Novatel’s latest MiFi is a mix of old and new. But, in a good way… we’ll explain. Nobody has tested this unit more than us.. And when we say nobody, we mean it. We’ve poured hundreds of gigabytes of 4G LTE through this unit.
Remember what we said about Verizon hotspots… time for an update.
Awhile back, we posted a barnburner about how Verizon hotspots just didn’t work. We weren’t alone in that assertion. Since then, things have changed a bit.
Part of the problem, was hardware. Perhaps all of it. Verizon’s LTE gear was new, and so were the first generation of LTE hotspots and mobile broadband cards. Bugs were likely on both sides. Conspiracy theories still are abound that Verizon was deep-packet inspecting and interfering with unlimited data traffic, especially DNS traffic.
We don’t think so. What we do think is that the main bugs were 1) Firmware issues in LTE devices, and Verizon’s network gear 2) Software issues on LTE handsets with Mobile Broadband and 3) The Samsung SCH-LC11 hotspot. Number three deserves a spot of its own, it is so buggy in our opinion it should be decertified.
Many of those issues are still present. Take heart, we are confident that Novatel, at least, has put those problems in its past. On their urging, we gave all their hardware another test. The USB551L, MiFi 4510L and the MiFi 4620L. All three met and exceeded our (tough) expectations in reliability, now that Verizon has gotten the bugs out of the system.
One note, you
do need must to update the USB551L from inside of Windows. Mac users, unfortunately, will not get a firmware update notification, let alone an update app. This is essential to getting the USB551L back on track.
So, before even starting our review, we are ready to say Verizon LTE hotspots are no longer broken. Well, with the exception of the Samsung LC11. We’ve tested several, and find them all to be worthless. We haven’t decided if we’re taking ours to target practice, or just driving them over with a car. Either way, we’ll be sure to film it.
Now, back to the MiFi 4620L…
The MiFi 4620L is Novatel’s second “Jetpack” hotspot (Jetpack is Verizon’s nifty new marketing term for mobile hotspot… don’t shoot the messenger, we weren’t the marketing people behind that name). Like the first, Novatel went back to their tried-and-true implementation of Qualcomm’s chipsets. But, they added a few features that distinguish it significantly from the 4510L.
First, and most significantly, the 4620L adds international roaming, via a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE/UMTS/HSPA+ array. It is, however, locked to Verizon Wireless SIM cards. Hence, you’ll have to pay Verizon roaming rates. We don’t believe it can be unlocked currently, we haven’t found a way for it to be.
The fact it is locked to Verizon/Vodafone’s pricey data plans isn’t Novatel’s fault at all, but does detract from the feature’s usefulness. An unlocked ancient, four year unlocked old cell phone with Bluetooth can provide data access internationally at costs far below the MiFi. You can just pop in a SIM when you land, from a vending machine at most international airports, and get cheaper data rates. But, it is a perk as a backup Internet connection for when you absolutely need it.
The data screen has been upgraded. Gone is the innovative e-ink display, and in is an OLED status screen with left, right and enter buttons. That’s right, you can provision just about every core setting right from the MiFi. From the hotspot name, to WPA2 password, it can all be done right on the unit. It comes in handy when you forgot the password, and avoids the need to reset the entire unit just because someone typed in admin/admin and wanted to play a practical joke.
We’re only a bit mixed on this change, in that the e-ink display on the 4510L was so well implemented, it didn’t distract at night, but was very legible. Still, the OLED screen is something we’re not asking to give up… instead of having to recite passwords and hotspot names, you can just pass around the MiFi to people and they can type it in themselves.
There are some technical improvements, we believe MIMO 2×2 has been added. Most first-generation Verizon LTE gear was MIMO 2×1, with the Pantech UML290 USB card being the notable exception.
In terms of firmware, Novatel also added something we’ve been waiting a good seven years for: NMEA GPS serving. Novatel provides a secure port and HTTP server where NMEA GPS data can be pulled by apps, running on other devices. We’ll get back to that one near the end of the review.
Performance & Reliability
We’ve historically regarded Novatel as being the best in the business. Prior to the round of firmware updates, though, some cracks started to emerge. LG had shot above the pack with its USB mobile broadband card, the VL600. LG accomplished this by using their own chipset, instead of Qualcomm’s. Hence, they had a head start at patching the card to accommodate Verizon’s network; their card, their chipset, less reaction time.
Like a Rock
Again, that was then, this is now. Having put the 4510L through similar tests, here’s what we did to the 4620L.
Mainly, our tests have focused on reliability. We can get each of these cards to reliably hit between 20 and 25 mbps down with our speed tests. But, the breaking point is different. With the LC11, we can often achieve a crash within a first gigabyte. DNS stops responding, packets time out, and shoes start pounding the table… Khrushchev-style.
So, we decided to download, and upload a bit more… like what we would normally use Internet wise for a month. On our home broadband connection.
We asked the 4620L to download a series of files totaling 250 GB. To deter Verizon’s NOC from having a cow, we did periodically power the units down and change SIM cards. We do pay hundreds of dollars monthly to Verizon folks, just in case there was a question of disfavor surrounding Verizon’s network. In 10 to 20 GB chunks, we positioned our units with full LTE signal.
