3G or not 3G – that is the question

Xavier Verhoeven
7 May, 2010
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Australians have it lucky. Sure, we have to wait two months longer than the Yanks to get our hands on (official) iPads, but when they do eventually come out here, we get the straight-up choice of Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi and 3G. There’s no waiting around like the US had between the staggered launches. We get to order either model, starting from Monday, 10 May.

Early adopters there (and here, like myself) had to go for the Wi-Fi model to feel that sense of having our Apple gear earlier than others. It’s a good feeling – but I think a lot of technophiles will be kicking themselves for the decision.

You see, I’ve been spoilt by the iPhone. I’m used to accessing the internet from wherever I am, 3G network permitting. It’s a small screen, but it can be pretty bloody useful for checking email, reading a Twitter feed, checking the weather, or killing time flicking around Safari.

So when I go out for lunch at my local noodle shop, it’s a tad disappointing that the iPad I’m typing this on can’t give me the internet access I crave. Instead, I have to get my phone out and accept the now seemingly tiny screen.

Of course, if Apple lets us tether our iPhones to our iPads, there wouldn’t be an issue. But then it would sell hardly any of the 3G model, and miss out on all the extra cash from its premium price. And I can imagine tethering would kill the iPhone’s battery in next to no time.

Another option is to get a portable Wi-Fi device like the MiFi or MyZone. These 3G modems have Wi-Fi routers that will let you connect you iPad, MacBook or even iPhone, and can be used with all the major networks. But they’re probably not ideal either, especially if you need a lot of battery life.

I already have a Wi-Fi iPad, and my credit card statement is strongly suggesting I leave it at that. But some of my colleagues are having a hard time making the decision. Australian Macworld associate publisher Liana Pappas had this to say:

With iPad pre orders coming up on Monday, I’m weighing up if I should order a 3G model or just the Wi-Fi one. And without any information on what the 3G plans will be, it’s making my decision harder.

I’ll be using the iPad for work, travel and at home. At work and home I’ll be using Wi-Fi, which solves my dilemma. But how about when I travel? Some airports have Wi-Fi, but it’s far from ubiquitous. What if I am delayed for eight hours, with no Wi-Fi? I’ll be wishing I chose the 3G version.

I’m leaning towards the 3G iPad, but I’m cringing at the thought of using global roaming and racking up another $4500 bill. Yes, South Africa + iPhone 3G + email = big bill. Whoops.

And what about in the car? If I buy the 3G iPad, I can use GPS. If I need to catch a train, I can check Metlink Melbourne for timetables while I’m at the station. The decision is tougher than I thought. So I still haven’t decided if I’ll be pre-ordering the 3G or Wi-Fi model.

Sound familiar?

If always being within arms-reach of the internet is a priority for you, then the 3G is likely the way to go. If you don’t get out much, and have a super-fast 802.11n network set up at home, then you might as well forget it. But for those in between (the vast majority) it’s not so cut and dry.

So, should you get a 3G iPad?

We’ve already looked at the obvious differences between the Wi-Fi and 3G models. On the outside, the only changes are a plastic section on the back to let the 3G antenna do its thing, and a Micro-SIM slot on the iPad’s side. And on the software side of things, there are a few more options in the Settings app, but it’s nothing groundbreaking.

Oh, and like Liana mentioned, the 3G also sports a GPS chip, so you could mount it in your car and never get lost again. By the way, maps on this thing look incredible.

In terms of battery life, it looks like the 3G drinks a bit of juice, but not enough to turn me off it. Apple claims a nine-hour battery life for the 3G iPad – down an hour from the Wi-Fi-only estimates. iLounge put the two models to the test and found the official claims were pretty close. They got 10 hours and 21 minutes from the Wi-Fi, and 8 hours and 38 minutes from the 3G. I’d be willing to sacrifice just under two hours for the luxury of always having the internet in my man-purse. It’s sure longer than a 3G Wi-Fi router is likely to deliver.

Of course, one of the big questions lies around the price of the iPad. The 16GB Wi-Fi model is going for US$499 and the 3G commands a US$130 premium at US$629. We can speculate on Australian prices til the cows come home – or just wait and see. One thing that we can be sure of is that the 3G models will be somewhere in the range of $100-$250 more than the Wi-Fi-only, so you will have to pay for the internet-on-the-go privilege. But 3G Wi-Fi routers are around that price anyway, so no matter what, you’re stuck paying extra to get data everywhere.

And then there’s the question of 3G access in Australia. The Americans have a pretty good deal – albeit on an apparently average network – where they can sign up for 250MB for US$14.99 per month, or unlimited data for US$29.99 per month. And the best bit? There’s no contract, so they can opt out at any time.

Australian networks are being ‘mum’ on the subject – but that probably doesn’t mean they’ll announce their plans on Mother’s Day, the day before the iPad is available for pre-order (don’t worry about thanking me for reminding you, just get your mum something nice). The latest official word from each of Vodafone, 3, Optus and Telstra is that they will support the iPad, but have no immediate intention of disclosing any pricing information. Telstra has just announced new post-paid data packs which may offer insight into its iPad plans, though I’d like to see some cheaper options.

We can live in hope that there will be some indication on pre-order day.

But if all that fails, there are still many options available, as those who have imported their own 3G model would know. Unlike the iPhone, the iPad is unlocked by default, meaning you can put any SIM card you want inside. The one problem? It only takes Micro-SIMs, which are pretty hard to come by.

Thankfully, you can get around that issue by literally cutting a normal SIM down to size. A few friends of Australian Macworld have gone down this route, and found that the iPad works well on pre-paid SIMs from all the major networks, except Vodafone, which appears to be blocking the device. Though your own results may vary.

Whatever the case, the decision will be a tough one. While it would be great to know whether carriers might offer subsidised iPads on 24-month plans, or even a vague idea on what pricing might look like for mobile data, you can always buy the device and pick a carrier (pre- or post-paid) later on.

Ah, stuff the credit card, I’m getting a 3G. I need to check Twitter when I’m out for a coffee, and I just couldn’t bear having to find a McDonalds with Wi-Fi for the privilege.

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