One of the questions we get all the time is whether or not it's better to get an iPad with built-in 3G (which costs $130 more for the device, $15 or $30 for the service), or to get an iPad Wi-Fi and tether is via Mi-Fi or to a Google Android or Palm webOS device running Mobile HotSpot software (which costs 0 to $30 for the option).
Of course, Apple currently doesn't offer Mobile HotSpot on the iPhone, or a way to tether the iPad via the existing Bluetooth or USB feature, so you're out of luck there.
We ran two (admittedly unscientific) test just to see how the iPad would perform, both natively and when tethered to a Nexus One running Android 2.2 Froyo, and a Palm Pre Plus. First we put all three through the Speed Test app, and then we loaded a web page on each to get a feel for real-world performance. (Cache, cookies, and history cleared, of course.)
And the results varied quite a bit. Check out the video above for highlights and continue reading for more...
iPad on built-in 3G
On Rogers 7.2mbps network I routinely get HSDPA (download) between 2500 and 4500 kbps down, but since the iPad doesn't have an HSUPA (upload) radio, I only get between 150 and 300kbps up.
For real-world performance I loaded up TiPb.com and it was fine. Text was near instant and graphics were snappy.
If AT&T in the US, or your local carrier has a good, solid HSPA network that works for you in your area, and you like the idea that your iPad can keep working even if your Mi-Fi or smartphone runs out of juice, this is a great option. (currently $15 a month for 256MB, $30 for 2GB on AT&T, prices and data caps vary internationally).
iPad tethered to Nexus One/Froyo Mobile Hotspot
Also on Rogers, the Nexus One Wi-Fi HotSpot was all over the place when it came to upload, from a pathetic 530 to decent 2818 and back again. In dozens of tests, it remained totally random what I'd get -- sometimes really slow, sometimes equalling the built-in radio.
To see how that would play on the web, I went to AndroidCentral.com. It was also fine. Near instant text, snappy graphics. I couldn't tell a major difference other than, again, sometimes it zoomed along, other times it stammered a little, and it frequently varied in between.
If you have an unlocked Nexus One running Froyo and your carrier hasn't blocked tethering on your account -- hey, it's free. Save yourself some bucks and use it.
If AT&T or your local iPad carrier isn't reliable in your area, or you just want your iPad to be on a different network for added robustness, there are Verizon and Sprint MiFi devices and Android phones you can get to fit the bill -- though the tethering service will cost you. If you're on Verizon, check out the Motorola Droid X (currently $20/2GB a month for HotSpot). If you're in an area with Sprint 4G, the HTC Evo 4G is something to consider ($29 a month for HotSpot).
iPad tethered to Palm Pre Plus Mobile Hotspot
Giant, huge, caveat -- I was testing a Verizon Palm Pre Plus roaming on Bell's CDMA EVDO Rev A network, so this is especially unscientific. That said, download looked horrible in the speed test -- hovering around 100kbps. Upload was better than the built-in radio, however, often between 400 and 450kbps.
Heading over to PreCentral.net, text remained quick and although the graphics took noticeably longer to download, I could scroll around and read while I waited and they showed up fast enough for on-the-go use.
The big deal about the Verizon Palm Pre Plus is that Mobile HotSpot is currently free, so if you got it, by all means use it! If you're not on Verizon, however, you'll have to pay for it and then the price for performance will be more of a factor.
You get a lot of flexibility with Mobile HotSpot -- you can choose between more networks and tether more than just your iPad -- typically 5 to 8 Wi-Fi devices. You have a choice of MiFi or the smartphone you're already using. Prices range from free to full on premium so check with your carrier first. Also remember, if you're using your primary phone to tether, you're going to rundown the battery -- fast. If that's a deal-breaker for you, you'll also need to look at additional batteries and plugging in to re-charge more often on the go.
In terms of the built-in iPad 3G, you get the convenience of not having to setup (and often pay for) an additional device just to get it on the internet when you're away from a Wi-Fi connection. If you're local carrier is solid, it's really easy to do and you can pay for light data, or heavy data, without contract. iPad 3G does cost more up front, however, and you will be paying for the extra plan anyway.
So it all boils down to your network and your usage pattern -- what, you thought their was a secret answer?
If you don't like AT&T and have Palm Pre Plus or Froyo tethering for free, why are you still reading? Grab an extra battery or plug and get tethering! If AT&T is what you want and you just want to be able to use 3G where and when you want to, spend the extra cash at Apple and get the service set up on-device -- your time is valuable too.
And if you're already using an iPhone 3G, or tethering an iPhone to your MiFi, Android, or Palm device, let us know how the costs are working out and how the connectivity is treating you.
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