The advantages of MiFi cards over built-in 3G in netbooks, iPads, e-readers, and other mobile devices

A built-in 3G connection may seem like a great feature, but could be limiting and costly in the long run.

Earlier this week, I touched on MiFi cards as an alternative to using public W-Fi networks as a way to avoid being a victim of Firesheep (a FireFox extension that makes it easy for anyone using a wireless network that doesn't require a password to hijack accounts/sessions of common social networking sites). That may be a good reason to consider a MiFi card, but the primary reason for purchasing one is that they allow you to connect to a mobile carrier's 3G or 4G network wherever you and to share that connection with up to five devices using Wi-Fi.

Usually MiFi cards are used by professionals on the road who need to connect their laptops to the Internet and who don't want to have to scramble trying to find a Starbucks (or other free Wi-Fi location) and who don't want to have to pay the typically high prices for Internet access in most chain hotels and airports. Since the devices work anywhere there's coverage, they also work while in a car, on a train, or in Wi-Fi-free locations.

An interesting comment from Sprint today illustrated some interesting advantages to MiFi cards as we move to a less laptop-centric mobile world in the new era of tablets. In an interview with GigaOm's Om Malik, Sprints CEO Dan Hesse noted that the iPad has been good for the company – a somewhat surprising statement from Spring considering the iPad 3G only works with AT&T in U.S. and couldn't connect to Sprint's CDMA network (or Verizon's) even if AT&T wasn't the exclusive carrier in this country.

What Hesse was referring to isn't the iPad 3G, it was the less expensive Wi-Fi only tablet. Sprint doesn't sell those iPads either, but did release its own iPad case this spring that ships with a Sprint Overdrive MiFi device (the case includes a pocket specifically designed to hold the Overdrive) that supports both 3G and significantly faster 4G network connections. So far, Sprint has rolled out 4G service to many large population centers before its national competitors, making its MiFi solution better for users who need fast connections than the iPad 3G or MiFi cards from other providers.

Obviously, this illustrates that even if it isn't integrated into the iPad, users are happy to choose the advantages of a 4G connection (if unavailable, the Overdrive reverts to using 3G) even if its not built into the iPad rather than opt for a slower iPad 3G (the generally noted speed range of 4G is 3 to 6 Mbps, considerably faster than 600 Kbps to 1 Mbps offered by 3G).

There are other advantages to choosing a Wi-Fi-only model over the integrated 3G one as well (worth noting since the Wi-Fi iPad went on sale at Verizon stores yesterday, where it can be purchased along with a 3G Wi-Fi card with discounted data plans) – and these advantages aren't just limited to the iPad. They apply to any devices that offer a choice between Wi-Fi and integrated 3G models including many netbooks, e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, and the forthcoming Android-based Galaxy Tab.

Some of the big advantage are:

  • Multiple devices (not just an iPad, e-reader, or notebook) – big plus for families
  • Choice of carriers – including regional carriers (pick the best network, and best service plan for you)
  • Potential discount if added to an existing service plan (depends on the carrier)
  • Optional 4G (where available)
  • Potential for contract-free/prepaid service from the likes of Cricket and Virgin Mobile (great if you don't need service all the time)
  • Ease of upgrade (4G service is expected to be available from all major carriers soon and you'll probably want the faster speed when its available without replacing each 3G device)
  • While a MiFi solution may not be a need for everyone, its certainly worth considering and examining the potential total cost of ownership for a device over a few years (particularly if you're looking at a carrier-subsidized tablet or netbook that will offer lower investment in the device itself but tie you to a contract specific to that device).

    Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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