Great Google Voice apps for Android and freedom from cell phone plan tyranny

Are you a big user of Google Voice like I am? Here’s my best advice about apps and some cool tips to use Google Voice with an Android phone. You can also use these apps to make calls from an Android tablet.

One of the most important reasons I switched from an iPhone to Android was to get better (vastly better) integration with all the many Google services I use, especially Google Voice, or GV. For example, there’s no direct way to access all your Google contacts in iOS apps like the phone dialer or email, syncing to Apple’s contacts is a poor substitute that doesn’t work very well and even Google’s own iOS app for GV can’t access your Google data. But on Android, it all goes directly to the source.

Just as a mini-refresher, Google Voice is an amazing, free service, originally called GrandCentral before being acquired by Google in 2007, which lets you take total control of who calls you where while virtually eliminating the “pain in the ass” quotient of voice mail. Give out your Google number and then decide where it should ring — you can switch things up based on who is calling, the time and date and other criteria. Voice mail is transcribed for free and sent to your email. And you get free calling to numbers in the United States and Canada along with discounted rates to other countries.

Not nearly enougsceenshot of the google voice widgeth praise has been lavished on the Google Voice widget for Android. The widget screen not only provides a one click shortcut to your various GV mail boxes but also shows a live, scrollable list of the most recent voice mails and texts, including who called and a bit of the insanely useful transcribed text of the messages (see screenshot at left). Click on any message to hear the audio.There’s also one click access to send a text via GV. And at the bottom of the widget is a running total of your account balance (for covering international calls). It really shows off the power of widgets with Android to both display new information, with no clicks required, and make app features instantly available with a single click.

But the regular GV app lacks a simple settings screen to adjust your call forwarding. There are plenty of third party apps to access those settings with a minimum of clicks to adjust which phones you want to ring. I use Groove Forwarder, a very simple app with one handy extra feature. In manual mode, the app just offers a checklist of your Google voice registered numbers. Click to check or uncheck a number. But it also has an automatic mode that can switch the settings based on whether your phone is getting Internet access via WiFi or cellular.

Which reminds me, one of the most useful ways to use to Google Voice is to make and receive calls over WiFi. This is especially handy if you’re out of your cell phone carrier’s coverage but have Internet access, say when traveling abroad or vacationing in a remote locale (or maybe you just live somewhere with crummy cell service). This requires an app like Spare Phone or Groove IP. And the apps work on Android tablets, giving you the power to make and receive calls without a phone at all.

I like Groove IP so far, because it can integrate with my phone’s basic phone dialer if I want, providing a seamless WiFi calling experience. To use it, you sign into your GV account and then set GV itself to forward calls to the Google Talk option (not to the number of your cell phone — that’s very important). Instead of using minutes from your cell phone plan, the app is using data at a rate of about 1 MB per minute. That’s no problem if you’re on WiFi but obviously would eat into your data allowance if you started using it while on 3G or 4G mobile broadband.

Traveling in Europe this summer, I was reminded again about how inferior and overpriced our cell phone service is here in the states. But WiFi calling with Google Voice can free you from needing to sign up for expensive calling plans. Get a data-only plan and use GV for calling. Or buy a mobile hotspot and no phone plan and use GV for calling. The trick is easier than ever now that Google is selling the Nexus 4 phone relatively cheap and unlocked without a carrier plan.

Even if you don’t want to go WiFi only, Google Voice offers the possibility of taking more control and relying on prepaid plans to save a lot of money. For example, both Simple Wireless and Wal-Mart run on T-Mobile ‘s network but frequently have cheaper rates. It’s a competitive market and the best plan and carrier can change from month to month. If you have people calling your Google Voice number, it’s no problem to swap out SIM cards whenever you feel like it and pay for the cheapest available service. Your phone number may change but no one has to know or care.

Finally, serious Lightroom photo syncing on the iPad – no iPhoto required

Old workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from my camera to my iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad and export to a folder on my hard drive. Drag said folder into iPhoto. Make newly imported photos into a new iPhoto album. Hook up iPad for sync via iTunes. Place check mark on new album in iTunes iPad photo syncing tab. Wait.

New workflow for getting cool pictures I’ve taken from camera to iPad:

Import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Throw out junk, make fixes, sort and rate. Choose photos I want on my iPad, drag to Photosmith publishing service, hit sync.

What a great program, though it does cost $20. What I’ve just described, using the app to send pictures or albums right from Lightroom onto your iPad, is worth more than $20 to me. You also have to install a free Lightroom plugin on your computer to make to all work.

But the other side of the app is for doing field work on photos using just your iPad, which I have not done much in the past but may get more into. Using Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, you can import photos right off your camera into the Photosmith app, rate them, tag them, flag them for deletion etc. You can also directly upload them to a couple of services such as Facebook, Flickr and Dropbox. Then just get near your Mac, open up Lightroom and sync back to your computer. Sweet.

photosmith app screen shot

Annoying limits I’ve encountered so far?

You can’t sync iPad screenshots back to Lightroom. That’s because the iPad makes them in the PNG format which Lightroom doesn’t support. But a fix is coming.

It seems like you can’t use the iPad app to re-arrange photos imported from Lightroom among your collections or make them into a new collection and have the changes sync back to Lightroom. Only new photos imported directly from a camera to the iPad (or taken with the iPad, god have mercy on your soul) sync back to Lightroom.


How to get Internet access in Rome – and how not to

Relaxing in Rome

I had an awesome vacation in Italy this summer with my awesome wife, Whitney Connaughton. Highly recommended. But ugly American that I must be, I made too many assumptions about getting online, thereby frustrating my ability to…get online.

It all started so well. Just off the high tech marvel that is Italy’s high speed train from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to the city center, I smiled at the gleaming shops full of stylish clothes, delectable pastries and, obviously, mobile phones galore. Well, not quite. There was no sign of the biggest Italian carrier, Telecom Italia Mobile, also known as TIM. But no worries. Down on the lower shopping level was a store for Three, a brand I’d recently considered in London. I strolled in with my guide book knowledge of the local lingua and an aging but unlocked Samsung Nexus S cell phone in need of a SIM card. And so started my quest to find Internet access for a week in Roma.

The guys at Three had a quick answer for me: no. Seems my phone runs on globally widespread GSM and third-gen HSDPA networks and they were selling somewhat obscure GSM-ish UMTS compatible service. They told me I needed to get a card from the Wind store down the hall.

The Wind guys were happy to supply me with a free SIM card, a brand new Italian phone number and a 20 euro month-to-month data package. Sweet.

I got back to our cute rented apartment in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum, put in the card and waited for activation. And waited. And waited. After about 36 hours, I made an unhappy discovery plumbing the depths of my Nexus S phone’s settings screens. The Wind network was also the obscure and incompatible UMTS. Ugh.

It turned out that only the TIM folks had real GSM cards. Grabbing a wee bit of wifi at a coffee bar, I searched for nearby TIM outlets — second floor of the central train station. Easy as pie. But not so fast. When I went back to the station, I discovered that the store was closed for renovations.

Italian mobile phone store is closed

A few days went by with me all offline and getting very mellow and gelato-filled. Eventually, on a Saturday night, I passed another TIM store that had just closed minutes earlier. And it was closed all day on Sunday. And it opened at 10 am on Monday, an hour after we had to grab a train to Naples. So I never actually got my phone online.

What about regular old free wifi, you ask? Surely, there is some easy way to get wifi in the middle of one of Europe’s busiest cities? Well, yes and no. Yes if you can decipher this screen you could in theory get free wifi in Rome. Actually, they do have it in English, too, but I couldn’t get to that link somehow when I was Italy. I did manage to get to the sign-on screen. Free wifi required a sign up process that I could not navigate without translation. And of course translation wasn’t available without Internet access. Catch 22? Pretty much.

Back home and researching this post, I found travel writer Jessica Marati’s incredibly helpful guide to getting on the free Roman wifi network. It only requires a cell phone number and, hey, I managed to get one of those, even if I couldn’t actually use it on my phone. Next time?

So what are the lessons for other travelers looking for cheap or free Internet access in Rome? Prepare ahead of time. After having such a ridiculously easy time in London a few months back, where a simple vending machine at the airport offered multiple brands of SIM cards for all kinds of phones and tablets, I assumed Rome would be similar. It was not.

