Apple iPad 3G: The Cost of On-the-Go Connectivity

Apple's newest iPad, the 3G-equipped model that arrived Friday, is identical to the earlier Wi-Fi-only model, save for a plastic black strip running along the top of the device -- for 3G reception -- and a SIM card slot on the lower left side. Otherwise, the iPad 3G offers the same features as the model that arrived April 3: same solid design and construction, same bright and sharp 9.7-inch screen, same battery life.

Other than weighing a tenth of a pound more (1.6 pounds instead of 1.5), the big difference is that you can now take online access pretty much wherever you go -- as long as there's an AT&T 3G network nearby and you're willing to pay an extra $130 (plus a monthly fee) for the privilege.

Where the Wi-Fi models cost $499, $599 or $699, depending on how much storage you get -- 16GB, 32GB or 64GB, respectively -- the iPad 3G starts at $629 and jumps up in $100 increments from there. The top-of-the-line model goes for $829.

The question iPad buyers have to consider is simple: Is the extra $130 worth it?

The answer depends on whether you require Internet access wherever you take your iPad. (Bear in mind, AT&T is the only 3G provider the iPad 3G works with in the U.S.; you could replace the tablet's SIM card with one for T-Mobile's service, but that only gets you T-Mobile's slower EDGE network. And AT&T's 3G service can be uneven, especially in places like New York City and San Francisco, where iPhone users have complained about AT&T's overtaxed network.)

In addition to paying more for the iPad 3G, you also have to pay for that data you'll be using. AT&T charges $14.99 per month for 250MB of data or $29.99 for unlimited access. This is charged to an assigned credit card on a monthly basis, and there's no contract or early termination fee. The plan can be enabled or disabled directly from the iPad itself, and you can stop the service without penalty. (Of course, 3G access is the reason most iPad 3G buyers waited for this particular model in the first place.)

If you're having trouble figuring which plan is best for you, and if you're an iPhone user, you can see how much data you use each month by going to Settings --> About --> Usage on the phone. This will give you some idea of your data use -- but keep in mind that you're likely to use even more on the iPad than on an iPhone.

Real-World Performance

After selling my Wi-Fi-only iPad and waiting in line for the 3G model on Friday, I quickly signed up for an unlimited AT&T data plan to see how the iPad would perform. I found that the wireless reception is good, and download speeds are equivalent to what you'd see on an iPhone 3GS. In other words, it's not as fast as Wi-Fi, but it's fast enough for routine Web surfing, checking e-mail and using most of the apps you already have.

(Some apps are video-heavy and tell you directly that you need a Wi-Fi connection. Others are 3G-aware and throttle back on their bandwidth use to accommodate the 3G network. More about this in a minute.)

Although data speeds are the same as those of the iPhone 3GS, Web page rendering is faster because of the speedier processor in the iPad. So it might feel a little faster than the iPhone when you're surfing. And the handoff between Wi-Fi networks and 3G is smooth and seamless. The only indication that you've changed networks is that the icon in the upper left-hand corner of the screen changes.

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