We're going to tell you the punchline right away: Run, don't walk, to get your iPad 3G before the end of the weekend
If you want to stream video while on-the-go from sources like Netflix or the ABC Player, or any of the hundreds of sources like them coming down the pike, you will quickly regret not having an unlimited data plan unless you are constantly connected to wi-fi.
iPhone and iPad owners cringed after hearing about the new data plans AT&T will be rolling out next week. While current data plan subscribers can breathe a sigh of relief – you'll be able to keep your unlimited plans (at least for now, there's some speculation they will go away too) or downgrade to one of the two new limited data plans – new subscribers looking to go unlimited will be SOL.
If you're considering buying a 3G iPad, iPhone or downgrading your unlimited plan to a new option to save money, you may have some questions about what the new data plans will get you. Specifically, you're probably wondering just how much video you can stream under the new plans – particularly on your shiny new iPad, which has proven to be so great for watching streaming video. So, the Clicker team has deciphered what this means for your on-the-go streaming video habit, one of the most data-intensive mobile experiences.
First, a quick review of AT&T's new plans:
- Current Plan: $30 a month gets you unlimited data usage (which current AT&T customers can keep)
- New DataPlus Plan: $15 a month gets you 200 megabytes of data. Go over and pay another $15 for 200 more MBs. (AT&T says that 65 percent of current AT&T smartphone customers use less than 200 MB of data per month on average.)
- New DataPro Plan: $25 a month gets you 2 gigabytes of data. Go over and pay an additional $10 for 1 GB. (AT&T says that 98 percent of current AT&T smartphone customers use less than 2 GB of data a month on average – but they didn't specify the impact for iPhone/iPad users, did they? We'd love to know THAT number!) This is also the only plan available to new iPad 3G subscribers starting June 7, though current iPad customers can keep the $29.99 per month unlimited plan.
So what does 200MB or 2GB get you exactly? AT&T's created a ‘simple' data grid, and also a data calculator, so you can guesstimate what your usage is like. According to AT&T, here's what each plan will generally get you:
- The 200MB plan: Sending/receiving 1,000 one-page text emails and 150 one-page emails with an attachment, viewing 400 Web pages, uploading/downloading 50 photos to social media sites, and (only) 20 minutes of standard-quality video watching (read: streaming a basic, low-quality YouTube clip) a month
- The 2GB plan: Sending/receiving 10,000 one-page text emails and 1,500 one-page emails with an attachment, viewing 4,000 Web pages, uploading/downloading 500 photos to social media sites, and (only) 200 minutes of standard-quality video watching a month
But it's not that cut and dry, especially when it comes to video. The bandwidth expended to watch videos from YouTube, NBC, Netflix, ABC, and others can vary wildly. The death of unlimited may be worst for iPad users – the ABC iPad app alone was downloaded 205,000 times in its first 10 days, with users watching over 650,000 television episodes*.
To find out what you could really watch on the new plans, we ran some tests on an iPad 3G. Here's what we found:
YouTube: When we watched a 2-minute YouTube video, 2MB was used; so if 2GB is 2048MB, one could theoretically watch 17 hours of programming on YouTube before using up all your bandwidth for the month. This assumes you do NOTHING else on your iPad that eats up bandwidth.
Netflix: When we watched an episode of Netflix (Arrested Development) running 21:54, 55MB of bandwidth was used; so, let's say 22min is 55MB, then Netflix consumes 2.5MB for every minute of streaming video watched. Therefore:
- A half hour TV show (~22min.) on Netflix would consume 55MB of data
- An hour-long TV show (~43min.) on Netflix would consume 110MB of data
- An hour-long movie on Netflix would consume 150MB of data
- An hour and a half movie on Netflix would consume 225MB of data
- A two-hour movie on Netflix would consume 300MB of data
** In total, you could watch 13.65 hours of programming on Netflix before using up all your bandwidth. This assumes you do nothing else on your iPad that month to eat up your bandwidth. (And remember: the average American watches over 150 hours of television per month alone.)
ABC App: We watched an episode of Better Off Ted, running 25:41 with ads used 97MB. For simplicity's sake, let's average it out to 26min and 100MB. That's ~4MB/minute.
- A half hour TV Show on ABC streaming would consume an estimated 100MB
- An hour-long TV Show on ABC streaming would consume an estimated 200MB
** In total, you could watch 10.24 hours of programming on ABC Streaming App before using up all your bandwidth. Again, this assumes you do nothing else on your iPad that month.
The new tethering option available for DataPro subscribers (at an additional $20 a month) could push your mobile data usage further above and beyond 2GB – especially if you're downloading or streaming a lot of video on your laptop. For example, if you download one episode of Mad Men (47min 41sec) from iTunes you'll be using up 554MB for the standard video and a whopping 1.51GB for the episode in HD. That's practically your whole data allotment. So, potential tetherers beware: keep an eye on your downloads. (We'll also leave for a later date the issue of why you should be charged a flat fee for tethering privileges when you're now being charged metered rates for bandwidth.)
Morals of the story:
1. If you don't have the unlimited plan, get it before June 7. Run don't walk! (And yes, from experience, the 3G iPad is completely the right call. It's awesomely convenient.)
2. If you don't get the unlimited plan, and plan to stream via apps on your iPad, go WiFi as much as possible. Otherwise it's going to cost you.