If you’re one of the millions of people who made 2012 the Year of the Tablet, your decision wasn’t just which tablet to buy. You had to figure out how you were going to connect your tablet to the internet.

Maybe you just tethered it to your smartphone via Bluetooth and used your existing carrier data plan to get internet access. Or you bought your tablet and a data plan together for a seamless (albeit somewhat expensive) solution.

But if your situation (like mine) doesn’t allow either of those options, you may start looking at an external mifi device. Here’s how one such service stacks up.

I was in a bind. I didn’t (and still don’t) have much of a smartphone (my ancient Blackberry Curve could barely pick up email, let alone support web surfing). And I was a little put off by what I’d heard about wireless carriers charging for overages and throttling data after certain thresholds. But I was determined to get a tablet, so I starting looking around for a cheaper (or at least more fairly priced) option for internet connectivity.

A More Straightforward Solution

My search soon turned up an intriguing option: TruConnect. Rather than paying my wireless carrier a set price for 2 Gigs of data (not being sure whether I’d use that much or, worse, accidentally going over and getting socked with a massive overage charge), TruConnect’s pricing was simple: $4.99 per month and then just 3.9 cents per megabyte of data used.

Actually, the TruConnect version I got from a local big box retailer was even simpler: no monthly access charge, just pay-as-you-go cards with pre-set data amounts (for either 30-day or “whenever you like” usage) like a no-contract cell phone. I registered the device online, applied my first $10 pay-as-you-go card to my account, and once I typed in my security key (printed on the bottom of the device), I was ready to rock.

In short, I pay for what I use and just top-off my account when needed. (Auto-refill from a debit or credit card is available.) For the first two months, I’ve used around $10 of bandwidth per month, less than half of what my cell phone carrier charges for its cheapest data plan.

The Hardware

TruConnect offers two different mifi devices, both from Novatel. One (the Novatel Ovation 760) is a USB stick more appropriate for laptops. The one I purchased and reviewed is the Novatel 2200 mifi, a small silver device about the size of a stack of a dozen business cards. It will provide up to four hours of secure 802.11b/g 2.4GHz connectivity at speeds up to 3.1 Mbps for up to five WiFi enabled laptops, tablets or other devices simultaneously (which can come in handy for working lunches out).

The Novatel 2200 (also offered by Verizon, Virgin Mobile and other wireless carriers) is a sturdy intuitive device. While it comes with a brochure-style user’s manual, it’s pretty idiot-proof. That thing that looks like an on button, is. When it lights up green, it’s on and connected to the grid. When the other green indicator light on the side blinks, it’s sending/receiving data. When the button turns blue, it’s not getting a strong enough signal to connect (which happened to me once in a restaurant with unusually thick concrete walls).

I use mine three to four times a day for about 30 minutes at a time for email, basic web surfing and app use (during a bus commute to and from work, during lunch and occasionally in the evening if I’m away from home and have my tablet with me). In those contexts, it’s worked pretty well, even while riding down an interstate highway. (TruConnect offers a coverage map you’ll want to check before purchasing.)

I’ve found, however, that TruConnect doesn’t work so well with streaming video. If you want to watch YouTube while you’re stuck waiting somewhere, you’ll be disappointed. If you don’t wait for most of the video to load before hitting the play button, playback will skitter and pause frequently.

The device also becomes noticeably warm during use, which can make it slightly uncomfortable to hold (as I do during my morning and afternoon bus commute). I found the included soft-sided carrying case inadequate because the power button could accidentally get pushed inside a purse or tote; instead, I re-purposed a hard shell case from my old cellular modem for better protection.

Good Inexpensive Solution for Basic Web Surfing

In summary, if you’re looking for some basic connectivity for your tablet or laptop for checking email and web surfing and don’t want to pay monthly wireless carrier rates, TruConnect is worth looking at. If your on-the-road internet connectivity requires regular access to high-bandwidth applications like streaming video, look elsewhere.

Summary

TruConnect Mifi

Reviewed by Deborah Savadra on .

Summary: TruConnect’s Novatel 2200 Mifi provides good, inexpensive on-the-go basic broadband, as long as you don’t need to stream video.

Breakdown:

  • Price and features: 4
  • Hardware and design: 5
  • Performance: 3

Overall score: 4 (out of 5)

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/believekevin/130936470/)