Sprint MiFi 500 LTE by Novatel Wireless review: Compact and easy to use, but flimsy and slow
The Sprint MiFi 500 LTE by Novatel Wireless is one of the two brand-new mobile hot spots Sprint released this summer, the other being the Netgear Zing.
This is the first mobile router from Sprint that supports tri-band and works on both the existing 3G network and the new 4G LTE network that Sprint has been slowly rolling out. The device costs just $50 (after a mail-in rebate and with a two-year contract) and comes with three data plans of 3GB, 6GB, and 12GB that cost $35, $50, and $80 per month, respectively. There's no unlimited data plan, but this is standard for cellular Internet.
Compared with existing mobile hot spots on the market, the MiFi 500 isn't particularly novel, but it does have a good set of features and is very easy to use. Unfortunately, in my testing, the device's Internet speed was slow and not just because Sprint's 4G coverage is currently spotty in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was fast enough for casual mobile Internet needs, however.
If you live or travel within Sprint's 4G LTE's coverage, the MiFi 500 is worth considering. You might want to check out the Netgear Zing first, though. For more options, including from other providers, check out our list of best mobile hot-spot routers.
Chunky and flimsy, but compact and easy to use
At two-thirds of an inch, the MiFi 500 is a little thick, but compared with similar routers such as
The device is also very light, weighing just 3.4 ounces, and in my trials didn't seem to get hot when in use. It's made of plastic and feels flimsy, unfortunately. It makes a little noise if you squeeze it in your palm and seems like it would fall apart if you dropped it.
On the bottom of the device is a latch that opens up the battery bay, which holds a 1,800mAh lithium ion battery. Under the battery, there's a slot that holds the SIM card for the Sprint service. It's possible that the mobile hot spot works with other SIM-based cellular services, too, though I didn't have the chance to try this out. This is because it uses a mini-SIM card, whereas most devices I have use either a regular SIM or a micro-SIM.
On one side, there's a Micro-USB port for charging with the included power adapter. You can also charge the device using a computer, and you can choose to charge only or also use the device as a cellular modem to provide Internet access to the computer it's connected to. When I tried this with a computer running Windows 7, the device worked immediately as an Internet source. There's no need to install drivers or run connection software.
On top the MiFi 500 has a small LED screen and three navigation buttons for scrolling through its settings and status, such as the current Wi-Fi network's name and password and the number of connected clients. You can also quickly find out how many Wi-Fi clients are connected to it, or initiate Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) to enable other WPS-enabled clients to quickly get connected.
That said, the device can be used right away with no setup necessary if you're happy with its default settings. It took just about 20 seconds in my test to fully boot up to ready status. The MiFi 500 LTE supports up to 10 Wi-Fi clients, such as laptops or tablets, at a time.
While the device's screen makes it very easy to use, you can't use it to change the router's settings, other than setting its cellular modes between 4G LTE preferred, 4G LTE only, 3G preferred, or 3G only. The MiFi 500 LTE is the first tri-band cellular hot spot from Sprint that provides access to both the carrier's 4G LTE and 3G networks at 800MHz, 1.9GHz, and 2.5GHz. The support for the 3G network is a must since Sprint's 4G LTE's coverage is a lot less extensive than the 3G.
If you want to change anything else, such as customizing the default Wi-Fi network to your liking, you'll need to resort the little router's Web interface.
Comprehensive Web interface and GPS functionality
To get to the router's Web interface, you just need to point a connected device's browser to the router's default IP address, which is 192.168.1.1 (the default log-in password is "admin").
Here you can customize all of the router's settings and features. The router supports most common settings found in Wi-Fi routers, such as firewall, manual DNS, port forwarding, and so on. You can also use the interface to monitor the current data usage.
In addition, it includes a GPS function that can locate the router's current address. You can also download a piece of GPS software to add GPS-over-Wi-Fi functionality to your laptop, which I found very useful. For example, once this software is installed, you don't need to use the router's Web interface to make use of the GPS signal.
Overall, the Web interface is responsive and very easy to use. Almost everything is self-explanatory.
It's always tricky to test the performance of a mobile hot spot since this depends a lot on location. It was even trickier with the MiFi 500 LTE since Sprint's 4G LTE is not yet officially available in most of the San Francisco Bay Area. For this reason, it was a nice surprise that I could pick up a 4G signal in most parts of San Francisco when outdoors.
And for the same reason, I was at first OK with the fact that the hot spot's 4G Internet speed fluctuated a great deal, even at the same spot. The device generally registered between 0.5Mbps and 5Mbps for download and somewhere between 1Mbps and 3Mbps for upload. I tested it at multiple spots and in the end it averaged around 3.1Mbps and 2.75Mbps for download and upload, respectively. These speeds are quite slow for a 4G LTE device. I initially thought it was the carrier's fault.
This turned out to be not the case when I started testing the Netgear Zing. At the same location and at the same time, the Zing offered much faster and more stable 4G LTE Internet speeds than the MiFi 500 LTE. For more on the Zing, our full review will be available in a few days.
That said, of all the 4G mobile hot spots I've seen, the MiFi 500 LTE was the most disappointing. It wasn't slow and it was still much faster than 3G counterparts, but this is 4G LTE we're talking about here. Also note that, as with all mobile cellular Internet devices, the speed varies a great deal depending on where you are, so you might have a totally different experience than I did here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
On the other hand, as a Wi-Fi router, the device worked well in my testing. Wi-Fi clients took very little time to get connected to it and it offers very good range, too, more than enough for a mobile device of its size.
Battery life was also very good. Novatel claimed that the MiFi 500 LTE could offer up to 10 hours of continuous usage. I was able to use it, for regular use, for more than a day. Like cellular Internet speed, though, battery life varies, depending on usage, so again, your experience may be different.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Compact and easy to use, the Sprint MiFi 500 LTE by Novatel Wireless has the potential to be a great mobile hot-spot device. This, unfortunately, was marred by its flimsy chassis and especially slow and unreliable 4G LTE performance. Likely this will be improved via a firmware update. For now, it will work out fine if you're a casual mobile user; otherwise, Sprint fans, make sure to also check out the Netgear Zing.