3 MiFi mini review redux
A little while ago I wrote about my 3 MiFi. To cut a long story short I wasn’t impressed, and rather wish that I had sent it back and got a refund. My mood wasn’t helped by the subsequent price drop of the PAYG package from £99 to £49 (albeit without 3 months of PAYG data that I didn’t need in the first place).
It turns out that the device can actually do many of the things that I wanted it to do, it’s just that Three had crippled it. The main problem is the removal of the web interface (though there are rumours that Three may sanction a firmware update that will bring it back). The web interface presents options so that the MiFi can be ‘always on’ (as I think it should be when powered up).
It seems that DC-unlocker is now able to unlock the Huawei E5830, so for €15 you can use it on any network. I’ve also read various reports that Three will unlock a MiFi for £15, which seems pretty reasonable. Sadly the web interface lacks the ability to reconfigure APNs, so if you’re swapping SIMs around then you’ll need to use the WiFi Manager application.
Sadly PAYG SIMs that you might use when roaming seem to be no easier to get now than they were 6 months ago.
After getting my MiFi unlocked I was able to get at the web interface by doing a firmware update, following the instructions I found here. It was a hairy experience, and at one stage I thought I’d bricked the device. Luckily it has a maintenance mode that I found out about in this Chinenglish upgrade guide, which is entered by pressing and holding the mobile dial button then the power button for 5 seconds (after which the signal LED turns red and the battery LED turns yellow). After going into that maintenance mode I was able to get the firmware updater to talk to it again, and eventually managed a successful update. Huawei certainly have some work to do on their firmware update software to stop it from being so much like playing Russian roulette.
The web interface is basic but functional. Having found the default username and password (admin/admin) I was able to get in and set it up so that it would establish a 3G/HSDPA data connection whenever powered on (which I still think should be the default). It works reasonably well on my iPod Touch as well as my netbook (at least on FireFox), making it easy to check on device status without having to physically poke and prod at it.
Battery life is still a bit of an issue. It’s probably enough for my daily commute, but anything longer than that means you need USB power from somewhere (and the cable to hook it up).
I’m still not entirely convinced by the sensitivity of the antenna and receiver (which may just have an optimal orientation that I haven’t figured out yet). My sense right now is that it’s not quite as good as my Novatel XU870, but probably better than most USB dongles. I guess in the non commuting use case it has the advantage that you can place it where signal strength is best, which isn’t so easy with something attached to your laptop or whatever.
The 5 device limit for WiFi connections makes little sense to me. I get it that sharing a 3G connection with 5 laptops would probably be stretching things thin, but even on my commute I’d probably use it with 3 devices (netbook, iPod and BlackBerry) – so there’s not much to spare. A friend recently installed a MiFi in his rural house that suffers a lack of wired broadband. He’s very happy just to be online, and pleased that he often gets around 1Mb/s (sometimes a little more), but 5 devices goes quickly when you have a kids PC, a Wii, Nintendo DSIs, iPhones, netbooks etc. Of course most of these devices aren’t actually making use of the connection at any given time, but having to manually switch their WiFi on and off to keep within the connection limit will be a pain. I’ve suggested to my friend that he puts Windows 7 onto an old netbook and then uses Connectify to extend the WiFi bubble and work around the connection limit.
It’s still plasticky, though with the always on mode in action I can leave it in an old sunglasses bag and ignore the ugliness (and prevent scratches and other wear and tear).
I’m well past being able to send it back, but with unlocked SIM capability and upgraded firmware that lets me do what I want with it I’m much happier with it. Happy enough that it will soon become my main means of mobile access as I ditch my old s10e netbook in favour of a new s10-3t ‘netvertible’ (which lacks the expresscard slot I need for my XU870).
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Tags: 3G, hotspot, mifi, mobile, review, wifi