Skip to content

Review: Xfinity MiFi in the real world

Dear Reader,

Short Version

I bought an XFinity MiFi. Comcast screwed it up once and the device bricked itself at some point outside of Atlanta, GA. Overall though it’s a great device and service to have when you are traveling within the US. I recommending buying one, but when talking to Comcast, use small words and short sentences.

Long Version

In May and June of this year, I spent a lot of time on the road. 2 conferences, a graduation a vacation and a Microsoft jump-In Camp up in Seattle. Knowing I would be traveling and knowing how important Internet is to just about everything I do, I decided to look at mobile Internet options.

I already have a USB dongle from Virgin Mobile that I used at CodeWorks last year but I wasn’t real happy with it. Since they have changed the plan’s limits, it’s really not a good deal anymore. Also, that only gives me internet on a single device. Since 3 of my trips involved multiple people with Internet devices, I wanted something we could all share. So it was with great interest that I found out that Comcast had just started offering a 4G/3G MiFi through their XFINITY to go service.

The Device

The device itself is a Novatel 4082. It is a very simple device with a single button interface and a “digital ink” display. It comes with a charger, a USB cable for charging off of your computer, and a cute little black sack to keep it from getting scratched up. On the surface it seems to be a well designed piece of equipment. It is perfect for those who just expect something to work. This device either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. The interface gives you solid indicators when it is operational, but if it is not working, you get no clues as to why or what is wrong.

The battery life on the first unit I had was very disappointing. It works for a couple of hours on battery before dying. For some reason, while I was in Amsterdam and not using the device for 4 days, it totally discharged the battery. I’m not sure how but when I got back to Chicago, I pulled it out to test it and it was totally gone. That shouldn’t have happened, but then again, that first device was flaky so we’ll chalk it up to a bad unit and not the overall model until I can test it more.

The Service

The service package is pretty good. $50/month with no contract (you have to buy the device) or $50/month on a 2 year contract and they give you the device. That gets you unlimited 4G and 5GB of 3G per month. This was the best plan I have seen offered by any provider. I assume that Comcast is reselling ClearWire’s 4G service since if I tracert to Yahoo.com, the first jump is clearwire-wmx.net. I didn’t test the 3G service.

Here in Nashville at my house, 4G is kind of spotty. Many days I can get it but not a full strength signal. Some days however, 3G is the best I can get.

I’ve used the device in Nashville, Chicago, Savannah and Orlando. At the Nashville and Chicago airports it worked flawlessly. This was great because I had a 6 hour layover in ORD and ‘Net access kept me working. I got a good strong 4G signal that was fast enough to watch YouTube videos and even download movies to my iPad. Savannah however, only has 3G coverage. Since you only get 5GB of access each month with the plan, we all agreed to a “No YouTube or movies” policy.

Most of the time it was plugged in to a power outlet. Even in the car, it was plugged into a power converter. I didn’t use it much on it’s battery but the few times I did – and the battery had power – it worked fine.

The only real problem I had with the service was our week at Disney World We stayed at a Disney resort and the connection was non-existent. We ended up using our phone for email most days and buying Internet for a day or two when we had to get things done. (Yes, even on vacation, sometimes you have to get things done) :) I don’t really blame XFINITY/ClearWire for the lack of coverage, Disney probably doesn’t want you to have that kind of service so they can sell you their Internet service.

We also used the device to make the car a rolling hotspot on the trip. This worked fantastic until the trip home. Somewhere around Atlanta, the device “locked up” This was the second time it had done this but the first time I was able to just remove the battery, allow it to rest for a bit and then fire it back up. For some reason however, this time it did not come back….like ever. It was gone, it was, as they say, an ex-parrot.

Comcast

This brings us to the last piece of the puzzle, Comcast. I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of Comcast. I feel that they would be a much more responsive company if they were not granted monopolies by local municipalities. Because they are the only game in town, they charge what they want and decide when they want to be responsive to customers and when not to. They also get to make really stupid decisions. Here’s a case in point.

I called XFINITY to order my device. “I am sorry, that device is not for sale in Nashville yet.” was the first response I got. Seriously? This is an INTERNET device, something specifically designed to be mobile. How can there be an area of the country that it has not been rolled out to? I checked the map, yep, Nashville has 4G service, that’s not the issue. The issue seems t be that someone high up still believes this is the previous century and that it makes sense to “stage product roll-outs”. I called them back, explained that I didn’t intend to use it in Nashville so could they sell me one. “Nope, sorry. You are a Nashville customer so you can’t buy it yet.” Seriously, that is a quote.

So I did what everyone does, I tweeted it. Someone at @ComcastCares saw it and decided to try and help. I got an email with a phone number, not an 800 number but a local Nashville number to call and the name of the person who should answer it. This brings up to the second problem Comcast has, they don’t educate their people on the products they sell. Even though this person was supposed to help me, she had no idea what 3G and 4G were. After explaining to her what I wanted (I wanted to buy the device outright and buy the service by the month) she said she understood. Then she sent me to a IVR that had me agree to purchase a 2 year contract…I called back. We finally came to an agreement as to what I wanted. She ordered my device, charged my bill and ordered my service.

