3G iPad or iPad + MiFi / Overdrive: What's the Best Value?

In our full review of the iPad, we noted that it feels like a different device when you're not online. Not only can you not surf the Web or download e-mail, many apps that require connectivity are rendered useless. So it's easy to see why many shoppers are holding out for the Wi-Fi + 3G version of the iPad ($629 for 16GB), which goes on sale later this month. But getting integrated 3G isn't the only way to stay connected on the go with Apple's tablet.

With a device like the MiFi, currently available through Sprint and Verizon Wireless, you can keep your iPad and up to four other devices online with a single gadget. The Sprint Overdrive is another viable option, especially if you live in a 4G coverage area.

So which approach makes the most sense? Here are the pros and cons.

3G iPad

Cost Over 2Years: $1,325 (including device)

Pros: According to AT&T, the data plan for the 3G iPad will offer truly unlimited data, as opposed to the more typical 5GB data cap. That's a huge benefit for those who like to stream a lot of video. In addition, AT&T will charge half as much for mobile broadband compared to a typical laptop connection card. It's just $29 per month. A 5GB plan for the MiFi on Sprint or Verizon costs $60. Plus, because there's no contract, you can cancel service at any time.

It's also convenient to have 3G connectivity built in; there's no need to carry (or charge) a separate device. Unlike the MiFi, you'll always know your signal strength. And even though having 3G will drain the iPad's battery faster, it's 9.5 hours of endurance means you'll probably still be able to get through most of the day without reaching for an outlet. Last but not least is built-in GPS, which is good for improving Google Maps accuracy, local search, and checking in using apps like Fourquare, even if we don't see many people using the iPad as a full-fledged navigator.

Cons: AT&T's data service hasn't been reliable on the iPhone, especially in New York and San Francisco, so we're concerned that the iPad's 3G experience will be similar. (Stay tuned for a full review.) Many consumers may balk at the $629 price for the cheapest 3G iPad when you can get a subsidized 3G Windows 7 netbook for $199, although that involves a two-year contract. We need to confirm this but if the iPad has similar restrictions as the iPhone, you'll be stuck with the same 20MB iTunes download restriction. That means you won't be able to download movies or any other large files or apps that go over that limit. We wouldn't necessarily recommend downloading large files over 3G, but it will be faster with the 4G Sprint Overdrive.

iPad + MiFi

Cost Over 2 Years: $1,915 (including device) for Sprint; $1,965 for Verizon

Pros: The MiFi is a versatile pocket-size hotspot that you can use with your iPad but also your laptop and other Wi-Fi devices like smart phones, MP3 players, portable game consoles, and digital cameras. You can connect up to five devices simultaneously. The MiFi itself is affordable as it's available for free on contract from Sprint and $50 from Verizon. Sprint and especially Verizon's 3G data networks have proved more reliable over the past couple of years than AT&T's. You don't have to worry about the 20MB iTunes restriction over 3G; because the iPad thinks the MiFi is a Wi-Fi connection anything is fair game.

Cons: Battery life is relatively short at about 3 to 3.5 hours for the MiFi and only 2.5 hours for the Overdrive. You can use the MiFi or Overdrive after that plugged into a laptop via USB but it will stop working as a mobile hotspot, and you can't tether one to the iPad. At $60 per month, you're paying twice as much per month for monthly data. You're limited to 5GB of data on 3G networks. While the MiFi is light, it's another device you need to keep track of, and it's so small you could easily leave it behind and not know it.

iPad + Sprint Overdrive

Cost Over 2 Years: $1,965 (including price of device)

Pros: With 4G service in 27 cities and counting, the Overdrive promises average download speeds of 3 to 6 Mbps with bursts up to 10 Mbps, making it faster than the MiFi + iPad or the iPad 3G by itself. In our tests in Philadelphia, however, the fastest speeds we saw were 3.4 Mbps down and 1.1 Mbps up. That's not blazing but is still better than 3G. Plus, the Overdrive drops down to 3G when you're out of 4G range. For $59.99 per month 4G data service is unlimited but when you're using 3G the 5GB data cap kicks in. Unlike the MiFi, the Overdrive has a built-in LCD that displays signal strength, battery life, and network type. You also get up to 16GB of shared storage via the memory card slot.

Cons: Although Sprint promises to bring 4G to more cities, large metro areas like New York and San Francisco aren't online yet. The Overdrive itself lasted only 2.5 hours on our battery life test, which is worse than the MiFi, and the design is bulkier. It also runs pretty hot and takes its sweet time booting up.

Early Verdict: At least on paper the Wi-Fi + 3G iPad seems like the best value. For $590 less over two years than the cheapest MiFi you get a device with truly unlimited 3G data, and you don't have to worry about a contract or charging a separate gadget. For some, however, the MiFi or Overdrive may be the better choice despite the premium because you can use that connectivity with a laptop and other gadgets. The Overdrive, in particular, may prove tempting for those who want to download larger iTunes files (assuming you live in a 4G coverage area).

Bottom line: If you think you'll be doing the bulk of your mobile computing on the iPad, the integrated 3G model is the way to go. We just hope the 3G experience is fast and reliable. Stay tuned.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.