Now we have our hands on both, side-by side, we’ve lined them up for a detailed comparison ahead of some real-world testing.
Here’s the short version:
- They’re practically the same under the skin and in use.
- The Vodafone device is quite a bit bigger, but looks smart and feels sturdier. It has a slightly smaller battery but supports 2G and 3G.
- The Three device is cheaper, has some nice usability refinements for consumers, but only operates on 3G.
The long version’s after the jump…
Right… on with the details…
The Vodafone device is a bit of a monster… The devices are practically the same thickness (12mm Vodafone, 10.5mm Three) but the Vodafone one is taller and wider than the Three one by 4mm and 13.5mm respectively. The Three device is very close to being covered by a credit-card. The Vodafone one sticks out on all sides.
They both weigh 90g.
The Three device screen looks larger as it’s covered by a bigger piece of plastic than the Vodafone unit, but this is misleading. The actual display underneath is identical to, although the Vodafone one is set to be read portrait, where as the Three one displays in landscape. Both operators’ logos display the same ‘dissolve’ animation on start-up, are set to the same time-out too and display the same icons for most key indicators.
The Three button stays on the side, where it was on the original MiFi, although it glows green when the device is on now. The Vodafone device is controlled by sliding a plate on the top of the device up towards the screen – the exposed area pulses red whilst on.
Both devices can take a micro-SDHC memory cards up to 32GB for storing and sharing files between connected users. The Vodafone device provides a slot next to the battery under the back cover, but the Three device offers a slot on the side of the unit.
Both offer stickers showing the default network name and key inside. Perhaps learning from the original MiFi which obscured this information under the battery, Three have duplicated it on the inside of the battery cover and on a ‘keep-sake’ card as well.
The battery on the Vodafone device only occupies a little over half the back of the device so it’s sticker is visible just by removing the cover.
Three use a HB4F1 providing 1500mAh / 5.6Wh which is exactly the same as their original MiFi. Vodafone use a slightly smaller HB7A1H providing 1400mAh / 5.2Wh.
Vodafone promote ‘up to 4 hours’ of use from the battery. Three claim ‘up to 4 and a half’ hours for their unit. Both can charge in-use (unlike the Three’s original).
Chargers & Cables
Unsurprisingly they’re identical. Three’s is black. Vodafone’s is white. They both offer a charging brick and long USB cable with micro-USB plug for use with the power brick or a computer. Three also give you a short one too.
Vodafone include a ‘quick start’ guide with images of the device and instructions for use. Three provide a similar book, but also provide extended information presented more graphically on a deck of cards. They also include screen-shots for connecting popular devices such as iPads and an explanation of what the available data allowances mean in typical usage.
Both devices operate up to HSDPA speeds (7.2Mbps downloads, although real performance will depend on network coverage and all the other usual factors) and provide 802.11b and g WiFi networks. Both devices are capable of 2G and 3G connections, but Three limit theirs to 3G only as they rely on a partner for 2G coverage which is expensive and so limited to handsets.
On the WiFi-front both support 5 connected devices – I had no problems using multiple devices on either and in ‘normal’ use there was no apparent performance degradation. Heavy downloading will obviously impact other users – this is something I’ll look at further in long-term testing.
The Vodafone device has an external WPS button to allow pairing ‘key-less’ pairing on supported devices (Windows Vista and 7 operating systems are specifically mentioned in the manual), but the Three device keeps its pre-configured WiFi key to numbers only making it simpler to enter on mobile devices than the Vodafone’s mix of numbers and characters.
Both devices are SIM-locked, but do support roaming on to other networks overseas if your account has roaming enabled. Having chewed through over 500MB of data in background updates by accident as I started this test I would urge caution using this type of device overseas – it’s a lot easier than a dongle to connect and forget about which could be… expensive.
As reported on Monday, Vodafone only offer their device on 18 month contracts at present, although the ‘quick start’ guide refers to pre-pay tariffs (and the website mentioned a 30-day contract at launch) so it seems likely the number of choices will increase. Three are offering the new MiFi on the same tariffs as the previous device, including pre-pay where it costs £49.99 if bought with £10 credit. Where comparable like-for-like the Three tariffs are considerably cheaper.
Pairing with the Vodafone unit was painless and quick typing the WiFi key into my Mac (no WPS for me). Once online service was quick and the R201 held onto a 3G signal well in an area where poorer phones (such as the iPhone 3G) often fall back to 2G. The management interface is accessed from http://vodafonemobile.wifi or http://192.168.0.1. From there there are links to the support site as well as the configuration interface for the device. The management interface looks just like a ‘regular’ router – offering options to configure NAT, DMZ, port mapping, MAC address filtering, WiFi network settings, mobile network settings, view connection / data usage details and send / receive SMS messages.
The Three device offers exactly the same options using the same approach – the administrative interface is accessed from http://3.home or http://192.168.1.1 and provides identical options albeit through a more step-by-step icon-driven menu.
Uniquely, however, the Three unit also offers a mobile-formatted interface to phones (and the iPod Touch), which the Vodafone one doesn’t.
Although I’ve only run a few simple tests so far there doesn’t seem to be much to choose between the two device. At home I have good Three coverage, but a weak Vodafone signal. However, both found and held onto 3G signals and delivered around 220kpbs download speeds on a 3G connection and peaks into the low 500kbps on HSDPA. However, these speeds are hugely affected by local conditions so serve more to demonstrate that there doesn’t seem to be much to choose between them wireless performance-wise.
If anything the Vodafone unit seemed keener to jump onto HSDPA speeds despite a much weaker signal, but again this could well be down to local conditions so I’ll be monitoring this.
Just like the original Three MiFi both devices will also function as USB-connected modems for a single Mac or PC.
When connected to a Mac by USB both devices present themselves as storage devices and offer the required installation files directly. The Vodafone device offers a branded application that presents an attractive interface to manage all the computers data connections with a good graphical display, icon for the menu bar and alerts for important actions. The app also provides SMS features too.
The Three device also offers two on-board apps, but one simply opens the web-based management interface and the other installs some drivers but offers no explanation of what it has done. After checking the Mac’s network settings I found the drivers were correctly installed and it automatically connected to the internet if WiFi is unavailable, but it lacks any end-user display of what’s going on. This is strange given Three ship Huawei USB mobile broadband sticks which provide this.
As ever, Windows support from both devices will probably be more fully-featured (and the Vodafone device proudly displays a Windows 7 compatibility sticker on its box) but I haven’t tested it yet.
At this stage it’s hard to draw many. There’s little to choose in performance so far, but the ability to find and hang-on to a network connection is a key area that only long-term testing will address. The Three device wins on price and consumer friendliness (in most areas) but the Vodafone device will cope in areas without 3G and offers excellent software for Mac users (and I assume for PC users too).
My guess? Consumers will continue to love Three’s MiFi. Power and small business users are likely to be willing to consider paying the additional cost for the dual-mode operation of the Vodafone R201.
I’ve got a bit of a soft-spot for the design of the R201, but it’s the E585 I’d buy right now. At least until Voda’s pre-pay options show-up.
This post and all the images were written and uploaded using the Vodafone R201 over several hours.