Zyxel’s MWR211 portable router

A mobile broadband router can be an indispensable tech accessory for people who travel with companions or groups, turning a single wireless broadband connection into a Wi-Fi hotspot. Novatel Wireless’s MiFi devices are great examples, but a MiFi supports only the carrier that sells it, which binds you to that carrier’s data plan and coverage. The Zyxel MWR211 Portable Router ($85 as of March 10, 2011) takes a BYOB (as in, bring your own broadband) approach: It turns almost any carrier’s USB broadband modem into a Wi-Fi hotspot.

About the size of a deck of cards, the MWR211 isn’t as sleek as the credit-card-size MiFi, and because it may require some configuration, it lacks the MiFi’s unparalleled ease of use. But because it lets you use whatever USB modem happens to be handy as your broadband source, the MWR211 far outstrips the MiFi in versatility. If one mobile broadband network isn’t available (for example, because you’re overseas or out of a coverage area), or if data roaming fees are outrageously high, you can swap in a USB modem from a network that has better coverage or a cheaper plan.

As an added bonus, the MWR211 also has an Ethernet port to support a wired broadband source–a cable or DSL hookup in a hotel or office, for example. And if you do set it to use wired broadband as your primary Internet source, you can opt to keep a wireless USB modem connected as a backup. This so-called fail-over feature worked very well in my tests: When I disconnected the Ethernet cable, the modem seamlessly reverted to the wireless modem with no intervention whatsoever on my part–I simply continued browsing and reading e-mail without interruption. You do, however, have to enable the feature during setup (Zyxel provides detailed instructions online).

The MWR211 supports 802.11n Wi-Fi, but only on the 2.4-GHz band, meaning it’s backwards compatible with 802.11b/g devices but not 802.11a gear. The MWR211 also supports Wi-Fi Protected Setup, a push-button way of setting up Wi-Fi security with devices that are not themselves secure.

I tried a MWR211 with two different USB modems: a Virgin Mobile stick that Zyxel provided for testing purposes, and a friend’s Verizon Wireless modem. Following instructions in Zyxel’s excellent, easy-to-follow printed setup guide (also available on an included CD), I charged the unit for a couple of hours before hooking it up, then turned on the power, plugged in the USB stick, slid the Wi-Fi switch to on, and was immediately able to connect to the device via its default SSID (Zyxel). After that, I typed in the device’s IP address to access its browser-based settings.

Although Zyxel provides a settings page for providing any info you may need from the carrier, in my tests both modems connected to the Internet without any intervention on my part. I did use the settings to change the SSID and also to set up security for the Wi-Fi connection (I have devices that don’t support Wi-Fi Protected Setup) as well as a new password to protect administrative access to the settings. There are numerous other traditional router settings to tinker with, plus a few specifically designed for broadband users: You can, for example, let the router know what a carrier’s monthly bandwidth cap is, so you can check on how your consumption is running.

Zyxel’s documentation links to a page on the company’s Web site showing which USB modems it supports, and my unit came with some U.S. carrier-specific setup tips. You do have to activate your USB modem before using it with the MWR211.

One major disappointment: Battery life isn’t terrific. Zyxel says the fully charged MWR211 will run for about two hours when connected and in use, or four hours on standby, and in my tests, those numbers seemed a tad (but not wildly) optimistic. I’d recommend trying to keep the AC adapter connected when possible.

But overall, I was impressed with the MWR211 as a tool for frequent travelers. Being able to use different USB modems to connect a Wi-Fi hotspot means you should be able to use it in more places, and also save money, especially when traveling overseas. A little added bulk (over the MiFi) is a small price to play for those benefits.

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