4G iPad mini: Which Carrier Has Best Deal?

The iPad mini's pint-sized frame was made with portability in mind, and the arrival of a 4G LTE-equipped model at three of the nation's top cellular providers this morning makes it easier than ever to keep your tablet connected while on the road. Which carrier has the best deal?

Sprint, AT&T and Verizon all sell the exact same iPad mini for $459, or $130 more than the Wi-Fi only version. But the carriers vary when it comes to pricing and 4G LTE coverage area. Let's take a look at the details to see which network offers the biggest bang for your buck.

iPad mini Pricing

 The 4G LTE-equipped variants of the iPad mini cost $459, $559 and $659 for the 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB models, respectively. AT&T, however, is running a limited time promotion where the provider is knocking $100 off the price of a tablet if you sign up for a 2-year data subscription when you buy it, which almost brings the cost back down to Wi-Fi-only levels. Just be sure to weigh the pros and cons before committing to an extended data plan.

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Carrier Data Pricing

There are two ways to look at carrier pricing for the iPad mini: you can tie your tablet to an existing data plan, or since you have to pay full price for it (AT&T promotion excluded), you can sign up for a no-commitment monthly data plan. Let's take a look at the no-commitment pricing first:

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Row 0 - Cell 0 SprintAT&TVerizon
$20/month300MB ($15/mo.)250MB ($15/mo.)1GB
$30/month3GB ($35/mo)3 GB2GB

Verizon's the obvious choice in the $20 per month range, while AT&T offers the most data for your buck at $30 and Sprint delivers the best no-contract per-dollar data in the $50 and up range. There are a couple of other factors to consider, as well. Sprint is currently waiving the connection fee for new cellular-equipped tablets, while Verizon doesn't charge activation, re-connection or overage fees for prepaid tablets.

The values skew a bit if you're considering adding your iPad mini to an existing data plan, however. Both Verizon and AT&T allow you to add tablets to a shared data plan for just $10 per month. If you have a bit of wiggle room in your monthly usage, you might not even need to increase your data pool. If you do decide to pay for a larger data pool to account for your new iPad mini, however, Verizon's the better deal.

Both companies offer similar prices at 4GB of data per month and below, but if you decide to go above that, Verizon's tiered structure adds 2GB to your pool for an additional $10. ($80 for 6GB, $90for 8GB, etc.) AT&T doesn't offer as many data tiers, and it charges more for its 6GB and 10GB tiers than Verizon.

[MORE: AT&T vs Verizon: Who Has the Best Shared Data Plan?]

If you're a Sprint subscriber, you can tie the iPad mini to your smartphone account to unlock some new rates. Paying $10 per month gets you 100MB of tablet data, while paying $15 per month gives your mini 1GB of data. That's a much better deal than the 300MB of data Sprint offers month-to-month tablet users for $15.

4G LTE Coverage

Image credit: Verizon Wireless

Price is only part of the equation, however. Much of the joy of having a 4G LTE-equipped iPad mini entails basking in those brisk 4G LTE speeds, but you'll be stuck on a molasses-slow 3G network if your chosen carrier doesn't offer 4G in your area. How do Sprint, AT&T and Verizon stack up when it comes to 4G LTE coverage? It's really no comparison.

  • Verizon: 440 cities, with new locales added on an almost daily basis. Verizon claims all of its customers will have 4G LTE access by mid-2013, and its speeds are blazing fast.
  • AT&T: The nation's second-largest carrier also has the nation's second-largest LTE network, announcing today that its 4G LTE network now extends to 103 markets and 150 million Americans. AT&T hopes to bring that total to 200 million people by the end of next year.
  • Sprint: Sprint's in the early stages of its 4G LTE roll out and only 32 major metropolitan areas are currently covered. The company has announced plans to expand to an additional 125 markets in the future.

Which Carrier Has the Best Deal for the iPad mini?

Sprint offers competitive 3GB and up prepaid plans, but we hesitate to recommend the carrier  due to its infant LTE network: Many people would simply be stuck on 3G speeds for at least a while.  AT&T offers the best deal on a 3GB prepaid plan, but Verizon's vast LTE network, 1GB for $20 prepaid tier, and flexible shared data pricing makes it the iPad mini carrier of choice if you're shopping for a cellular-equipped tablet.

Update: Changed AT&T 250MB prepaid plan to $15. The original version incorrectly listed the price as $20/mo.