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Novatel Wireless MiFi Liberate review:AT&T's best mobile router offering to date

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The Good The Novatel Wireless MiFi Liberate has a handy touch screen, and offers fast 4G performance, long battery life, and lots of features.

The Bad The Novatel MiFi Liberate is relatively bulky, it doesn't use standard batteries, and you can't use its touch screen to manage all of its features.

The Bottom Line The Novatel Wireless MiFi Liberate is arguably the best mobile router AT&T has offered yet.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.3 Overall
  • Setup 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

Review Sections

The Novatel Wireless MiFi Liberate, which also goes by the name AT&T Mobile Hotspot MiFi Liberate, is a mobile cellular router that will not just free you (and up to 10 Wi-Fi devices of yours) from having to be indoors to be connected, but also from having to use a computer to manage it. This is because it's the first mobile hot spot I've seen that comes with a large touch screen, making accessing and managing its settings and features superconvenient.

But the touch-screen novelty isn't the best thing about the new mobile router. Its 4G LTE speed and Wi-Fi performance were very fast in my testing and the little device comes with all the features collectively found in other hot spots, such as tethering, GPS, and a microSD card for network storage features.

The few minor complaints I have about the device are that it's rather bulky, it doesn't work with standard batteries, and AT&T has no unlimited data plans for it.

If you live or travel within AT&T's cellular coverage, especially its 4G LTE coverage, and can afford one of the six limited data plans AT&T offers with it, the Novatel MiFi Liberate would arguably be the best choice for those with multiple portable Wi-Fi devices.

Design

The MiFi Liberate 4G LTE hot spot

The MiFi Liberate 4G LTE hot spot, made by Novatel Wireless.

Lynn La/CNET

With a flat panel extending from a cylindrical head that houses the battery, the MiFi Liberate resembles the Apple Magic Trackpad or a digital travel alarm clock more than a mobile hot spot. Measuring 4.05 inches by 2.88 inches by 0.34 inch and weighing 4.3 ounces, it's also one of the larger mobile hot spots I've seen. While more compact than the Jetpack 890L from Verizon, the new mobile router is not thin or tiny enough for you to easily keep it in your pocket or wallet.

This is not a big deal, though; the device is attractive enough, especially with its colorful screen, for you to show off in the open.

The MiFi Liberate comes with a proprietary rechargeable 2,900mAh battery that resembles a AA battery but is larger and longer. While most, if not all, mobile routers I've seen come with a proprietary battery, their batteries don't share this shape. The fact that the Liberate's battery bay looks like it can host standard batteries makes me feel like it's a missed opportunity that you can't use off-the-shelf batteries with it.

The mobile router's power button is nestled to the left of the battery bay, and on the opposite side of the bay is a Micro-USB charging port for charging. While connected to a computer, the Liberate can both charge and work as a tethered cellular modem, which is a great way to hook a non-Wi-Fi computer to the Internet. Tethering is an option that can be turned on or off; when it's on, the MiFi Liberate still works as a router at the same time.

On the bottom of the device, once the battery has been removed, you'll find a SIM slot that hosts a regular-size SIM card. While the Liberate is available in the U.S. from AT&T, it's likely that you can switch the provider by swapping out the SIM card.

Also on the bottom but toward the front, the Liberate has a microSD slot that comes with a 2GB microSD card. You can use this card to store data to share or stream to connected Wi-Fi clients; this is a handy feature for business users who are traveling in a group and need to share a small amount of data, such as photos or presentation slides.

Setting up the MiFi Liberate is a cinch. You just need to turn it on and connect the Wi-Fi device to its default network with the default password (by default, this information is shown on the screen), and you're all set.

Features
When it comes to features, the MiFi Liberate covers all the bases. The most obvious and noteworthy is the device's touch screen, which works somewhat like a smartphone's. To turn the screen on (it turns off by itself after being idle for a few minutes), you just need to press the router's power button once. After that, you'll need to slide across to unlock, similar to an iPhone screen, and then you'll be greeted with a row of labeled icons, such as Connection Details, Data Usage, and Settings, which look like the app icons on the iPhone screen.

Each of these icons, when tapped, will open up the detail page of the function the icon represents. For example, if you tap the Data Usage icon, you'll be able to view the summary of your data plan and how much of the plan you have used up for the current month. Similarly, the Settings icon will allow you to view and change certain router settings, such as Airplane mode, screen brightness, and so on.

