Saturday, May 1, 2010

Information on 3G iPad GPS and International Roaming

UPDATE: I am back from my trip in Italy, and everything worked great. I used only about 100MB of 3G data on the iPad, although keep in mind I was also using an iPhone some of the time. It worked perfectly for our trip. Being able to consult maps, the web, and related information was very handy.

I can also highly recommend the TomTom for Italy iPhone app (with the hardware phone holder that amplifies the GPS and charges the phone). We drove all over Italy using this device, and rarely made mistakes in getting to our destinations!

First, let's talk GPS in the iPad

The GPS in the iPad works with or without a 3G plan.

It's called "Assisted GPS," but don't let the name fool you, it's true GPS. The "assist" you get from the cell towers is that you get an immediate approximate location, and more importantly, the tower information tells the GPS chip in the iPad which GPS satellites to lock onto. This speeds up the process of acquiring a true GPS lock.

However, if you are in an area with zero 3G cell coverage, your iPad will still obtain a GPS lock, it's just going to be a bit slower initially.

In addition, if you're near any WiFi routers, the iPad will acquire an approximate location based on data from services like Skyhook, automatically. (Assuming you're able to connect to at least one of those WiFi routers to obtain an internet connection that the iPad can use to query the remote Skyhook data!)

Based on my testing yesterday, the GPS in my iPad (without any 3G plan enabled, mind you) was following me pretty damn precisely. I walked the sidewalk around my office complex, with the map program open, and it was dead accurate and very smooth updating, more so than my iPhone.

Of course, if you haven't enabled the 3G plan, and if you have no WiFi connection, you won't be able to use many GPS programs anyway, since they typically are downloading maps and other stuff from the net.

3G Data Plans

Most people know AT&T is offering two plans, $15 for 250MB and $30 for unlimited. If you get low on the 250MB plan, they provide warnings so you'll know. You then have the option of paying another $15 for another 250MB, or paying $30 for 30 days of unlimited, from that point in time. (No, you can't just pay an extra $15 to 'upgrade' to unlimited!) These plans auto-renew, until you cancel, but there's no lock in or contract.

AT&T also has international data roaming plans. These are priced the same as adding data roaming on iPhone or any other device, with several tiers, and the top end capping out at $200 for 200MB of data (in a 30-day window, just like the domestic plans). Unlike the iPhone plans, there are no overages or overage fees -- you simply run out of your allotment, and to continue, you must add another international roaming plan. (Keep in mind you'll need WiFi access to enable this plan, since your 3G coverage will have run out!)

Contrast this with the iPhone roaming plans, where if you go over, you're not warned initially, and you're paying $5 per MB over!

The international plans are a one-time fee, they do not auto-renew. You can also pick which day they start on, up to a year from your purchase date. So you can time it perfectly for your departure date.

Note: You must have an existing 3G data plan on the iPad to add international roaming.

It is simple to add both the 3G data plan and the international data add-on directly from the iPad settings app, look for "Cellular Data."

$200! $200! Anything Cheaper?

The only thing that would be cheaper is if you were to just get a pre-paid micro-sim card in the country you're traveling to. Instead of the high rates you're paying AT&T, you'll be paying a fraction of that. The problem is the micro-sim format is still really new (as of May 2010), and you may have trouble locating a provider in your travel destination that carries them. But the iPad is unlocked and it will work if you can find one. (Some people suggest cutting down a regular SIM card to fit the micro-sim slot, which may work.)

Personally, I did not want to wander around on my vacation looking for a foreign cell provider with a micro-sim, so I bit the bullet and ordered an international plan from AT&T. I'll be traveling May 7 - 23 in Italy, and will post an update when I return if I have any trouble. (I'm traveling with an iPhone 3GS with 100MB data plan, the iPad with 200MB, and a blackberry with unlimited email data... yeah, work is fun!)