Caution: Streaming video will chew through your 4G iPad data

Apple's new iPad makes a splash as Apple's first LTE-compatible device, but you'd better keep an eye on your video usage over 4G. Streaming movies over LTE could be the death of your data.

iPad 3
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Your first order of business with Apple's third-generation iPad : fill up that stunning Retina Display with plenty of video. But hang on; if you're getting the 4G model, better watch that over-the-air video consumption. Lightning-fast as it is, over LTE, you'll be tempted to burn through your data plan in less time than you might think.

Here's a breakdown of what a 5GB data plan will get you on the 4G LTE iPad, for moments when you're not on Wi-Fi.

AT&T and Verizon both offer $50 5GB monthly data plans for LTE tablets like the iPad--the only plan in which they overlap, so let's start there.

AT&T versus Verizon data rates for Apple's new iPad
AT&T versus Verizon data rates for Apple's new iPad. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Data calculators
Days ahead of the new iPad launch, it's hard to pinpoint exact numbers. Apple is famously secretive about these kinds of claims, but Verizon and AT&T offer online data calculators that give ballpark figures for data use.

The results are far from gospel, since the carriers include caveats: devices handle data differently; all numbers are averages and guidelines. AT&T's calculator doesn't attempt to break out 4G or LTE data allotments, and Verizon's offers mobile broadband estimates for computers only. (Note: A Verizon spokesperson pointed me to the mobile broadband setting as the most similar to the tablet scenario.)

Verizon monthly data calculator
Click to enlarge the image. If you do nothing but stream HD video, you'll hit 2GB in a single hour, according to Verizon's tool. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

What the two calculators can agree on is that streaming video consumes the most data by far, with streaming music as its hungry sidekick. Verizon's online tool calculates that 1 hour of 4G HD video streaming use--and nothing else--will cost you 2GB; so, 2.5 hours of streaming HD video will use up 5GB of 4G data.

AT&T's online calculator presents wildly different results, suggesting 1,000 minutes (or 16.6 hours) of HD video streaming--as your sole activity--to reach your 5GB cap. However, since AT&T never promises to isolate its 4G numbers in this tool, 3G speeds are likely lumped in as well. Since LTE and 3G networks use different technology to deliver data, I caution against using it to predict your iPad data usage. As a general rule, since LTE delivers data much faster than 3G, it's easier to blow through your cap in a shorter period of time.

AT&T's monthly data use chart.
Click image to enlarge. AT&T's monthly data use calculator doesn't break out '4G' or LTE. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Of course, you can tweak the calculator to simulate more of a real-world scenario. For example, using Verizon's calculator, 4.75GB per month could net you the following: 25 e-mails; 25 Web site visits; 15 minutes of streaming music; an hour of HD video streaming plus 2 minutes of standard video streaming; 5 minutes of HD VoIP video chats; and 2 hours of online gaming.

Video is everything
Streaming video will rocket you toward your data limit, and the new iPad gains support for 1080p HD video. The more detailed picture will take a little longer to download than the 720p version, and will therefore drain more of your data allowance over LTE.

To that point, Ars Technica tested the video quality of both 720p and 1080p HD video on the third-generation Apple TV (also announced last week), and discovered that although the file size of the download was larger with 1080p, some compression tricks and new support for the H.264 standard help keep the actual download time from doubling.

Similarly, current iPad users can expect a heavier data load for 1080p video than the 720p video would demand. Streaming video, say from iTunes or Netflix, instead of downloading it, will also affect data consumption.

Verizon monthly data calculator
Click to enlarge the image. Verizon's monthly data calculator takes 4G into account. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

What about hot spots and overage charges?
There's also your hot-spot use to consider. Verizon won't charge you extra to use your LTE iPad as a hot spot for up to five devices ( AT&T won't offer the hot-spotting capability at launch , but will add it later), but any data you use will be deducted from your monthly plan.

As for overages, both AT&T and Verizon ding you $10 per GB anytime you so much as inch over your plan threshold, though neither one threatens punitive throttling. Those who opt in to AT&T's 250MB plan will see an extra $15 overage fee for every additional 250MB they use.

So, how much data is enough?
The surest way to avoid data insecurity? Stick to Wi-Fi for the big things, like downloading video to watch later. Think of LTE as your lifeline when you're out and about, so use it sparingly. That said, it's fairly safe to go nuts with Web searches and sending e-mail. Verizon's calculator reckons you can visit 3,000 Web sites and send 7,500 e-mails in a single month and use just 3GB of data.

Go ahead and pay up for that 4G iPad if you frequently need mission-critical access to the Web in places rife with cellular coverage but dry on Wi-Fi.

However, if you expect to stream movies, music, and video 24-7 over 4G, then save yourself the $130 extra for the device, the monthly data charge, and the potential overage fees and stick to Wi-Fi--or drastically adjust your expectations. Even with Verizon's 10GB plan for $80, wanton data use will have you busting through your limit in just a couple of days.

 

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