During the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to get my hands on thirty different ‘mobile broadband routers‘. For those of you not familiar with them, they allow a user to connect some sort of cellular device like a USB modem, aircard or even a cell phone, and then connect multiple computers and other devices to the internet. Without a mobile broadband router, its more difficult to have more than one computer get online at a time.
Besides connecting to cellular carriers, most of the routers I’ve tested also worked with Cable, DSL or even Satellite as the source of internet… but none of them directly allowed for WiFi as the source of internet access… and as everyone in the RV community knows, many campgrounds offer WiFi service to their customers.
This review is about the WiFiRanger — the first mobile broadband router created by an actual RVer and designed specifically to serve the needs of the RV community who connect to the internet using one or a combination of:
- Mobile Broadband — 3G or 4G data from a cellular carrier;
- WiFi — campground provided, free/open hotspots, or commercial networks; or
- Satellite Dish — MotoSat, Hughes, etc.
- Cable/DSL — back at the stick-built.
BUILT FOR RVers
The WiFiRanger was designed and created by Kelly Hogan, an actual RVer who has traveled nearly 350,000 miles with his AirStream trailer and whose WiFi-related companies have helped over 1.5 million RVers connect to the internet over campground wifi. Kelly’s frustrations with the many different flavors of wifi connectivity he was faced with to stay in contact with his office, led him to the decision to put together the ‘most versatile mobile router’. (side note: this review was written for WiFiRanger’s intended audience, the RV community, but the WiFiRanger is also highly suitable for use in homes, apartments, dorms or anywhere else a wifi router is needed)
Unlike every other mobile broadband router I’ve tested, the WiFiRanger’s user interface and programming are meant to make it simple for the typical RVer to understand what connectivity options are available to them, and will even go so far as to analyze the performance of available wireless connections and automatically select the best option. With this technical wonder, an RVer could literally pull into a campsite, power up their WiFiRanger, continue with normal campsite setup routine and come back a few minutes later to find themselves online with best available internet connection.
Among the many ways the WiFiRanger is unique is the support a customer gets even as they are making the purchase. During the checkout process for online purchase, the buyer is given the opportunity to tell the company which cellular carrier they intend on using their router with and what they want as their router’s wireless station ID (SSID) and WPA password. You don’t have to provide this information in order to buy the router, but I strongly recommend it because the company will then fire up your router and preset it with the information you provide. Aside from saving you setup time, forcing the company to do this before shipping helps to ensure your unit is pre-tested before it leaves the warehouse!
IN THE BOX
Along with the WiFiRanger itself, you’ll find an ethernet cable and an AC-to-DC ‘wall wart’ that provides the router with 5volt DC at 2amps. There is no printed user manual in the box, but printed onto the underside of the box lid are the basic setup instructions as well as a sticker that shows your unit’s default wireless station ID (SSID), WPA encryption key, and the router’s unique Node ID (used primarily for tech support). Those of you who prefer to have a more thorough user’s manual can download the latest version from their website.
Most routers that I’ve reviewed present the user with some sort of “setup wizard” that offers up choices the user would select from. My experience is that many RVers have never setup a router of any kind and have no idea what the different wizard options mean… and right from the get go, they already need technical support.
WiFiRanger set-up is another of its unique features. The first step to getting online is to plug in the router and let it sit untouched for 4 to 6 minutes so it can do what they call “ranging”. They don’t want to ask you to make any decisions until the router has had a chance to scan the available wireless networks in your area. In many cases, after the scanning process is complete the ‘internet’ light on the front of the WiFiRanger will turn green, indicating that it has successfully connected itself to the internet. At that point, the user really doesn’t have to do anything else to the router, and can immediately get online via ethernet connection on back of the router, or by WPA-encypted WiFi.
The simplicity of this process is pretty cool, but the time it takes is very likely to cause some frustration for some folks who won’t understand what the router is doing during the ranging process, and inevitably try to use their browser to connect to a bookmark. If they do that while the router is still ranging, they will be redirected to the router’s control panel page, confusing some to think their browser is corrupted in some way. What the user needs to do when they see the control panel instead of a webpage they are trying to load, is to carefully read across the top of the control panel page to see what options are being presented to them.
The aforementioned control panel will display how the router is connected and show optional ways to connect to the internet, when available. The ‘ranging’ process can be triggered from the control panel to analyze all available wifi connections and list their SSID, signal strength, and security type: WEP, WAP, Open, or ‘Filtered’ — which means the hotspot requires the user to login with a specific username and password.
If any open hotspots are in range, the WiFiRanger even does speedtests and displays available bandwidth. Open hotspots are typically what are used to make the initial ‘hands-free’ internet connection and if more than one was found, the WiFiRanger connects to the fastest one.
The user has three options when manually triggering the ranging/scanning process:
– connect to the first available wireless broadcast. once it connects, no further analysis is done.
– connect to the best available wireless broadcast. this will take the most time.
