By Jacqui Cheng |
Wireless data hotspots are quickly becoming all the rage among travelers and geeks who don't like to be tied down to their homes and coffee shops. Though 3G USB sticks have been growing in popularity for years, the new WiFi hotspot-type units are picking up steam because they allow users to share their wireless data connections among multiple devices or a group of friends, so long as everyone has WiFi.
Two of the most popular ones in the US right now are the Novatel MiFi from Verizon and the Overdrive 4G from Sprint. We managed to get our hands on both to give them a test run, and it turns out that deciding which is better wasn't quite as easy as we expected.
The MiFi is significantly thinner than the Overdrive
The Overdrive 4G is a 3.1" square that is 0.6" thick and weighs 3.5oz. It's made by Sierra Wireless and connects to both Sprint's 3G and 4G (WiMAX) networks, where available. The device comes with a micro SD slot (bonus card reader, I guess?) and allows up to five simultaneous WiFi connections.
The MiFi 2200 is made by Novatel, sits at 3.5" by 2.3" by 0.4" thick, and weighs 2.2oz. Sprint sells one too, but the most well-known is sold by Verizon for use with its 3G network (the one we tested connected to Verizon as well).
Both devices can work independently without ever having to connect to a computer, but they also work as tethered modems via USB.
The MiFi has aesthetic superiority compared to the Overdrive—no question about it. The MiFi is credit card-shaped, thin, and easy to slip into a pocket (pants or otherwise), while the Overdrive is fat, bulky, and utilizes a slightly cheaper-looking plastic for its casing.
On top of the MiFi's pretty looks, it also performs better at basic tasks like turning on and shutting down. While the MiFi can power on and off and be ready to use within seconds, the Overdrive takes its time powering on—taking a minute or more. If that sounds bad, things are about to get worse. Powering down can be comically slow, taking several minutes on its better days, and hanging indefinitely on its worse ones. There was one point at which we left the Overdrive trying to power down for 90 minutes before we gave up and removed the battery, and that wasn't the only time such a thing happened.
Aside from these issues though, the two devices work very similarly. You don't need to set them up on a computer in order to start using them if you don't want to—you can pop them out of the box and turn them on (give or take an extra coffee break for the Overdrive), and connect via the network name and password displayed on the device. On the MiFi, this is located on a sticker on the bottom, while on the Overdrive, it's displayed on the built-in LCD screen.
If you want to customize the SSID and passwords for your access points, however, you can—or at least, you're supposed to be able to. With the MiFi, they tell you to connect it via USB to change the settings, but on the MiFi unit that we tested out, we were unable to bring up the right files on any computer we connected it to. This isn't the only way to do it, though. There's also an admin interface that you can access by going tohttp://192.168.1.1 in the browser when connected to the unit—from here, you can change the settings.
The latter goes for the Overdrive as well—just connect via WiFi and go to http://overdrive/ in your browser, which will load the admin interface. Once you enter the default admin password that comes with the unit, you can change the SSID and password to whatever you like.
So, the Sierra Wireless hardware sucks while the Novatel hardware is slick. However, there's one area where the Overdrive has an obvious advantage: its ability to connect to a 4G/WiMAX network.
Sprint's 4G coverage is spotty at best, especially if you travel a lot (and since this device is targeted towards travelers, we assume you probably do). There are pockets in some major cities, and we're lucky to have pretty decent Sprint 4G coverage here in Chicago where we did our testing. However, this is clearly a major selling point for the device, so if you don't live anywhere near a city that might get 4G coverage in the next few years, the Overdrive's appeal is obviously diminished. (The Overdrive can connect to Sprint's much more widespread 3G network, though, so not all is lost. It just becomes an average data connection, at that point.)
With that said, we tested the MiFi on Verizon's 3G network, the Overdrive on Sprint's 4G network, the Overdrive on Sprint's 3G network, and just for an extra network speed comparison, we threw in the iPhone 4 on AT&T 3G. Before we get to the data, the first and foremost lesson is that data speeds can be random and unpredictable. They can vary heavily throughout different parts of the day, different parts of a building, and which towers you're on, even within the same city. So take all of our numbers with a grain of salt—they are really meant to show a general comparison and don't necessarily represent exact numbers of what a particular user will get all the time.
