∞ Hands on with the Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200

With MacBooks, Wi-Fi-only iPads and other Wi-Fi-only devices, we have an increasing desire for Internet access when we’re out of the range of a local Wi-Fi hotspot. But we’re also reluctant to lose our unlimited iPhone data plan with a more limited plan that includes tethering, or to buy a mobile hotspot that incurs a monthly charge. That’s what led us to Virgin Mobile’s MiFi 2200, a $149.99 mobile hotspot device that doesn’t require a contract.

The MiFi 2200, manufactured by Novatel, is about the same length and width as a credit card, though a bit thicker – easily concealable in a jacket pocket or carrying bag or backpack. A single power button on its front is the only interface; turn it on and the internal batteries work for about four hours before requiring a recharge. A USB cable and AC adapter are included to recharge the internal battery, along with a carrying case.

Up to five devices can connect to the MiFi 2200 simultaneously; it generates a short-range Wi-Fi signal that works to a distance of up to forty feet away – it’s visible to any device that supports 802.11g or 802.11b Wi-Fi protocols (the faster 802.11n protocol is not supported, but network performance over Sprint’s 3G network is considerably slower anyway).

[ad#Google Adsense 300×250 in story]Virgin Mobile is known as a Pay-As-You-Go mobile carrier; the company eschews long-term contracts, instead requiring customers to pay for the service they use. In the past few months Virgin Mobile has reworked its plans to stay competitive, and now offers two tiers of service: $10 gets you 100 megabytes of transfer that expires after 10 days – that’s good for about 5 hours of Web browsing, according to Virgin Mobile; or $40 for unlimited service that lasts up to one month. There’s no recurring charge, no penalty if you don’t pay. Once you’ve bought the device, that’s the end of your obligation to Virgin Mobile.

Setting it up and using the device is simple: It appears to your Mac, iPad or other device as a password-protected network, and once you log on and fire up your Web browser for the first time, a wizard walks you through the device’s setup. You’re then directed to Virgin Mobile’s Web site to pay for access.

Once access is paid for, the device is effectively unlocked for the duration; you can log on from any device, and up to five devices can communicate with it simultaneously, making it a handy access device for small groups traveling together.

Speed varies depending on how strong your signal is and how many devices are connecting simultaneously. Virgin Mobile says you can expect about 600 – 1400 KB/sec on average; our results were consistent with that, with some slower speeds and spotty connection results in fringe coverage areas.

An LED indicates the status of the MiFi 2200; the documentation included with the device tells you what green, amber and red flashing and solid lights mean.

We’ve also used Virgin Mobile’s Ovation MC760, another pay-to-play 3G interface which works by plugging into the USB port on a host computer. The MiFi 2200 works very comparably, with one important exception – because it’s Wi-Fi-based, the MiFi 2200 is accessed and administered through a Web interface. If something goes wrong with the connection, you don’t get the same immediate feedback that you do through the MC760, which uses custom software on the host Mac. It’s a pretty modest tradeoff for the ability to have up to five people at a time check e-mail, surf the Web or perform other tasks while not having to stay stationary in a cafe or other Wi-Fi hotspot, however.

  • Kevin

    I happen to live in a broadband dead zone and have therefore been getting my Internet access thru a 3G cellular modem from Cricket ($40/month instead of $60 like the big boys, pay as you go, no overage charges).

    When the Virgin Mobile Mifi became available I immediately went out and bought one for all the reasons you describe above. I had checked and I was definitely in the coverage area, although close to the edge. Unfortunately, close to the edge meant horrible performance … the Cricket modem is 4-5 times faster.

    I returned it the same day I bought it. Now I do have to say that both Best Buy (whom I bought the device from) and Virgin Mobile were both great about the return.

    So, if any of the big boys are out there listening … none of you – not one of you – has been able to give me a good reason to not stay with Cricket. Do you hear what I’m saying? You’re losing to CRICKET!!!


  • I’m gonna get Verizon’s just announced iPad + Mifi deal for $20 a month… it’s perfectly priced for me! I’ve been searching hi and low for the best Mifi option, was about to do Virgin’s thing, but the upcoming Verizon deal is way better! 🙂 (as long as 1GB is enough, it is for me)

    • If you need to buy an iPad along with your MiFi, it’s a great deal. If you already have an iPad, then the value proposition drops dramatically. Verizon’s deal is a promotional bundle.

