My 3G adventures with the iPad

Your intrepid blogger sees how much he can rely on his iPad outside the comfort of Wi-Fi

My iPad has quickly become my constant companion, but I rely on Wi-Fi networks at home, at the office, at relatives' and friends' homes, and at hotels to stay connected for email, Web browsing, and all the rest. Given all the issues reported with AT&T's 3G network, I was glad I wasn't required to sign up for a monthly plan when I got the 3G-capable iPad model. But over the last three months I've had an usual amount of out-of-the-office travel, often in places with no accessible Wi-Fi networks or, at many hotels and airport lounges, where the per-day price was so exorbitant that I wouldn't pay. (Wi-Fi for travelers remains a very mixed bag, given the fractured providers and high costs in many traveler locations.)

I put my misgivings aside and signed up for 3G service -- where I could (more on that in a bit). Here's how the experience went and what I learned.

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A week on the road in Boston: A surprisingly solid experience
In October, I signed up for AT&T's 2GB pay-as-you-go (no-commitment) service for $25. I spent five days in the Boston area, including two full days at a conference where I relied exclusively on the 3G service, with my Exchange and IMAP email accounts live the entire time. I also used the service at the airports in Chicago, Providence, R.I., and Boston, as well as in the planes while waiting at the gates. I also used the 3G service while taking the BART train to and from the San Francisco airport and while I got around Boston via the MBTA subway system (the T) for three days. In addition, I used it for a few hours each night in my hotels: one night at a Doubletree because I didn't see the need to pay for Wi-Fi access, and three nights at the Lenox in Boston because its free Wi-Fi service's signal was intermittent in my hotel room.

Oh, and while I was driving in central Massachusetts for some meetings, I used the 3G service and the iPad's Maps app to act as a GPS navigator -- which came in quite handy as I wandered off course twice but could glance at the map sitting next to me to see my current position compared to my destination.

During that period, I used about 210MB -- a lot less than I expected. Had that been my only need for 3G that month, I could have spent just $15 for AT&T's 150MB plan and saved $10. I especially liked the fact that when I tried to install some application updates, the iPad alerted me about those that were large (tens of megabytes) and suggested I wait until I was at a Wi-Fi location before downloading them. It also holds off on downloading large email attachments without permission -- bandwidth-saving features that benefited both AT&T and me.

I was also surprised in a generally good way about the speed of the 3G service in that area. Sure, it's not Wi-Fi, but I had no trouble doing my basic work, such as handling emails, editing stories via our online content management system (if only the Office-like MCE editor worked with mobile Safari and mobile Safari supported HTML5's contenteditable function!), and receiving and sending attachments. I especially loved the ability of the iPad's Notes app and Quickoffice app to send text as attachments directly, so I could share my conference notes with colleagues during the conference itself.

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