Three days later my device arrived…ok, so A device arrived. The box said 3G, not 4G/3G like the pictures I had seen. Also, it looked a lot like the Novatel 3G hotspot every cell provider had been selling for some time. (Silver top, black bottom.) I called back…now on my 5th call of the ordeal) She assured me that it was a 4G capable device. Fine. I hung up and fired it up. The web based admin interface made no mention of 4G anywhere. I had a solid 3G connect but that wasn’t really what I wanted. It was during Call #6 that I explained to her that it was not a 4G device. She asked very nicely if I would call this special tech support number and they would help me unlock the 4G. It was obvious that she still wasn’t really sure why that fourth “G” was so important to me but since she asked nicely, I obliged.

Call #7, to the tech support number lasted a total of 90 second.
Tech Support: What color is the face of the device?
Me: Silver
Tech Support: That’s a 3G only device.
End of call

So not only does Comcast not educate it’s employees about their offerings, they put people in customer facing positions that have no technical clue whatsoever. Honestly, figuring out why this device would not connect 4G didn’t even require technical knowledge. Just a little knowledge about the devices they were selling. So, back to the local person.

To Comcast’s credit, at this point, she accepted their response and put another one on UPS for me. It arrived with instructions on how to return the other unit and a UPS label to use so I didn’t have to pay for what was clearly their mistake.

When the second device arrived, it was clearly labeled 4G/3G. When I fired up the admin interface, it told me I was connected at 4G and offered me several options in the configuration that dealt with 4G.

That was also the one that flaked on me after less than a month’s use. It let the smoke out while we were in the car. Somewhere after Atlanta on our drive from Orlando to Nashville, the device quit working. The interface however, did not. For some time I assumed that everything was fine and proceeded to troubleshoot my iPad because the device showed a solid connection and 4G. Only after rebooting my iPad and trying to re-connect it did I begin to suspect the device may not be working afterall. I tried turning it off, when that didn’t work, I tried removing the battery. Removing the batter did in fact stop the light from blinking but it did not reset the device. I even tried a hard reset to no avail.

I am still not sure why the device assumed room temperature. Again, to Comcast’s credit the call to get it replaced lasted less than 20 minutes. The agent asked me to take the battery out, then to hold the reset down for 10 seconds – options I had already explored but did again to humor him – and when it still would not reset, he had a new one dispatched.

Conclusion

First, Comcast needs to hire more techs like the last one that helped me. He spoke clear English without an accent, he was polite. He recognized that I was more than just the average user and could talk networks and troubleshooting with him so he skipped a good part of the script. He quickly realized that the device was dead and replaced it. If they had more techs like him, they wouldn’t have such a bad rap when it comes to customer service. Comcast, if you are reading this, check my records, find out who he was and promote him way up the line – like VP level.

Second, Einstein said “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Novatel failed in this one. Everyone is so caught up in out simplifying Apple on interfaces that they fail to take failure into account. A simple interface is great when everythng is working. However, if something goes wrong, your interface needs to be complex enough to at least give a clue as to what is wrong. When the first good device went tits-up the interface locked at 4 bars and a full battery. I could take the batter out, I could click the hard-reset button, nothing was changing that display.

Remember when computers had POST? (Power On Startup Test) If something was wrong, your computer either made a bunch of beeps or failed to make the proper number and types of beeps. Either of these was your clue that something was wrong. It was an elegantly simple interface. Most non-computer people ignore them but computer techs could tell an awful lot about the state of the system by those beeps.

This device has nothing to indicate that something is wrong. When I first discovered it was locked up, it looked like it was working. The signal looked strong, we were in a 4G area, and the light was blinking. All things it normally showed. Novatel, fix this device so that if something is wrong, maybe the light goes RED? At least then we know it is worm food.

Third, Comcast again. At the end of this month, I have to call you to discontinue service. Why? Why can’t I go online and turn the service on and off? Am I the only customer you have in the US that bought the device and only wants service sometimes? You want to be an Internet company, then quit making me call you. Put it all online and let me deal with it.

Still, after all of this, the device is worth it. Despite the trials and tribulations of getting the device and service, when it works, it is rock solid. It would be better prices below $100 and I think more people would snatch them up like that. Truly, most of us don’t need a mobile hotspot 12 months out of the year. However, on an as-needed basis, a lot of us would pony up the $50/month.

Until next time,
I <3 |<

One thought on “Review: Xfinity MiFi in the real world

  1. I was very unhappy with the comcast internet over the wire buried under the ground loop end of the trunk that hasnt worked right since the hurricane down here in houston, so i switched over to
    mifi, wha la best thing I have ever done ….cancelled home service and mifi goes with me….to the north end of lake livingston which is 100 miles north of here I get 4G go figure, san antonio, 4g go figure at my house south of houston and the the take off end of the runway where there is a doppler (I am thinking must be some interference from the airport stuff always at night 4g during the day 3g the device is so simple a monkey could use it (sorry monkeys) but i do agree it is either on and barring up and charging up or as once nothing so i took off back cover took out small plug and hit reset and whala up and running…i watched someone with sprint data card
    for two years (no silly I was not stalking) and mine (mifi) runs better nanenanenana…. jill

Comments are closed.