We've been following Novatel's MiFi with bated breath since its December announcement, and the totally pocketable 3G / WiFi router has finally graced a US carrier. Though it'll ultimately come in a variety of physical designs, bands, and radio technologies for different carriers and parts of the world, the MiFi 2200 for Verizon naturally packs CDMA with EV-DO Rev. A, which means uplink speeds should be reasonably speedy to go along with your 1Mbps-plus downloads. Obviously, the concept of a credit card-shaped object connecting up to five WiFi-enabled devices to high-speed internet from wherever the road takes you is an incredibly intoxicating one -- but does the MiFi 2200 deliver? Let's have a look.
Our MiFi came "unactivated," meaning that although Verizon is aware of the device's ESN and has it registered to the correct account, it can't be used to connect to the internet until some specific communication occurs between the box and the carrier (the same is true of any modem on Verizon or Sprint -- the MiFi isn't alone in this minor annoyance). Fortunately, this is a one-time process, but it's kind of a pain; you'll need to cable up the MiFi to a Mac or PC to do it, which steals some of the fun you've undoubtedly envisioned of pulling the modem out of the box, firing it up, and immediately connecting to it over WiFi (you can actually do it if you like, you just won't get 'net access).
When you connect the MiFi to a computer using the included micro-USB cable, two cool things happen: one, the MiFi begins charging, and two, a drive mounts to your machine (strangely, on the first Mac we tried, we were never able to get it to mount -- we're not sure whether it was the machine's fault or the MiFi's). This drive contains Windows and Mac versions of VZAccess Manager, which you'll install and use to run through a quick wizard for activation; afterwards, you can continue using it for controlling your MiFi while it's tethered to the computer just as you would any other modem. Personally we find carrier-branded connection managers annoying and avoid them at all costs; the MiFi makes this easy with its WiFi capabilities, but there's no harm in keeping Manager installed just in case.
Now that you've got the bad boy activated, the cable comes unplugged -- and this is where the real magic begins. Using the MiFi couldn't be simpler; pressing the power button on top swings the device into action, exposing a cloud of WiFi that can connect up to five devices at once. By default, the network is protected by a WPA password printed on a sticker on the back of the device, but this can be changed by logging into the web-based admin console along with a host of other options -- basically everything you'd expect to see from a basic wireless router for your home. You can change the SSID and toggle its broadcast, choose between WEP, WPA, and WPA2 encryption, use 802.11b, g, or both, set MAC filters, port forwarding, and so on.
Connecting was a breeze. It'd generally take fifteen seconds or so from power-up before we were able to see the MiFi's network, and we never once had trouble attaching to it. Once you're connected, the box takes care of the nitty gritty details of dialing into Verizon's airwaves, and you can just go about your business as you would connected to any other hotspot.
We saw about 1.5 to 1.8Mbps down and 350 to 400kbps up while using the MiFi in downtown Chicago, with virtually no difference between WiFi and tethered mode (of course, you'll see these figures drop as you share the network with your friends). These numbers are more or less in line with what you'd expect from a Rev. A device, and it doesn't appear that you're taking any hit from using WiFi or from the overhead of routing -- in other words, traditional modems are starting to look a little endangered to us here. Battery life is never an issue, because you can always just cable up and recharge while you continue to work.
Put simply, our hats go off to Novatel and Verizon on this one. The MiFi is drop-dead awesome in basically every meaningful way, and we'd be shocked if every top-tier carrier in the world wasn't actively looking into adding it -- or a device very similar to it -- into their lineup. Unless you have a very specific, compelling reason that you require an ExpressCard or a USB stick style modem, the MiFi's simplicity, flexibility, tethering capability, and no-compromise performance make it the way to go for your mobile data needs.
*Verizon is currently in the process of acquiring AOL, Engadget's parent company. However, Engadget maintains full editorial control, and Verizon will have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.