iPad on the move

The question of whether to buy a 3G iPad or the regular WiFi one is a rather tricky thing to balance. On the one hand, Apple charges a frankly ludicrous markup for the addition of 3G and GPS. Really. Yes, there's more engineering involved, and a few more chips, but nowhere in the build of materials to justify the $A170 price gap you're left looking at once you reach the register.

On the other hand, 3G (not to mention GPS) can be rather handy stuff. In my continuing quest to work out what the iPad's actually good for, I spent some time this week testing 3G Micro SIMs on my iPad.

Now, I'm sure some of you will be wondering why I'm not with the times. After all, the week the iPad came out, there were plenty of test results for all the major carriers. It's been done, surely?

Well ... yes and no.

Yes, there were tests done by some quite reputable journalists, some of them very good friends of mine. But in almost every case (and most of those that I'm aware of) they were fairly localised tests, mostly centred around Sydney usage. To let you in on a small-scale secret, a large proportion of the tests you see for any given product are likely to have been conducted in Sydney, simply because that's where a large proportion of the country's tech media is based, for better or worse. I'm amongst that number.

Micro SIM tests like that are OK for relative figures within the Sydney market, and to be fair, most of the test results I saw were scrupulously clear in stating where they'd tested for their results. If you live in Sydney, that's fine. But what if you don't?

Moreover, what if you want to use that shiny new iPad on the road?

Well, if the Road Runner cartoon I've just watched is any indication, your iPad will get blown up, then fall down a cliff before forming a perfect circle of dust. An anvil may or may not then fall upon it, depending on your choice of wacky scheme. Needless to say, this will void your AppleCare warranty.

On a more serious note, I took the opportunity of a road trip from Sydney to Adelaide to test as many iPad Micro SIMs as I could get my hands on in three separate locations. Three Micro SIMs, to be precise. One from Telstra, one from Vodafone and one from Three. Which might technically only count as 2.5 Micro SIMs, what with Vodafone owning the Three brand entirely. You might notice that Optus, the other big player, is missing from my figures. I invited Optus to supply a Micro SIM, but it never got back to me.

A quick word on setting up Micro SIMs. Presuming you've gone through whatever hell your provider(s) place on activating the Micro SIM accounts, all you should need to do (or all I had to do) was an initial sync with each Micro SIM inserted with iTunes. iTunes happily informed me that it was grabbing my carrier details, after which each Micro SIM worked just fine. I could swap them, and after a brief pause they'd identify the correct carrier and "just work". Checking the settings page showed up the correct APN details for each connected Micro SIM, so you shouldn't hit billing problems. I say shouldn't, because with mobile broadband and telcos, anything is possible.

Anyway, my first set of figures came direct and live to you from the world famous, highly exciting ... dining table at my home in Sydney's Northern Suburbs. Speedtest's App was run three times and averaged to get each download figure.

From my Sydney home, there wasn't much to separate any of the contenders. Telstra won a narrow victory with a download rate of 2589Kbps. Not that far behind (but a little cheaper to run), Vodafone managed 2247Kbps, while Three took the back of the pack figure of a still respectable 2123Kbps. Given the vagaries of mobile broadband, in actual usage you might not see that much variance at all between these three services if you happened to live on my dining table. I should probably point out right now that the location in question isn't for rent.

Anyway, to keep things level, my next testing regime was performed at a relative's house in the fine city of Wagga Wagga, again on the kitchen table. Good, repeatable, accurate testing involves eliminating as many variables as possible, after all.

That Telstra's country performance was better than the rest probably won't come as news to any country-based readers. The margins, however, were a little higher than I might have reasonably expected. Telstra bested its Sydney figures (perhaps the cell towers were less crowded, or perhaps I just got lucky) with an average download score of 3117Kbps. Three actually refused to connect, which is no great surprise as the company simply doesn't sell or advertise outside of metropolitan areas. Vodafone did connect (for the trivia fans, Wagga Wagga was amongst the first areas to which Vodafone extended its regional 3G network a couple of years ago), but I'd have to say that "connect" was putting it mildly. Vodafone's average was extremely easy to calculate, as it scored the exact same Speedtest score each time.

That score was 3.

Not Mbps. 3Kbps. The difference in signal when swapping out a Telstra Micro SIM and popping in a Vodafone one was a tad over a thousand times. That kind of speed difference you will notice, and is almost certainly a casualty of the iPad's 3G support for 850MHz - which Telstra's NextG uses - and not 900Mhz, which is what Vodafone and Optus use in regional areas.

So I headed further west.

One quick in-car observation, in stark contrast to my in-flight observation of the week before. On a flight with no Wi-Fi and no 3G, I barely dented the iPad's battery life. With 3G enabled and running all day, although the Pad itself was only in direct use for maybe four hours between two drivers (not while driving, I hasten to add), it quickly spiralled down the battery life, ending up at 23% after eleven hours away from a charger, and even that only by selectively switching 3G off. There's little point in areas where even Telstra admits it doesn't have signal.

Having headed further west, I found myself with an iPad on a kitchen bench in Glenelg, one of Adelaide's nicer suburbs. I'm rather fond of Adelaide (it's technically my ancestral home), and outside the wilds of regional Australia, it seems the Micro SIMs were rather fond of it too. Telstra again took the line honours with an average Speedtest score of 4313Kbps, and Vodafone redeemed its woeful Wagga scores with an average of 3092. The same couldn't quite be said of Three, which limped in with a score of just 391Kbps.

So what's the practical upshot of all this testing? In reality, I suspect most 3G iPads won't travel all that far all that often. I know mine won't, despite the thousands of kilometres it's racked up in just the past fortnight. If you do travel, though, Telstra remains a very solid bet for widespread coverage. If you don't, Vodafone might save you a few dollars - especially if you're close to a capital city centre. Three's pricing is so close, but its speeds so poor that it's not worth thinking about. As for Optus, who can tell?

What do you think? What kinds of speeds can you get from your Micro SIM?

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!

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