In total, we didn’t lose a connection once, and averaged 18 mbps down using Amazon S3 server links over HTTP.
In comparison, iPad (third-generation) hardware has a historical average slightly higher at between 19 and 20 mbps in our testing. The difference is statistically significant, but not enough to sway our decision making.
The Rock vs The Old Rock
The MiFi 4510L is, to us, like a stone that had to be polished to be appreciated. With the latest firmware, and Verizon’s network improvements, we love it. When we first tried it, we were shocked Novatel had attempted to sell it. Now, it’s great.
Compared to the 4510L, we did not differentiate downlink speeds in any statistically significant manner during our entire battery of tests. From our experience, the two perform at nearly the same speeds.
Uplink wise, we do see faster speeds, trending higher than the 4510L in a significant manner. This is why we suspect (though Novatel hasn’t confirmed) that the 4510L is a MIMO 2×1 vs the 4620L being MIMO 2×2. From our experience, you should see 3-4 mbps in strong LTE signal areas. The 4510L achieved between 2-3 mbps in similar/identical situations.
CDMA performance between the two devices was indistinguishable.
In the end, it’s hard for us to suggest 4510L users go out and upgrade to a 4620L. MiFi 4510L units can be found on eBay for under fifty dollars. The MiFi 4620L is multiple times that in cost. However, for a new buyer looking for iPad-like LTE speeds both up and down, the 4620L does the job at a fraction of the cost. If you can afford the upgrade, it’s not a bad idea, just make sure you list it on your company’s reimbursement forms… and don’t show HR this review.
Battery life performed as expected. Novatel rates the standard battery for up to five hours of use, and their upcoming extended battery for up to 15 hours of use. In our testing, we hit a little below this, which we attribute to our more data-rich usage. We enjoyed 2-4 hours, depending on usage pattern, with the standard battery… and three times that with the extended.
With the (not yet released by Verizon) extended battery, we did find that the power level was mis-reported. The mAh calibration sticks with the standard battery. As such, the MiFi will report power levels at 0%, when there are actually hours of usable life left. This is because the percentage monitor is not detecting the presence of the extended battery. It’s a bug, but we were given early access to the extended battery. We presume that when the extended battery ships, a MiFi firmware update will ship alongside it.
Couple of things…
We were a bit disappointed to see the MiFi OS not make the trip to the MiFi 4620L. We suspect that was at the behest of Verizon, but we can’t get a clear comment from Novatel on it. We don’t expect them to complain about Verizon, so we’re going to let that one lay where it stands.
The MiFi OS however, is something that Novatel created after the original MiFi, the 2200. It allows for small apps to run as servers inside the hotspot. Need to serve a small file? There’s an app for that. Need to broadcast important information to your team? You can serve it right from the hotspot.
Unfortunately, it didn’t make the cut. For whatever reason. If we could see that in a firmware update, we’d be impressed. Alas, it’s Verizon, we’re not holding our breath.
We’re also pinging Novatel on the potential for a desktop cradle. Novatel’s competitors ship first-party cradles that permit the device to have the best articulation for MIMO over LTE. We don’t know if that’s a work in progress or not.
Finally, Novatel’s GPS server app is something that we believe is a net positive. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty useless unless you’re an engineer, or running Google Earth. Few apps can easily interface with it. More importantly, there’s no way for Android or iOS to connect to the server. Because iOS is walled-in, getting support isn’t going to happen outside of the jailbreak community. Feel free to ask Apple to tear down that wall… just don’t hold your breath.
On Android, however, we have seen apps that provide NMEA data to the Android system, and act as GPS location providers. We would have liked to have seen an app direct from Novatel that accomplishes that, shipped alongside the 4620L (or, at least, committed to shipping). Thus far, we haven’t heard back on that one. If Novatel were to offer it up, it could open the door for Android PMPs and Tablets to access Google Maps Navigation, and other turn-by-turn GPS apps, even if they didn’t ship with a GPS receiver. That’s right up our alley, so we’d like to see that one happen most of all.
The MiFi 4620L has been a darling in our office. We got it around when we started to warm our hearts to Verizon’s LTE network for mobile broadband… not just as a secondary connection, but as a primary Internet connection.
If Verizon can get the fiber to their towers, bring back unlimited data, or at least start competing with cable operators in terms of data caps, devices like the MiFi 4620L will usher in an era of cable-less primary Internet connectivity.
While we can’t endorse Verizon’s Share Everything plans, if you are on one, go pick this up, it’s a no-brainer. If you have a grandfathered unlimited data plan, it’s almost non-sensical (after reading this, of course) that aren’t already on the phone to buy a MiFi.
The MiFi 4620L is the new flagship of Verizon LTE. And it has restored our faith that Verizon has LTE done right. If you don’t already have an LTE hotspot, this is the one that we recommend.
Pros: Excellent connectivity, robust in extreme situations, high data throughputs on LTE and CDMA.
Cons: Lacking MiFi OS, consumer-friendly antenna options limited currently. No Android GPS app/integration for NMEA GPS server.
Final Score: 5/5