Torture test: Is AT&T's unlimited iPad 3G plan truly unlimited?

Features Zach Epstein 10:13, May 03 2010

We get acquainted with the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G by hammering AT&T's data network to see if "unlimited" really does mean unlimited

UPDATE: I have received numerous emails asking how I was able to move such an enormous amount of data in such a short period of time. While I happily shared my methods -- along with a disclaimer -- I would urge readers to not attempt to replicate these tests without cause.

This "torture test" was performed in an effort to publicly verify Apple and AT&T's claim of unlimited data. 30GB is well beyond the amount of data any iPad user would move over the course of a month, even with very heavy usage. As such, I will be discontinuing my testing.

Again, I highly recommend against moving large amounts of data over AT&T's 3G network without cause. The simple fact is that there is no longer a need to test the waters.

EARLIER: Last week, the drawn-out launch of Apple's first-generation iPad came to a close as iPad Wi-Fi + 3G models finally began shipping to customers who placed pre-orders.

The iPad Wi-Fi + 3G is nothing new thanks to its Wi-Fi-only counterpart, which launched at the beginning of April. In fact, there are really only five differences important to consumers:

  1. The + 3G model is one-tenth of a pound heavier.
  2. The + 3G model has a plastic piece at the top of the case to help radio reception.
  3. The + 3G model has an internal GPS unit.
  4. The + 3G model has shorter quoted battery life.
  5. The + 3G model has... 3G.

While some people got lucky and received their 3G iPads a day ahead of schedule, our unit was delivered on Friday -- actually, it was handed to me exactly two minutes ahead of the 3:00 pm estimated delivery time. Well done, FedEx.

Since I already reviewed Apple's iPad quite exhaustively here on Know Your Cell, I thought I would take some time to focus on the most important new feature brought about by the 3G model -- that's right, the 3G.

To touch briefly on performance, it's exactly the same as the iPhone 3GS. Reception might be slightly improved thanks to a larger 3G antenna, but AT&T's 3G signal typically sits at five bars everywhere I go. As such, I obviously don't see any difference between the iPad and iPhone. iPad and iPhone 3GS data speeds were also nearly identical in my tests.

But most of that goes without saying. Truth be told, I've had one thing and one thing only on my mind since placing my pre-order for Apple's iPad Wi-Fi + 3G: unlimited data.

In contrast to many smartphone data plans, which include a 5GB soft cap, Apple and AT&T have been very clear with the iPad's 3G data plan options. $14.99 gets you a paltry 250MB of cellular data to use in one month, but $29.99 gets you unlimited data.

We've heard the word "unlimited" tossed around quite freely in the wireless industry for some time. Carriers have been a bit more careful with the word recently, but the memory of discovering "unlimited" actually means 5GB is still fresh on our minds.

So when Apple and AT&T took the time to clarify that the iPad's "unlimited" data plan truly is unlimited, I couldn't help but spend my first month with the 3G iPad ensuring the companies' claim is true.

Welcome to the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G torture test.

"Torture test" might be a bit harsh -- no, I won't be blending the iPad or anything like that -- but considering AT&T's 3G network has been the source of many complaints (and a smear campaign) in recent history, bombarding it with an iPad Wi-Fi + 3G could certainly be considered torturous.

In my first two days with the new iPad, I've pumped just about 31GB of data over AT&T's 3G network:

In fact, actual data usage is likely a bit higher than the figure shown above, as the iPad seems to have some trouble tracking cellular data usage accurately. I haven't yet fully investigated the issue, but I did observe at least one instance where the cellular data received counter actually dropped as I used it. To clarify: the received counter was at 28.3 gigabytes and after using the iPad for another hour, the counter was at 26.1 gigabytes.

I'll be digging further into this issue at some point, but for now my focus is on continuing heavy usage and ensuring that the unlimited data plan truly is unlimited.

It should be noted that I have no intention of keeping up with my current pace, which would put me somewhere north of 450GB when the month ends. I do, however, plan to pump somewhere around 100GB of data over AT&T's 3G network during the course of the month.

If I can hit 100GB without being shut off by AT&T, I think it will be safe to say that users can consider the $29.99 iPad data plan to be "unlimited". Considering I'm currently at six times the 5GB soft cap placed on smartphone data plans after just two days of usage, things are looking good.

Contact Zach Epstein via email or follow @zacharye on Twitter

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