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 WiFihotspot. 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. Whetheryour 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 beequipped with a tow hook.

However, if you are the kind of person who uses a Ford F-350 Super Dutytruck, instead of a regular car, to tow your boat, then you are alsolikely the same kind of person who sets up your portable WiFi hotspotusing a Novatel Wireless MiFi.

Towing your boat with a Honda Civic is technically possible, but itwill 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 pluggedinto a wall outlet -- perhaps because no such outlet is easilyavailable at that point -- then you want to use a dedicated hotspotmachine from Novatel Wireless or equivalent. You are now ready forprofessional-grade, heavy-duty, WiFi hotspot performance!

The latest such WiFi hotspot device is the Novatel Liberate MiFioffered 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 exhibitingincreasingly informative displays.

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

Touch Display

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Android-based MiFi doesn't need to be anything fancy. Android 1.5in 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 alsoprobably be cheaper, given that Novatel Wireless wouldn't have to reinvent thewheel. More importantly, it would probably also be a more stableproduct. Even more importantly, there would probably also be anoff-the-shelf touchscreen available with acceptable touch response.

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

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

Connectivity

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

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

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

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

In other words, thistruck can actually tow like a truck. In the end, that is what mattersthe most. You get this device so you can work for most of the daywithout 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 tiedto AT&T for as long as you end up using the device. No inserting acompeting SIM card from T-Mobile or equivalent here!

The monthly service cost takes a while to figure out at the AT&T Website. The language is plenty confusing. Even visiting one of AT&T'spremier 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 sharewhatever amount of data for which you are paying as a bucket for allof your AT&T devices.

In the broader context, this is expensive. From Walmart ( WMT), you can geta SIM card that gives you unlimited data, unlimited SMS and 100minutes of circuit-switched calls for $30 per month. AT&T selling you5 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 everyother dedicated portable WiFi hotspot in the market, from any carrier-- despite the horrible touchscreen response, which you just don'thave to use very often.

The only negative about these kinds ofproducts, because they are sold by most carriers attached to inflatedmonthly service plans, is that you're simply paying too much for toolittle 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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