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iPad 2: 3G vs. WiFi Observations

iPad 2

Last spring I purchased an original iPad and had a few observations about choosing a 3G iPad over a WiFi iPad.

I thought these observations after a year of use might be helpful for you, if you're looking at the new iPad 2 (launching today) and are weighing 3G vs. WiFi networking as part of your purchase.

So, below are some thoughts about why you might choose a 3G iPad 2 or a WiFi iPad 2—maybe a few things you hadn't considered about them on the surface.

iPad 2 w/ 3G - The Pros

• GPS Unit - (WiFi doesn't) so that maps and other location services work better, even if you decide to cancel the 3G plan after the first month.

• Easy Re-Activation - Even if you eventually turn off 3G, it's easy to activate it on the spot, right on the iPad if you need connectivity. I needed this once and it was very convenient to have immediate access as needed.

• Equal AT&T and Verizon Plans - After reading the Apple Insider article on 3G options, both Verizon and AT&T plans are pretty close and let you turn them on and off at will. The article was updated to show no Verizon $35 activation fee at startup, or later on.

• Activation Really is On-Demand - I believe (based on our 3G iPad 1) we had to at least activate the first month, then we were free to cancel or activate at will afterwards. It worked really well for us—we ran AT&T 3G for our summer vacation, then turned off 3G for a few months, re-activating it a few times as needed later in the year.

• 3G is Great on the Road - Having 3G on the road was nice for maps. My wife did hotel research one stormy day while I was driving us home—3G was well worth having.

• Free WiFi on AT&T - If you go AT&T you also get access to AT&T's WiFi hotspots, which might be handy at Starbucks ands other locations where those hotspots appear.

• 250MB 3G Plans are Paltry - The basic $15 plan for 250MB data is really paltry. It didn't take long to exceed this for very modest data use—might be good only if you do email and other text-based low-data things with the iPad 2. I'd suggest the 2GB plan.

iPad 2 w/ WiFi - The Pros

• Tethering or MiFi Might be Better - One reason to go WiFi is if you have tethering with your iPhone, a MiFi (3G to WiFi device) or just never use it outside of the home or work.

• Cost Benefits to WiFi - Also, for a bit over the cost of the 16GB 3G iPad 2 ($630) you could get a 32GB WiFi iPad ($599) and a regular Smart Cover ($39) for $640. Having that extra space might be more important to you than 3G.

Our iPad 3G Experience

For us, the 3G device was a great choice. We wanted data access specifically for road trips, for mapping, surfing, video and other data uses on the road. On our big family trip last summer, we made extensive use of the Google Map feature in the iPad, which is aided by the GPS unit only found in the 3G iPad.

Having 3G on the road was also very helpful for finding hotels on the road—my wife was able to check the web for hotels nearby, call and get availability and then route us to the hotel using the large iPad screen.

As a general road trip device, the iPad was fantastic. Long battery life, access to game apps and videos for our 8 year old son was perfect to keep his attention for our 10 hour trip east and back. Especially key was battery life—10 hours made it easy to let us run the iPad without any concern about the thing going dead on us.

I hope these observations are helpful if you're pondering an iPad 2 purchase.

If you have other observations to add, please leave a comment so this article can become a resource for others.

Reader Comments (7)

Thanks, Mike for the helpful review. I added the $15 3G plan on my original iPad, but haven't used it yet. I got the iPad2 yesterday and plan to just switch out the sim card. I have a trip to San Franciso coming up in April and was planning to just take the iPad instead of my laptop. So hearing about the advantages of 3G when traveling was very helpful. Do you know how MB hungry Google and Google maps are? I might want to upgrade the 3G plan for my trip. Any thoughts? Thanks.

March 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Jude Rathburn

Hi Mike—

Thanks for the wrap-up of your iPad2 3G experience. I've been considering a move in the other direction—from iPad WiFi+3G to iPad2 WiFi—and I'm doing some software tests with the original iPhone (no GPS, no 3G and no data plan at all) and my Palm Pre to see what works with tethering.

The first thing is that tethering is a battery hog. I knew that already, but what it means is that I have to turn it on and off each time I want to use iPad data. For me, that's OK. I'm looking at travel on a motorcycle, so checking the map means stopping, taking gloves (and possibly helmet) off, removing devices from a bag and so on. Turning mobile hotspot on and off isn't that much more difficult—so long as all my devices are in easy-to-access outer pocket locations.

Some of the places I'll be going through will have no cell access, so I'm going to have to troubleshoot that as well, but I'll post my solutions on my blog there as well.

(BTW, check to see if feedburner is working correctly for you. I just saw this post today (March 14) and your post is marked Friday (March 11th).)


March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteven M Scotten

Just a follow-up since I finished the testing. My verdict is that for traveling, tethering with a mobile hotspot just won't replace the GPS. It might still be an option to save money on a data plan, but the best thing would be to have the data plan on one carrier and your phone with tethering on another carrier.

March 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteven M Scotten

@jude - I think the 250MB plan might be enough for your needs, depending on your surfing habits. You're right to note Google Maps data use - I think that could also push you over the top.

If you decided to stay with the smaller plan for the trip, you will be alerted that your data is getting low, I think once you pass 60%, and for every 10% increment you get closer to 100% if I recall right.

I believe AT&T will offer you a chance to upgrade to the larger data plan right on the iPad, or you can just let it roll over and AT&T will charge you $15 for an additional 250MB.

I left the low plan in place when I started playing with the iPad to get some idea how good or bad it was - I was careful and still it seemed to go really quickly - so if you think mapping or surfing might happen, it may make sense to be proactive and jump to the larger plan (and then shut it off in 30 days).

@Steve Thanks for your feedback. Never thought about a motorcycle use but in that case tethering sounds OK, so long as your battery holds out. :-)

Interesting conclusion. I suppose if one really needed accurate, real-time mapping, a cheap $100 GPS you can mound somewhere still makes lots of sense vs. tethering or using an iPad w/ 3G data.

March 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterMike Rohde

@Jude - my thinking for being proactive and moving to the 2GB plan is that if you let the 250MB $15/month plan get consumed and have to charged for an additional 250MB for another $15 you've spent $30 for only 500MB of data.

For the $25 on the 2GB plan you're getting 1.5MB of data in that plan for $5 less than if you let the 250MB plan rollover - much better deal if you're sure you'll use that data.

March 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterMike Rohde

@Mike mostly I'd want it for planning routes, and plans might change in the middle of the trip. The big screen is good for making those plans. The only reason I would need real-time GPS is when I'm not really sure where I am. That can happen on roads I'm only somewhat familiar with, but when I'm out exploring entirely new places it's easy to miss a turn and end up really far away from where I expect to be. Having the reality check is very helpful.

I'm not all that interested in handlebar-mounted devices because of the distraction factor. I'm perfectly satisfied with pulling over to check the map, and that's probably the biggest difference between car and MC map navigation, and the reason I dont think that tethering would go over too well in a car unless you kept the phone plugged in to the accessory charger (does anyone actually light cigarettes with those things any more?)

March 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteven M Scotten

Thnaks for the post on the ipad, and let us all know what else you discover. Rigth now I am diving in to the various apps and drawing techniques that can a treat on the device. More to come.


March 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdouglas wittnebel

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