Home / Networking / InvizBox Go, First Take: Secure wi-fi for mobile pros with multiple devices

InvizBox Go, First Take: Secure wi-fi for mobile pros with multiple devices


If you travel with several devices, getting them all onto wi-fi at your hotel or in the coffee shop can be a pain, so a travel router is useful. If you’re concerned about the security of public wi-fi, which isn’t always well secured and can expose you to Man-in-the-middle attacks, then you probably want to use a VPN. But again, connecting multiple devices securely on the go is more work than many of us will bother with on a regular basis. So in theory, a portable router with built-in VPN that can also charge your smartphone, like the InvizBox Go, should be very useful.

Turning the pocket-sized InvizBox Go on is your first challenge; instead of a visible power switch, it hides the power button beneath the logo on the top, which you have to press down and hold for several seconds to turn on (a quick press just shows the battery status). This is unnecessarily fiddly, and less accessible than a simple slider that would let you see whether the device is on or off.

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To connect to our first wi-fi network with the InvizBox we had to connect, reboot and then connect again; we sometimes needed to reboot to connect to other wi-fi networks as well.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Connecting to and setting up the InvizBox Go takes several steps. First you connect to it as your wi-fi network, from a phone or computer, then you open the InvizBox control portal in your web browser. The wi-fi connection is protected by WPA, but the portal doesn’t use HTTPS — that avoids the complexity of updating certificates and WPA encryption is reasonably robust, plus the Arm CPU might struggle to deliver HTTPS.

The WPA password is printed on a card; if you change it to something more memorable, you still need to keep the card safe in case you ever reset the device, which reverts it to the initial password. This is also the admin password, and if you change the access password the admin password will also change. If you want the admin password to be different from the access password — so you can issue the device to a user without them being able to change the settings, for example — you have to do that separately.

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From the InvizBox portal, you can choose whether to use the device as a VPN, a Tor connection or a simple wireless router to connect multiple devices, and which VPN location to connect to. The different prices for the InvizBox ($99, $139 or $179) include 2-month, 12-month or 24-month subscriptions to the IPVanish VPN service, which has around 500 servers in 20 different countries, including seven locations in the US and claims not to keep server logs. If you use a different VPN service, you need to enter the username and password separately, under Account Details. By default, the InvizBox will always connect to the server closest to the location you were in when you set the device up. This makes sense if you want to keep that as your geolocation, but it won’t be the server with the lowest latency when you’re travelling.

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The InvizBox portal and the LED indicator on the device both show when you are behind a captive portal and need to log on.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

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You also need to pick the wi-fi network you want to connect over, and then click again to sign in through any captive portal for that wi-fi network — if it asks you for personal or social media details, just using the InvizBox isn’t going to keep you anonymous.

In general, the portal isn’t as well designed as it could be. Once you choose an option you have to wait for the portal to confirm it’s been applied and then manually navigate back to the previous screen. In some cases — especially if there’s an update for the device — the InvizBox has to reboot before you can connect, which makes things slower and may mean logging in to the captive portal for the wi-fi network again. Compared to other travel routers like the Netgear Trek, we found that the InvizBox wasn’t as good at staying connected to hotel and coffee shop wi-fi networks, so we had to reauthenticate to hotel wi-fi connections every time we turned the InvizBox on. We also found that the InvizBox didn’t remember what wi-fi network we’d been connected to, so we had to choose that again every time as well. We’d like to see a checkbox to mark a network for autoconnection — and if the InvizBox is supposed to be doing that autoconnection already, we’d like it to be more reliable.

We also saw some strange behaviour on one coffee shop wi-fi network where we had to manually navigate to a public site like Google to access the captive portal for the network because just connecting the InvizBox to the network didn’t trigger it; the URL of that public website was then displayed in the browser tab for the InvizBox portal — and when the wi-fi’s login page appeared, it replaced the InvizBox portal so we had to cycle through opening that portal and choose the wi-fi network to use again. That’s irritating rather than worrying, but it means the device isn’t as suitable for mainstream users as we’d like.

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Annoyingly, saving your settings doesn’t take you back to the previous page automatically.


Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

VPN speed depends on the latency and capacity of the VPN server you’re connected to, the performance of the InvizBox and the speed of the wi-fi network you’re connecting over. Used for wi-fi sharing we found it was a little slower than connecting directly to public wi-fi. Adding VPN to particularly slow coffee shop wi-fi made some websites unresponsive. On a faster connection, network speed was a similar speed to running a software VPN client. But what really affects connection speed is that the InvizBox only works with 2.4GHz wi-fi networks, not 5GHz.

The 5,000mAh battery promises ten hours of battery life; in practice we got two decent sessions of 2-3 hours with two or three devices connected, and we didn’t notice much difference in battery life between running the VPN or using it as a wi-fi router. You can use it while it’s plugged in and charging too. But this isn’t a large enough battery to recharge your phone and also stay connected all day.

We like that the InvizBox has a tamper-evident seal on the box. Someone who intercepts a device, adds malicious software to it and then sends it on to you will probably be sophisticated enough to clean up and replace the seal, but it does mean it takes more time and effort to intercept and tamper with it.

Conclusions

The selling point of the InvizBox ought to be convenience — especially if you travel with multiple devices and need to connect to high-value business networks over untrusted public wi-fi. In practice, we found using the InvizBox very fiddly; we were typing the appropriately complex password in to access the portal so many times that it was rather too tempting to change it to something simpler. If it’s inconvenient to connect securely, you’re much less likely to do it routinely and the InvizBox wasn’t nearly as painless to use as we were hoping. It’s a nice idea, but it could be both better specified and simpler to use. This would be a better choice for a more sophisticated user who understands the need to protect their connection and will put up with times they have to connect twice.

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