200 MB free

I wrote a draft of this post a couple weeks ago while on the road, then gave a summary on Core Intuition 115. But I still wanted to publish it and give a little more detail about my experience with cellular on the iPad.

I ordered my retina iPad Mini with T-Mobile, hoping to take advantage of their free 200 MB of data per month. Since most of the time I’m at home on wi-fi, I figured the savings for all the months that I don’t need even 200 MB would more than offset the extra $130 cost of buying the cellular version of iPad.

I had three primary use cases in mind: the occasional commute on the train to work at coffee shops downtown, when it’s nice to be connected but the train wi-fi doesn’t cut it; swim meets and other kid activities with very long downtime, again without need for a laptop but it might be nice to catch up on some writing or RSS feeds; and road trips, lonely stretches of the highway where I’m technically on vacation but still need to check in on email, chat, or App.net.

I got home from the Apple Store, excitedly opened the box, restored my iPad from iCloud, tapped to set up a new T-Mobile plan, and… immediately wished I had chosen Verizon instead. Because the first thing I saw was an error that the web site wasn’t working. T-Mobile is smallest of the big carriers, and the error made me doubt that T-Mobile had the coverage or competence to make this work.

I followed up the poor first impression by searching the internet for similar problems that other T-Mobile customers might have run into. Sure enough, it was common weeks earlier during the iPad Air rollout, and T-Mobile still hadn’t fixed it. The workaround was simply to disable wi-fi during setup, forcing the connection to go through T-Mobile’s network.

A week later I gave the network its first real test on the road. Checking email, looking up maps and directions, writing, even a little streaming video for the kids.

The coverage between major cities wasn’t good. The iPad Mini was often on Edge where my iPhone 4S on AT&T had 4G. It worked, but would frequently drop and reconnect. Sometimes I’d get lucky and find a spot of LTE for a little while, and it was a beautiful thing, while it lasted. Other times it was all but unusable.

The good news is that “200 MB free” is not a marketing gimmick. No strings attached, no credit card required, and no phone plan needed; it really is free cell data. The cost is dealing with a company that wants desperately to “get” iOS but isn’t quite there, and poor connectivity between cities compared to AT&T. But after a rough start, I have no regrets. I’m typing this on my iPad along I-10 somewhere between Austin and Orlando, and that’s priceless indeed.