Review: Novatel Wireless Liberate MiFi on AT&T

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- There are two types of people who tow their boats and campers:

1. Those who use a regular car -- Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry or equivalent.

2. Those who use a Ford F-350 Super Duty pickup truck or equivalent.

The same thing applies for those who need to set up a portable WiFi hotspot. There are two ways of doing this.

If you are the kind of person who tow your boat with a regular car, you will perform this task using your regular smartphone. Whether your smartphone is based on Apple ( AAPL), Google ( GOOG), Microsoft ( MSFT) or Research in Motion's ( RIMM) BlackBerry, they all serve as a WiFi hotspot -- just like a regular car can be equipped with a tow hook.

However, if you are the kind of person who uses a Ford F-350 Super Duty truck, instead of a regular car, to tow your boat, then you are also likely the same kind of person who sets up your portable WiFi hotspot using a Novatel Wireless MiFi.

Towing your boat with a Honda Civic is technically possible, but it will tax the little car to exhaustion. Same thing with portable WiFi. If you are going to do serious work, and you don't want to be plugged into a wall outlet -- perhaps because no such outlet is easily available at that point -- then you want to use a dedicated hotspot machine from Novatel Wireless or equivalent. You are now ready for professional-grade, heavy-duty, WiFi hotspot performance!

The latest such WiFi hotspot device is the Novatel Liberate MiFi offered on AT&T ( T). It breaks with previous industrial design radically.

Previously, a portable WiFi hotspot was an unassuming brick. Initially, in 2009 it had no display, but in subsequent generations exhibiting increasingly informative displays.

This latest version looks just like the Apple Magic Trackpad, but smaller. The cylindrical "stand" contains the equally cylindrical battery, and on the ends of this cylinder you will find the MicroUSB charger and on/off button. The design is brilliant and beautiful.

Touch Display

The greater part of the "pad's" surface area consists of a color display, and for the first time on a WiFi hotspot it's a touch display.

That's interesting, but it's all downhill from here. The touch response is terrible. You sometimes have to try tens of times to obtain any response/action of any kind. This is inexcusable. How did this get past any basic quality testing?

The preferable way to change the MiFi settings, such as the WiFi network name and password, among every setting imaginable, is on a PC's Web page -- as with any other portable WiFi hotspot. In this regard, the device's touch display doesn't really add any value.

Here is what the device should have had instead of a terrible touch response to the display: Either apps for the popular smartphones, or a Web page that's optimized for a smartphone browser. Companies such as Apple and Netgear offer this for their WiFi router products.

I am not going to change the settings on this crummy touch-display anyway, so that means that it will get done on the PC, as with any other WiFi hotspot. It would have been nice if Novatel Wireless had moved the ball forward and simply made it work on any smartphone -- or for that matter tablet -- in an optimized (finger-friendly) manner, as opposed to a PC screen optimized for a mouse/trackpad pointer.

Furthermore, one has to wonder about the effort put into the visible operating system of this MiFi. We now live in an age where (1) Android is free, and (2) Samsung has just launched its first Android-based camera. Why can't this MiFi simply run on off-the-shelf available Android?

An Android-based MiFi doesn't need to be anything fancy. Android 1.5 in 2008 was already miles ahead of the OS on this MiFi. Today, Android 2.3 would do, let alone 4.0, 4.1 or 4.2. It would also probably be cheaper, given that Novatel Wireless wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel. More importantly, it would probably also be a more stable product. Even more importantly, there would probably also be an off-the-shelf touchscreen available with acceptable touch response.

Here is what we have established thus far: The Novatel Wireless Liberate MiFi for AT&T is a great product in terms of the basic physics -- form factor and capabilities -- except for the horrific touch response and mediocre OS.

The good news here is that once you have set up the device -- on the PC -- you really don't have to do anything more than turn it on and off, so the negative aspects don't impact you very much.


Now for the final piece of the puzzle: Connectivity. Basically, how does the AT&T LTE network perform on this device? Does it pipe the bandwidth through the network to the end user device(s) in an acceptable manner?

The answer is undramatic, which is good. I averaged 10 to 15 meg downstream, and 2 to 7 meg upstream, which is consistent with almost all LTE devices on both AT&T and Verizon ( VZ) that I have been testing recently.

One year ago, when there were far fewer LTE devices -- the pre-iPad 3 and pre-iPhone 5 days -- the speeds were faster, but they remain excellent. An average ping (latency) runs around 40ms, again typical for this LTE class.

One final aspect: battery life. I found it to be excellent, equalling the best portable WiFi hotspots in the market.

In other words, this truck can actually tow like a truck. In the end, that is what matters the most. You get this device so you can work for most of the day without taxing your smartphone's battery. Mission accomplished.

Price: Expensive, Sort Of

The device price is $200 unless you sign a 2-year contract with AT&T, at which point it is $50. Even if you pay the sort-of-unsubsidized $200 price, though, it won't be unlocked, so you would still be tied to AT&T for as long as you end up using the device. No inserting a competing SIM card from T-Mobile or equivalent here!

The monthly service cost takes a while to figure out at the AT&T Web site. The language is plenty confusing. Even visiting one of AT&T's premier stores in the whole country turned out to be a bit confusing.

Anyway, in the end the choices are this:

1. Pay $50 per month for 5 gig, plus $10 per gig of overage.

2. Add $20 per month to your existing AT&T cell phone bill to share whatever amount of data for which you are paying as a bucket for all of your AT&T devices.

In the broader context, this is expensive. From Walmart ( WMT), you can get a SIM card that gives you unlimited data, unlimited SMS and 100 minutes of circuit-switched calls for $30 per month. AT&T selling you 5 gig for $50 is a terrible deal in comparison.

Bottom line: Good product

The Novatel Wireless Liberate MiFi on AT&T is as good or better than every other dedicated portable WiFi hotspot in the market, from any carrier -- despite the horrible touchscreen response, which you just don't have to use very often.

The only negative about these kinds of products, because they are sold by most carriers attached to inflated monthly service plans, is that you're simply paying too much for too little data.

The Novatel Wireless Liberate MiFi on AT&T gets an 8 out of 10.

At the time of publication, the author was long GOOG and AAPL.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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