Battle of the MiFis… Round 1

by Ben Smith on 15th September 2009

I took a quick look at the Novatel MiFi 2352 ‘mobile hotspot’ last week, which is avaiable SIM-free now or expected on Vodafone soon.


3UK Huawei E5830

Today, 3UK have announced their offering – available online on Thursday 17th and in stores the next day – last night… The Huwei E5830.  It’s available for £69 with a rolling 1-month contract (£15 for 5GB) or Pay-As-You-Go for £99 with 3GB of pre-loaded data, valid for 3 months.  I gave both devices the once-over for first impressions…


3UK: The MiFI unit can act as both a WiFi hotspot or a USB dongle.  Drivers are included on the device (when accessed over USB).  It claims 5 hours of battery life in-use (un-tested) and also has a micro-SD slot for use in wired mode.  The unit comes configured out of the box for secure WiFi use (shareable by up to 5 clients), but these settings can be changed using the PC client in wired mode.  No Mac drivers are supplied so, whilst it is usable Mac owners need a PC to reconfigure the device.  This is unusual (Huawei provide Mac drivers for the dongles they supply to 3UK) but the Huawei site hasn’t been updated to provide support for this device yet. The device can also act as a WiFi hub without the 3G internet connection if desired.

Novatel: The Novatel unit matches the 3UK unit spec for spec…. battery, sharing and dongle-use are the same, but without the WiFi hub feature.  However, Novatel supply Mac drivers and all configuration is done via a web browser interface so they are not required to manage the device.  Additionally the memory card slot in the Novatel is accessible over WiFi for file sharing between clients.

MiFi - System Status

The Novatel MiFi management interface

In use:

3UK: The device is controlled by 3 buttons on the side. They turn on power, WiFI and 3G respectively and are pressed in sequence to turn on the functions you wish to use.

Novatel: The device has a single power button.  Once switched on it auto-connects to 3G as needed.  In test it supported  a corporate VPN (Cisco) for over 4 hours.

I wasn’t able to stress test either device up to five connections in this first test, but both accepted 2 without problems and the Novatel has supported 4 laptops web browsing without issue.

3UK Huawei E5830 - WiFi to London

3UK Huawei E5830 - WiFi performance from SpeedTest.Net. When it works, it can really shift...


The Novatel MiFi, 3UK MiFi and 'benchmark dongle'.


Both devices varied significantly (using the same 3 SIM in the same location) during testing, but both typically achieved 2Mbps down and just under 1Mbps up using HSDPA, although better and (much) worse were seen frequently… only long term testing will show these device’s true abilities.  From the testing so far, the 3UK unit seems to manage marginally higher speeds (particularly noticeable uploading), but this is well within the range of variation seen during testing.  In stress testing, the 3UK unit also seemed to cope better with streaming video from this site, YouTube and the BBC, but more thorough testing would be needed in a variety of network conditions.

In this round of testing both devices matched or exceeded the benchmark speed from a standard 3UK Huawei USB dongle and consistently exceeded the upload speed, although previous testing with the Novatel unit alone was less clear-cut.

Network performance:

The benchmark USB dongle consistently beat both units, which in a low signal area needed to be positioned close to a window where the USB dongle connected from the centre of the house.  Both units also displayed reliability issues – the 3UK unit reporting ‘no signal’ via the indicator lights on top throughout testing, despite being connected to the network and passing data.  The Novatel unit connected and then immediately dropped the connection on several occasions.  The dongle was significantly more reliable and with the permanent on-screen signal indicator gave better information about signal fluctuations / drop-outs.


Underneath... Woooo....


Size-wise, the 3UK unit edges it (just) and its brushed metal finish also looks better too (if that matters to you) although neither are so large their much more obtrusive than a dongle. Both charge by USB – mini for the 3UK unit and micro for the Novatel… I think the latter is the best choice as this will soon be the standard for all phone handsets too.  The Novatel unit has a tendency to get quite hot in use – the 3UK unit does warm up, but not as much.


Both devices work well when connected in a good signal area.  There are significant fluctuations in data speed and ping-time, but these do not appear inconsistent with other 3G devices.  The problem is when things aren’t ideal… both devices struggle in weak signal areas.  The Novatel’s tendency to drop connections and the 3UK unit’s incorrect error lights meant establishing reliable connections and diagnosing the problems with both took much longer than a standard USB dongle. The absence of Mac drivers is also a serious concern for the 3 unit if you’re an Apple user.  The simplicity of the Novatel’s one-button solution is attractive until the manual is needed to decode different coloured flashing light sequences.  The 3UK unit has dedicated lights and buttons, but what it reports and what it does don’t seem to be the same thing.

Both these devices are 1st generation so for best reliability and control a USB dongle will still be your best choice.  However if the flexibility of having a mobile WiFi connection is important these devices do look promising and provide better than ‘good enough’ performance… just be prepared for a few extra headaches getting them connected and a few ‘off and on again’ cycles when it all grinds to a halt.

For UK use I’d recommend the 3 unit to the early adopters, for the competitive price.  Unfortunately they are SIM locked, so frequent roamers will prefer the Novatel.  For the non-early adopters, give it a few months for more thorough testing – we’re not quite at the ‘it just works’ stage yet…

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