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Sprint MiFi 500 LTE by Novatel Wireless review: Compact and easy to use, but flimsy and slow

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MSRP: $49.99

The Good The Sprint MiFi 500 LTE by Novatel Wireless is compact and easy to use, and has good battery life.

The Bad This mobile hot-spot offers comparatively slow 4G cellular Internet connection speeds, and its casing is flimsy. Sprint's 4G LTE coverage is currently rather limited.

The Bottom Line The Sprint MiFi 500 LTE by Novatel Wireless will get the job done, but only for casual mobile users who live or travel within Sprint's 4G LTE coverage.

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6.7 Overall
  • Setup 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 5
  • Support 7

Review Sections

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.

Though thick, the MiFi 500 LTE is compact enough to fit right in a palm.
Though thick, the MiFi 500 LTE is compact enough to fit right in a palm. Dong Ngo/CNET

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 ZTE's Verizon Jetpack 890L or the Clear Spot 4G, it's still much more compact and can actually fit right in your palm.

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.

The Web interface offers nifty features, such as a GPS function that can be made available to Wi-Fi-connected devices.
The Web interface offers nifty features, such as a GPS function that can be made available to Wi-Fi-connected devices. Dong Ngo/CNET

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.

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