Choose between Wi-Fi Only or Wi-Fi and 3G/4G on Your iPad

One feature that makes the iPad's price and performance variable is whether your model has Wi-Fi only or both Wi-Fi and 3G/4G. Because the iPad is great for browsing online, shopping online, e-mailing, and so on, having an Internet connection for it is important. That's where Wi-Fi and 3G/4G enter the picture.

Both technologies are used to connect to the Internet. You use Wi-Fi to connect to a wireless network at home or at locations such as your local coffee shop, a grocery store, or an airport that offers Wi-Fi. This type of network uses short-range radio to connect to the Internet; its range is reasonably limited, so if you leave home or walk out of the coffee shop, you can't use it anymore. (These limitations are changing, however, as some towns are installing communitywide Wi-Fi networks.)

The 3G and 4G cellphone technologies allow an iPad to connect to the Internet via a widespread cellular-phone network. You use it in much the same way that you make calls from just about anywhere using your cellphone. 3G is available on the iPad 2. 4G is available on the third-generation iPad and later, as well as the iPad mini, but as it's the latest cellular connection technology, it may not always be available in every location. You'll still connect to the Internet when 4G service isn't available, but without the advantage of the super-fast 4G technology.

You can buy an iPad with Wi-Fi only or one with both Wi-Fi and 3G/4G capabilities. Getting a 3G or 4G iPad costs an additional $130 (see the following table), but it also includes GPS so that you can get more accurate driving directions. You have to buy an iPad model that fits your data connection provider — either AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon in the United States.

Also, to use your 3G/4G network, you have to pay Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon a monthly fee. The good news is that no carrier requires a long-term contract, as you probably had to commit to with your cellphone and its data connection. You can pay for a connection during the month you visit your grandkids, for example, and get rid of it when you arrive home. Though these features and prices could change (as of spring 2014 AT&T offers prepaid and postpaid options, but Verizon offers only a prepaid plan). AT&T offers plans that top out at 5GB of data connection, and Verizon offers several levels, including 3GB, 5GB, and 10GB. Note that if you intend to stream videos (watch them on your iPad from the Internet), you can eat through these numbers quickly.

iPad Air Models and Pricing
Memory Size Wi-Fi Price Wi-Fi and 4G Price
16GB $499 $629
32GB $599 $729
64GB $699 $829
128GB $799 $929

Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon could change their pricing and options at any time, of course, so go to these links for more information about iPad data plans.

So how do you choose? If you want to wander the countryside or around town — or travel frequently, especially by car and want to use your iPad's step-by-step navigation from the Maps app — get 3G and pay the price. But if you'll use your iPad mainly at home or via a Wi-Fi hotspot (a location where Wi-Fi access to the Internet is available, such as an Internet cafe), don't bother with 3G. Frankly, you can find lots of hotspots out there now, at restaurants, hotels, airports, and more.

You can use the hotspot feature on a smartphone, which allows the iPad to use your phone's 3G or 4G connection to go online if you pay for a higher-data-use plan that supports hotspot use with your phone service carrier. Check out the features of your phone to turn on the hotspot feature.

Because 3G and 4G iPads are also GPS devices, they know where you are and can act as a navigation system to get you from here to there. The Wi-Fi–only model uses a digital compass and triangulation method for locating your current position, which is less accurate; with no constant Internet connection, it won't help you get around town. If getting accurate directions is one iPad feature that excites you, get 3G/4G and then familiarize yourself with the Maps feature.

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