Apple iPad, Day 13: Streaming Data on the Go

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30 Days With the iPad: Day 13

I do most of my computing sitting at my desk, but every so often I need to take my show on the road. For today's installment of 30 Days With the iPad I am connecting only over AT&T 3G wireless to see if it can deliver when the need arises.

Most of the time that I go mobile, there is Wi-Fi aplenty. Between Starbucks and McDonald's alone there is a free hotspot every 63 feet or so. That means that nine times out of ten--or maybe even 99 times out of 100--I would be fine just using the Wi-Fi capabilities of the iPad 2 itself. But, if I am on a road trip, or in a hotel with crappy Wi-Fi, I need to be able to use the 3G networking.

I use my iPhone 4 as a personal hotspot for my Wi-Fi only iPad 2.
For those who have a 3G-enabled iPad--whether AT&T or Verizon version--it is as simple as just turning it on. However, if you recall from Day 2 I made the conscious decision to go with the Wi-Fi only iPad 2 knowing that my iPhone 4 is on me 24/7 and that it makes more sense from a cost and data perspective to share the bandwidth rather than have two separate data plans.

I connected my iPad 2 to my iPhone 4 personal hotspot and did a bandwidth speed test. It wasn't very impressive. My iPad 2 got a sad 0.98Mbps download speed using the app. My iPhone 4 got 4.86Mbps at the exact same time pinging the exact same server.

So, even though the two devices are sharing a connection, the iPad 2 bandwidth is obviously degraded by having to tether over the iPhone. I assume that using an iPad 2 with native 3G will perform better than using one that is trying to piggyback on an iPhone 3G connection.

Had I not done the speed test, though, I may not have noticed or cared. The iPad had no issues at all. I wasn't sitting around cursing technology while waiting impatiently for email to arrive, or Web pages to load.

The tethered data service seemed so smooth, I decided to stress test it even more. I opened up the CNN app and browsed the news, then tapped on a video clip of the news and it streamed flawlessly--no buffering, no stuttering. Just smooth video. Same goes for watching Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix, or an episode of Entourage on the HBO Go app.

I have two big caveats from this experiment, though. First, using the iPhone 4 as a personal hotspot kills the battery life much faster than normal. Second, the iPad data plan alone provides 2GB of data for $25. The iPhone tethered hotspot plan gives you 4GB of data to share between the devices for $45 per month. Either way, it won't take too many Netflix movies to eat that up, so be careful how you use the 3G data connection.

It is also worth noting that Verizon offers a variety of 4G smartphones and hotspot devices that may work better than my iPhone 4, and that AT&T as well is starting to roll out more 4G network coverage and compatible devices. Unfortunately, current speculation doesn't sound very hopeful that the iPhone 5 or iPad 3 will be equipped to join the 4G revolution--in spite of the fact that a third of iPhone 4 owners are under the mistaken impression that the "4" means their iPhone does 4G already.

I wouldn't want to rely on the tethered 3G connection too much due to the battery drain, and bandwidth cap issues, but it works quite nicely should the need arise. To be fair, though, my notebook has 3G capability (not currently enabled because I never use it), and I could also use my iPhone 4 personal hotspot with the notebook while on the go.

Read the last "30 Days" series: 30 Days With Ubuntu Linux

Day 12: Taking Care of Business on the iPad

Day 14: Printing from the iPad

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