MiFi 500 LTE by Novatel Wireless (Sprint) review

The Sprint MiFi 500 is a solid workhorse wireless hotspot for Sprint's new tri-band LTE network.
249.99

Need a solid, workhorse hotspot to use on Sprint’s network? The Novatel MiFi 500 LTE (free with contract) is a reliable choice, besting its main competitor the Netgear Zing on our tests of speed and range. The Zing beats it out for an Editor’s Choice based on its flexibility (especially with its optional desktop cradle), but the MiFi 500 is the one to go to if you need to blanket a larger area with Sprint Wi-Fi.

Physical Features and Management
The MiFi 500 LTE is a nondescript little brick, when compared to the zingy Zing. It’s a plastic puck, 3.8 by 2.4 by .7″ (HWD) and 3.35 ounces, made of shiny black plastic on top and soft-touch gray plastic around the sides. The back is removable, so you can replace the 1800mAh battery; I haven’t found replacement batteries on the market yet, but I’m sure they’re coming. The MiFi lacks an external antenna port.

There’s a big gray power button on the top face, as well as a few physical navigation buttons. Hit the power button and the dim little OLED screen lights up with signal strength and battery indicators. By flipping through onscreen menus, you can find the Wi-Fi network name and password, check which devices are connected to the hotspot, check signal strength in dBm, and activate WPS setup.

You get many more management options on the simple, clear Web-based management portal. There, you can monitor your data usage, and set up your 2.4GHz-only 802.11 b/g/n network using VPN passthrough, DMZ, port filtering, and port forwarding.

The MiFi supports up to 10 Wi-Fi devices and can connect to an eleventh as a USB modem; plugging it into a Mac or PC it works right away, without installing any drivers. With an extra driver, it gives your PC GPS support.

The MiFi 500, unlike the Zing, is not world-capable. It only works on Sprint’s 3G EVDO and tri-band LTE networks. Also note that Sprint’s “unlimited” sales pitch doesn’t apply to hotspots; all hotspot plans are capped, costing $34.99 for 3GB, $49.99 for 6GB or $79.99 for 12GB.

Performance
Testing Sprint’s new LTE network in New York City is an exercise in frustration. It’s spotty and inconsistent, strongest in remote parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn. I had to use the Sensorly mapping app to find individual towers that Sprint had activated in Manhattan and Queens, and even then, the network showed a weird behavior with upload tests truncating early.

The reason to buy the new MiFi and Zing is that they support Sprint’s new tri-band approach to LTE. Sprint has been taking its existing 1900MHz LTE network and supplementing it with 800MHz, which does much better at penetrating buildings, and 2600MHz, which should provide scorching speed in urban areas. Unfortunately, Sprint’s buildout there is even less developed than their 1900MHz buildout, and we haven’t had a chance to test the mixed coverage.

But you get what you get, and you try not to get upset. We tested LTE with the MiFi and Zing in five locations. In three of them, the MiFi was considerably faster. In one, the Zing prevailed, and in the last one, the MiFi dropped to 3G while the Zing pulled out decent LTE speeds.

Indoors, the MiFi showed much better range than the Zing. While the Zing’s speeds started to drop off after about 50 feet, the MiFi held on well to about 100 feet.

The Zing also showed slightly longer battery life than the MiFi—although remember, the MiFi’s battery life really wins because the battery is replaceable. I got 7 hours, 40 minutes with the MiFi compared to 7 hours, 55 minutes with the Zing.

Conclusions
If you’re looking for a Sprint hotspot and need long WiFi range without a cradle, the MiFi 500 is your pick. The Netgear Zing is more manageable and flexible, it roams worldwide, and it supports external antennas, so it’s a better choice for most people.

If you have a Sierra Wireless Tri-Fi, I’d say hold onto it for now. Sprint just hasn’t built out enough of its tri-band LTE network for the advantages to kick in quite yet. I’d peg early 2014 for when these hotspots will start opening up speed and coverage advantages over the Tri-Fi.

Specifications
Cellular Technology LTE, EV-DO Rev A
Service Provider Sprint
Number of Devices Supported 10
Battery Life 7
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 b/g/n
microSD Slot No
Bands 1900, 2600
Mac Compatible Yes

Verdict
The Sprint MiFi 500 is a solid workhorse wireless hotspot for Sprint's new tri-band LTE network.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc