Mobile data solutions for iPad

I have been asked if you have to buy an iPad with 4G (or 3G) to get data on the go with the tablet. The short answer is no, you don’t. There are several options to get your data fix when you’re not near a wifi hotspot but, as always, there are pros and cons of each.

First I will quickly discuss the cellular technology terms that are used in this document and that you will hear when talking to carriers. Then I can discuss the solutions available.

A quick review of cellular technology terms

This article discusses data and types of cellular technology. To make sure we’re all on the same page I’ll quickly review what all this means. If you’re already familiar with the material, feel free to skip ahead.

How much data do I need?

All of these plans offer you a fixed amount of data for a price but how much data do you need?

I use my iPad on cellular a lot and I have not crossed 2GB in a month yet. If I cross 1GB it is a big month for me. This may change a bit as apps and web pages start using higher resolution images for the iPad’s retina display. These images will be larger and use significantly more data.

The things that eat up data really quickly are streaming media, especially video. To give some scale, a 120 minute movie in standard definition (SD) is a little less than 2GB. So, if you’re planning on downloading movies or streaming video it may be best to wait until you have a wifi connection.

For casual users, Verizon’s 1GB plan is a good deal. AT&T’s 300MB plan is a joke and should be avoided. You can blow through that very quickly and the overage charge is very high. As is often the case, the middle option (2 or 3GB) usually works out best for most people.

3G, 4G, and LTE

These terms are used in marketing materials but it can be unclear what they mean. I’ll try to help make some sense of it.

3G, or third generation, is widely found in phones today. AT&T and T-Mobile use a technology called HSPA as their 3G solution. Verizon and Sprint use a technology called EV-DO. Data speeds for 3G technologies vary but as a rule HSPA is faster than EV-DO. HSPA can expect up to 2Mbps and EV-DO under 1Mbps.

AT&T and T-Mobile offer an enhanced version of HSPA called HSPA+. HSPA+ can go up to 42Mbps theoretically. Unfortunately both AT&T and T-Mobile are calling this “4G” technology which is misleading as it really is not new technology but rather improved 3G. It can offer very fast speeds, but there are few HSPA+ phones that can go that fast and few areas where the service is that fast.

LTE (or Long Term Evolution) is a new technology which is also called 4G but this is much closer to the truth. LTE offers very fast speeds for both download and upload. Speeds between 15 to 35Mbps for downloads are common. Compare this to the 2Mbps or less you get from 3G. LTE performance is often better than you get with a wired broadband connection.

To use LTE you need a device that has an LTE radio and a data plan with a carrier. All four major carriers are committed to moving their networks to LTE. Verizon currently has the most LTE coverage in the US as they started rolling out their network well over a year ago. AT&T started their LTE rollout last summer and is available in many major cities, but not outside the cities. Sprint is starting their LTE rollout later this year and T-Mobile will start theirs in 2013.

One of the downsides of LTE is battery life. The speeds are great, but the radios eat up batteries very quickly. The technology is still quite new so hopefully this will improve over time as the chipsets and software improve. 3G had similar problems when it was introduced several years ago.

Cellular Data Solutions

There are thee types of solutions to get cellular data for your tablet. Let’s review.

iPad with 3G/4G

Your first option is to get an iPad with 4G or an iPad 2 with 3G. This is certainly the most convenient as the radio is built in and the connection is always there. Both the new iPad and iPad 2 can work with AT&T or Verizon, but you need to choose which carrier you want to use when you buy the unit as the radios are different.

The convenience of having the cellular hardware will cost you $129 more than a wifi only iPad. This applies to both the iPad and iPad 2 and for either carrier. On the plus side, the cellular radio also includes GPS hardware so any location based software can get an accurate position.

Both AT&T and Verizon offer monthly plans, but the amount of data and costs are different:

Plan Data/Cost Overage
AT&T 300MB/$15 $15/300MB
AT&T 3GB/$30 $10/GB
AT&T 5GB/$50 $10/GB
Verizon 1GB/$20 $20/GB
Verizon 2GB/$30 $10/GB
Verizon 5GB/$50 $10/GB
Verizon 10GB/$80 $10/GB

It should be noted that AT&T offers 3GB/$30 whereas Verizon offers only 2GB/$30. If you are in areas that AT&T covers, that is a big deal. If you don’t have good AT&T coverage it doesn’t really matter. You can look at coverage maps for AT&T and Verizon to see which is better for you. Verizon has better overall coverage but what matters is where you plan to be.

Neither carrier requires a contract. This lets you buy data when you need it such as when you are traveling.

A bonus of the new iPad with Verizon LTE is that you can use the iPad as a personal hotspot. This lets you share the data with other wifi devices (like your laptop, game system, other tablets, etc.). AT&T does not offer this currently, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t at some point. This is not available on the iPad 2, just the new iPad.

Pros

  • Most convenient! Data is always available immediately
  • No commitment, monthly data plans. You can turn buy data when you want it and turn it off otherwise
  • Third generation iPad offers high speed LTE
  • iPad with 4G gets great battery life
  • GPS is built in
  • Personal hotspot available with Verizon third generation iPad

Cons

  • Cellular iPad is $129 more than the wifi model
  • You have to choose the carrier when you buy the tablet
  • Only carriers available are AT&T and Verizon
  • Cellular radio reduces overall battery life
  • Cannot share data with personal hotspot unless you have third generation iPad with Verizon.

Personal Hotspot or MiFi

Your next option Is to purchase a personal hotspot device (also know as a “MiFi”) and use that with a wifi iPad. In fact, Verizon was offering such a bundle with the first iPad before there was a Verizon 3G iPad.

The big advantage with this solution is flexibility. You can choose any carrier, not just AT&T and Verizon, so you can choose the best coverage and plan for you. LTE devices are available from AT&T and Verizon. T-Mobile’s “4G” hotspots could give you performance that rivals LTE so that may be worth considering if you are in an area covered by T-Mobile. Also, since the MiFi is not locked to the iPad it can be used with any other wifi device you may have such as a laptop, iPod Touch, Nintendo DS, Kindle, Nook, etc.

The disadvantages are in convenience and pricing.  You will have to carry two devices and keep them both charged. If you carry chargers that is an extra to keep in your bag. Another inconvenience is keeping the two devices connected. When using my phone as a hotspot, I have found that an iPad will not always automatically reconnect without some kind of manual intervention. This is really a hassle when you’re trying to get some information quickly.

In pricing there is a tradeoff. If you buy a MiFi with a two year contract, it will cost $50 plus the monthly fee for two years. You get an inexpensive device but you may be paying for data you do not need. Without the contract, the cost of the device goes up to $270 and activation fees may apply.

Here are some MiFi data plans offered with a 2 year contact:

Plan Data/Cost
AT&T 3GB/$35
AT&T 5GB/$50
Verizon 5GB/$50
Verizon 10GB/$80

Pros

  • You can choose any carrier
  • LTE is available
  • You can share the MiFi device with other devices

Cons

  • Inconvenience to carry two devices and keep both charged
  • Inconvenience as iPad has to connect with MiFi
  • No GPS capability
  • Cost of device and data is high

Phone Tethering

Instead of buying a MiFi device, many smartphones offer a personal hotspot or “tethering” option. This allows your phone to act as a wireless hotspot to share your data. This has the advantages of the MiFi but without having to buy a new device and get a separate data plan.

The downside to tethering is that carriers make you change to a special data plan and usually charge $20 more per month. For AT&T, the minimum plan is 5GB for $50/month.

Also note, that your data speed in this case depends upon the type of phone you have. If you have an iPhone, that means 3G speeds (AT&T 34G is okay but Verizon 3G is really slow). If you have an LTE phone then you can get terrific speeds.

Another consideration is battery life. If you use your phone as a hotspot, you are going to use up your phone’s battery faster. For many phones with poor battery life anyway, this may be a problem. Depending on how much you share, you may need to recharge your phone before the end of the day. This can be quite inconvenient for those of us who rely on their phones.

Pros

  • You don’t need to buy a new device or another data plan
  • You will likely have your phone with you anyway so carrying a second device isn’t a burden

Cons

  • You will need to buy a more expensive data plan for at least $20 more per month
  • Personal hotspot will reduce your phone’s battery life
  • No GPS
  • Inconvenient to keep two devices in sync
  • iPhone does not offer LTE speeds. Verizon’s 3G is very slow!

Conclusion

As usual, the best solution depends upon your personal situation. How often do you plan on using celluar data? How much do you want to pay? How important is convenience? Where are you going to use it?

Personally, I chose to buy an iPad 4G with Verizon and a 2GB data plan for two reasons.

First is convenience. I use my iPad on cellular a lot (my employer doesn’t offer wifi) and I like not having to worry about if another device is charged, enabled, and connected. I just turn on my iPad and I’m good to go. It makes the device much more useful. The 2GB plan seems like the right amount for me as I will often go over 1GB but not approach 2. In the rare event I do go over it will be a $10 charge for another GB.

Second is that the new iPad has LTE which is very fast. Crazy fast. I regularly see 30Mbps download speeds as opposed to the 1.5Mpbs I usually get from my AT&T iPhone 4S. It really is like being connected to broadband via wifi. Since my phone’s data speeds are so much slower I’d rather pay for an iPad data plan than for a phone’s tethering plan. I could have bought an LTE Mifi but that runs into the convenience factor and higher costs. Since the Verizon iPad can be a hotspot, that also negates the sharing advantage a MiFi has.

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About Lee J.

Mobile Guy!
This entry was posted in Analysis and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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