XCom Global MiFi Hotspot
I spent last week in Barcelona, Spain, covering the annual Mobile World Congress wireless extravaganza. Though it's great to be in a city like Barcelona, working outside the United States poses logistical challenges. For me it's not about the money or the language, but rather about finding enough Internet access (that's something you really need when writing online content).
When I'm in Spain, I can't use a CNET-issued Sprint wireless card because Europe doesn't use CDMA technology. But even if I had a GSM card from T-Mobile or AT&T, the roaming rates would be killer. Indeed, uploading photos and videos would consume a lot of bandwidth that my expense report couldn't handle. In the past few years I've found Internet access where I could, either in the press room or at my hotel, but company press conferences always posed a problem. Not only is the Wi-Fi usually incredibly weak, but also you have to battle scores of other data-hungry journalists for a signal.
Fortunately, XCom Global provided a better solution this year. Along with my usual gear, I was able to bring one of the company's MiFi Hotspots. It's not an overstatement when I say that thing was a lifesaver. I continually had Internet access wherever I went--even at a press conference that was partially underground--and the speeds were more than sufficient for everything from tweeting to publishing a slideshow.
The MiFi and its parts come in a convenient carrying pouch that measures 7.25 inches long by 5.5 inches wide by 1.75 inches deep. I could fit it easily into my laptop bag when traveling and when walking the show floor. Inside the bag was the compact MiFi device (3.86 inches long by 2.44 inches wide by 0.6 inch deep, weighing 2.86 ounces), an extra battery (more on that later), a power cord, and the necessary plug adapters for traveling abroad. The MiFi uses a standard Micro-USB port for charging, and there's a microSD card slot that can support cards of up to 16GB.
Using the device is beyond easy. Just turn on the MiFi and point your laptop or smartphone to the wireless network. Though the network will not be secured at your first connection time, you can secure it with a password later. Either way, you'll connect automatically the next time you use it.
The MiFi can support up to five devices at one time, though I used it only with my laptop and an iPhone. In either case, the connection speeds were quite fast (for Spain, XCom promises a speed of up to 7.2Mbps). In fact, it took just a couple of minutes to upload a 16-photo slideshow of HTC's Flyer tablet. And that was done while crouching on the floor of a theater at HTC's press conference.
As I mentioned, I had no difficulty getting a signal during my trip. The MiFi hooks into the network of a local carrier, which in my case was Vodafone Spain. Of course, since you're using a cellular network, your experience will vary by location. You should be fine in urban areas, but signals can peter out in rural areas, underground, or in the interiors of large buildings.
The promised battery life is 4 hours with a single charge and 40 hours of standby time. In practice, I was satisfied with the MiFi's power, though I never quite received a full 4 hours. I was using the heck out of the thing, and I ended up charging it frequently. Fortunately, you can continue to use the MiFi while it's charging, and the extra battery offered more juice in a pinch. Of course, to replace the battery you will need to terminate your connection and restart it.
Rates and coverage
The MiFi works in 39 countries and U.S. territories. That may seem like a comparatively small number, but it includes most European nations, China, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Japan. Check out XCom's site for the full list. On the downside, promised speeds vary widely by location. You're promised the aforementioned 7.2Mbps in most places, but in Russia, for example, the company says you'll hit only 1.8Mbps. It all depends on the capabilities of the local carrier and whether you have access to a 3G HSPA/UMTS network.
It's also unfortunate that you'll need a different MiFi for each country on your itinerary. They'll be labeled clearly, but carrying extra devices is never ideal. As it stands now, you could need up to six devices for a standard tour around Western Europe. And, even worse, each device will cost you.
As you might expect, using the MiFi won't come cheap, particularly with the extra fees involved. The initial rental fee is $17.95 for each day of your loan period (it doesn't matter whether you've used the MiFi each day or not). Any additional devices for other countries will then be an extra $9 per day. Fortunately, you get unlimited data use, but it would be nice if XCom adjusted the fee depending on your promised connection speed.
You'll also pay $29.95 for shipping, but you'll get a return label in the box. The shipping fee is waived if your trip is longer than seven days. Insurance is $3.95 per day, but I'd recommend it since replacing a lost MiFi can cost $800. There's also a pricey $3-per-day fee for the extra battery (a flat rate would be more agreeable) and you'll be subject to additional fees if you're late in returning the device or if you cancel early.