iPad 3G Smackdown: What's the Best Deal?

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Now that Verizon Wireless has pledged to bundle Apple's iPad with a mobile hotspot and cut-rate 3G data plans, a little comparison is in order. After all, Verizon isn't the only company that sells mobile hotspots, and you might be able to get a better deal on contract-free 3G or even 4G coverage by taking your business elsewhere.

Let's see how the competition stacks up:

iPad With Verizon Mi-Fi

Starting October 28, you can get an iPad and a Verizon Mi-Fi 2200 hotspot for the same price as AT&T's 3G iPad -- $629 for 16 GB, $729 for 32 GB and $829 for 64 GB. Buyers also get a discount on contract-free 3G coverage, at $20 for 1 GB, $35 for 3GB and $50 for 5 GB. For the lowest-tier plan, each additional GB costs $20, but for the pricier plans, you only pay $10 per extra GB.

Pros: Lots of flexibility and a good rate for 5 GB, with solid coverage throughout the United States.

Cons: Early adopters and people who don't want to commit right away are out of luck. Unbundled, the Mi-Fi costs $200, and the only available plans are $40 for 250 MB and $60 for 5 GB.

In Video: Apple's iPad Coming to Verizon

3G iPad on AT&T

The iPad with AT&T 3G costs $15 per month for 200 MB or $25 per month for 2 GB. Currently, it's the only option for built-in 3G on an iPad.

Pros: No extra device to carry, far more battery life than any hotspot. (The iPad gets nine hours with 3G. Hotspots tend to last for roughly four hours.)

Cons: No hotspot or tethering means no coverage for other devices, like laptops. The 2 GB cap is weak.

Cheap 3G With Virgin

Virgin's Mi-Fi 2200 hotspot costs $150 up front -- only $21 more than the Verizon bundle. Unlimited data costs $40 per month, or you can get 100 MB across 10 days for $10.

Pros: The cheapest unlimited data plan around.

Cons: Somewhat limited coverage (here's the map). Ten-day plan supplies meager data.

4G With Clearwire Rover

Despite some obnoxious marketing, Clearwire's Rover brand offers good deals on 4G coverage. Like Virgin's Mi-Fi, the Rover Puck costs $150, and plans are available for $5 per day, $20 per week or $50 per month.

Pros: Fast speeds, daily and monthly plans allow for minimum commitment.

Cons: No cheaper data tiers, limited 4G coverage (see the map) and no 3G backup.

Your Phone's Wireless Hotspot

Don't forget that some smartphones can become mobile hotspots, eliminating the need for another device in your pocket. Hotspot functionality for Verizon's Droid Incredible, Droid X and Droid 2 cost $20 per month, and Sprint's HTC Evo 4G and Epic 4G cost $30 per month.

Pros: No need to buy or carry another device. No contract necessary for the hotspot service.

Cons: Hotspots tend to drain battery life, and a dead phone is a bigger bummer than a dead Mi-Fi.

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