O2 vs Vodafone vs Three vs EE: Which UK iPad Air or iPad mini carrier should you get?

2013 iPad guide: How to choose between O2, Vodafone, Three and EE, and a popular MVNO alternative.

If you're in the UK with eyes on a new cellular iPad Air or Retina iPad mini, the decision on which carrier to go with is more difficult than ever. This time around 4G LTE is a factor, with three of the four big carriers having recently flipped the switch, with one more to come before the end of the year. As such, getting the most bang for your buck while accessing this superfast mobile data on your new iPad is likely top of the agenda. But it doesn't end there.

Let's take a look at what's on offer from the big four.

O2 vs EE vs Vodafone vs Three - The big four

As with the recent iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c launch, 4G LTE is the hot property in deciding where to go with your devices. If you want LTE out of the box, then Three can be discounted immediately. Three will be getting it, but not until December when the rollout will finally begin. That said, Three is notorious for offering great value for money on data allowances, and the HSPA+ offered currently will in places match the LTE offered by rival carriers for download speed.

O2 and Vodafone are still in the early stages of their respective rollouts, so for anyone serious about 4G right now, EE is the best looking option. Of the big four carriers, only O2 at the moment seems to have no plans to offer the iPad Air at launch. No pricing for subsidized models is available at the time of writing, but we'll update as and when that information becomes available.

The MVNO way

Perhaps not something that immediately springs to mind, but beyond the main four carriers there is still chance to get some data for your new iPad Air. Probably the most popular – and worth considering – is GiffGaff. And, while the selection of plans is limited, there's still a chance to get a decent bucket of data for not a lot of money. And, since it runs on the O2 network, the signal should be pretty good.

The best option for prospective iPad Air buyers is the £12.50 per month 'Gigabag,' which offers 3GB of mobile data. There are options at 500MB and 1GB for £5 and £7.50 per month respectively, but for not a lot more cash you get a decent extra chunk of data. If you're buying your new iPad from Apple, this option is absolutely worth considering.

The only real drawback; in the event of issues, you won't have as easy access to customer service as you would with the major carriers. GiffGaff has a big community focus, but the lack of high street stores could deter many.

Network availability

Beyond just thinking about the financial side, there's coverage to take into account. After all, there's little point paying out if you're not going to be getting what you're paying for. Generally the big four all have excellent coverage nationwide, with the usual blackspots to be expected. The best thing to do is to check out the coverage maps at the links below for each of them.

Who should get their iPad on Three?

If you don't mind waiting for LTE, Three is well worth a look. The HSPA+ offered by Three is more than competitive in terms of download speeds when compared to LTE enabled competitors, and is definitely to be considered by the data hungry iPad owner.

Who should get their iPad on EE?

Anyone who wants LTE, in more locations, now. EE has more coverage than the other LTE enabled carriers by far, and has even started rolling out double-speed data in certain locations such as London and Birmingham. The network that came together as a combined effort of Orange and T-Mobile has solid signal over most of the UK, and also has a decent reputation for working indoors.

Who should get their iPad on Vodafone?

At this point, the strongest argument is that if the signal in your area is strongest on Vodafone, then go with them. Their LTE offering is still in its infancy, and Vodafone traditionally hasn't been as price competitive as some of the other carriers. Long serving customers and folks who enjoy the best signal are best suited to Vodafone.

Who should get their iPad on O2?

As with Vodafone, O2 has a 4G LTE network currently in its infancy. The good news is that the spectrum used for it will work better indoors, so as it rolls out that might be something to consider. The main issue currently is that O2 has no apparent plans to sell subsidized iPads, so this one is strictly for those buying from Apple. For now.

Still undecided?

If you're still not sure about which UK carrier to get for your iPad Air or iPad mini jump into our iPad discussion forums and the best community in mobile will happily help you out, or hey, maybe Wi-Fi-only is good enough for you. Let know in the comments - which one did you go with and why?

Richard Devine

Editor at iMore, part time racing driver, full time British guy. Follow him on Twitter and Google+