Wi-Fi Options for the iPad - dummies

By Edward C. Baig, Bob LeVitus

Wi-Fi is the chief way to browse the web (or send e-mail, access the App Store or iTunes Store, or check out YouTube) on the iPad. But for all the places you can find an Internet hotspot nowadays — airports, colleges, coffeehouses, offices, schools, and yes, homes — Wi-Fi still isn’t available everywhere.

If you buy the Wi-Fi + 3G iPad model on the iPad2 or the original iPad, you often have a viable alternative when Wi-Fi isn’t available. In the United States, such models from AT&T work with Wi-Fi, AT&T EDGE, and AT&T 3G. Verizon’s iPad 3G version works with Verizon Wireless’s so-called CDMA EV-DO Rev network. You can safely avoid the jargon. (They also work with another wireless technology, Bluetooth, but that serves a different purpose.)

Cellular customers prepay for 3G access using a credit card. Monthly data is relatively inexpensive,you might exhaust those limits quicker than you’d like and rack up higher charges. Fortunately, no one- or two-year contract commitment is required, as is most likely the case with the cellphone in your pocket. That means if you’re hiking in the Swiss Alps for a month, or otherwise indisposed, you don’t have to pay AT&T or Verizon for Internet access you’ll never use.

With the third-generation Wi-Fi + 4G iPads that are sold by Verizon Wireless and AT&T, you’ll pay a little more upfront and whenever you need cellular service. But when a 4G network such as LTE (Long Term Evolution) is available — both carriers are busily building their LTE networks, with Verizon available in more places as of this writing — you’ll be able to surf at a blistering pace.

Cellular-ready iPads also work on GSM/UMTS network technologies that perform outside the United States, though you may have to pop in a SIM card to get it going abroad without Wi-Fi. Depending on your carrier and where you happen to be, you may see different network flavors, including HSPA, HSPA+, and DC-HSDPA — the fastest 3G networks out there.

The iPad automatically hops onto the fastest available network, which is almost always Wi-Fi, the friendly moniker applied to the far-geekier 802.11 designation. And eight-oh-two-dot-eleven (as it’s pronounced) is followed by a letter — typically (but not always) b, g, or n. You see it written as 802.11b, 802.11g, and so on. The letters relate to differing technical standards that have to do with the speed and range you can expect from the Wi-Fi configuration.

For the record, because the iPad adheres to 802.11a, b, g, and n standards, you’re good to go pretty much anywhere you can find Wi-Fi. If you have to present a password to take advantage of a for-fee hotspot, you can enter it by using the iPad’s virtual keyboard.

The problem with Wi-Fi is that it’s far from ubiquitous, which is where the cellular data network comes in, typically 3G still, though 4G is appearing in more places.  When neither 3G nor 4G is available, and you don’t have Wi-Fi, the pokier EDGE on AT&T or its counterpart, EV-DO, on Verizon, takes over.

EDGE is shorthand for Enhanced Datarate for GSM Evolution. It’s based on the global GSM phone standard. You may also see an indicator for GPRS, shorthand for General Packet Radio Service, another poky data service.

4G, which stands for fourth generation, is your best bet among available cellular options for the iPad.

The bottom line is this: Depending on where you live, work, or travel, you may feel like you’re teetering on the EDGE in terms of acceptable Internet coverage, especially if Wi-Fi, 4G, or 3G is beyond your reach. But the picture is brightening. 3G is in more places than ever. Ditto 4G. And the same can be said of Wi-Fi.

One last thing: Don’t forget that streaming movies or downloading huge files will chew through your megabytes or gigabytes long before the end of your monthly plan, even in a matter of hours if you’re not careful. Find some free Wi-Fi access if you want to watch movies or stream other large files.