Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Should buy a wifi or a 3G cellular iPad?

Having had an iPad for over a year now I have some answers to this question.

I feel that I did the right thing buying the 3G version but with a couple of provisos:

  • You need to use a carrier with good coverage.
  • You need to have a longer term contract.

If you do this it will really liberate your iPad and allow you to use it in much more versatile ways.

My initial reason for buying the 3G version was the option of portability in the future and (importantly) having GPS for navigation, something that is not built into the wifi version. After buying it I got a T-Mobile (now Everything Everywhere) pay as you go SIM card and used that until April this year when I switched to the Three network.

These are my experiences of the two networks.


T-Mobile's charges had options of:

200MB for 1 day £2
500MB for 7 days £7
1GB for 1 calendar month £15

I always went for the 1 day option as it was usually for specific journeys I was going on the others gave far less bandwidth. Paymentis made from a balance paid by credit card and held in your account. Unfortunately the billing system did not seem to work reliably through the iPad so I sometimes had to log in from another computer to top up the account. This was extremely frustrating so i would always keep a reasonable balance in it.

Coverage was patchy and there seemed to be a lot of lag bringing up web pages. This might be DNS resolution, general latency or limiting of some sort. This test result from the app running on my iPad is typical of the performance I was getting.

Test Date: Mar 30, 2013 11:22
Download: 0.05 Mbps
Upload: 0.09 Mbps
Ping: 388 ms
Connection Type: Cellular

Disappointing, but for £2 per day its perhaps all that can be expected.


Because of the issues with T-Mobile I decided to try a different carrier. I use Tesco (on the o2 network) for my phone, but there is no 3G coverage in Cowdenbeath and some other areas I travel to so I did some checking and Three seemed to have reasonable coverage of these areas as well as covering my office and home addresses. I later found on a trip to orkney that o2 had no 3G coverage in Kirkwall, but Three did which was welcome but surprising.

I paid about £26 for 3GB of data to be used over three months and I am now ten weeks into this.

At the end of the three months it seems to offer the options of:

500MB for 1 day £2.99
500MB for 7 days £7
1GB for 1 calendar month £10
3GB for 1 calendar month £15
7GB for 1 calendar month £25

If you opted to pay on a contract they would provide 10GB per month for £15.

This test result is typical of speeds I am getting on the Three network:

Test Date: Jun 21, 2013 12:24
Download: 0.82 Mbps
Upload: 1.30 Mbps
Ping: 79 ms
Connection Type: Cellular

A lot of people will be disappointed by these figures, but what they don't show is the increase in speed of bringing up web pages which can be ten times faster than T-Mobile. I have also used it for streaming music to Spotify at higher bitrates and had no problems with buffering.

I also tethered the iPad using wifi hotspot on my mobile phone (Tesco/o2). The coverage and speed was better than T-mobile, but the inconvenience was too great as the wifi hotspot runs the phone down too quickly, I had to turn it on when needed and I have too little bandwidth on my phone contract to start sharing it on a regular basis.

Higher bandwidth plans

If you buy your iPad from Three their 24 month contract includes a higher limit of 15GB per month of data.

As a comparison:

24 months of their 10GB SIM only contract plan would cost £360
24 months of their 15GB iPad plan would cost £759 including an up front payment of £159, which after deducting the retail price of an iPad comes to £399

The advantage of this is that you are effectively getting the iPad on credit with monthly payments. You are also getting the higher bandwidth limit. The downside is that it will be locked to the Three network.

If I were buying a new iPad today I would probably opt to buy it through one of these mobile phone company schemes, probably through Three as I have had a good expereince so far.


Based on my experience the iPad is not really liberated until it has an always on cellular 3G connection. This means that you need a plan that offers more than one day's connection at a time. The choice of these is between pay as you go on a monthly basis or contracts that run continuously. These are cheaper in the long run.

This is based on my own experience. Yours may be different, especially in major cities where there is more congestion.