So you've decided to buy an iPad, but you aren't sure you want to lay out an extra $130 for a 3G model (or AT&T's notoriously balky data service). We break down the pros and cons of the 3G vs. Wi-Fi-only iPads to help you decide which iPad is right for you.
Why Should You Choose the 3G Model?
Public Wi-Fi is becoming more and more common, but it still isn't available everywhere -- and it isn't always free. Some restaurants and coffee shops provide free wireless internet access to paying customers, often with a time limit, while others such as Starbucks offer the opportunity to purchase Wi-Fi access in two-hour blocks at $3.99.
If you happen to travel often, the Apple iPad 3G might make even more sense for you. While many hotels offer free wired access to the internet in guest rooms, it is unfortunately quite common for those same hotels to charge $10 a day for wireless internet access. If you're looking at an iPad as a replacement for the laptop you used to lug on vacations or business trips, you'll want to have the option of internet access anywhere. A single one week hotel stay can add up to an additional $70 in Wi-Fi fees, which is more than half the price difference between the regular Wi-Fi-only and iPad 3G models.
The ipad 3G is just slightly heavier than the Wi-Fi-only model, weighing in at 1.6 pounds as opposed to 1.5 pounds. There is also one other extra feature on the 3G model: GPS. If you intend to use your ipad heavily as a navigation aid, it's important to know that the 3G version can map your location more quickly and accurately due to the ability to use a built-in GPS and cellular towers, in addition to the location of known Wi-Fi hotspots. Both iPad types use Google Maps for mapping services, but the 3G model will offer better performance.
On a technical note, the iPad 3G, like the Wi-Fi-only version, works with 802.11 a/b/g/n networks. It also has UMTS/HSDPA (850, 1900, 2100 MHz) and GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900) compatibility.
If you decide to get the iPad 3G, setting up wireless service is gratifyingly simple. You don't have to go to a store or make a phone call to activate the service, since everything is handled directly from the device. The SIM card is already installed in the iPad 3G, so the first step is to go to the Settings app on the iPad and select Cellular Data. On that screen you can set up your account, which requires only your name, address, phone number, and credit card information. The account is set up as a prepaid data plan, so there is no contract and no credit check.
On June 7, AT&T revised their data plan lineup. You can now choose between a 250MB monthly plan for $15 and a 2GB data plan for $25 per month. Until recently, AT&T offered a $30 per month unlimited data plan, but that access level is now available only to existing AT&T wireless data customers. Both available plans also include free access to the more than 20,000 AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots across the country (which also includes Starbucks). If you choose the $15 plan, you will be warned at regular intervals when you are approaching your limit, at which point you can purchase another 250MB of data or upgrade to the $25 data plan. There are no pro-rated pricing options, so you can't choose to simply pay another $15 and upgrade to the unlimited plan for the rest of the month. If you exceed the 2GB plan, you can purchase an additional gigabyte for another $10.
No matter which plan you choose, it will be automatically renewed every 30 days, unless you cancel the plan before the next month's renewal fee is charged to your credit card. You can cancel or sign up at any time; since there's no contract you do not have to pay for monthly data access unless you need it. There are no activation or termination fees, making this setup ideal for folks who may only need occasional data access, such as for business trips or vacations.
If you travel internationally 3G service is available overseas, though at a hefty price premium. There is no unlimited data option, and prices start at $24.99 for 20MB and top out at 200MB for $199.99. The rules are slightly different for international plans; an active domestic data plan is required, and they do not auto-renew every 30 days like domestic accounts.
AT&T suggests that you purchase your international data plan before you leave the country. You can set the plan to start on a particular date, and if you will be out of the country for more than 30 days at a stretch it is possible to purchase more than one and stagger the starting dates. A full list of the countries supporting the service is available on the iPad or at att.com/dataconnectglobal.
It may be possible to use a prepaid SIM card in the iPad, as many travelers currently do when they want to use their iPhone overseas. Please note however that the iPad uses a microSIM card, and not all carriers currently offer SIM cards in that size. Anecdotal reports suggest that it is possible to trim a standard SIM card down to fit into a microSIM slot, so less expensive prepaid data services may be available to enterprising international travelers.
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