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Introducing the Vodafone Mobile WiFi R201 (next to the Three MiFi E585)

by Ben Smith on 18th August 2010

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Vodafone’s Mobile WiFi R201 is fresh out of the blocks. However its most important test will be how it shapes up against Three’s popular 2nd generation MiFi.

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:

  1. They’re practically the same under the skin and in use.
  2. 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.
  3. 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…

Weirdly the box for the Three device also calls it 'Mobile Wi-Fi' with no mention of the term 'MiFi'. It's probably because Novatel owns that trademark in the USA.

Side-by-side

Size

The R201 is wider and taller but weighs the same as the E585

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 R201's bigger which ever way you look at it.

Screen

Same screen. Different orientation.

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.

Power button

The R201's top segment slides to act as a power switch. It glows red when on.

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.

Memory card

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.

Inside

The Vodafone R201 (left) and the Three E585 (right).

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.

Batteries

Inside the Three E585.

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.

Inside the Vodafone R201.

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.

Instructions

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.

Network

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 R201 supports WPS for Windows Vista and 7.

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.

Tariffs

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.

In use

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.

Vodafone Mobile WiFi management screen.

Three Mobile WiFi (odd it doesn't say 'MiFi' anywhere on the device or packing) management interface.

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.

The Three management interface is icon-driven.

Uniquely, however, the Three unit also offers a mobile-formatted interface to phones (and the iPod Touch), which the Vodafone one doesn’t.

Three's device is the only one to recognise mobile devices connecting to it and serve-up a mobile-friendly interface.

Network performance

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.

Wired connections

Just like the original Three MiFi both devices will also function as USB-connected modems for a single Mac or PC.

Three's offering for Mac users isn't especially clear when connecting by USB.

Vodafone offers Mac users connecting by USB a well-presented installation app.

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.

Vodafone's app for managing the R201 on USB connections also manages and prioritises all the other connections available really well.

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.

The R201 proudly claims its Windows 7 compatibility.

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.

Conclusions

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.

It's a smart-looking chap.

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.

Links:

This post and all the images were written and uploaded using the Vodafone R201 over several hours.

  • http://middledigit.net/ Jonathan (@jopkins)

    Nice review – I’ve asked Vodafone if they’ll upgrade me half way through en existing contract. Fingers crossed they will.

  • http://whatleydude.com James Whatley

    That three mobile interface log in is a nice touch.

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  • Mike42

    Having commuted for a year on the train using an INQ Chat in ‘Dongle mode’ (i.e. in the same fashion as these are used but obviously not over WiFi) that that operated on both 2G and 3G, I very quickly set it to ’3G only’. When using a laptop I’d rather wait until back in 3G coverage than suffer the ropey experience of normal web use over 2G. The only thing that 2G is good for these days IMHO is IMAP email that trundles away in the background.

    I only wish I could set my Nexus One to ’3G only’ in WiFi tethered mode. Sometimes no data (and therefore continued network scanning) is better than 2G data.

  • Anonymous

    GPS enabled Novatel Wireless MiFi 2352 (European version) & MiFi 2372 (American version, for AT&T, Bell, Rogers, TELUS, etc) from the official distributor.

    No contract, no SIM lock, can be used with any 3G/HSPA network/operator around the world. Feel the real freedom with this revolutionary device.

    Available in black and white with worldwide shipping:

    http://store.mpxsys.com/novatel-wireless-mifi-2352.html

    http://store.mpxsys.com/novatel-wireless-mifi-2372.html

  • http://richard.mackney.com Richard Mackney

    That’s a really nice side by side review, thank you. I did wonder why the Three MiFi didn’t hop onto 2G signals unlike my Three dongle. It looks like a tough call, I’d be interested if Vodafone bring out a PAYGO option.

  • http://benjam.in Ben Smith

    Thankyou. From the evidence so far it seems very likely they will launch something at least on a 30 day contract.

  • http://benjam.in Ben Smith

    Interesting point – I have experienced the same. But I’ve also landed into a client’s office for a week to find there’s only 2G coverage and in that case EDGE is better than nothing.

  • http://twitter.com/kevwright kevwright

    Its not that hard to both unlock the 3 version, and you can set it to use 2G/3G networks from the control panel.

  • http://benjam.in Ben Smith

    True, but 3 will notice and cut your account off if you make heavy use of 2G data as this is against the T&Cs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=28100165 Anonymous

    thanks for the great article.

    taige
    from http://mificlub.com

  • http://twitter.com/Documentally Documentally

    Great review. It all makes sense. I agree with all you have said. I have these two devices and may well pit them against the Novatel Wireless Mifi as it’s the device i have used most of all. Thanks.

  • http://thereallymobileproject.com/ Really Mobile

    That would be an interesting read – our Novatel review unit went back a long time ago. If you do write something would you also be willing to post it here too as a guest post?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707801289 Anonymous

    Excellent review Ben – thanks!

    Having commuted for a couple of years on the same train as Mike42 (easily spotted as the gentleman with bicycle and pile on INQ devices who gets on at Whitchurch) – I would whole heartedly concur with the 3G sentiment. 2.5G data from a fast moving platform is a highly unsatisfactory experience wich I am happy to avoid.

    I routinely carry 3 MiFis now – I have a new model 3 MiFi (which is my main mobile data device), an unlocked old model 3 MiFi now sporting a GiffGaff SIM (free data until Oct on O2 network) and an international multi-band variant equipped with a Truphone Local Anywhere SIM (which operates on Vodafone 2.5/3G networks here in UK). Should I run into problems gaining connectivity I also have Android 2.2 (with WiFi Hotspot/tethering), a couple of Nokia S60 handsets with Joikuspot plus a pair of INQ handsets (for easy PC/Mac tethering). Finally – if all else fails I have a trio of different USB data dongles (although they are pretty clunky to use and do not give anything like the performance of the MiFis).

    I can be easily spotted in the morning at Waterloo as the guy with the very large backpack brimming with technology!

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  • Anonymous

    excellent review was thinking about the Mi-Fi and after this, 100% will be gettting this for my future use on the go, my friend said it is like his own little wi-fi hotspot in his pocket.

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