3G v. Wi-Fi: Which iPad is Right for You?

The iPad has been available for a month now in the United States, but the 3G-capable version of Apple's tablet device just launched this past Friday. Apple has reportedly sold more than one million iPads thus far--less than half the time it took the original iPhone to reach that same milestone. If you aren't one of the million plus that already has one, here are some things to consider when choosing between the Wi-Fi only or 3G-capable models.

The 3G iPad is available now, but the extra $130 may not be worth it for everyone.
Cost

Let's begin with the most obvious difference--cost. The 3G version of the iPad costs $130 more than its Wi-Fi only counterpart, and all that buys you is the privilege of having the option to use 3G. Actually using the 3G network will cost more money.

Apple negotiated a pretty sweet deal with AT&T for the 3G networking, though. At $15 a month for 250Mb of data, or $30 a month for unlimited data, the pricing seems reasonable enough. But, the best part is that there is no contractual obligation--so you can purchase 3G connectivity if you need it in an emergency, and turn it right back off without any additional fees or penalties.

Convenience

This is the big argument in favor of the 3G iPad. If you only intend to use the iPad in your home, while at work, or eating a Big Mac at McDonald's, odds are good you will have a Wi-Fi network available and may not ever need the 3G capabilities.

However, business professionals on the go might not always be near a Wi-Fi network, or could find themselves at a client site where the wireless network is locked down and they don't want to let you connect your rogue iPad. In cases like these, the 3G connectivity can be a lifesaver, enabling business professionals to get an urgent e-mail, or access online data storage to retrieve an important document or presentation.

Alternatives

There are alternatives available to let you stick with the cheaper Wi-Fi model of the iPad, yet still connect while on the go. If you happen to have a jailbroken iPhone, you can use the MyWi app to allow the iPad to connect to the iPhone via Wi-Fi and ride on its 3G connection.

You can accomplish the same goal with a 3G-enabled Windows 7 notebook. An undocumented feature of Windows 7 allows it to share out its Wi-Fi network and become a mobile hotspot. Or, you can invest in a device like the Novatel MiFi--with connection plans available from Sprint or Verizon.

All three of these options have one distinct advantage over the 3G iPad--they each allow multiple devices to share a Wi-Fi connection. However, they all have disadvantages as well. The MiFi may cost up to twice as much as the additional cost for the 3G iPad, and all three options would still require some form of 3G data plan--at least as expensive as the monthly rates for the iPad, and with the added burden of a contractual obligation.

Then, there is the most obvious disadvantage, which is being forced to carry an additional device. It sort of negates the value of having a thin, light iPad to use for mobile computing if you have to also carry your Windows 7 notebook around in order to get a connection.

Bottom Line

My editor, Robert Strohmeyer, and I both got Wi-Fi iPads on the day it launched. We have both encountered a number of occasions where we have been mobile and wanting to connect to the Internet, but without a Wi-Fi network available.

He upgraded to the 3G iPad last Friday. I am still debating whether the handful of times it has come up is worth trading up so soon, or if I should just stick with the Wi-Fi iPad until the next-generation iPad comes along and move up to 3G then.

I still maintain that for most consumers, and for business professionals who travel infrequently, the need for a 3G connection will be rare. Both home and office most likely already have wireless networks, and there are enough places offering free Wi-Fi that it should be possible to find one if its truly necessary.

That said, I have every intention of either upgrading now, or at least getting the 3G-capable iPad when the iPad 2.0 comes along, because I at least want the 3G functionality there as an insurance plan providing me with the peace of mind that I can get a connection no matter where I am if I really need it. But, that peace of mind may not be worth an extra $130 to you.

You can follow Tony on his Facebook page , or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com . He also tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW .

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