If you’re not carrying a UMTS-compatible phone, be ready to go data only. In fact, both carriers I visited were selling cheap wifi hotspots (kind of like Verizon’s mifi in the United States) and I could have made do with just that. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

And, yes, please use the comments to tell me — and anyone else who stumbles across this page — what I should have done. But be kind.

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times: Tough to buy a new Mac

I wandered into a local Apple store this week to check out the latest goodies. Afraid that my resolve might be even weaker than my bank account, I left my wallet in the car. But I needn’t have worried. We’ve arrived at a point in time for Apple users where the shear number of ongoing transitions and uncertainties in the entire desktop/laptop product line has overwhelmed the possibility to make a wise decision for most ordinary consumers like me.

This state of confusion first surfaced ahead of Apple’s annual developer conference this year when the rumor mill got itself into quite a lather. Apple would use its keynote to introduce new laptops, new desktops, a new iPhone, a revolutionary television operating system — pretty much every product in Apple’s line up except the iPad, which was just revised in March, was possibly about to be reborn. In the end, there were new laptops and a minor desktop upgrade but on the whole, not quite the tsunami Apple storm some wanted to see.

The rumor mill has alway had a pretty mixed track record but it’s interesting how broadly the rumors stretched ahead of the 2012 WWDC. I think it offers an important window, pardon the metaphor, into our current extremely transitional state of computing. And with a few too many transitions in full swing, it’s time for almost all consumers to step back and wait. Each member of the current line up of Macs is fatally compromised in one way or another for us ordinary users.

What’s the big transition? It’s not just one. After a decade of tablet computers going no where, the iPad has created an insanely fast growing new niche that is clearly taking usage time — and sales — away from traditional laptops. Even smart phones are getting so powerful and capable that they are displacing traditional computers to some degree. Both call into question long-established conventional wisdom about the need for portable computers. Displays are shifting to high detail more quickly than apps. The nearly three decade run of the PC’s spinning hard disk is also coming to a close, though the new generation flash memory is still very expensive (try pricing one of the new Macbook Pros with 512 GB of storage). Optical spinning drives, too, seem to have quickly passed into a state of decline with Apple at the lead pushing DVDs into early obsolesce. The standards for moving your data around seem a mess as well — a new, much faster flavor of Wifi called “Gigabit Wifi” or 802.11ac is just around the corner but not available yet while Apple’s once favored wired port, Thunderbolt, seems dead in the water and retread USB 3.0 is suddenly making a comeback.

At the same time, progress on a number of other critically important fronts has stalled, at least as far as users are concerned. Yes, yes, Intel’s new generation of CPUs dubbed the “Ivy Bridge” line is sooo much better than what came before. Well, sort of, kind of. Science fiction author and longtime tech reviewer for Byte magazine Jerry Pournelle used to say it’s not time to upgrade your computer until you’ll get twice the performance. Anything less than 100% improvement would barely be noticed after a few days by ordinary users in the real world. Maximum speeds topped out years ago below 4 GHz and chip designers seem more focused on adding little tricks and treats to squeeze out a little bit more performance or lower battery consumption than dramatically improving all-around speed. Meanwhile, graphics performance is actually slipping backwards as fewer Mac laptops include discrete, high performance video cards instead relying on so-called integrated chips built into CPUs and lacking their own high speed memory. Battery life is remaining steady only because Apple is putting more battery into its newest model at the expense of weight. That’s hardly progress.

So with all that in mind, consider the new and much hyped 15″ MacBook Pro with retina display I just checked out at the Apple store. As I first played around with the Safari browser, I was duly impressed by the super sharp display. But then I opened a common app used by almost everyone, Microsoft Word, and typed a few sentences. The text looked horrible, with jagged edges and visible color alterations around the anti-aliasing. I tried several fonts and ran through all five available resolution settings for the MBP to no avail. Maybe Word required some kind of update but surely Apple’s Pages app would look good. Nope — equally horrible. Here’s a top of the line, super professional machine and text looks like crap.

(UPDATE: A few months after this post was written, Microsoft updated its Office apps for the retina display. Then in December, Adobe updated Photoshop.)

Not to mention the lack of innovation in battery technology means the new unit weighs only a pound less, or about 20%, than the DVD-toting prior version. A heavier pack was needed to avoid shortening battery life (UPDATE: actually, battery life is considerably shorter than the previous Macbook Pro 15″, according to Macworld). For comparison, the 13″ MacBook Air weighs 34% less than its 13″ Pro counterpart (and it also gets less battery life).

What about the rest of the new line? New MacBook Airs and Pros have USB 3 and the latest Intel CPUs but no retina displays and the same old battery life and wifi chips. And who thinks the MBPs with their dual, dead weight spinning drives will remain in the line up for much longer?

New Mac Pros have, well, nothing (technically they have slightly faster CPUs but barely noticeable). Even Apple seems to be a little ashamed and removed the “new” badge that had initially adorned the Mac Pro icon in the Apple online store. New iMacs and Mac minis? There weren’t any, so they have no USB 3, no retina display and not even the “Ivy Bridge” processor upgrade.

All of this confusion and transition has also undone some of the conventional wisdom for buying computers in recent years. Laptops had become capable enough that many Mac consumers were forgoing buying a desktop at all. Apple’s combo docking station/monitors made that a great choice. But now there’s no retina display monitor so docking means giving up the fancy new graphics if you buy the top of the line model.

So what you really should do is wait for the next iteration of Mac updates — MacBook Airs with retina displays and broad third-party retina app support. Better batteries and wifi would help justify upgrading, too. Desktop Macs should be arriving with USB 3.0 and multiple Thunderbolt ports soon, too. Hey, at least our budgets will be happier.

(Comments are moderated so please keep it clean and relevant)

The iPad as digital library and other lessons of the first year

Well, we’ve been very satisfied iPad owners for just over a year now so it’s a good time to look back and review. My intention is to dig a lot deeper than the usual gadget reviews and give a sense of what it’s like to have an iPad day in and day out for a year. The list is aimed at people who might be considering buying an iPad more so than people who already have one. And all of the points apply equally to the original iPad and the iPad 2. So, without further adieu, here are 10 things we’ve learned.

1. The iPad is the perfect digital library of the 21st Century. In the last century, people had rooms they’d call a library filled with physical objects. Look around and spot something of interest, grab it down off the shelf, put it back in place. Now we have it in digital form and the iPad, with its multi-touch screen, allows those same familiar physical interactions. Photos, emails, books, recipes, movies, maps, songs, web pages. You want to have it with you and easily accessible so you keep it on your iPad.

2. Corollary of #1: Get the most memory you can afford, preferably the 64 GB version. Of course, it’s more convenient to have all your stuff with you when you want it. But the flip side is also important: it’s an annoying waste of time trying to hone your vast digital song collection or photo library from your computer to fit onto your iPad. The more places you can check the “sync everything” box, the better. And syncing itself a slow train to bummersvile.

3. The iPad is not great for working on standard office software tasks like word processing and spreadsheets. The on-screen keyboard experience is okay, not great, but the processes to select text and move the cursor around are just plain bad. Moving documents back and forth from the iPad to another computer is also extremely treacherous because iPad apps have the nasty habit of eliminating or mangling formatting. Printing is also complicated or impossible, particularly when you’re on the road.

4. The iPad doesn’t like to sync and you find yourself syncing less and less. The original iPod connected over a firewire port that was super speedy. But Apple eliminated firewire syncing years ago and the iPad is stuck in the slow lane known as USB 2.0. Hopefully, Apple’s new super-fast Thunderbolt port will quickly make its way to the iPad. In the meantime, prepare to get a cup of coffee while your iPad backs up all its data, loads app updates and transfer your photos, songs and videos each time it syncs.

5. Battery life is insane. You will find yourself charging less and less.

6. The iPad is very personal, it’s not very multi-personal. There’s no way to set up individual accounts for different people on an iPad, which gets to be a drag after while when the device is being shared around the family. I’m not as taken with background pictures of puppies as my daughters, I don’t want 15 games on my first home screen like my son and I want to read my Gmail, not my wife’s, when I use the mail app. Still, the iPad is too fun and too huge not to share.

