Novatel Wireless, Inc. (NASDAQOTH:MIFI)

CAPS Rating: 2 out of 5

The Company is a provider of wireless broadband access solutions for the mobile communications market. Its products include wireless data modems and software for laptop PCs, embedded wireless modules for original equipment manufacturers.

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Player Avatar tdedmondjr (63.77) Submitted: 5/8/2009 8:45:40 PM : Outperform Start Price: $10.27 MIFI Score: -115.72

New York Times Article

May 7, 2009
State of the Art
Wi-Fi to Go, No Cafe Needed
By DAVID POGUE

Someday, we’ll tell our grandchildren how we had to drive around town looking for a coffee shop when we needed to get online, and they’ll laugh their heads off. Every building in America has running water, electricity and ventilation; what’s the holdup on universal wireless Internet?

Getting online isn’t impossible, but today’s options are deeply flawed. Most of them involve sitting rooted in one spot — in the coffee shop or library, for example. (Sadly, the days when cities were blanketed by free Wi-Fi signals leaking from people’s apartments are over; they all require passwords these days.)

If you want to get online while you’re on the move, in fact, you’ve had only one option: buy one of those $60-a-month cellular modems from Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile or AT&T. The speed isn’t exactly cable-modem speed, but it’s close enough. You can get a card-slot version, which has a nasty little antenna protuberance, or a U.S.B.-stick version, which cries out to be snapped off by a passing flight attendant’s beverage cart.

A few laptops have this cellular modem built in, which is less awkward but still drains the battery with gusto.

But imagine if you could get online anywhere you liked — in a taxi, on the beach, in a hotel with disgustingly overpriced Wi-Fi — without messing around with cellular modems. What if you had a personal Wi-Fi bubble, a private hot spot, that followed you everywhere you go?

Incredibly, there is such a thing. It’s the Novatel MiFi 2200, available from Verizon starting in mid-May ($100 with two-year contract, after rebate). It’s a little wisp of a thing, like a triple-thick credit card. It has one power button, one status light and a swappable battery that looks like the one in a cellphone. When you turn on your MiFi and wait 30 seconds, it provides a personal, portable, powerful, password-protected wireless hot spot.

The MiFi gets its Internet signal the same way those cellular modems do — in this case, from Verizon’s excellent 3G (high-speed) cellular data network. If you just want to do e-mail and the Web, you pay $40 a month for the service (250 megabytes of data transfer, 10 cents a megabyte above that). If you watch videos and shuttle a lot of big files, opt for the $60 plan (5 gigabytes). And if you don’t travel incessantly, the best deal may be the one-day pass: $15 for 24 hours, only when you need it. In that case, the MiFi itself costs $270.

In essence, the MiFi converts that cellular Internet signal into an umbrella of Wi-Fi coverage that up to five people can share. (The speed suffers if all five are doing heavy downloads at once, but that’s a rarity.)

Cellular wireless routers, as they’re called, have been available for years. The average person hasn’t even heard of this product category, but these routers are popular on, for example, Hollywood movie shoots. On-location cast and crew can kill their downtime online, sharing the signal from a single cellular card that’s broadcast via Wi-Fi.

Those machines, however, get no cell signal on their own; you have to supply your own cellular modem. They’re also big and metal and ugly. But the real deal-killer is that they have to be plugged into a power outlet. You can’t use one at the beach or in the woods unless you have a really, really long extension cord.

The MiFi is remarkable for its tiny size, its sleek good looks, its 30-foot range (it easily filled a large airport gate area with four-bar signal) — and the fact that it’s cordless and rechargeable.

How is this amazing? Let us count the ways.

First, you’re spared the plug-and-unplug ritual of cellular modems. You can leave the MiFi in your pocket, purse or laptop bag; whenever you fire up your laptop, netbook, Wi-Fi camera or game gadget, or wake up your iPhone or iPod Touch, you’re online.

Last week, I was stuck on a runway for two hours. As I merrily worked away online, complete with YouTube videos and file downloads, I became aware that my seatmate was sneaking glances. As I snuck counter-glances at him, I realized that he had no interest in what I was doing, but rather in the signal-strength icon on my laptop — on an airplane where there wasn’t otherwise any Wi-Fi signal. “I’m sorry,” he finally said, completely baffled, “but how are you getting a wireless signal?” He was floored when I pulled the MiFi from my pocket, its power light glowing evilly.

If he’d had a laptop, I would have happily shared my Wi-Fi cloud with him. The network password is printed right there on the bottom of the MiFi itself. That’s a clever idea, actually. Since the MiFi is in your possession, it’s impossible for anyone to get into your cloud unless you show it to them. Call it “security through proximity.”

The second huge advantage of the MiFi is that, as with any wireless router, you can share its signal with other people; up to five road warriors can enjoy the same connection. Your youngsters with their iPod Touches in the back of the van could hop online, for example, or you and your colleagues could connect and collaborate on a corporate retreat.

Verizon points out how useful the MiFi could be for college students working off-campus, insurance adjusters at a disaster site and trade show booth teams. (Incredibly, Verizon even suggests that you could use the MiFi at home as your primary family Internet service. Sharing a cellular-modem account was something it strenuously discouraged only two years ago.)

Some footnotes: First, the MiFi goes into sleep mode after 30 minutes of inactivity, to prolong its battery life.

Yes, it means that a single charge can get you through a full day of on-and-off Internet noodling, even though the battery is supposed to run for only four hours a charge (it’s rated at 40 hours of standby). But once the MiFi is asleep, your Wi-Fi bubble is gone until you tap the power button.

It’s probably the height of ingratitude to complain about having to press a single button to get yourself online. But if the MiFi is flopping around somewhere in the bottom of your bag, just finding it can be a minor hassle.

Fortunately, you can turn off that sleep feature, or even change the inactivity interval before it kicks in. This gizmo is a full-blown wireless router with full-blown configuration controls. If you type 192.168.1.1 into your Web browser’s address bar — a trick well known to network gurus — the MiFi’s settings pages magically appear. Now you can do geeky, tweaky tasks like changing the password or the wireless network name, limiting access to specific computers, turning on port forwarding (don’t ask) .

A final note: If your laptop has a traditional cellular modem, you can turn on a Mac OS X or Windows feature called Internet Sharing, which rebroadcasts the signal via Wi-Fi, just like the MiFi.

But the MiFi is infinitely easier to use and start up, doesn’t lock you into carrying around your laptop all the time, has better range and works even when your laptop battery is dead. (The MiFi recharges from a wall outlet; it still works as a hot spot while it’s plugged in.)

It’s always exciting when someone invents a new product category, and this one is a jaw-dropper. All your gadgets can be online at once, wherever you go, without having to plug anything in — no coffee shop required. Heck, it might even be worth showing the grandchildren.

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