Review: Apple iPad Wi-Fi + 3G
The 3G iPad is every bit as good a device as the Wi-Fi-only model, while 3G connectivity provides an extra measure of flexibility
Of course, such performance varies widely depending on the quality of the AT&T network in your location. And given that poor performance on AT&T's 3G network has been one of the major complaints with the iPhone, don't expect magically better performance on the iPad. The apartment to which I recently moved resides in a spotty coverage zone for AT&T's network, and I've experienced frequent signal drops, poor coverage, and slow service on both my iPhone 3G S and my 3G-enabled iPad. I also have one of Apple's recent 802.11n AirPort Extreme Base Stations, which helps me get the most out of my Wi-Fi network.
If you live, work, or otherwise spend a lot of time in a place with solid 3G coverage, you should find the iPad's 3G performance to be perfectly serviceable for most common tasks, like reading e-mail, surfing the Web, checking RSS feeds, and keeping up with social-networking sites like Facebook or Twitter.
But when you start to get into more intensive tasks, the cracks in the 3G network begin to show. While I was able to stream video, audio, view maps, and so on over the 3G connection, the performance was sometimes subpar. Streaming via Netflix's iPad app, for example, yielded video that was mostly watchable, though it did suffer from frequent pauses in playback as the video re-buffered.
The quality of the video delivered over the 3G network is also noticeably lower than what you get via Wi-Fi. Netflix, for example, down-samples the video, though it's passable. I also tried the AirVideo video-streaming app, which allows you to pick and choose from a variety of data rates, but I still had trouble with pauses in playback.
I had even worse luck with the recent ABC Player update, which allows for streaming video over the 3G connection. Performance varied hugely depending on location, with streaming basically impossible to use at my home. However, I did find that other locations yielded better results, and in one particular incident, I actually had to flip the iPad's cellular data connection off and then on again to yield better speeds.
Most perplexingly, I found that YouTube videos streamed over 3G were practically unwatchable, due to their low quality--you appear to get the same videos that the iPhone gets over the 3G connection, which look terribly pixelated on the iPad's higher resolution screen.
In general, pretty much any bandwidth-intensive task from video streaming to rendering graphics-heavy Web pages takes longer to complete via the 3G connection, but when you're out and about with nothing to compare it to, it's not much of a bother.
As I noted in my first look at the 3G iPad, managing your AT&T account on the iPad is simple: you can sign up, monitor your usage, change your plan, and even cancel it all from the iPad's Settings app. While no contract is required, do remember that the data plans are prepaid, so once you activate a plan, you've got it for 30 days. Changing or canceling a plan won't take effect until the end of the billing cycle.
Of the two plans offered through AT&T, which should you get? Well, the ability to subscribe and cancel at any time is a hugely beneficial one: it means you only have to sign up for 3G service when you need it--say, when you're traveling, for example.