Of 3G iPads and MiFis

Today I asserted on Twitter that a 3G iPad is far superior to a WiFi iPad paired with a MiFi device. To save myself answering the "why do you say that" question twenty times, here's the tl;dr version.

Let me say that a MiFi makes perfect sense if you have multiple, WiFi-only devices that you want to get online. If you take issue with my claim, please save yourself time and stop reading now, happy in the knowledge that I have not been Wrong On The Internet.

My computing life consists of an iMac, an iPad and an iPhone. That's all I own. I also have a 3 MiFi. Let me explain why I vastly prefer the integrated 3G in the iPad over a WiFi iPad with a MiFi (hereinafter referred to as an iPad/MiFi for ease of typing).

Reason 1: call it User Experience, or Connectedness or Ceremony.

When using the 3 MiFi, there is too much setup involved for casual use. A lot of this is down to the poor design of the 3 MiFi. Here's what you do to get online:

  • Power on the MiFi
  • Wait for it to acquire the network (20 seconds, in my absolute-best-case experience - usually much, much worse)
  • Turn on the WiFi radio - another 10 second operation
  • Turn on the 3G radio - 10 seconds to turn on, another 10 to get to 3G status
  • Unlock the iPad, get it associated with the MiFi, get an IP address - another 10-15 seconds

The MiFi will power off after a period of inactivity, so you're talking about a total of around a minute or so every time you want to connect. 56k dial-up modems didn't take that long to get you connected. When I was using an iPad/MiFi, I found that there were times when I wanted to use the iPad online but would just fall back to using the iPhone because it was already online.

Compare to the 3G iPad: you unlock it, you're online.

Reason 2: Battery Life

It's true that the iPad 3G doesn't quite achieve the stellar battery life of the WiFi model, but you'll still get many, many hours of runtime.

With an iPad/MiFi you're only working online for as long as the MiFi can stay alive - in my experience, about two hours of continuous use. With a 3G iPad, your internet connection is hooked up to the iPad's impressive battery and you're online as long as your iPad is alive.

Reason 3: Less Stuff

Perhaps a minor point but in this new world of lightweight, minimalist computing perhaps relevant. With an iPad 3G, you just keep that baby charged and you're good. With a separate MiFi, you're taking an extra charger on holiday and you've got one more thing to remember to keep charged.

Reason 4: On-board Status

My MiFi is on the 3 network and that's not a great network around here (despite what the coverage checker says grumblegrumblegrumble). The MiFi has an incredibly poor signal strength indicator: green for "good" (not, surprisingly, always equivalent to "actually working" in my experience); yellow for "not that good" and red for "bet you're glad this is Pay As You Go, sucka!". At the same time as the MiFi is fluctuating all over the place, the iPad is still convinced that it's on a super-solid five-bars WiFi network.

Tricking the iPad into thinking its on WiFi does have some benefits, though: all the "you can only download this over WiFi" restrictions from the App Store and iTunes are lifted because all of those restrictions depend on the radio status of the device itself.

The downside is that, when the network goes away, the iPad doesn't know about it. All it knows is that packets aren't coming back. Instead of failing immediately because there's no IP, apps will keep trying and trying until they hit their timeouts. This sounds trivial but it's incredibly frustrating in practice.

On balance, I prefer to have the network status up there in the status bar on the device - with more than three guesswork colours to distinguish them - and to have the OS and apps know more about the network.