There are 10 icons for quick access to the router's features and settings, and you can scroll among them by swiping a finger on the screen. Each screen can show at most 4 icons. Overall, the touch screen and its granular interaction bring the mobile-router experience to the next level: it's now something of a smart device rather than something you just turn on or off.

While you can view the status of all the router's functions, such as the number of connected clients, and even take actions like quickly blocking a client from accessing the device, you can't change all the settings. For example, if you want to change the router's Wi-Fi network's name and password, and whether its information is displayed or not displayed on the screen, you'll need to use the router's Web interface. To do this, from a connected client, preferably a computer with a full-featured browser, go to the router's default IP address, which is 192.168.1.1, and log in with the default password, which is "attadmin."

The MiFi Liberate's Web interface offers deep access to its features and settings.

The MiFi Liberate's Web interface offers deep access to its features and settings.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Here you'll find that the router offers almost all the common features you'd find in a full-size Wi-Fi router. The Web interface is well-organized and responsive, making it easy to manage the router's media-streaming feature. The router can stream digital content stored on its microSD card to DLNA-compatible devices. I tried out this feature with a few devices, including a DLNA Wi-Fi speaker, and it worked very well, making the Liberate a great little device for say, a mobile office, where you want to have music in the background.

The router also worked great as a file-sharing server in my trials. It fully supports Windows (XP Service Pack 3 and up) and Mac OS X (10.6 or higher); Windows users can browse for shared files using Windows Explorer/File Explorer, while Mac users will find shared files with Finder. The router shares the contents of the microSD card with everybody with full access. There's no way to restrict this, but that's normal considering this is a tiny device. While the included microSD card offers only 2GB of storage space, the Liberate can host one that offers up to 32GB in case you want to carry more data on the go.

The router also supports WPS, GPS, and common features found in other mobile hot spots. Overall, the Liberate is much more fun to use than its peers and offers more features and great usability.

Performance and data plans
Cellular data speed varies a great deal depending on where you are. In my trials around the San Francisco Bay Area, the MiFi Liberate generally offered great 4G LTE speed, which was around 5Mbps to 25Mbps for download and 2Mbps to 10Mbps for upload. In the end, on average, the router offered about 11Mbps up and 9Mbps down in my testing. I was also able to get a 4G signal virtually everywhere, even when I was on the freeway. Apart from 4G LTE, the router also supports 3G networks for areas in which 4G coverage is not available. During my testing, however, there weren't any instances where I didn't get a 4G signal.

As a Wi-Fi router, the MiFi Liberate supports Wireless-N and offers a top speed of 150Mbps for local devices, which is the standard for mobile routers. In my testing, the router offered much longer range than the 30 feet cited in its specs. In fact, I could get a Wi-Fi signal on my iPhone 4S up to almost 100 feet away. The router's signal also seemed to penetrate walls very well.

The MiFi Liberate's battery offered a solid 10 hours of use in my testing. When used casually, however, it lasted almost two full work days on one charge when I used a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone with it. This is great battery life; note that you can always connect the router to a laptop to charge it while on the go. Generally, a mobile router's battery life varies a great deal depending on how it's used and how many Wi-Fi devices are connected to it.

Even during heavy loads, the MiFi Liberate didn't get hot in my tests. It became slightly warm when being charged, but that is quite normal.

Overall, I have no complaints about the router's performance. And if you live or travel within AT&T's 4G coverage area, you will likely have no complaints, either. The only things you should be concerned about are the price and data plans.

The MiFi Liberate costs just $50 if you're willing to sign up for a two-year contract or $150 with a one-year. If not, it'll cost $200. The MiFi Liberate comes with six Mobile Share Device Data Plans that carry a monthly cost of $40, $70, $90, $120, $160, and $200 for the data caps of 1GB, 4GB, 6GB, 10GB, 15GB, and 20GB, respectively. When the cap is reached, you'll be charged another $15 for each additional gigabyte.

Note that at full 4G LTE speeds you can burn through 20GB in just about a few hours with the MiFi Liberate, making the feature that shows the detail of your data usage on the router's screen really handy.

Cellular Internet speed (in Kbps)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)


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