Wi-Fi iPad with Verizon Mifi vs. iPad 3G on AT&T

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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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