Now that you can use a smart phone as a hotspot, it's natural to wonder why you would carry a dedicated gadget just for that purpose. Novatel's MiFi 2372 makes a pretty good case for the category's staying power. This compact modem ($49 with a two-year contract) not only lets you share AT&T's 3G data with up to five Wi-Fi enabled devices; you can easily see your signal strength and battery life right in your browser, as well as access a handful of widgets and applications powered by Novatel's MiFi OS. Besides, AT&T doesn't offer any smart phones yet with a hotspot app. So how good is the MiFi 2372's speed? And how well do Novatel's apps and widgets work? Get the full scoop below.
With a glossy black front and soft-touch back, the MiFi 2372 is somewhat bulkier than the MiFi devices available for Sprint and Verizon. It measures 3.9 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches and weighs 2.9 ounces, compared to 3.5 x 2.3 x 0.4 and 2.1 ounces for the earlier EV-DO version. The chrome accents around the sides are nice, but the device feels less sturdy than the Verizon and Sprint MiFis. Plus, we noticed that the AT&T logo started to rub off after a week of testing.
The top of the MiFi 2372 houses the power button, and there's a Wi-Fi indicator up front that tells you when the device is ready to connect. It blinks once you're connected. Unlike the Sprint Overdrive, the 2372 doesn't display the signal strength or battery meter on the hardware itself, though that would add extra bulk. Around back you'll find a microSD card slot for sharing files (more on that below) and a microUSB port for charging.
As with earlier MiFi devices, getting connected to the MiFi 2372 was a cinch. You just turn it on, and then you'll see the hotspot show up in your laptop's (other gadget's) list of wireless networks. Enter the password and off you go. You'll just have to be patient if you're powering the MiFi 2372 on before connecting. The device took about 50 seconds to establish a connection from a cold start.
What makes this modem unique is the MiFi OS, which allows you to access a home page for the device (http://attmifi) that displays the battery life and signal strength right up top. Having this information always available is really convenient. This page also provides access to widgets for seeing how many devices are connected, sending and receiving text messages, and checking your data usage. A weather widget displays the current conditions based on your location (if you have the GPS setting enabled), as well as the forecast--but just for two days.
There's even a local search widget, powered by Google, that leverages the MiFi 2372's GPS capability. The MiFi 2732 found our location in New Jersey within a few seconds, and we were able to search for a local Starbucks and then get directions (though a separate browser window opened at that point). Strangely, refreshing this widget caused it to go blank, and only refreshing the entire page forced it to come back.
We also successfully loaded the MiFi's landing page from an iPhone after we connected to the 2372 from that handset. The widgets took longer to load than they did on our notebook, but it's nice to know that they display on mobile devices. In order to see your text messages and access the MiFi's settings, you need to sign in each time you connect, which is annoying. Novatel promises a software update in March that will fix this issue.
The MiFi 2732 has a microSD card slot for a reason. You can use it to share files, whether it's documents, photos, or music. To access a microSD card's contents inserted in this mobile hotspot, you have to type file://///192.168.1.1/mifi in the browser, something we wouldn't have known unless we visited AT&T's online tutorials. Once we did that on our laptop, we could see the card and drill down into various folders. Accessing these folders took longer than we'd like, as we noticed a delay of a few seconds or more with each click. The MiFi 2732 would probably be more responsive if it had an 802.11n connection instead of 802.11g, but this lag could also be a function of the device's CPU.
Still, it was neat to be able to stream photos and music from the MiFi to our notebook. Videos are another story. When we tried to play a 720p WMV file on our notebook, both the picture and audio stuttered so much the clip was unwatchable.
Sadly, our iPhone 4G couldn't even access the above URL for file sharing on the MiFi 2372. Our iPhone returned an error message that said: "Safari cannot open the page because it is a local file."
For a 3G device, the MiFi 2372 offers pretty snappy data rates. We used Speedtest.net to measure the throughput of this mobile hotspot in a bunch of locations throughout New York City and New Jersey using our ThinkPad T410s, and we saw an average download speed of 1.47 Mbps. The highest results were in the 2.6 to 2.7 Mbps range. When the connection was strongest, web pages such as CNN.com and NYTimes.com loaded in 8 to 12 seconds.
In certain locations, though, speeds dipped below 500 Kbps, and in our midtown Manhattan office we saw pitiful throughput. It took nearly a minute to load certain sites, and Speedtest.net couldn't even run. Upload speeds in general were good, averaging just under 1 Mbps. Overall, the 2732 performs better than the Verizon MiFi, which averaged 600 Kbps to 1.3 Mbps downloads, and 240 Kbps to 660 Kbps uploads. However, AT&T's MiFi doesn't tap into the carrier's faster HSPA+ network, and it significantly trails competing 4G modems from Sprint and T-Mobile (average of 3 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up).
Verizon doesn't have a 4G MiFi device yet, but its 4G LTE LG VL600 modem delivered 10 times the average speed of the MiFi 2372.
AT&T offers two DataConnect plans for the MiFi 2372. You can pay $35 for 200MB, which we don't recommend unless you plan on seldom using the device. Or you can sign up for the $60 5 GB plan.
AT&T rates the MiFi 2372 for 4 hours of battery life, which bore out in our testing. After using the device on our 1 hour and 20 minute commute home and then again on the way back into work, we still had 25 percent juice left. This runtime is on par with MiFis available for other networks.
We're glad that AT&T finally has a MiFi of its own, and the performance is quite good for a 3G device. We also appreciate the capabilities and potential of the MiFi OS; the home page feature lets you view a lot of helpful info at a glance. The problem is that all the other networks have moved on to 4G, and this mobile hotspot isn't compatible with AT&T's fastest available technology in HSPA+. If you want that extra speed the only choice right now on AT&T is the USBConnect Shockwave (free). However, that device is just a data stick and won't let you share its connection. Overall, we like how Novatel is evolving its platform, but you can get much faster speeds from 4G capable hotspots (such as the Sprint Overdrive) and 4G phones (such as the myTouch 4G and Evo 4G) on other networks.