What is a Pocket WiFi? Or a MiFi?

by Dallin on May 3, 2011

When Wireless Broadband first became available, the only way to connect was to get a small USB modem to plug into a laptop or desktop computer. These days there are several different ways of getting connected through Mobile Broadband. This article will highlight a couple of fantastic options for people today, especially for those who have multiple devices to connect.

The Problem

People rely on Mobile Broadband more and more these days. In many cases it replaces fixed line broadband (such as ADSL2+) at home. People are increasingly on the move and increasingly reliant on the Internet. My parents, for example, travel quite often, spending weekends in country towns. It is important for them to stay connected through their e-mail. So, last year they signed on for a Wireless Broadband contract. The problem? The only hardware available was a USB modem, so only one of their laptops could be connected at a time!
I probably could have engineered a complex solution for them – something involving ad-hoc wireless networks and bridging network connections. But I expect that would have been complex to setup and complex for them to maintain when on the road. And if you have no idea what that previous sentence said, chances are it’s too complex for everyone else, too!

The Solution

The solution is as elegant as it is simple: the Pocket WiFi! This comes in various different flavours and names, depending on the brand. The most common names are Pocket WiFi and MiFi. As the names suggest, these are small enough to fit in the pocket, have something to do with WiFi and do something just for you.
The Pocket WiFi is a 3G modem, just like a USB stick 3G modem. It takes a SIM card, and connects to a 3G wireless internet network. But that’s where the similarities end. The Pocket Wifi can be completely wireless. It is battery operated (generally a built-in rechargeable battery, like a mobile phone), and it creates a wireless network to connect your computer to the Internet.
That is where the genius of this device comes in. It is possible to connect multiple devices to that wireless network, and all can access the internet simultaneously. You can have your laptop, your wife’s laptop and your kids iPad all connected through the one Wireless Broadband connection.

Is it right for me?

If you have multiple devices that you’d like to connect to a single Mobile Broadband connection, then this is perfect if all of those devices can connect to WiFi networks. Laptops can almost universally connect, as can iPads and other tablets. Most SmartPhones also come with WiFi connectivity these days. It can even save you money by getting a WiFi only iPad for example, rather than a more expensive WiFi + 3G version. You’ll even be able to do this on the bus etc, since everything is battery powered!
Also, as mentioned above, if your family or friends need to share a 3G connection either at home or when you go away, this is a great, cost effective and versatile solution. The Pocket WiFi can also usually be used while charging over USB or plugged into mains power. Battery life is generally rated at about 4 hours.

But I already have a USB dongle modem…

Well, that puts you in the same position as my parents then! There is a different, but related, solution available – the WiFi Dock! Rather than directly accepting a SIM card, a WiFi dock lets you plug your USB modem in, then then shares that Internet connection over a WiFi network. The only downside to this is that it needs mains power to operate. But if you have a USB dongle modem already, and want to share the connection mostly at home, in hotel rooms or in the office, the a WiFi dock might be a cheaper solution for you.

What about Security?

All of the devices I have mentioned support WEP, WPA and WPA2 security. The ones I have used come with security enabled by default, and the password printed on the bottom of the unit. You can then log on and change the WiFi network name and password. This is the same security you get on a home WiFi modem, and will protect your connection and content as well as anything else.

Anything else to be aware of?

Most of the devices I have looked at have a limit of 5 WiFi connections simultaneously. For most every day uses this should be fine, but you won’t be able to share it with everyone on the bus, for example. If you have 5 o your own devices connected at the same time, then I think you need to simplify your life! You could hit that limit in a home situation, with several desktops, laptops and tablets, though.

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