Traveling with the Virgin MiFi

Pros: no contract, small, easy to use after initial setup

Cons: often slow, keeps asking for setupvirgin mobile mifi 2200

When the new iPod Touch came out, I was really hoping for a pay-as-you go 3G option like the one for the iPad, but no such luck. Well, there’s been beaucoup ballyhoo about the new Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200, so I decided to give it a try on a trip to the Pacific Northwest last week. It’s gotten rave reviews, with an upfront cost of $150 retail (you can do about 30% better on the web if you shop around), and no contract, just $40 a month for unlimited use or $10 for 100MB for ten days. Your own personal wifi hotspot wherever you go–what’s not to love? Well, a couple of things, actually.

It’s certainly small and light enough.  Weighs only a couple of ounces and hardly takes up any space. However, the charger is another story. It’s also nearly weightless, but at not quite 2-1/2″ x 2″ x 3/4″  it seems surprisingly big and clunky, especially when you compare it to the current wall adapter for the iPod/iPhone.

Setup is a bit of a hassle (But I just created a log-in password! What’s this one for?), but it’s doable, which is a good thing, for reasons you’ll read about in a moment. Actually using the MiFi is very simple–one button and that’s all. All, except for needing to go back to the user guide several times at first to figure out what the one button is trying to tell you (blinking amber? something wrong? charging?). Once you learn its repertoire, it’s very simple.

mifi with ipod
The new iPod with the MiFi

Virgin says it’s good for about four hours of continuous use or 40 hours of standby on a single charge. I found I actually got closer to five hours, but that standby was a lot less. If I used it about 45 minutes during the day and it got left on overnight (it goes to standby after about ten or fifteen minutes of inactivity, at least in my experience), it would start flashing red–Charge me! Charge me!– almost immediately after I woke it up the next morning. Still, it’s plenty of time for normal use, and you can use it while it’s plugged in, too, so you don’t have to go offline to let it charge up.

So how well did it work? For the most part, pretty well. As long as I was in an area where you’d expect to have cellular service (not on the Sol Duc trail in Olympic National Park, for instance) there was usually a connection. Now the speed of that connection varies quite a lot. I had given it a good test drive at home before I left, and even there, where you would expect the speed to be fairly constant, it varied from “Darn, maybe I can get rid of my regular internet service,” to “watch paint dry”. Although Virgin says it’s unlimited service, one has to wonder if this isn’t the way they put a real life choke on usage. I didn’t notice anything particularly irritating about getting mail or web browsing, most of the time, but streaming video is completely impossible with this thing. If you want a MiFi so you can spend your evenings watching old Twilight Zone episodes on YouTube, this isn’t for you. It also takes a while to wake up or to establish a connection when you first turn it on, a minute or more, sometimes.

The other major irritation was that it kept asking me to go through the activation process all over again. It does this whenever it can’t find a signal, which is understandable if slightly annoying, but even when I was in urban areas where I knew there must be a signal it would often forget that it had been activated. After the first couple of times you get used to the drill, but if you do get one, take your sign up info with you or you may be stuck.

On the whole, I would say it’s worth it. It let me check mail and use  the map app and look around for info on the Internet, and it gives me the option of whether to take my iPod or my wifi-only iPad when I travel. The slow connection was the most painful part.

EDIT 10/30/10: Interestingly, I was in Asheville, NC  this week and there the mifi is blazingly fast, much faster than the hotel’s wifi, so I suppose it must depend on where you are. If you happen to be lucky in your location, it’s really good, but it hasn’t been like that anywhere else I’ve been, alas.

EDIT 1/13/11: Virgin changes the terms for new accounts:

How will it work?
Starting February 15, 2011, if you go over 5GB in a month on the $40 Unlimited Plan:

  • Your data speeds will be limited for the remainder of the monthly plan cycle. During this time, you may experience slower page loads and file downloads and lags in streaming media.
  • Your data speeds will return to normal as soon as you buy a new Broadband2Go Plan.
  • This change will only affect plans bought on or after 2/15/2011.
  • Incidentally, tried the mifi in Ft. Lauderdale last week–worst ever, just unusable. Dial-up would have been faster.

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