Three UK's third generation MiFi has slightly more refined looks than its predecessor, but it doesn't feature "go faster" stripes which is curious as the inclusion of HSPA+ technology promises a turbo boosted Internet connection with speeds theoretically up to 21 Mbps - enough to put many landline broadband connections to shame. I attended the launch event for the new MiFi (also known as the Huawei E586) and have been trying one out. How does it perform? How easy is it to use? Plus, with the increasing number of mobile phones that are capable of tethering (sharing their mobile broadband connection with another device through WiFi) is it still a compelling product?
The second generation MiFi was a great improvement over the first generation in terms of usability. However the focus of this version is slightly different. On the user experience side you will find an extra button on the side that when pressed reminds you of the WiFi access point name and security code. There is also a nice dock in the box. These are not the headline features though, instead the addition of HSPA+ is the top story with advertised speeds that might leave some wondering why they are paying for an ADSL connection at home as well. At the launch event David Kerrigan, Three UK's Head of Mobile Broadband even went so far as to say the device was well positioned to be someone's sole broadband solution.
HSPA+ is an evolution of the 3G technology that we use today. It is designed to give us higher speed Internet connections from our mobile devices. However as with all mobile broadband solutions the actual speed you get might not match the figures quoted in articles like these. Factors such as how far away from the mobile company's mast you are, how many other people are using the mast and even the fabric of the building you are sitting in can affect the speed you get. So, maybe unsurprisingly I found the MiFi varied considerably in the speeds that I could get depending on my location.
Three UK are currently rolling out HSPA+ technology across their network. At the time of writing approximately 70% of the upgrade work should have been completed. Three UK say that it can mean a speed increase of up to 40% over the previous MiFi. On the device itself it is a little difficult to tell if you are using HSPA+ or not. There is no indication on the front of the device (the display is unchanged since the MiFi 2) and the only way to find out seems to be to log into the administration interface on the device through a web browser and look it up in the connection status information. This seemed a bit odd, and maybe it should have been on the front of the device really. Another slight disappointment is the micro SD card slot; the device has one but you cannot access files from it over the WiFi, instead you must plug in a cable. Apparently adding this functionality would have made the device more expensive.
When trying the device out I found that it did seem to be generally a little quicker than my second generation MiFi. When it got a good HSPA+ connection the experience of using broadband through it was great, I could watch BBC iPlayer on my EEE Pad Transformer with almost no buffering. Downloads were quick and web page browsing smooth. If I could get that sort of speed out of it where I live I would be tempted to dump my ADSL connection. However in many other locations where I tried the MiFi 3, its speed advantage over the MiFi 2 was not so great that I would want to immediately rush out and upgrade.
MiFis have only been out for a few years, but in that time more mobiles have become capable of tethering - the ability to turn themselves into a WiFi hotspot connected to mobile broadband. I asked David Kerrigan why he felt that someone might still want to go for a MiFi in these circumstances. He felt that tethering is still a little too “techy” for many people (which surprised me as on my phone it is very simple to set up, but I am technically minded so do others really struggle?), he also outlined a couple of other advantages – using the MiFi doesn't run down the battery in your phone (a real blessing when you have a power hungry smartphone), it is purely designed for data and of course now has the HSPA+ capability, a feature the vast majority of phones do not have.
He also mentioned tablet users who may have bought a WiFi-only tablet and then realised they are not enjoying the full potential of the device as it does not have a 3G connection. Interestingly the device is also available in white should you have a white tablet, but not in copper to match my EEE Pad Transformer! The MiFi can have up to five devices connected to it so you could potentially connect an entire family's tablets to the Internet through it, which could be cheaper that having separate data contracts for each device.
The third version of the MiFi is not as a big a change in terms of the user experience as the change from the first to second generations of the device, but the addition of the HSPA+ connectivity gives it a bit of a unique selling point and maybe a bit of future proofing until we get to enjoy the wonders of 4G mobile technology in the UK. If you already own a MiFi 2 then maybe it isn't worth worrying about rushing out to upgrade unless you live somewhere with a very good 3 UK signal, but if you are looking for regular mobile broadband connectivity on the move, maybe because you bought a tablet then this might be for you. If you have a smartphone capable of tethering though the necessity for an extra contract or pay as you go account might put you off. One thing I hope though is that this sort of technology does work out for people as their only broadband connectivity as ADSL landline solutions can still be quite expensive and the competition would be very positive. The MiFi 3 is a welcome evolution of the MiFi line and it will be interesting to see well the HSPA+ technology performs once roll out is complete.
Thanks to 3UK and Brando for the trial of the MiFi 3. More information can be found at http://www.three.co.uk/Devices/Huawei/E586.