7. The iPad is less delicate than a laptop. We take ours into the kitchen when we’re making a recipe, for example, and just wipe off the occasional spill.

8. Great for multi-day trips, not great for out for the day tripping. The iPad is lighter and smaller than a laptop, sure, but it is not nearly light enough yet. It’s great to use sitting down but not in one hand and it doesn’t fit in a pocket so it can be a burden to carry around. And it’s too flashy and expensive to use in some places, like the subway.

9. The speaker should be much better. When you have the perfect, self-contained travel computer, it should be able to play music in your hotel room without add-on speakers.

10. We love the app store and installing new apps is simple. But the process of moving apps around, organizing them on multiple home screens and deleting the occasional dud are not intuitive or easy.

Using a new HDMI Mac Mini with my TV: Early days

This will be the first in a continuing series of posts about using a brand new Mac Mini with an HDMI port (purchased in June 2010) connected to a high-definition television. To read all of our adventures jumping through hoops, losing remotes and forgetting the password to bypass parental controls, see this page with all my DIY home theater posts.

Searching along with my fellow TV and movie junkies for the home theater holy grail, I’ve wandered in the wilderness for many years. We have a pretty typical 21st century entertainment consuming household with adults and kids watching cable TV, DVD movies and stuff from the Internets including Youtube videos, purchased movies, shows and music videos and, increasingly, rented movies. Hardware-wise, we’ve been hooked on Tivo for a few years now, we obviously have many iPods, the occasional iPad and, though our music collection is entirely digital at this point, a gazillion DVDs. For purchased downloadable content, iTunes is our go-to choice though increasingly we rent from Amazon Unbox which can send flicks straight to our Tivo.

When Apple TV hit the scene in 2007, I took a long, hard look. In many ways, it seemed like just what I wanted: an easy to set-up, easy-to-use digital storage box for all our digital photos, videos and music that could be played back via HDTV or stereo. But the limitations were much too limiting — only compatible with a few video formats, — and the tiny storage capacity was even more ridiculous. So I passed.

I also began avidly followed the niche crowd that was trying to use Mac Minis as souped up Apple TVs. The challenges involved get clean digital signals with sound to the TV screen as well as finding a good software interface to manage a multimedia library. It never quite seemed simple enough to be worth all the trouble.

Until now…

When Apple recently unveiled a new, souped-up Mac Mini with an HDMI connection — the exact port needed to send both sound and video to an HDTV set — I jumped. It was time to get off the sidelines and join the experimenters.

The first choice was which Mac Mini to buy. I opted for the server version which has two speedy 500 GB 7200 RPM hard drives (totaling 1 TB) and no DVD drive. Since the plan was to rip all our DVDs to the hard drive, the only physical disks I’d be wanting to play would be Blu-Ray and Apple’s drives aren’t compatible with that higher definition format. The server Mac Mini’s double the storage and faster drives made it the more logical choice.

Once the little guy — and I do mean little — arrived, I hit the next challenge. The server operating system had no iLife programs — no iTunes or iPhoto. Luckily, iTunes is a free download and I own a “family pack” of iLife 2009, so it was easy to load up the new server with those two critical programs. The server mini did come with Apple’s limited if serviceable front-end for playing media on big television sets known as Front Row.

After installing the software, I copied all the media files from my laptop where they currently live to one of the server’s drives and imported them into a brand new iTunes library. That went pretty smoothly, though some audiobooks purchased long ago wanted to be authorized by and my account had apparently used up its allotment of authorized computers. A quick email customer service sorted that out.

Then I brought the mini into the family room and connected via an HDMI cable to our Samsung HDTV. The display automatically configured itself to the proper 1080P output although the edges of the screen, including the critical top menu bar, were out of view. But there’s now a simple setting to fix that problem in System Preferences > Displays called Overscan. There’s a slider control you adjust until the invisible outside edges become visible. I believe that was one of the issues that drove folks crazy a few years ago trying to get minis and HDTVs connected. I also had at the ready a Logitech diNovo Edge bluetooth keyboard (Mac edition). This guy has a touchpad built-in so you can sit on the couch and wirelessly operate your TV-connected Mac without a mouse. Very handy. It also has dedicated buttons to bring up Front Row, control the iTunes player etc. (You have to install Logitech’s control center program to get the special buttons working properly).