The Overdrive consistently performed the best in the several locations around Chicago where we did our testing, with low latencies and (generally) very fast download speeds. The only times when downloads suffered were during high usage times of the day (which we, anecdotally, observed to be around lunchtime on weekdays, and again towards the end of the work day).
Longer bars are better
There were times, however, when the iPhone 4 on AT&T's 3G network trumped the Overdrive when it came to upload speeds. This was no doubt thanks to the iPhone's new HSUPA connection. Though the iPhone wasn't exactly a competitor in this writeup (as it doesn't act as a WiFi hotspot), we thought it was important to note, in case any readers were considering tethering an iPhone for data instead of using an Overdrive or MiFi. Download speeds were quite respectable as well, and outperformed the MiFi on Verizon in every test.
The MiFi's performance on Verizon was... alright. Not great, but not stab-your-eyes-out terrible. Compared to the Overdrive on Sprint's 3G network, the MiFi was usually better, but sometimes not significantly so. If you live in an area with no Sprint 4G, then the major appeal of the Overdrive is definitely lost.
Shorter bars are better
Of course, upload and download speeds aren't the only important things to consider here. Ping times show how long it takes for a request to go through before you can get to those speedy downloads. In our tests, the Overdrive on Sprint 4G consistently had the fastest ping times, followed by the MiFi on Verizon 3G, followed by the Overdrive on 3G, followed by the iPhone 4 on AT&T 3G. Again, outside of the 4G network, the Overdrive is reduced to just an average hotspot and tends to come in after the MiFi.
(Though the iPhone 4's ping time wasn't always that slow, it was consistently much slower than all the other devices.)
As mentioned above, both devices allow for up to five simultaneous connections. Those connections can be from anything WiFi-enabled, from laptops to mobile phones to tablets and anything in between. The obvious benefit here comes when you share the hotspot among multiple devices at once—a laptop and a phone, your laptop plus a friend's, an iPad and a Nook. Or, in the obvious case of the latter two examples, if you have a WiFi-only iPad or Nook (or really any device that comes in both 3G and WiFi versions), you can free yourself from your home or coffee shops by using your device outside of designated WiFi areas.
In our testing, we got about 2 hours and 45 minutes of use on a single charge from the Overdrive, not tethered via USB with two users constantly connected via a laptop and doing basic Web browsing. In similar usage, the MiFi got 2 hours and 10 minutes—similar numbers, but the Overdrive managed to squeak out an extra half hour or so. This isn't too surprising, as the Overdrive's battery is larger (contributing to its larger physical size), and it's certainly a plus for the Overdrive. We also used the devices with just phones and iPads, but there didn't seem to be a significant difference in battery life (hey, you never know).
Because of the differences in data speeds, the Overdrive generally performed better overall when it came to "normal" Internet use—loading up a few webpages, chatting, watching a few videos, etc. When we connected to it with an iPhone to try FaceTime calls, it performed well (by the way, this is one workaround for the FaceTime limitation of being WiFi-only). The MiFi performed fine, but there were times during the day when we regularly found ourselves reducing our typical usage to the bare minimum just so we could get a few critical Web requests through.
Put simply, if we found ourselves trying to get work done and we suddenly needed an Internet connection, we would definitely choose the Overdrive if we were in a 4G coverage area. The data speeds are the Overdrive's saving grace, because otherwise, the hardware is uglier than the MiFi's and is sometimes buggy to the point of hilarity. Still, if you can get it to actually turn on and off, then no aesthetic shortcomings can nullify the speedy and reliable data performance.
The MiFi does get points, however, for being thinner and more easily pocketable, which is a huge benefit for people using it with non-laptop devices like the iPad. And, as we pointed out several times in the speed section, the MiFi and Overdrive are at least on roughly equal footing if you're outside of a 4G/WiMAX coverage area, and in some cases, the MiFi is faster. Although Sprint's 4G coverage is only destined to get wider over time, if we lived and worked in an area that wasn't likely to get it anytime soon, we would choose the MiFi.
Do you have experiences to share? Let us know.