My 3G adventures with the iPad

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

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Today, that's not the case, so there are times I need to bring a laptop on the road. How does 3G work there? In most cases, carriers are happy to sell you a USB 3G stick or a MiFi wireless router -- along with a $50 and higher monthly plan you must commit to for a couple years. No way.

An alternative is to use a pay-as-you-go Broadband2Go plan from Virgin Mobile. I got its $80 Novatel USB 3G stick last spring after seeing it advertised as compatible with both PCs and Macs. Virgin had a 10-day, 100MB plan for $10; a 30-day, 300MB plan for $20; and a 30-day, 2GB option for $40. I used the $10 plan for a weeklong trip in July and found it quite useful. Note, however, that the installation software is not Mac-compatible, and Virgin's tech support was clueless. But it does work on a Mac once you get Virgin to manually set up your account; just use Mac OS X's Network system preference to turn it on and off.

But in August, Virgin ruined this plan by dropping the $20 option. Sure, the $40 plan now allows unlimited usage, but for business travelers not constantly on the road, it's the 300MB plan that makes the most sense -- and that's gone. Basically, Virgin increased its rates by removing the middle option. I now rarely use my Virgin 3G service, as it's only an option when I take one short trip a month with my laptop or when I'm on the road all month; even then, I have my iPad. When I take my MacBook Pro, I tend to use it only at the hotel or in an office, on Wi-Fi. My need for laptop 3G has decreased as the effective price for the service has gone up.

Verizon Wireless also offers pay-as-you-go mobile broadband plans, but they're much more expensive and thus even less attractive an option.

Lessons learned from my 3G adventures
What have I learned?

  • The iPad can do a lot on the road, and you can get plenty of online usage out of it with the $25 AT&T no-commitment plan and a decent amount of usage with the $15 AT&T no-commitment plan.
  • Complaints about the quality of AT&T's San Francisco 3G service, at least for the iPad, are valid. It'll vary based on what part of the country you're in. I'd take a test-drive, buying and then returning a USB 3G stick after using it fo a week (you'll have to pay that period's data charges, of course) -- as long as the carrier lets you return it for a full refund if you're not satisfied.
  • International travelers don't have it as easy as they should using local 3G service for their iPads in the countries they visit.
  • The MiFi is a poor substitute for the built-in 3G capabilities in the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G models -- if you travel, pay the extra $130 for those models' built-in 3G radio, especially as the MiFi costs $130 or more.
  • The pricing of laptop 3G is sure to drive people to iPads instead.

This article, "My 3G adventures with the iPad," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

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