How far can you go with the iPad's $15 data plan?

We turn off Wi-Fi to find out if you can get away using AT&T's cheaper, 250MB iPad data plan instead of the $30 unlimited plan

If anything is revolutionary about the iPad, it's that Apple persuaded AT&T to do away with the standard lengthy contracts for cellular service in exchange for a month-to-month commitment. Equally impressive, Apple also managed to wrangle a cheaper data plan out of AT&T, still sans contract: $15 for 250MB of monthly data. But on the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G, a device with a powerful Web browser, a hot App Store, a YouTube app, and more, how much will 250MB actually get you?

I signed up for the $15 plan over the weekend and used my iPad as I normally would, with the exception of leaving Wi-Fi off to see how far 250MB could really go.

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What I used

In a typical day, I use Safari to visit Tumblr, Facebook, and do a few Google searches. One day I shopped for an iPad GelaSkin; another I used the iPad version of Articles to look up two Wikipedia entries. I usually start NewsRack, my RSS reader of choice, two or three times a day to read the latest news over lunch or on the train. I have three accounts in Mail: One is push (MobileMe), the other two pull new messages once every hour. While I get anywhere from 30 to 80 or more messages a day, most aren't anything more than text, and a good portion are filtered away from my inbox by my Mac. I watched a few YouTube videos, and updated a few small apps -- between 5MB and 10MB apiece -- and that was generally about it.

There are two options for tracking your bandwidth usage on the iPad. If you tap View Your Account under Settings > Cellular Data, you can see how much data you've used and how much you have left for your billing period. However, I found that this meter doesn't usually update immediately. You can also view usage under Settings > General > Usage, which seems to present a more current picture of your bandwidth situation.

151065-ipad_3g_data_overview2_original.jpg
You can check your bandwidth use under the Cellular Data section of Settings, but the count isn't always accurate.

What I learned

In a nutshell: Even just Web browsing can eat up bandwidth fast, and the meters for both the iPhone OS and AT&T (when it updates) seem to either not register very small portions of data, or update in at least 1MB chunks. Tumblr, a site rich in media and and fancy JavaScript interface magic, eats up anywhere from 1MB to 3MB each time I visit (depending on whether Tumblr users I follow post a lot of images). Facebook is usually 1MB to 2MB. Tapping through to a friend's Facebook status to see any comments sometimes doesn't register on the bandwidth meter, but sometimes racks up another megabyte. GelaSkins.com's online store boasts a number of images and a rotating banner showing off skins for various gadgets—it weighed in at 2MB. Opening the iPad section's first page was another 1MB, and visiting a specific skin was yet another 1MB. See what I mean about bandwidth adding up fast?

When it comes to news feeds, I tested NewsRack with both my custom settings and without. When I turned on some features like downloading images from the latest 10 articles, my first refresh in the morning of my 349 feeds took 15MB. After reinstalling NewsRack to clear out all feeds and use the default settings (with images turned off), an initial download of the 100 most recent articles in each feed took 8MB. Subsequent refreshes to update these feeds later in the day took 5MB with images, and 2MB without.

151065-ipad_3g_data_warning_original.jpg
An example of one of the bandwidth warnings you'll receive on the iPad's 250MB data plan.

Toss in a couple of short YouTube videos and small app updates, and I hit the 250MB ceiling in just three days after activating my month-to-month plan.

What happens next

So what happens when the data runs out? Fortunately, AT&T issues two push notifications before you hit the end of the information superhighway: the first when you have about 20 percent of your data plan left, and the second at about 10 percent. When I ran out completely, I received a final push notification informing me that my plan had ended and offering the options to purchase a new plan or wait until later. If you opt to wait, you are cut off from 3G data until you buy into a new plan. The experience feels much like hitting a virtual brick wall on the Internet, but on the upside, at least AT&T doesn't quietly let you continue gobbling data at an outrageous over-limit fee. I wonder if this new, friendlier data plan billing is part of what Apple means with that "magical" and "revolutionary" bit.

Remember, though, that I never turned on Wi-Fi during this 3G data experiment, so if you're switching back and forth, your mileage will definitely vary. And that underscores the central point of the 250MB 3G plan: It's not really aimed at day-to-day use but rather intended for short bursts of very specific data consumption when you're traveling, out and about, or otherwise nowhere near an available Wi-Fi connection.

Besides aggressively managing when you use 3G versus Wi-Fi, there are other things you can do to optimize those 250MB of data you're allotted. Two key things to look out for are application updates (AT&T recently increased permissible file download sizes over 3G to 20MB) and Web usage. Because many companies treat the iPad's browser like a full desktop browser, you'll get the full, non-optimized version of their Website, which is usually much larger than the scaled-down version the iPhone gets.

But if you use your iPad on Wi-Fi at home, at work, and at the coffee shop where you spend too much on your caffeine fix, the cheaper 250MB plan has a much better chance of making it through the month, especially if you stick mostly to email, general Web and new browsing, and light media streaming. However, if you plan on streaming a lot of video or, say, buying iTunes albums over 3G, you'll most likely have to pony up for the unlimited plan. I know I will.

Don't forget to be part of the InfoWorld Mobile Patrol: Send in your tips, complaints, news, and ideas to comments@infoworldmobile.com. Thanks!

David Chartier is an associate editor at Macworld.

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