I called up Front Row and it played everything just fine. Sound initially emanated from the mini’s own tiny speaker until I went to System Preferences > Sound > Output and selected the TV.

I had an old Apple infrared remote, the one that looks like a pack of gum, lying around but it seems unable to make a connection to the 2010 Mac Mini. I verified that the Mini does indeed have an infrared receiver, so that’s just a matter of grabbing the newer Apple remote that’s more tubular in shape at some point. UPDATE: No — as commenter Mikeo below points out, the server mini just has communication with the remote turned off by default. To turn it back on, head to System Preferences > Security and unclick the check next to “Disable remote control infrared receiver.”

Alright — well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten in the first couple of days. Future plans include ripping a whole bunch of DVDs, experimenting with other user interfaces like Plex, seeking out some streaming web video and using an iPhone or ipad as a remote control. Check back later…

Early impressions and mini-review of Sprint’s 4G Overdrive hotspot

In my continuing quest to keep up with the latest and greatest mobile Internet stuff, I’m trying out the new Sprint 3G/4G Overdrive, pictured above. Made by Sierra Wireless and slightly more portly than first generation mobile hotspots like my Verizon Mifi 2200, the Overdrive retains the same basic yet great feature set of its predecessors. It’s a mobile broadband modem combined with a wifi router. So you can take it almost anywhere, link up to the mobile network and then up to five devices can get online via wifi — laptops, iPhones, Nintendo DS’s, whatever. Sprint is even advertising it as a way to get your iPhone online at 4G speed!

This post isn’t a full-blown review as I’ve just had the Overdrive for a few days. But I can tell you already that the Overdrive provides several improvements over the Mifi and its peers — at least in theory. It can connect not just to 3G wireless broadband but also to Sprint’s newly rolling out and faster 4G service. Sprint says download speeds at 2 to 10 times faster than 3G while upload speeds are up to 3 times faster. The Overdrive also has a built-in GPS sensor that can be accessed via your web browser. And, although it’s much chubbier than the mifi, it has a small screen that displays a variety of useful information.

It costs $99 after rebate and with a 2-year contract. Broadband service is the same price and terms as Verizon — $60/month for 5 GB of 3G service, though 4G service has no usage caps. That’s actually kind of irrelevant for me so far because Sprint hasn’t extended its 4G service to the Boston area yet. It’s promised real soon now, or at least by the end of the year.

It seems like the Overdrive gets a stronger signal in several places where the Verizon Mifi had problems, like the neighborhood around my office in Boston. That could because of the device or the Sprint/Verizon difference. I’m not sure.

Here’s a couple of comparison pictures of the Overdrive and the Mifi:

I am also impressed with the little status display screen on the top of the Overdrive. It shows signal and battery strength, number of connections via wifi, length of online session and amount of data transferred, among other indicators. With the Mifi, you were always left guessing about how much time was left on your battery and whether a poor a connection was due to weak 3G signals or some other reason.

And that’s all I’ve got so far. I’ll post a more in-depth review at some point but if you have any questions, fire away in the comments.

Another reason to love Mifi? No driver software

mifi-1I’ve been using my Verizon Mifi 2200, the portable broadband modem and wifi hot spot, all over the place for the past four months and it’s been doing just what it’s supposed to do. It connects quickly and gets my laptop, iPod Touch or any other kind of net surfing device online. I already raved about it in my review back on May 20 and I’m not going to repeat all that again here.

But I did want to note one more advantage the Mifi has over other portable broadband solutions. Since you don’t have to plug the Mifi into your computer (except when you first activate it), there’s no need for any driver software. As long as your computer or other device has wifi, you can get online. That turned out to be a big plus the other day when I upgraded my Macbook Pro to Snow Leopard aka OS X 10.6. Some folks with standard plug-in mobile broadband products had immediate problems with driver incompatibilities. But not Mifi. It could care less what operating system you run.

