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Summary:

With Wi-Fi iPads now available directly from Verizon bundled with a MiFi wireless hot spot, you’re no longer limited to AT&T for on-the-go iPad connectivity. So which is better, Verizon or AT&T? We look at three key determining factors to help decide the answer.

ipad-vz-att

With Wi-Fi iPads now available directly from Verizon bundled with a MiFi wireless hot spot, you’re no longer limited to AT&T for on-the-go iPad connectivity. So which is better, Verizon or AT&T? Let’s look at three key determining factors to help decide the answer.

Financial

For new owners, iPad Wi-Fi + 3G pricing is fairly easy to figure out. The 3G option is $130 more than the WiFi-only iPad with the same amount of storage, and starts at $629. A data plan is $14.99  per month for 250 MB, or 2 GB for $25. On AT&T’s iPad plan, after you go over the 2 GB, you have to re-up for another 2 GB at $25.00. You can go month-to-month with AT&T, meaning there’s no contract to sign. You’ll pay for 30 days of service, but you can put the service on hiatus and pay for another 30 days whenever you happen to need it.

When you purchase a Wi-Fi iPad from Verizon bundled with a MiFi, you’ll pay the same as you would for an iPad Wi-Fi + 3G. Data plans are slightly different from Verizon, too. The minimum plan is $20 for 1 GB, but you can also get 3 GB for $35 or 5 GB for $50. Power users can pay $80 and get 10 GB. Verizon also offers a month-to-month plan for the MiFi, but only when bundled with the iPad. If you buy an iPad from somewhere else and then buy a MiFi, you’ll have to sign a contract, and the 1 GB plan isn’t available. You’ll be required to pay a minimum of $35 for the 3 GB plan (and $269.99 for the MiFi if bought outright — but it’s available for $49 with a two-year contract).

Doing the math (made more difficult since the iPad doesn’t ship with a native calculator app), Verizon’s option has the same initial hardware cost as AT&T’s, though the Wi-Fi only iPad it comes with won’t be as easy to use with other 3G networks abroad if you like to travel, and light internet users won’t have a 250 MB data option. Heavy duty users will really benefit from Verizon’s data plans.  And of course, the MiFi’s internet connection can be shared, while the standard iPad 3G is an island unto itself. With more data flexibility and connection sharing options, Verizon’s option is a compelling value. For those owners who want to stream lots of multimedia content, Verizon’s is the better alternative. For very light users who only need one connected mobile device, AT&T is probably a better value.

Ergonomic

The iPad 3G’s all-in-one design is both a feature and a liability. Not having to carry around or charge two different devices is great. Moreover, the MiFi has a battery life of three to four hours compared with the Wi-Fi iPad’s 10 hours or the iPad 3G’s 9 hours. The MiFi will go into sleep mode when not in use. Because I don’t need to be physically attached to the MiFi, in real-world usage, I could always find someplace to plug it in (car charger, wall outlet, or so forth) while remaining within its Wi-Fi range. Unlike the iPad 3G, the MiFi uses fairly standard batteries that are replaceable, so you could keep a spare battery or two with you, giving you more usable 3G time than with the iPad alone.

In practical use, carrying around the MiFi and worrying about charging it wasn’t the hassle I thought it would be. Considering its diminutive size, I had no problem keeping it in my iPad case or in my pocket with my iPhone. I often wrapped my headphones around the MiFi so it served more than one purpose. Of course, because it could be used for multiple devices, I carried it around with me in my laptop bag so I could have internet anywhere. Being able to share the MiFi with two iPads made travel easier for my spouse and me. Although we have one iPad 3G and one with only Wi-Fi, we could share an internet connection and create a wireless network between our iPads — all while using the same data plan from the MiFi.

Technical

Consumer Reports rated AT&T’s network lowest and Verizon first among national carriers. In my market (Kansas City), the Verizon MiFi was able to get a more reliable signal, though the speeds were nearly identical to AT&T’s 3G. Being able to use the iPad on a network besides AT&T’s is a big advantage for Verizon’s MiFi bundle. Setup of the MiFi was extremely easy and didn’t require a computer. The network ID and default password were printed on the MiFi. I went to the MiFi’s internal website and changed the network name and password. Advanced configuration of the device allowed MAC address filtering and port mapping. Doing it all on the iPad is pretty cool, let me tell you.

