How to turn your Wi-Fi iPad into an iPad 3G

You might be feeling a bit of 3G envy, seeing newly minted iPad 3G owners soaking up the sun in their local parks and coffee shops while tapping, swiping, and pinching away. The solution is a device we've talked about several times before, the Novatel MiFi.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
3 min read
Watch this: Turn your Wi-Fi iPad into an iPad 3G

Maybe you're one of those people who couldn't wait for the 3G version of Apple's iPad and instead had to run out and get the Wi-Fi version right away. We mainly think of the iPad as a living room/kitchen device, but with the warmer weather arriving you might be feeling a bit of 3G envy, seeing newly minted iPad 3G ownerssoaking up the sun in their local parks and coffee shops while tapping, swiping, and pinching away.

The typical solution for getting a go-anywhere 3G signal on a Wi-Fi-only device such as a laptop or Netbook has traditionally been a 3G USB key--but, of course, lacking a USB port or a way to install the required software, we can't use our 3G USB key on the iPad. Smartphone tethering would work also, but if you have an iPad, there's a good chance you've also got an iPhone, so no tethering for you unless you jailbreak your phone.

The solution is a device we've talked about several times before, the Novatel MiFi, a portable wireless router that takes the 3G signal it receives and broadcasts it as a Wi-Fi signal. We've previously reviewed versions of the Novatel hardware from Verizon and Sprint (and the infamous Technobeaverhas weighed in on the MiFi as well).

CNET/Sarah Tew

Hooking the MiFi up to our non-3G iPad was easy. We powered on the MiFi box, and its signal was immediately recognized by the iPad, and listed in the Network Settings submenu, along with all the other Wi-Fi signals in the area. Selecting the MiFi connection, we were prompted to enter a password (as one would do for any secure Wi-Fi connection); the password is a string of numbers printed on a sticker on the bottom of the MiFi unit itself. Up to five devices can connect at once, and the device's range is about 30 feet.

Just like a regular wireless router, you can access a control panel from a connected device (via a Web browser pointed to the MiFi's default IP address), but for the most part, our experience was a set-it-and-forget-it one.

The MiFi signal shows up in your list of available Wi-Fi networks.

One big advantage of using the MiFi as opposed to an iPad 3G is that we were able to avoid any of the streaming-video content restrictions reported by iPad 3G users. The ABC video player worked fine, as did the Netflix streaming app (an update allowing the ABC app to work on the iPad 3G is reportedly on the way).

In anecdotal use, the MiFi was fine for Web surfing and even video streaming, but didn't feel as fast as our normal 802.11n home Wi-Fi connection. Here in New York, both residential cable modem speeds and 3G speeds are notoriously dodgy, and your mileage may vary greatly. Using the Speedtest.net app from the Apple App Store, we got about 14Mbps download speed from our home Wi-Fi connection, and 1Mbps from the MiFi (which was using the Verizon network).

According to our previous tests, the MiFi should run for about 3.5 hours of continuous data transfer, or longer for intermittent use. The costs vary depending on your carrier and data plan, but the hardware itself costs around $100 to $150--comparable to the markup for the 3G version of the iPad--and unlimited data plans are $60 per month (the same as most USB 3G keys).

That may be double what the iPad 3G's plan costs, and the iPad plans offer the additional benefit of not requiring a contract, but the real advantage of the MiFi is that it can be used with a variety of other devices (up to five at a time), including laptops, Netbooks, and even the iPod Touch. (We also previously looked ahead at a few other possible 3G options before the iPad was even released, see them outlined here.)

What's your preferred setup? The less-expensive Wi-Fi iPad with the more expensive MiFi monthly data plan (but a connection you can use on almost any device), or the more expensive iPad 3G, with the less-expensive (but locked down) data service?