Mobile broadband has come a long way since the early (and expensive) attempts at integrating 3G modules into laptops; today, cubicle dwellers are liberated by cheaper mobile data, along with the abundance of 3G dongles and the emerging mobile WiFi (ergo "MiFi") hotspot devices. It's no secret that Huawei's been flirting with both Three and Vodafone for some time, but it was only recently that the manufacturer also made a MiFi -- the R201 -- for Vodafone (the carrier's lesser-known MiFI 2352 in Spain is from Novatel). The question is: does this new HSPA MiFi have enough meat to steal the limelight from Three? Read on to find out.
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Vodafone R201 mobile WiFi hotspot review

Vodafone

R201

Pros

  • Four to five hours of battery life
  • File sharing over HTTP
  • Impressive speeds

Cons

  • Easy to knock over the power switch
  • OLED screen hard to see outdoor
  • Expensive data plans
Summary


Let's start off with the appearance. If you're familiar with Vodafone's other Huawei dongles, you'll no doubt recognize the carrier's classic signature on the R201 MiFi -- white plastic body surrounded by a transparent red band on the side. We dig the style, but upon touching the device, we noticed some light squeakiness when the MiFi is squeezed at certain points -- probably something to do with the removable back cover (for access to the SIM slot, microSD slot and battery). The fingerprints left on the glossy coating don't help, either, but it's not like we'll be waving around our MiFi in front of people's faces.

You won't find many buttons on the R201 -- on one end there's a dual-purpose push button for toggling the display (short press) and enabling a quick WiFi Protected Setup connection (long press); next to the screen lies a massive power switch garnished with a red light indicator. That's it. What's missing is the old "Connect" button -- as found on the older, smaller E5830 -- that lets you disable the cellular connection, in order to save battery when you're only using the MiFi as a USB storage device (by means of a microSD card). We doubt this would be a real issue for anyone; the bigger problem we have stems from the power switch -- most of the time we were more worried about how to hold the MiFi so that we wouldn't accidentally turn it off. Don't get us wrong -- the switch wasn't loose, but it could be smaller and better positioned.

Unlike Huawei's previous-gen MiFi products, the R201 -- as well as the E583C -- has ditched the old LED indicators in favor of the more informative monochrome OLED screen. Once switched on, you can natively see the device status, signal strength, 3G connectivity (be it EDGE, 3G or HSPA), battery life, and the number of connected devices -- all of which can also be seen in the supplied desktop software. Alas, as with most OLED screens (except for Super AMOLED), the R201's display also suffers pretty badly under daylight.

Time to see the MiFi in action. There are two ways to use the R201: wired and wireless, and you can connect up to five WiFi devices plus a physically tethered client at any instance. For wired connectivity, you need to install a desktop client (compatible with PC and Mac; preloaded on the MiFi); for wireless, we had to wait for about a minute from power-up before the R201's WiFi network shows up -- this is a lot slower than Novatel's Verizon MiFi 2200's 15-second boot-up time. Once the SSID appears on your WiFi client device, it's just a matter of logging in using the password printed behind the battery door. If necessary, you can change the parameters and encryption settings by pointing to http://vodafonemobile.wifi and log into the admin panel (default password is "admin," which you should change as well, naturally).

Earlier we touched upon the subject of using the MiFi as a USB storage device. You can do the same with the R201, but by default, the MiFi is shipped with a unique alternative solution enabled: HTTP file sharing mode. This NAS-like killer feature allows your client devices of all kinds to access content -- via the browser -- on your MiFi's microSD card (very much like the AirStash, if you recall). Oh, and you can even specify which files to be shared for non-admin users. By all means, you can always roll back to USB mode in the control panel if this is too much for you.

The R201 doesn't disappoint when it comes to performance -- we spent one afternoon traversing central London and got the following results: download speed ranging from 2Mbps to 5Mbps most of the time, and upload speed fluctuating between 500kbps and 3.5Mbps. These are pretty much what we'd expect from a HSPA modem and network (kudos to Vodafone for the latter). As with many 3G devices, we noticed that the MiFi got a bit warm after some usage, but it was nothing drastic, plus we could always throw it into our backpack and still get decent signal.

Battery life was also impressive. Vodafone says the R201 can stay operational for four hours on one charge, but we managed to get just under five hours of pure wireless usage with two or three WiFi client devices hooked up. When the battery was depleted, we plugged the R201 back in and were pleasantly surprised that -- just like the Verizon MiFi 2200 -- we could still use it while recharging it at the same time. This makes one less concern as long as you have with you a micro-USB cable and a laptop with plenty of battery juice to spare.

Wrap-up

Even though Vodafone UK's a bit late to the MiFi game, its Huawei R201 still delivers a few unique features worthy of attention -- file sharing over HTTP, OLED screen (although not great outdoor), and a pretty snazzy look to seal the deal. Despite the minor build quality issue and an odd design for the power switch, we'd still whole-heartedly recommend the hardware. As for the price plans, it'll really depend on how much you value Vodafone's customer service and coverage in your area -- with £15 ($23.51) you only get 3GB of monthly data allowance from Vodafone, whereas Three offers 5GB and a cheaper MiFi for the same price, or a whooping 15GB plus a free device if you pay an extra £2 ($3) per month. Who knows, maybe your haggling skills will come in handy when you speak to Vodafone's sales reps.