Unfortunately, one major downside of the Verizon MiFi was the lack of GPS. Since I have an iPhone, this didn’t bother me too much, but location aware services were hampered on the iPad using the MiFi. Location-based social media (Gowalla, Foursquare, Yelp, and so forth) had trouble finding me ,and point-to-point map directions didn’t work very well. This is logical, since the iPad is guesstimating your location; the Wi-Fi iPad doesn’t have built-in GPS, and the mobility of the MiFi defeats Apple’s normal method of detecting location-based on Wi-Fi access points.

Conclusion

The GPS capability seems to be an important factor between the two options. If you need GPS on an iPad, then the iPad 3G is your only logical choice. If you’re a heavy data user and intend to stream multimedia, you’re much better off financially with the Verizon bundle. If you would regularly go over the 2 GB of data allotted on an AT&T plan, then Verizon’s advantage scales up dramatically depending on how far over you’d go. Comparing coverage between AT&T and Verizon, based on Consumer Reports, you’ll probably have a better experience with Verizon. Finally, if you think you’ll need 3G coverage for more than a few hours while away from a power source, the iPad 3G is “all-in-one”, but the MiFi could give you about the same duration of coverage with an extra battery.

I’m recommending the casual surfer and non-technical buyers this holiday go for the iPad 3G, but heavy data and multi-device users are probably going better served by the Verizon MiFi bundle. Which are you planning on giving or getting?

Disclosure: Verizon Wireless of Kansas and Missouri provided the MiFi for testing purposes and the item was returned at the end of the review period.

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  1. Did you perform any bandwidth tests? I’d be really curious to see how the transfer rates compare.

    I think the main advantage to the MiFi is that you can connect other hardware to it, but I suppose you can do this with a jailbreak and MiFi too.

    1. I did. I had actually planned on testing it in multiple markets I was visiting Omaha during the holidays) but the plan fell through. I tried it in various locations from about a 60 mile radius from my home base.

      The results were nearly identical and therefore I didn’t include them in the final article.

      For testing, I took the iPad 3G and ran a speedtest. Turned off the 3G and connected it to the MiFi and then ran another speed test. AT&T on average, was about 3-5% faster download, but Verizon was about 10% faster upload. Of course it was strength of signal and location based. When I had weak Verizon signal the AT&T was faster. Just for the heck of it, I had a Verizon Galaxy (article coming soon!), and turned it into a hotspot for my iPad and speed tests were identical to that of the MiFi/iPad combo.

      In retrospect, it might have been fun to test a jailbroken iPhone and compare it paired with the iPad. Maybe I’ll revisit this issue when the new iPads come out.

      1. This is good information even if the results aren’t too different.

        My main problem with AT&T is the actual coverage, I often just have terrible reception, meanwhile next to me is a Verizon phone with full reception. When I do have good coverage with AT&T, the download speeds are great.

        If the transfer speeds are practically the same, then really the purchasing decision is going to be based on reception quality and coverage area. For me at least, that’s what makes Verizon more appealing.

  2. Did you consider adding in the Virgin Mobile MiFi into the fray? They have competitive pricing and is contract free.

    1. I did not figure that in because I was comparing the iPad 3G with the Verizon bundle because they are the same price at time of purchase so it’s a tough choice.

      The Virgin option allows you to add it after the fact, but costs more you are adding $150 to the price.

      However, based on the feedback, I’ll contact Virgin and see if they can provide one for testing! Thanks for suggesting it.

  3. You know what’s great — is the Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go MiFi.. It’s contract free and you get unlimited data for $40/mo.

    1. I just emailed Virgin asking for one to test as a compare contrast! Thanks for suggesting it.

  4. I just got a wifi only iPad and since I had Clear WIMAX (4G) service at home already, I opted to get a Clear Spot 4G+. It’s very similar to the MiFi, but if you are in a 4G area you get 4G speeds, otherwise it will use Sprint’s 3G network. I have frequently gotten speed tests > 5Mbit on 4G. We will travel to Indiana for Christmas and I intend to test it along the way and compare coverage and speeds with my AT&T iPhone. I like having two devices that use different networks in case I’m in an area with spotty coverage on one of the networks.

