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.
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David Chartier is an associate editor at Macworld.