How to choose the iPad carrier that's right for you

Both AT&T and Verizon will offer 4G data plans for the iPad. But, which do you choose? Follow this guide to find out.

Which should you choose? Sharon Vaknin/CNET

With high-speed 4G LTE onboard the new iPad, skipping the Wi-Fi-only model and going for one with a data plan will be a popular move. Apple is serving up two different 4G LTE iPads--one on AT&T, and one on Verizon.

Choosing the right service provider is important, since the iPad you purchase is indefinitely tied to its carrier. That is, you can't put a Verizon data plan on your AT&T iPad, and vice versa.

In many ways, AT&T and Verizon have similar offerings. For example, both carriers offer a month-to-month plan (no contract), and data plan pricing is almost the same. However, there are a few key differences that will help you choose one carrier over the other.

1. Evaluate your data needs.
Take a look at this table:

  250MB 1GB 2GB 3GB 5GB 10GB
AT&T $14.99/mo n/a n/a $30/mo $50/mo n/a
Verizon n/a $20/mo $30/mo n/a $50/mo $80/mo
As you can see, both AT&T and Verizon offer equal pricing for 2GB and 5GB monthly plans. However, AT&T also offers a 250MB plan, while Verizon offers a 10GB monthly plan. How do you choose the right plan? Consider these things:

  • Personal hot spot. The new iPad introduces a personal hot-spot feature, allowing you to share your data connection with up to five devices. Will you use this? If so, how often, and with how many devices? With the data usage on your iPad plus the data usage on those devices running off your iPad's connection, your monthly GB toll can add up quickly.

    Also worth noting is that AT&T will not support the hot-spot feature right away. Verizon, however, will.

  • Streaming and downloads. If your favorite activities include streaming video and music, consider how much data these processes require. For example, Clicker found out that an 1.5-hour movie uses 225MB per hour. So, if you don't do anything else, you could watch about 13 hours of streaming video on a 2GB plan.

  • Wi-Fi availability. How often will you use your iPad in areas with Wi-Fi? If the answer is "pretty often," you may consider going with AT&T's 250MB per month plan.

Once you evaluate these needs, you'll be able to narrow down your choices a bit. For example, if you know you'll use 4G rarely, as Wi-Fi is abundant, consider AT&T's 250MB minimalist plan. Or, if you know you want the hot-spot feature, go with Verizon.

2. Check the coverage maps.
Because 4G LTE is relatively new, carriers like AT&T and Verizon are still working on establishing the infrastructure to support it. In San Francisco, home of the CNET headquarters, 4G LTE only became available in January 2012. Use these coverage maps to find out if 4G LTE is available in your area:

Alternatively, check out Sensorly's crowsourced coverage maps to find out how good 4G LTE is in your area according to other users.

By the numbers, Verizon has the largest 4G LTE netowork, covering 195 cities, while AT&T covers just 23. If you're going for AT&T, there's coverage in your area, and you don't travel much, AT&T will do. Otherwise, Verizon offers up a much more reliable network.

3. Read the fine print.
Don't wait until after your purchase to think about these things: return policies.

Return policies: If you purchase your iPad from Verizon, you're tied to a 14-day return period with a $70 restocking fee, and one exchange. If you purchase your iPad from AT&T, you get the same 14-day return policy, and a 10 percent restocking fee.

My advice? Buy it from Apple. You get a 14-day return policy and no silly restocking fees. In any case, you'll never be charged an early termination fee for your service plan, since you're not on a contract. (If only this applied to phones!)

The answer may be simple.
A simple solution to the carrier conundrum didn't occur to me until Editor at Large Rafe Needleman said, "My thought: Verizon, since my phone is AT&T. One will work when other doesn't." Well put.

Editors' note:This post was updated to correct Verizon and AT&T's data pricing.
 

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