– choose later. when this is selected, the user has to come back and choose how to connect.
In addition to identifying WiFi access points, the control panel will indicate whether or not connectivity is available through its ethernet WAN port (typically used for satellite modems when on the road, or Cable/DSL modems when not traveling), or via USB port (for now just USB modems but tethered phones are being considered for future firmware revisions).
Beyond providing connectivity options, the control panel also exposes other optional features:
– “Preferred Networks”. useful if you frequently use specific commercial wifi like attwifi or tengo
– “Public Access” allows for a second SSID the user can share with others
– “Auto Swap” which is like failover — if it senses that other connectivity is better, it switches over
– WiFi-Networking multiple WiFiRanger’s to extend range
– Firmware updates.
IS IT SECURE?
The WiFiRanger serves up WiFi using WPA encryption which is considered to be far better than WEP. It also utilizes NAT addressing, DHCP, and serves as a hardware firewall. Security geeks looking for features like MAC filtering, DMZ, port forwarding, DDNS, etc etc… should be made aware that WiFiRanger chooses to keep things simple to use and simple to support. Most RV users will not need more than the security the WiFiRanger provides.
WILL IT BLEND?
The WiFiRanger worked with everything I threw at it: Macs, PCs, iPad, iPod Touch, Android Tablet, Wii, PS3, DirecTV, and even my Canon WiFi-enabled printer/scanner. It offers up WiFi G/N and has four ethernet LAN ports along with one ethernet WAN port. One potential issue is that while the WiFiRanger can connect to a hotspot that uses WEP encryption, the WiFiRanger only offers the more secure WPA encryption for its hotspot. The lack of WEP can mean some older PC hardware will need to be upgraded to support WPA encryption (which should really be done anyway as WEP is more easily cracked).
WiFiRanger supports 130 USB modems including most (but not all) USB modems from USA carriers like Verizon, Sprint, ATT, and T-Mobile, along with a large selection of international carriers and their modems. In addition, the WiFiRanger was what I consider to have been the first router to provide support for Verizon’s 4G LTE service, though it seems as in three manufacturers all gained compatibility for the Pantech UML290 on the same day.
When someone has any USB device that is not currently supported, WiFiRanger has a unique program that will PAY the user $25 for their cooperation in getting the device supported!
HOW DOES IT COMPARE?
Most who follow mobile broadband routers will say Cradlepoint is the market leader. I’ve been their #1 fanboy for years and would still say they have the widest offering of great products, though in my opinion, Cradlepoint’s focus has changed from end user to corporate OEM deals, and they never really focused on the RV community.
The two biggest differences that make the WiFiRanger my recommendation for the RV community (or anyone who considers themselves a roadwarrior) are:
- the company focuses on supporting the RV community and chooses to simplify the setup and configuration options to limit confusion and the need for support.
Its been publicly stated by one of Cradlepoint’s largest resellers that “a large chunk” of tech support on cradlepoint routers is just getting it set up. One way to look at that is to say that the abundance of features causes confusion. Another way to look at it is that after more than three years, you’d think that cradlepoint would want to reduce the and come up with a better set up process!
- the fact that the WiFiRanger can bridge WiFi without the need for other hardware
No current ‘mobile broadband router’ (cradlepoint included) can bridge wifi like the WiFiRanger can. The ability to use WiFi as an internet source (without WDS) has been one of the most sought after features for over two years. Many users have resorted to using a separate wifi bridge to feed their cradlepoint… but a two-piece solution is more expensive, more difficult to support, and not nearly as elegant since it would require two devices to be plugged in.
The other popular router option that RVers will want the WiFiRanger compare to is the Novatel MiFi that is available from Verizon, Sprint, ATT and even Virgin Mobile. The MiFi features a rechargeable battery and is meant to be carried in pocket or purse… the WiFiRanger has no battery, but there are external battery solutions out there. The WiFiRanger’s WiFi N range is going to provide as much as 10x or more distance to/from the router compared to the MiFi’s reduced-power WiFi G. If smaller is better, then the MiFi wins when compared to the size of the WiFiRanger… but that doesn’t mean the WiFiRanger is huge. The MiFi has a limit of only 5 wireless clients and the WiFiRanger could theoretically handly 150 clients (but you probably won’t have the bandwidth to support that many). Lastly, and as is the case with any/all other mobile routers I’ve tested thus far — only the WiFiRanger can serve as a WiFi bridge/repeater in addition to being a mobile broadband router or home cable/dsl router.
The last comparison I’ll make is between the WiFiRanger and the Pepwave Surf. First, let me point out that the Pepwave Surf is only a WiFi bridge/repeater and has no support for any cellular devices at all. That said, the WiFiRanger’s WiFi N was a very good match for the high powered Pepwave surf. Both were able to see over three times as many available hotspots than my laptop’s built in wifi client radio. The Pepwave Surf does have an external WiFi antenna that can be replaced with a high-gain unit mounted outside of a vehicle, but it is the only antenna available and sticking it outside may limit the wifi availability inside the vehicle. The WiFiRanger has two internal WiFi antennas allowing for faster MiMo speeds, but no external wifi antenna jacks. The WiFiRanger really excels when it comes to ease of use, given that it can actually sniff out and connect to open hotspots, and its control panel is far simpler to use than the Pepwave Surf’s admin interface.
