Other Media Review

Review: XCOM WiFi for International Travel

XCOM Global MiFiI was loaned an XCOM MiFi unit for use in Australia, in exchange for a review. I know a lot of you travel for work or conferences, sometimes internationally, and we've all groused about the highway robbery that is hotel in-room internet in some locations. I knew the hotel WiFi where I was going to be in Sydney was rather expensive, and wanted to explore other options. After contacting XCOM, I was shipped a MiFi, two batteries, carrying case, and an assortment of plugs and adapters to use in funky international power outlets. What follows is my opinion (my very long winded opinion) of the XCOM MiFi unit.

First, I'm predisposed to love this thing because (a) it saved me a pile of money and (b) I needed to know I was connected to the internet while I was away and my home state was having the crap kicked out of it by Sandy. Even if I hadn't felt the repeating need to check my phone for new messages or new information, I would have been very happy having this device with me.

I had two methods of connectivity in Oz. I had the MiFi, which I used for my own cellphone and laptop data, and I had also borrowed an older Australian cell phone. My cell phone is on Verizon, which uses the CDMA network – which is predominantly used in the US and Japan. Most other places use GSM. Thus, outside the US, my Verizon CDMA phone is useless. But I wanted to try to have a local number while I was in Oz, so I bought a Vodaphone prepaid SIM card for the borrowed cell phone, and for the ridiculously low price of $30, I had an Australian cell phone, unlimited texting internationally, and (wtf) $450 of credit with Vodaphone (srsly?), which meant I could call the US and order pizza if I wanted (if the pizza parlor had power). The cell phone costs in Australia are very different from the US, let me tell you.

But the phone I was using there was an older model, and I wanted to have internet access for my laptop and my cell phone. The more the news brought horrible images of Sandy's aftermath, the more I stayed in touch with my family through the MiFi (while I also followed my governor, the power company, four different mayors, a few congressmen and local businesses on Twitter).

The MiFi was very much my lifeline while I was in Australia. Wherever I was, I could get a signal, I could connect my laptop or phone, and I could reach people. So I'm extremely glad that I had it, since I wasn't in one location for the first week I was there. I was traveling around Sydney and even in the middle of the harbor on my way to Taronga Zoo (where I took pictures of all the Australian animals' backsides because that's what they showed me, with the exception of the red kangaroo who was lounging in a, “Hey, baby, how YOU doin'?” pose) I had a strong enough signal to download all my email and Twitter updates within minutes.

The chart telling me what all the flashing lights mean - there were 5 different colors - clearly this is NOT an accessible device.

The unit itself is very small and weighs very little. Having it plus an extra battery in my bag added no noticeable weight.

One of the best things about it is the strength of the connection. First, there are several different network types that the MiFi can reach, each designated by a blinking colored light on the top of the MiFi. I got to be rather obsessive about which color was blinking, and consulted the chart frequently to decode what it meant. Blinking lights became my fixation. DID I GET PURPLE?! I liked having purple! GO PURPLE! 

But because the unit reads as a MiFi, I could use it to FaceTime my family, which I did several times with no problems. This was a HUGE deal for me, as you might imagine. I had perfectly solid video and audio feeds, and the only disruption was when my husband was too close to the noise of the generator (which I named The Doctor)  and he couldn't hear me over the sound of it. The connection strength supported FaceTime, Google Video Chat, and Skype with no problems. A total win.

The battery life was average, but I use a LOT of data, and I got used to the battery life of the MiFi pretty quickly. I would get between 2 and 3 hours of uninterrupted laptop use, including image uploads, Twitter, Facebook, web browsing, uploading of data, and some shopping.

The unit charged very quickly, and didn't take as long to replenish the battery as it did to discharge it while in use.

Occasionally I had trouble getting it to tell me it was charging. Charging is denoted by a blinking yellow light. Sometimes I'd get the wrong blinking color and not be sure how to fix it. I'd pop the battery out, start over, plug it in and finally get the blinking amber charge indicator.