A related side-benefit is it’s easier to share the Mifi, too. My wife went on a business trip with her Windows-based work laptop. It would have been a bear to install any new drivers on such a locked down machine. But with Mifi, it doesn’t matter. Cool.

Verizon Mifi connects laptops, iPods, whatever to broadband

mifi-1After a couple of days wait, my new mobile hotspot, the Verizon Mifi 2200 made by Novatel, arrived today. Out of the box, the battery needed a charge but once the Mifi had sat plugged into the wall for a bit, it was ready to go. Simple as plugging into my Mac via the included micro mini USB to USB port cord (more on USB power cord confusion, if you’re curious). It appeared on the desktop as a CD with the Verizon VZAccess Manager program available to install. A double click there got that bit installed and running, which was required to activiate the Mifi. After the initial activation, no cords are needed to use the Mifi.

Within seconds, the Mifi was connected to the Internet over Verizon’s cellular EVDO mobile broadband network and, simultaneously, acting as a Wifi hotspot for any Wifi-enabled devices in the area. Sweet.

Mifi worked great connecting my laptop and my iPod Touch. The tiny Mifi runs an encrypted wifi network, so only someone who knows the password (listed on a sticker on its base) can join. There aren’t many buttons — just one that turns the power on and off. It’s also quite tiny and featherweight. In addition to the USB cord, there’s a power adapter and a felt-like carrying case. Very simple.

mifi-jpUpload and download speeds were excellent, as measured by Speakeasy’s speed test. The Mifi downloaded at 2,467 kilobits per second and uploaded at 464 kbps. The download rate easily beat my existing Sprint Novatel U720 modem, which averaged a download speed of 1,186 kbps. The Sprint modem (which connects via a USB port) uploaded at 505 kbps, slightly faster than the Mifi. Neither mobile broadband solution can match my home FIOS connection over 5 GHz Wifi. FIOS hit 6,253 kbps on downloads and uploaded at the astounding rate of 3,657 kbps.

So the bottom line is that the Verizon Mifi 2200 is a great mobile broadband solution for laptops and provides the added benefit of letting all sorts of other devices you may have — from iPods to Nintendo DS’s — get online, too. That’s a gamechanger for me. My iPod Touch becomes so much more valuable on the go now that it’s got its own mobile wifi hotspot to go along.

The one downside, of course, is Verizon’s download cap of 5 gigabytes per month under the $59.99 plan (after that, it’s 5 cents a megabyte – ouch). Sprint has the same deal but it stinks if you’re planning to rely heavily on a Mifi.

Prior Coverage:

Oh Verizon Mifi, why can you not delight like Apple? (5/17/2009)

Sprint USB Modem Smacks Down Verizon (3/27/2007)

Oh Verizon Mifi, why can you not delight like Apple?

mifi_promoOk, say you’re a big technology company and you have a hot new product. You put out a press release enumerating the many amazing features and announcing a release date several weeks hence. Even better, one of the most-read tech columnists on the planet, the New York Times‘ David Pogue, raves about your new product in print, on the web and on television. You are really psyched now. Then it turns out that even though a competitor will be offering the same product for the same basic price, you’ve got a two-week jump on availability.

So when your release day finally hits, what’s your strategy at the hundreds of retail outlets you own all over the county?

Did anybody answer act like any other day and don’t even stock the hot new product? Because that was the answer from Verizon Wireless when I went in to order their new mobile wifi hotspot, the Mifi 2200. “Sorry, we don’t have them in stock today – they’ve got plenty at our warehouse and we can order it for you and send it to your house,” a helpful Verizon clerk tells me. They’ve got plenty in stock but none at any of the stores in the Boston area, he tells me.

That’s fine – it’s fine – but really, is that the best customer service? Is that any way to delight your customers? Just imagine the interest and word of mouth that might be drummed up if they had the Mifi’s in stock and activated them at the store in front of all of the customers on a busy Sunday afternoon. Opportunity lost. When it comes to selling and promoting new tech products, it’s still Apple at the top and everyone else trailing far behind.

p.s. when I actually get my mitts on the new Mifi, which is replacing a Sprint mobile broadband USB stick (the Novatel U720), I’ll post Here’s my full review of the Mifi 2200. Surprise – it’s a rave.