  • bb

    I purchased a MiFi 2200 from Virgin Mobile, and it works like a dream — once I managed to get the battery door open and the battery installed. The software is easy to set up, and I can use it to get our family’s 3 WiFi iPads on the Sprint network when we’re on the go. However, one big caveat: the battery cover/door on the MiFi is darned near impossible to remove. The design is very poor so that if you plan on buying an extra battery or two (you get about 3-4 hours of use per charge per battery), you might want to consider an alternative. You have to practically break the thing to open the battery door!

  • Podesta

    I use the iSpot WiMax 4G from Clear with my Wi-Fi iPad and iPhone 4. It now costs $99. Use is unlimited for $25 monthly and there is no contract. It is said to work with as many as eight devises simultaneously. Though not promoted to do so, the iSpot also works with my MacBook Air.

    The iSpot is a little bigger than the MiFi devices. It looks like a white bar of soap or a small mouse meant to match an iMac or MacBook. I have no major complaints, though sometimes it needs to be restarted when you move from one place to another.

    This new Verizon plan is best for people just purchasing an iPad Wi-Fi, as Jim said, because they get the MiFi device at half-price. If you already have an iPad, shop around.

  • Gaz

    Has anyone tried the MC760 with a PowerPC Mac? I am going to pick up a 3G device for my girlfriend’s dad, who’s using an iMac g5 I picked up for him some time ago. I was originally going to pick up the MiFi 2200 for him, but he’s not going to be moving around with it, doesn’t need to use more than his iMac with it, and isn’t the most technically-oriented person around. I worry about him trying to connect to the hotspot, and keeping it charged, etc. Perhaps i worry too much. I know VM’s site says it’s compatible with Macs running 10.3 or higher (he’s got 10.4), but the compatibility looks suspiciously like generic boilerplate to me. I’m curious about the iSpot – he lives in an area with 4G coverage, and $25 per month sounds like a good deal to me. I will have to check into it, as it could be just what he needs, but with 4G.

  • Peter J. Paul

    I’ve been using the MiFi 2200 for a little over a month. Poor hardware design, poor UI on web, poor tech support – but WONDERFUL device and good price. Works fine with my iPhone 4 and iPad. If you are using with iPhone, contact AT & T and reduce unlimited data to lowest offered. That will save you $15 per month. Now $40 monthly Virgin Mobile bill of $40 becomes net charge of $25. Also, in iPhone turn off Settings > General > Network > Cellular Data (not sure if last tip is necessary, but I don’t fully trust AT & T)

  • Swm77

    I’ve used the mifi with an iPod touch and a voip app at a total of $50 for the month just to test the viability of using as an alternative to other smart phone plans. I would like to try on an iPhone as that would be a way to use the iPhone without AT&T at a pretty decent price considering it would be all unlimited talk and data. This could become a very popular way of avoiding AT&T. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who has thought of this. Has anyone else tried this? My only concern would be reliability of voip service and no 911 service over voip.

    • David

      An iPhone, or any cellular phone, can be used to call 911 even it it has no carrier. Even a phone that is many years old can do it, as long as the battery has some charge in it.

  • David Breitzmann

    In response to the above my own experiment in decoupling telecomm from service sounds similar:

    Using the iPod third generation with the Skype and Text Plus applications with a Virgin MiFi device.

    Absolutely prefer Leopard to Windows (two PC’s in the same number of years due to viruses and freezes) and thoroughly enjoy the entire Apple experience (hard/software, service).

    Owned the iPhone 3G (experienced the euphoria of waiting in line & being a “lead-user”) ; not interested in repeating the $100+ monthly user fees.

    Fact: (1)iPhone contract is about as expensive as (2) Macbook Pro’s

    $100 for 24 months = $2,400. Macbook Pro = $1,199

    Currently pay $3 for a phone number through Skype (50% discount if it’s purchased for a 12 month period versus 3 months) and $2.99 monthly for unlimited calls to the US & Canada. Total charges are $5.99 per month (all inclusive).

    Added to the MiFi service that is $45.99 per month for unlimited data on two devices, VOIP (Macbook or iVhone – yes with a “v”).


    MiFi speed is being increased by Virgin because video uploads are slow (though there’s the danger of “overload” like AT&T – hence the data caps – a delicate balance)

  • Rivera Luis67

    This is kind of a weird question… How do I actually open the mifi device? I mean actually take it apart so I could see inside it.

  • Vsmalls46

    O can’t get a signal and this my first time using it.

  • Ffdeathpunchlvr

    It says $40 unlimited, but I have to pay $50 every month for unlimited!!WHY??