As simple as they’ve made the WiFiRanger to setup and use, it can actually be confusing to anyone who has configured a router before. The approach is so different, it takes getting used to. When help is needed, users can call 888-630-4689, or use online chat from 8am – 5pm MST, or send email to email@example.com. In addition, WiFiRanger has said they plan on having a help ticket system and/or a customer help forum on their website in the coming months.
Satellite expert Bill Adams knows first-hand how responsive WiFiRanger support can be, after he asked for a setting that allows the WiFiRanger to serve as a direct replacement for Linksys router in a Datastorm setup. Its not likely that every special request is going to receive the same treatment, but the company is likely to respond to requests that serve a large audience.
WiFiRanger really wants to grab a large piece of the market and to do that, they’ve got an interesting offer for all its customers: get a $10 refund back to your credit card for each customer you bring them. Get enough friends to buy their router using your referral ID and you could end up with a FREE ROUTER! Speaking of unique offers, make sure you read the last paragraph!
Ethernet Ports: 4 10/100 LAN Ports, 1 10/100 WAN Port
USB Ports: 1 USB Port
LED Status Lights: 4 LAN, 1 WAN, 1 Internet, 1 Wireless, 1 Power
Wireless Antenna: Integrated MIMO (no external WiFi jacks)
Wireless Band: 2.4 GHz ISM
Wireless Encryption: WPA
Wireless Speed: Up to 150Mbit/s
Wireless Standard: 802.11g / 802.11 Draft N
Power Rating: 5 Volts DC, 2 Amps
Dimensions: 162 x 132 x 30mm (6.4″W x 1.2″H x 5.2″D)
Operating Temperature: -20C ~ +60C
Storage Temperature: -40C ~ +70C
Weight: 221g (0.5 lb)
If I were dreaming up the perfect router for RV use, it would definitely have jacks that allowed for external WiFi antennas. So I thought it was odd that the WiFiRanger didn’t have them. After discussing it with Kelly, I learned that their solution is a future add-on called a drone antenna that will connect to the WiFiRanger’s ethernet WAN port. The use of ethernet cabling to the external WiFi drone prevents signal loss from being an issue, and power-over-ethernet allows for the use of a 1-watt radio.
Another option that isn’t available yet but should be coming soon is a 12volt power adapter. This is something they probably wanted in time for product launch, but just wasn’t ready in time. I’m told by Kelly that the 12v kit will include a USB cable that allows users to position their USB modem in a vehicle’s window for better cellular reception.
Here’s my breakdown of the WiFiRanger’s quirks.
- During ranging and until the router has successfully connected to the internet, attempts to load any webpage other than the router’s control panel will results in a redirect back to the control panel, which is very likely to confuse the non-tech audience this router targets.
- The lack of WEP might be viewed as a bad thing, but folks who still use it need to realize that WEP cracking is easy.
- The lack of some admin features that are commonplace on competitive routers may keep the enterprise network geeks away.
- Customers who already have external WiFi antennas on their vehicles are going to groan about the lack of external WiFi antenna jacks.
- The USB port is positioned in such a way that most users will need a USB cable to attach their modem.
- Lastly, the lack of tethered-phone support bothers me the most since many Smartphones are now just as fast as dedicated USB modems and more RVers are choosing the tethered phone option over dedicated data devices.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The WiFiRanger has one feature that no (current) mobile broadband router does: WiFi as an internet source.
Beyond that hardware feature, I’m pleasantly surprised by the company’s commitment to the RV community and will be recommending it to most every RVer that asks my opinion about mobile broadband routers. Its certainly not for everyone — and it doesn’t seem like it was meant to be. The people behind the WiFiRanger have targeted the RV community and other roadwarriors as the main audience for their new toy, and they seem pretty determined to refine the product to meet the needs of that target audience.
As with any first version of new technology, I am sure that there will be some growing pains along the way, but at this point I am quite confident in the abilities of the manufacturer to pull off what they have set out to accomplish. Early adopters of the WiFiRanger are bound to have ideas on how they would like to improve the product, and I am hopeful that there will be some uservoice-like website put up to allow the customers to help prioritize future enhancements.
Now that we have this new toy, I’m curious what readers of this review really want to see in their future mobile broadband router?
READ THIS AND SAVE $20
The WiFiRanger retails for $147.50 and is available at WiFiRanger.com
I’ve negotiated a $20 coupon code for everyone who reads this review — just use alexsian as a coupon code during checkout and you’ll instantly save money!
(02/20/11 — unfortunately, my coupon code is no longer valid)