  5. The problem with the MiFi and similar devices is that it actually becomes a 3rd device you have to carry around, and charge – you’re still carrying a cell phone right?

    My preferred solution has been the Sprint/HTC EVO which provides a hotspot for up to 8 users, and 4G speed where available. The EVO has been a terrific phone and GPS device for maps and location services, and the hotspot function has been completely reliable. Interestingly, from the reviews I’ve read it sounds like my EVO hotspot has much better battery life than the MiFi.

    Another benefit of my setup is that the EVO lets me use the best of the Android apps, while the iPad gives me all the best Apple software.

    1. I’d agree that a phone that can act as a hotspot is an ideal combo so you don’t have to carry around a third device and can still use your iPad everywhere without purchasing a data plan.

      This is for the people that have un-jailbroken iPhones :-)

      Carrying it around really wasn’t much of a hassle at all. It either fit right in with my carrying case or I wrapped my headphones around it. It’s the size of a post it note pad.

  6. Back in 2003 I bought a new G3 iBook and, soon after signed up with Verizon for a Nationwide Family Plan, two Samsung SCH a530 phones and a “Mobile Office Kit”. Web internet access was included…unlimited data on Verizon’s 1XRTT “National Access” system via “voice minutes”.

    A monthly 1400 “prime time” voice minute plan was sufficient (with free minutes evenings and weekends). The cost (then $114/mo, later $104/mo), and so dropping my land line (which had been costing $70-80/mo. with Sprint, including long distance and another $19.95/month for dial-up web access) made the two cell phones a relatively good deal.

    Of late the Verizon 1XRTT service has become less reliable dropping connection during software update downloads and even ordinary web surfing. Also their software supposed to disconnect any connection after five minutes of inactivity is no longer functional; and so if one takes a leak and goes to bed without physically disconnecting a data call it has become possible to wake up and find 240 to 300 minutes of “prime time” voice minutes gone and Verizon is increasingly more interested in being paid for such situations (and in getting more money for their “data plans) than in keeping long term paying customers.

    I have looked at the Virgin MiFi…currently out of stock, although I understand they use the Sprint network. Am also looking at the Wal-Mart Straight Talk no-contract option which seems to also offer web access (although no idea at what speed).

    It’s really hard to discern the provider and cell phone options “out there”. I just want a simple phone with bluetooth and 1XRTT data capability. In rural areas the Verison FIOS, for example, is not available; nor is Clear.

    You would many a service if you did a follow-up piece from this angle. I just don’t think such vital services as basic private individual web access and two simple cell phones should require over a hundred dollars a month from two people trying to survive on social security alone.

  7. I’ve had the Verizon internet for a few years so I actually was grandfathered in with unlimited data usage. This has been great with the iPad. With the MiFi I can go home, download stuff on the laptop, connect my PS3, and surf on the iPad all at the same time. For those wondering about the size, the MiFi is only about the size of 3 credit cards. I love it.

  8. That was a really good article. One important point not there though. In regard to the Verizon MIFI, it is not as fee free as AT&T’s monthly prepaid plan. YOu just pay as you go with the AT&T. If you use the Verizon plan every month no problem. But, if you only use it when you are travelling and if you don’t use it every month and cancel one month and start it up the next, Verizon will charge you a $35 activation fee every time you start. I will use 3G only when I am travelling in my motor home and so I would have to pay them $35 plus the monthly fee every time I wanted to start it up.

  9. I solved both issues with my iPad. I got the 64G WiFi & 3G serviced by AT&T; and I also have MiFi 2200 serviced by Verizon. MiFi also runs my iMac at the house. Gives my iPhone4 a HotSpot if I want to download a large game or file. I’m happy. ;-)

  10. Dave, when you say no GPS, is that also to say that Verizon’s ipad does not support the kind of downloadable GPS apps that I use on my ATT ipad, in stead of the google maps one? I am speaking in terms of navigation, not social media, etc.

    Thanks

  11. “Doing the math (made more difficult since the iPad doesn’t ship with a native calculator app),…”
    Couldn’t stop laughing.

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