MiFi – An Aircard Alternative for Linux, Mac & Windows

I intend to finish my previous post about fixing up caching in CodeIgniter, but I wanted to write a blurb about a device that I just picked up today — the MiFi. I thought I should mention some of the highlights of the product, some points that weren’t immediately apparent when I was researching it, and some tips that could save you thousands in overage charges.

I bought the MiFi, which was developed by Novatel Wireless, through Verizon. It’s a standalone mobile wireless router that acts like a traditional aircard. It uses Verizon’s 3G network for internet access, and puts out an 802.11b/g signal so up to five devices can connect to it at a time. Here’s a picture of it with my iPod Touch:

Area-wise, it is about the size of a credit card. In terms of thickness, it’s about 1/3 of an inch (~8.5 mm).

I’ve recently picked up a 6-month freelance contract at a design firm in Brooklyn, which is probably an hour and a half commute by train and subway. When thinking about the amount of time I’d be spending on the train, I immediately realized it would be wise to look into an aircard for my laptop so I could both browse and get some work done during the commute. There were a few big requirements that I had, but my initial research on the websites of wireless providers failed to answer all of my questions.

I’m writing this post to offer some answers to questions others might have about the MiFi.

When searching for an aircard, I had some requirements:

  • It must play friendly with Windows, Mac, and Linux, because I use all three
  • It must have some common connection interface like USB — Expansion cards won’t do
  • It can’t have a goofy form factor, like a USB stick just asking to be knocked out of its slot
  • I’d rather I didn’t have to install evil-ware to use it
  • I can try before I buy
  • I want to be able to easily check that I’m not exceeding my data plan allowance
  • There must be positive reviews for the product

Does it sound like I had some seriously stringent requirements? Probably, but the MiFi passed most of those. Let me roll through each.

Win/Mac/Linux compatibility: This isn’t so much to ask, but Linux tends to be under-supported in the aircard world. Initially, I wanted to learn exactly what kind of computers could use the MiFi. The answer, of course, is any computer that is WiFi enabled. The only catch is that the card has to be activated using VZAccess Manager (VZAM) which only runs in Windows and Mac OSX. After you activate the card, you can take it anywhere, connecting any devices that talk WiFi to the web, neglecting the box that actually has the software installed.

I’m sure I could have done this on my linux box in a Windows VM, but I decided to take the easy route and stick it on my secondary box at home (Windows 7). Actually, that’s something that wasn’t noted anywhere: The software is compatible with Windows 7. Alternatively, I believe you can attempt to do this online if you have an account set up on your cell provider’s website, and forgo VZAM altogether.

I answered the “common interface” question with the last point, so I’ll talk about form factor. The MiFi is literally small enough to fit in your pocket, although I wouldn’t recommend doing that. When you plan to use it, turn it on, and sit it on a table or place it in your bag. Then you can turn on your laptop and connect to your MiFi network, which will named something like “MiFi2200xxxxxxxx”. When you are done, it might be wise to turn it off. The device can apparently go into standby for 40-something hours, but I have thought of some real issues which I will talk about. While being used, the device will last about 4 1/2 hours.

I was told by the sales rep that if I had an issue or was dissatisfied, I could return the MiFi for a refund within 30 days. This isn’t quite a “try before you buy,” because I shelled out ~$189 with a 1 year contract. But if I need to, I can return the item to get my $189 back and a premature exit from the contract.

As for positive reviews — I only buy items that have been positively reviewed. The MiFi is no exception.

In total, I paid $189 for the device, and received a $50 mail-in rebate. Verizon has two data plans: $39.99 for 250 MB, and $59.99 for 5GB. For the first, any overage is charged at 10 cents per MB. For the second, it’s 5 cents per MB. I selected the $59.99/month 5-GB data plan. You might be thinking, 5GB? That’s too low! Sadly, there aren’t any wireless providers that go above this threshold. As far as I know, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon all have the exact same pricing and cap for their aircards. Sorry, we can’t get around this one.

That last point brings me to my next. Beware of processes on your machine which might use your internet connection in the background. The biggest offender I can think of it Windows Update. Consider the naive aircard customer who says to the Verizon sales rep, “Well, I will only be checking my email periodically while I work. That is the biggest reason I need it.” The Verizon rep then recommends the 250MB plan because it sounds like a good fit. Wrong!

You can’t really hold it against the two parties in this situation, because the customer it thinking her data usage will be light. The Verizon rep is not a computer expert in any sense of the  term, and also thinks the plan would be fine. But think about the types of processes that exist (specifically for Windows), that take your internet connection for granted.

Windows update, for instance, will literally download hundreds of megabytes worth of data quietly in your system tray. Sun Microsystems’ Java updates will do the same. I certainly hope any aircard customers aren’t victims of spyware or malware, which will covertly send and receive data behind the scenes, eating up the usage allowance. Users will want to carefully check that any file sharing or torrent clients aren’t running in the background. Accidentally leaving one of those guys open can be a mistake worth thousands of dollars. And since you can connect up to 5 devices at a time, you might want to be wary of which computers you are sharing your connection with.

Luckily, if you point your browser to the standard router address http://192.168.1.1, you will find that you have a neat control panel that gives you information on your current connection. Here’s a screenshot below:

If you want to edit the default settings of your network, such as the SSID or network key, you need to login to the box on the top-right portion of the page. Verizon did not print the initial password for the administration section anywhere. So I went digging on the Novatel wireless website and found that the default password is admin. Funny, that used to be the standard default password for Linksys routers too.

There are a surprising number of options. For instance, you can filter out certain MAC addresses from using your network, set up port forwarding (albeit on a very limited scale), and change your security configurations:

In the end, the MiFi seems to be a pretty cool device. But I was watching my usage climb by kilobytes when logged into the admin panel, even when I wasn’t actively using my connection. Background processes? Maybe. But I sure hope it doesn’t run up my bill.

As a side note, before you take the plunge with one of these things, do your research online. I found that asking the sales people at the Verizon store questions on the technical side didn’t yield any answers. Although, when I asked one rep whether a USB aircard I was looking at would work with Linux, he said “Well, Linux is based on Windows, so yes.” I guess Dennis Richie and Ken Thompson of Bell Labs got in their ’82 Dolorian and robbed the Windows source code from Bill Gates, then traveled back to 1969 and released Unix.

Convincing.. Just kidding. But do your research before you walk in the door. That’s all.

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