MiFi 4G LTE from Sprint

We recently upgraded one of our data cards to a Sprint Mifi 4G LTE device. The device from Sierra Wireless was purchased for about $50 on a 2 year plan with a 12GB data transfer plan.

A MiFi device is a personal (small) wireless access point that connects to the Internet using cellular service. Every major carrier has one and in most cases they have multiple versions. The range of connection plans include connectivity for 3G, WiMax, and 4G LTE. The latter is the most current standard and by far the best type of service to have as it matches or even exceeds home broadband connection speeds.

Why use a MiFi?

For the better part of six years our company has always had a data card. Whether working in the field on a project or connecting from a location without any other Internet connectivity, it has really helped. One of the limitations of a USB or PC based data card is that it can only be used by one person. Yes, there are third party routers like cradle point, but they require power and are not very portable.

A MiFi device is very small. Our MiFi from Sierra Wireless was approximately 4″ wide by 2.5″ in length. And a MiFi device is driven by battery. The model we tested had a reported battery life of eight hours on a full charge.

Setting up the MiFi device:

One of the positives about this device is that it is incredibly easy to set up. After powering on, it self-activates, which is great – this happened without any interaction from a Sprint representative. Another plus was the simplicity of the small 2″ LCD screen and the ease in setting up the wireless access point. No PC required. No special codes or lengthy fields to fill out; simply, what did I want to call the wireless network, and what password did I want to use?

I also like how easy it is to scroll through information. Using one button, it was quick to toggle among screens to find information like the type of connection, signal strength, or just looking up the password I had forgotten.

How does it perform?

Well, 4G LTE is what everyone claims it is: FAST. After connecting to the device, my speed tests showed download speeds at 4Mbps down and uploads around 700Kbps. I also experienced some latency of about 50ms, but for Internet surfing or even using a service like Skype, this is very acceptable. All my applications, including a remote virtual desktop connection, worked very well.

One thing I was disappointed about was the signal strength of the antenna. When using the 4G LTE service on my Samsung Galaxy SIII, I saw three bars. But on the Sierra Wireless the best I could do was one bar. Although this didn’t seem to affect my connection speeds, I wondered if I could have been getting even faster performance. In harder to reach places, it should be noted that there are jacks for using external antennas, although I didn’t have those to test and didn’t research that option.

One limitation that wasn’t too surprising was the poor wireless coverage (not to be confused with cellular or 4G coverage). Although the device reports coverage of up to 150 feet (a pretty common claim by most manufacturers) I found that coverage dropped dramatically at 50 feet away and was virtually nonexistent 100 feet away. I conducted my test outdoors and attribute this problem to a high level of interference. Conducting a wireless analysis using an Android based WiFi Analyzer on my phone, I saw no less than 20 wireless networks in the 2.4Ghz range. So given the area where I was testing in San Francisco and the level of interference, I would conclude that the device did just fine.

One final negative is the battery charging. The device took 20 hours to fully charge. I’m not sure if this is common and I don’t understand all that much about rechargeable batteries, but it seems like this is an area that could see improvement.

I would recommend this device and service to anyone looking for speed and flexibility in a mobile device. And at a price tag of $50 (with a data plan) the cost is very reasonable.

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