Back in January when I attended CES in Las Vegas, I was quite surprised to discover that my hotel room (in a very well known hotel, too) didn’t offer WiFi Internet, only a standard Ethernet cable snaking out of the wall. To get WiFi I had to take the elevator down 19 floors, walk through the large casino to the opposite side of the hotel, go up an escalator, walk through a small mall-like retail area, and into the McDonald’s restaurant that offered free WiFi with a purchase.
So why didn’t I use the in-room Ethernet cable? Simple — I have a MacBook Air that has no Ethernet port. It’s a WiFi-only device, as is my iPad. My phone does offer HotSpot capability, but the upload speeds are atrocious and I really didn’t feel like wiping out my data plan over a two-day period. So I sucked it up, made the walk to McDonald’s numerous times (as well as taking advantage of the free WiFi at the CES event with my iPad), and enjoyed their WiFi — thanks, Ronald!
After getting home, I made up my mind to find a solution for this problem so that any future travel wouldn’t have my MacBook Air or iPad sitting around as dead weight if I couldn’t find a WiFi connection. My only real expectations for whatever solution I could find was that it would offer WiFi to more than one device at a time and that it have a small footprint and a tiny bit of weight — I moved to the Air because of its light weight, and when I’ve got both iPad (1.5lbs)and Air (3lbs)in the carrying case, I’m still only carrying about 6 pounds or so on my shoulder.
I have recently been looking at some of TP-Link’s products, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover they offer a portable 802.11n router (also supports 802.11g I discovered) called the Nano. It’s 2.2 x 2.2 x 0.7 inches… tiny! I can’t even find the weight in the spec sheets but if I had to guesstimate, I’d say it matches the weight of about two US quarters. It comes with two cables — one for power (AC) and one Ethernet cable to connect to a DSL/Cable modem or you can daisy chain it off an existing router (as I did during testing).
The documentation is very good — a foldout poster sheet shows you how to configure it for AP Mode, Router Mode, or Repeater Mode. (It also offers Bridge Mode if you’re interested). I tested it in both AP Mode (the default factory setting) and Router Mode. By far, I preferred Router Mode the best, as all it required was for me to connect it to one of the free Ethernet ports on my existing WiFi router (802.11g). It obtained an IP address automatically and the SSID and password for the Nano are provided on a small sticker on the device (but you can change this).
After tapping the Settings app on my iPad, I could see the TP-Link SSID as an available WiFi connection — I entered the password and my iPad was now using an 802.11n router versus the slightly slower 802.11g WiFi router. (Note: I have the 802.11g router because I have one computer in my office that I prefer to have connected via Ethernet cable, not WiFi.) I did the same thing with my MacBook Air — it easily discovered the Nano router as well. I did tests with both the 802.11g and 802.11n WiFi enabled (at the same time) as well as with the the 802.11g wireless radio disabled. I didn’t see any interference running both routers, but since I discovered that the Nano supports 802.11g devices, I went ahead and disabled the older router so all the WiFi devices in my house are using the Nano now.
In my tests, I made some interesting discoveries — first, the Nano is definitely much faster when moving files back and forth between my iPad and laptops. I tell you this only because of the results of my other tests that involved downloading PDFs, apps, and watching streaming movies on the iPad while using both the 802.11g and 802.11n routers. In both cases, the speeds I found were identical — digging a bit deeper, I was able to find that my Internet Provider (Charter) is the bottleneck — both of my WiFi routers were not the choke point (at least at the time the tests were done).
All things being equal, however, I much prefer using the newer 802.11n standard since I have more devices that support it than the older 802.11g. I’ve gone ahead and re-enabled the 802.11g WiFi radio on the older router just so that I can unplug the Nano when I travel with my Air, such as in May for Maker Faire — my wife’s 802.11g laptop will easily reconfigure itself for the older SSID and she won’t even notice a change in speed.
You can read much more about the Nano, including tech specs and downloadable documentation on the Nano’s product site. You can find the Nano at Fry’s and Microcenter and it is expected to be available at other online retailers in April.