I haven’t felt the need to do any genealogy gadget reviews on this blog up until now. Dick Eastman‘s got that area pretty well covered, I’d say. But I do feel compelled to share a brief review of Novatel’s MiFi 2200 broadband wireless modem/router.
Web Access on the Go — How I’ve Done it So Far
Besides hotel accomodations and plane fare, one of my biggest expenses as an exhibitor at genealogy conferences has been the cost of Internet connectivity while I travel. Though some conference venues thankfully provide free wireless, many others charge $75-$100 per day for access to the web. Since my main reason for attending these shows is to demonstrate a working website, I’m stuck paying these fees.
For about the last year, I’ve used a broadband wireless card from Verizon to let my personal laptop connect to the web when I’m traveling. That way whether I’m waiting at an airport gate or manning the Genlighten booth, I’ve been able to retrieve email, browse RSS feeds, or make changes to the Genlighten site as needed for a single monthly fee (about $60 plus taxes.) But since my card only works with one laptop at a time, the computer I’ve used to demonstrate Genlighten to booth visitors has needed its own separate web connection, forcing me to pay the extra fees mentioned above. With luck, it looks like I won’t have to pay them any longer.
An Attractive New Solution
I first heard about the Novatel MiFi 2200 about a month ago from David Pogue of the NYT, in his article “Wi-Fi to Go, No Cafe Needed“. The article claimed that the device acted as a “personal Wi-Fi bubble” — compact and battery-powered — for up to five nearby PCs. When Pogue mentioned that it would work particularly well for “trade show booth teams” I was sold.
I would have happily bought one that very second, but as it turned out I had to wait a few weeks for them to become available. Mine arrived yesterday. It cost me $149.99, or $100 after — you guessed it — a $50 mail-in rebate.
The Set-Up Process
Setup was a bit more involved than I would have liked. To begin with, I had to charge the battery for 2.5 hours. Then I plugged the unit, which is about the size of a 8 credit cards stacked together, into my notebook via a provided USB cable. Verizon’s access management software promptly auto-installed and began configuring the device to work with my machine.
A few minutes later configuration seemed complete. My laptop’s internal wi-fi quickly recognized the MiFi 2200 and let me connect to it. Unfortunately, bringing up Firefox did not produce my usual iGoogle homepage. A call to Verizon Customer Service made it obvious why — I still needed to activate the device and associate it with my existing account. The manual gave the impression that the software would prompt me to do this via the web — so that aspect of the process seemed to fail. Nonetheless, the knowledgeable customer service rep soon had me up and running.
Speed and Strength Comparison
So far I’ve tested the MiFi 2200 under normal usage conditions here at “Genlighten World HQ” — i.e, in my daughter’s former bedroom that acts as our office. This has involved retrieving email, paging rapidly through RSS feeds using the “j” and “k” keys, switching between multiple tabbed windows in Firefox, and perhaps viewing the occasional brief video clip. At first, web pages loaded much slower than they do for my home Comcast connection. But that turned out to be related to signal strength rather than capacity.
Because the MiFi device doesn’t need to be plugged into my laptop, I’m free to locate it where cellular reception is better — like by a window. Doing that immediately got me four bars of reception and much more competitive download speeds. I haven’t measured it with any benchmark utilities, but I’d say it’s probably about one half the speed of my Comcast connection — pretty much in line with Verizon’s claim of 0.6 – 1.4 Mb/s. That should be good enough for airports, trade shows and the like, but not so fast that I’m tempted to ditch Comcast just yet.
But Will it Work at Genealogy Conferences?
Will the MiFi completely eliminate the need to pay for exhibit hall Internet access? I’ll find out this coming weekend, at the Family History Expo in Loveland, Colorado.
As I write this, I’ve got four laptops (mine, my wife’s, the Genlighten exhibit booth machine and my son’s MacBook Pro) all connected to the web over a single cellular connection. And I’m watching a streaming video, with only the usual minor glitches. So I’m cautiously optimistic that things will work well in Colorado.
I’m planning to blog from the booth during the Expo, so I’ll write a follow-up post to let you know how well the MiFi performs under enterprise-level conditions. Wireless internet at the Expo costs $45/day for a 0.5 Mb/s connection. That’s actually pretty reasonable, but if the MiFi let’s me forego those charges, I’ll have nearly paid for the cost of the device in a single weekend. That would be sweet indeed!