3 MiFi mobile broadband October 2009

3 MiFi mobile broadband

Mobile provider 3 says its mobile Wi-Fi broadband dongle – dubbed the ‘MiFi’ – can connect multiple devices to the mobile internet over the airwaves, essentially giving you your own portable Wi-Fi hotspot. Like other mobile broadband services you can use MiFi on the go - plus unlike normal dongles you can use the MiFi to connect iPhones and iPod Touches to the internet too.

MIFI
MIFI

UPDATE: July 2010 - 3 has launched an updated version of the MiFi - the Huawei E585 - which features an improved OLED display and simpler setup and connection. The new MiFi costs £49.99 as a PAYG option or £39.99 + £15 per month for 5GB monthly data allowance. The review below refers to the original MiFi dongle.

3’s MiFi dongle is a neat, sleek-looking little gadget that’s about the size of a compact mobile phone. Which? tried it out to see whether its claims of connecting multiple laptops and other devices to the mobile internet via a 3G wi-fi connection hold up.

The MiFi dongle costs £99.99 with 3GB credit pre-loaded or £69.99 with a capped, £15 a month contract. It includes set-up instructions, a charger and a cable to connect it to your laptop, which is useful if the MiFi battery dies. Even with no charge, the MiFi will work with full functionality when plugged into a laptop so you can use it and charge its battery at the same time.

As we explain in the Which? mobile broadband guide, mobile broadband of any kind really comes into its own when you use it with portable devices such as laptops, as you can access the internet on the go. If your laptop is on its last legs, check out the range of Which? Best Buy laptops from less than £500 and netbooks from less than £300. 

We put 3’s MiFi dongle through its paces, testing the first wireless mobile broadband dongle on the market for ease of set-up, mobile broadband speed, wireless range and how well it performed with multiple devices including a Dell laptop, an Apple Macbook and an Apple iPhone 3GS.

Ease of setting up the MiFi dongle

The 3 MiFi we tested came preloaded with credit, so we didn’t have to worry about buying a pay as you go (PAYG) voucher, and the step-by-step set-up instructions were mostly clear and helpful. Turning the MiFi dongle on and connecting it to 3’s mobile broadband network proved simple if a bit fiddly, using small buttons on the side of the dongle.

MIFI

Icon lights on the MiFi show the battery power and signal strength

Icons on the MiFi light up to show the battery power, signal strength and type of connection (standard 3G or the faster HSDPA). It wasn’t completely plain sailing for our tester – 3’s mobile broadband signal proved strangely variable within the confines of a medium sized room, so we had to move the MiFi dongle around a bit to get a decent signal.

Confusingly, the icon lights kept going out a few seconds after we’d turned the MiFi dongle on, even when there was a good signal. There was nothing in the instructions about this, so to start with we thought the MiFi dongle was broken. But when we checked available wireless networks on our laptop, 3’s network was showing, so perhaps the lights go out to maximise battery life. It would have been handy if the instructions had explained this.

We selected the 3 wireless network, typed in the network key provided (leave out any spaces) and, despite some teething problems, managed to get a Dell laptop wirelessly connected to the 3 MiFi mobile broadband network in about 10 minutes

3 mobile broadband via Wi-Fi speed and range

3 MiFi mobile broadband speed

Using the ThinkBroadband online speed test, we tested the speed of our MiFi internet connection six times between 6.30pm and 11pm on a Sunday. We recorded average download speeds of 0.4Mbps – no improvement since we first compared 3 with mobile broadband services from O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Virgin and Vodafone in late 2008. You can read more in the Which? mobile broadband review – if you want the best mobile broadband service, don’t choose your new deal without reading it.

Overall, 3 MiFi download speeds varied between 0.1Mbps and 0.7Mbps, while upload speeds were much slower, often struggling to reach 0.1Mbps.

We found browsing the internet from page to page acceptable, if a little slow, and we were able to watch the Which? video of the new Honda Accord first drive without a problem.

But downloading piece of security software tested in the Which? review of security software - a must-have for all internet users - took more than 10 minutes for a relatively small (58MB) file. A BBC iPlayer show, which could be hundreds of MB, would take quite some time to download at this speed.

3 MiFi wireless range

When we checked how far away from the MiFi dongle you could take a laptop and stay connected, the signal didn’t give out until we were between 25m and 30m away. So unless you’ve got a huge house, you should be fine to leave your MiFi in one place and use your laptop or iPod Touch in another. A single internal wall didn’t block the signal either, though this was with a smaller range of 10m.

MIFI

You can connect an Apple iPhone 3GS or an iPod Touch to the MiFi

Connecting multiple laptops, iPhones and iPod Touches

While other mobile broadband dongles must be plugged directly into a USB port, which means you can only connect to a single PC or laptop, the MiFi dongle is wireless, acting as a portable wi-fi hotspot, so doesn’t need a direct connection to a computer.

This means you should be able to connect several devices – including laptops, iPhones and iPod Touches - to 3’s mobile broadband connection at the same time. This is handy if you have several laptop owners in your household, or if you want to browse the net on your laptop while downloading apps on your iPod Touch.

We easily added an Apple iPhone 3GS and Apple Macbook to the connection alongside the Dell laptop. Surfing speed didn't slow noticeably with three devices connected, though downloading software on both laptops simultaneously took longer than with only one laptop connected.

3 MiFi pros and cons

This review represents a single user's brief First Look at 3's MiFi and is not a full lab test. 

Pros: Connect multiple devices at once - including iPod Touches, easy set-up, decent wireless range, wi-fi broadband access on the go

Cons: Slow broadband speed, limited battery life

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