Red blinking! Low battery! I wish the unit could make a sound to let me know it had a low battery or that the battery was running out. A low battery was signaled by a blinking red light alternating with the blinking connection indicator. So if I was connected to a purple network, the purple light would start alternating with a red light to let me know the battery was low, but even if I had the MiFi parked next to my laptop, I didn't notice the change in color. Then, the connection would drop and the MiFi would shut itself off when the battery was fully empty. Clearly, this is not an accessible device if you are visually impaired. 

As I mentioned, the MiFi comes with two batteries, but you can't use it while it's plugged in. There's a little slip of paper alerting you to the fact that the unit doesn't charge while being used. In other words, you can't have it on, plugged in, and connected to a network and expect to also be charging the battery. Ideally, the unit would also come equipped with an external battery charger so one could charge while other was in use.

The MiFi is not really meant for a full day of walking around connected to internet. I forgot to turn off WiFi on my US cellphone, and ended up using nearly the entire battery charge in about 60 minutes because when it comes to internet, my phone is one demanding little thing, as are all the apps I left running (oops). The MiFi will not last as long as a cell phone battery, for example, and is not meant to be connected all the time with heavy data use.

Even with battery life “limitations,”  the XCom MiFi worked terrifically for me, and was a great money saver. Between free WiFi in hotel lobbies and this unit in my bag, I wasn't out of reach or unable to go online. I couldn't take it for granted and leave it on all day, and I would have to sign on and sign off to research something specific, like what the Rock looks like dressed as the Incredible Hulk – but I had internet anywhere I was, when I needed it.

The price per day at $14.95 is far below hotel WiFi, which in-room can be $15-30 per day depending on the hotel. There is a $3.95 insurance extra to cover loss, theft or damage after a $160 deductible. You have to return the device on-time, but they send you an envelope in which to return the device. If you've ever rented a cell phone to use overseas, you've likely done the same thing.

If you need a dedicated connection all day every minute in a place where your cell phone won't work, or where you would incur huge roaming data charges, this probably won't work for you. But if you want to avoid paying for hotel WiFi in your room in the evenings for a few hours of work, and would like to have flexibility outside your home country without fearing roaming data fees, this would be a great option for you. If I travel internationally again, I will very likely rent an XCom MiFi. (See you next year, Australia!) 

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  1. 1
    stilbonmaria says:

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  2. 2
    jliedl says:

    Oh, this sounds like a useful device. I wish we’d had this when we had a family vacation in the Caribbean while worrying about the summer storm that hit one of our regions very badly.

  3. 3

    Great review. I’m always stunned (and a little embarrassed) when I travel to 1st world countries outside the US and realize they usually have better cellphone options than we do.

    Your extensive, real-world review should be helpful to XCOM and I imagine they feel they got more than their money’s worth letting you use their unit.

  4. 4
    Darlynne says:

    So sadly true. Imagine a cellular service (Mexico! UK! Pick a country!) that—wait for it—charges the caller, not the callee for each call. You mean US carriers are the only companies double-dipping on every call? Why, yes, they are.

    This is why, forex, calling from the US to a cell phone in Prague is so much more expensive than calling a land line. The recipient isn’t charged, but our carriers have to pay something to the other carrier and so we pay both sides. Of course we do.

    True story: I was over-served with a fabulous cask-conditioned Bulmer’s cider somewhere in Wales one night, borrowed (with his permission) our friend’s paygo Orange phone to call back home and talked for 30 minutes. That call cost, IIRC, less than 50p (or something ridiculously and wondrously low). That’s when we knew the rest of the world had much more reasonable cell phone service than the US. /rant

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    The cell service costs were amazingly low in my opinion. The guys at Vodaphone were laughing at my outrage over my US cellphone charges. For $30, I had unlimited texts? A $450 credit with Vodaphone (which, come on, I could have used in 12 minutes calling home after Sandy)? SERIOUSLY? I kept waiting for there to be a catch, like I owed them a kidney and half my blood platelets or something. But no, the costs are way reasonable. I kept the SIM card, too, so I could use it when I go back in 2013.

    I also looked at the MiFi rates for Australia, and whether it would be cheaper to get a MiFi there and sign up for a contract. For someone who would be in Australia for a good while, a few months or more, it would make sense, but for tourist travel, the XCOM unit worked really, really well for me.

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