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Dear Aunt TUAW: Which 3G plan should I opt for?

Dear Aunt TUAW,

I'm getting a new iPad 3G. I understand the bit about no contract and $15 a month for 250mb but wonder about how does 250mb relate to web usage. I have heard some say the web surfing can consume a lot of "bandwidth" but have no idea what that means relative to 250mb of data plan use.

I am not an AT&T fan (still waiting for Verizon or Sprint to get the iPhone) and am always reluctant to sign up for a 2 year contract for anything. My wife has an iPad wireless model and she has had no trouble web surfing, e-mail etc, at the house or our apartment in the city.

I want the option of being further afield from hotspots and our wireless routers. I don't "stream" movies, tv shows and find web-based videos painful to watch with the constant "buffering" and start/stopping of videos. ABC News on the web has the worst for constant buffering. So I would not be doing that, but I could see e-mail, reading static news websites, and occasionally weather.

Thanks and I do read most or what you guys put on TUAW most of the time. Been involved with computers since 1979 but not a "pro" level geek like many I know. Thanks again and I hope you can find time to give me a glimmer of info about data consumption rates.

Love and kissies,

Brian W.

Dear Brian,

Data usage is such a personal thing. Each person uses data in their own way. Some people are big data consumers; they watch YouTube videos, download lots of software, and browse data-intensive sites. Other people are not. They use their iPad more casually, with occasional mail checking and light web surfing.

To get an idea of how much data normal usage consumes, you might want to refer back to this old TUAW post, where we quickly consumed a $10 5MB AT&T data feature plan package. (Boy, have things changed!) At that time, we tested the Google home page, a YouTube video, browsed some maps, checked some stocks, and more. In comparison, the 250MB iPad plan offers fifty times that data, and allows you to use that data over a period of thirty days.

Most people will probably do best by giving the 250MB plan a trial run. Go ahead and see how much data you actually use. The key is this: Don't limit yourself. Surf normally. Watch videos normally. Do all the things you'd want to do, without thought to the 250MB limit. The idea is this: you want to test how much your typical usage patterns match the 250MB quota.

With the iPad, there's no fear about unexpected costs. Your iPad will warn you when 20% and 10% of the data remains. With the new feature plans, you cannot overrun your account, the way we did with that $24 picture of a dog. You must explicitly opt in for more data when your 250MB runs out.

If you reach the end of the month without running dry, well, then the 250MB plan sounds like a good option for you. If you, instead, exhaust the 250MB in just a few days, then you'll be able to switch immediately to the 5GB "unlimited" plan. Yes, the experiment will cost you $15, but you'll have a better sense of your usage before committing to the more expensive $30 plan.

Love & hugs,

Auntie T.

Update: Looks like AT&T really meant "Unlimited" this time!

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