New Novatel MiFi Hotspot Is Top-Notch

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- One of the best things gadget makers can do is to take a class-leading existing product and regularly improve it on multiple fronts without taking a step backward anywhere.

Apple ( AAPL) has been brilliant at this with its various iterations of the iPhone, iPad and iPod.

But so has Novatel Wireless ( NVTL).

In May 2009, Novatel launched its first MiFi wireless router, which allowed users to create mobile WiFi hotspots anywhere.

The compact product -- as big as few credit cards stacked together -- was an instant hit and reigned supreme in the market.

Then came the Android onslaught, led by the October 2009 launch of Droid phones from Verizon Wireless a joint venture of Verizon Communications ( VZ) and Vodafone ( VOD).

Many Android smartphones could function as mobile hotspots, and soon enough, Android's signature feature became almost synonymous with "mobile hotspot" on all carriers. This subsequently spread to all major smartphone platforms: iOS, Research In Motion's BlackBerry and Microsoft's ( NOK) Windows Phone.

What seemed like a giant market opportunity in the summer of 2009 ended up looking a lot smaller after essentially every smartphone in the market gained the functionality.

But even though the market opportunity shrank, it didn't go away.

The world of mobile connectivity is arguably the world's largest device market.

The mobile device market -- now in the neighborhood of 2 billion devices per year -- is very diverse.

Some people now carry multiple devices: a BlackBerry for email, texting and address book management; and an iPhone, Android or Microsoft smartphone for the apps.

Those serious about connectivity are likely to add a dedicated mobile hotspot device to their arsenal, allowing them to feed their laptops, tablets and media players, such as the iPod Touch.

True, not everybody will spring for the dedicated device, but for the real pros, it's a sign of being, well, a real pro.

And that's where Novatel's third and latest iteration of the iconic MiFi (full name: Novatel Wireless 4G LTE Jetpack MiFi 4620L on Verizon Wireless) enters the picture.

Recently released, the new device raises the bar on mobile hotspot performance in the same way a Bentley Mulsanne makes a Mercedes S550 seem utterly pedestrian.

Let's list the ways in which the new Novatel MiFi improves upon its predecessor, which Verizon Wireless made available around April 2011:
  1. Bigger battery: The old one had a battery sized at 1,500 mAh, which is average for most smartphones. It was the equivalent of outfitting a decent-size car with a one-gallon gasoline tank. Most people won't be happy with such asmall battery, given that their devices will be dead by lunch.
    Anyway, the new Novatel MiFi has a much larger battery than its predecessor -- 3,000 mAh. Although this remains smaller than an ideal size of at least 5,000 mAh, it's a dramatic improvement and yields class-leading battery life.
  2. Faster boot-up time: The on/off button now feels a lot more solid, and upon turning it on or off, the desired reaction happens faster. Small point, perhaps, but you notice it every day, and it makes a difference.
  3. Always-on numerical battery indicator while charging: Every mobile device should have this. The new Novatel MiFi is the first device I've seen that simply displays the percentage charge ("43%") -- plus the fact that it's charging -- on its display while it's pluggedin.
    That's the information I want to know, and I don't want to have to press a button to see it. I also don't want to see some bars that leave me guessing about the percentage it's charged. And I don't want to have to remember what a light means depending on its color or whether it's blinking or steady.
    This simple feature is a major crowd-pleaser that I hope will take the mobile industry by storm.
  4. Connecting more devices: The previous one talked to five; this one talks to 10. For a pro, this was a must, and long overdue.
  5. International compatibility: This new version also includes GPRS/EDGE/HSPA so that it will work in many countries outside the U.S. The older version worked outside the U.S. in -- at best -- a few, mostly obscure, countries.
  6. 802.11n: This is the newer WiFi standard that improves both speed and reach. Achieving this improved performance used to carry a power (battery) performance penalty, but thanks to the WiFi industry and Moore's law, this penalty is now mostly gone.

So those are the six major upgrades in this newest Novatel MiFi device.

What about the speeds? As with all things cellular, they vary all over the map depending on where you are (even a few feet can make a material difference) and what else is going on on the network.

I found it to be competitive with other LTE devices on Verizon, which means that it matches or exceeds Verizon's stated goals.

I typically got 2-12 meg up and 5-20 meg down. Good luck findingsomething consistently better in the market today. Obviously, AT&T ( T) comes very close, falling short mostly in the area of geographic LTE coverage, not speeds.

That leaves us with the fundamental question: Why bother with a separate stand-alone mobile hotspot such as the Novatel MiFi to begin with? There are two answers:
  1. Features: If you want all advanced WiFi features, such as MAC filtering, invisible network, you are going to get all of them in this ultimate "pro" device. Most smartphones offer more limited mobile hotspot features.
  2. Battery life: If you think 1,500 mAh is way too small just for your "other" smartphone needs, imagine how bad it is when it has to also perform double duty as mobile hotspot! Having a separate and dedicated device enables you to work for many hours instead of finding your smartphone dead prematurely.

It's like what Steve Jobs said back in May 2010: The PC is a truck, and the iPad is a car. Well, some people need trucks. You can transport some stuff in your car, folding down the rear seat, perhaps covering the floor with plastic. But it only takes you so far beforeyour car is compromised, soiled and breaks under the heavy weight. Todo the heavy jobs frequently, you need a truck. The Novatel MiFi is atruck for your ultimate connectivity needs.

Any drawbacks? None. I keep looking, but to date I have been unableto detect a single meaningful drawback with this latest Novatel LTEMiFi. The fact that a bigger battery weighs more than a smaller one,doesn't count, OK? You're paying a separate price per definition, butyou're getting all the performance that the market has to offer today.

Bottom line: The Novatel LTE MiFi on Verizon Wireless represents thepinnacle of wireless connectivity engineering available in the markettoday.

I recommend it to everyone who is serious aboutpaying for dedicated, secure connectivity while on the go. Thestarting price is $50 up front on a two-year contract, $270 without acontract.

Monthly connectivity costs on LTE (4G) and EVDO (3G) areconsistent with what Verizon Wireless charges for use on other,similar products.

At the time of writing, Wahlman was long AAPL, GOOG and QCOM.

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