A while ago, I wrote about the idea of using a MiFi to retrofit 3G mobile web access to wifi-capable devices  (such as e-readers), and I also mentioned the TruConnect MiFi pay-as-you-go service  that allows bite-sized prepaid-3G-wifi usage with no contract required.
It has been a couple of weeks since I received my TruConnect MiFi for Christmas, and I’ve used it enough to get a decent idea of how well it works. I use the MiFi mostly with my iPod Touch and iPad, though I have had the chance to try it with my laptop as well.
Fundamentally, the device works at a speed of 320 kilobits down, 100 kilobits up. Even if it weren’t for the per-megabyte bandwidth charges, this is not something you would want to use to watch YouTube movies, and streaming Netflix is right out of the question. (I tried streaming Pandora as an experiment, and it played half a song and then started having to buffer every few seconds.)
Indeed, anything more than simple web browsing and text chat seems remarkably slow. If you get one of these and use it for web browsing, you will probably want to use a browser such as Opera that supports a low-bandwidth “turbo” mode. (Of course, it’s all relative. Back in the ‘90s, to anyone stuck with a dial-up modem, 320/100 kilobits would have been heavenly speed.)
Signing up with the TruConnect service was relatively simple—or it should have been, save that there was some sort of problem creating my account the first time, and I had to send in a ticket and wait a couple of days for them to reset the account so I could use it.
The service uses Sprint’s 3G mobile network, and charges $4.99 per month of use, plus 3.9 cents per megabyte of usage. The monthly charge only applies for months in which the device is used—though since I’m going to be using it pretty much every day, I can’t imagine I’ll ever go a month without being charged. It is a pre-paid service: they charge you $10 at a time to fill your account, then you use from that balance and they top up your account whenever your balance dwindles to $5. (They did accidentally charge me twice for my first top-up, but they noticed and corrected the issue themselves.)
My main use of the MiFi thus far has been for checking e-mail, loading RSS feeds into Reeder, and checking or updating Facebook and Twitter. It tends to take a while to get any results—I have to give it a minute or so for Facebook or Reeder to start to update. But as slow as it runs, I expect that’s fairly normal. The MiFi also lets me check in on Yelp, Facebook, or Foursquare, even from places that don’t have wifi of their own. I just need to be able to detect some other wireless network, and the iPod Touch or iPad’s geolocation service looks up its SSID to find out where I am.
When using it with my laptop, I can plug in the included USB cable to the device and use it as a USB 3G modem. This also lets it charge the battery, but turns wifi off so I can’t use it with my other gadgets. (I gather there may be a way to patch it so I can still use it with wifi at the same time, but I haven’t looked into that yet.) The first time it is connected to a computer, it will install a NovaTel USB connection utility off of internal storage, which allows the laptop to connect and monitors bandwidth usage.
While I have not actually used the device to download an e-book yet, I have little doubt I could do so easily with IOS 5’s integration of Safari with other apps for download purposes. Most e-books are small enough that they ought to download right away.
As far as battery life goes, it promises 4 hours of use or 40 of standby. I think that might be a little optimistic, but most of the time I’m able to get at least a couple of hours of continuous use out of it before it starts warning me of low battery power. For just checking on my breaks at work, or occasionally while I’m out and about, I can use it all day without problems. I do charge it overnight, every night.
There are a few things about the MiFi that I don’t like quite as much, however. For example, I’m not entirely sure why, but frequently when I’m using it with my iPod Touch or iPad I have to turn it off twice, because a second after the first time I turn it off, it comes right back on again. (I’m guessing this has something to do with the way the iOS devices maintain a wifi connection for a while even after I put them to sleep—perhaps the MiFi senses they’re trying to send something, and comes right back on again.) Sometimes it won’t turn off the second time, and I actually have to pop the battery out to get it to shut down. It also gets a little warm during use—not hot enough to burn, but certainly hot enough I can feel it in my pocket.
One other thing that’s slightly annoying is that the device came with a label on the bottom listing the default SSID and password (both of which I’ve since changed), just in case you have to reset the device to factory settings. However, within just a couple of days of carrying it in my pocket, that information had rubbed entirely off! Fortunately the device came with that information copied down on an insert card as well, and I copied it into my Evernote so I won’t lose it,
At any rate, I’m pretty happy with the device so far. The service can seem frustratingly slow at times, but then so can any 3G service. And when I consider that this lets me have iPhone-like mobile web access from my iPod Touch without having to pay an iPhone monthly contract fee, it’s worth every penny.