By JP Mangalindan
June 14, 2010

Why buy a 3G radio locked into Apple’s sleek iPad when Verizon and Sprint’s personal high-speed Internet hotspots can be faster and let you bring five gadgets online?

When Steve Jobs brought out the iPad and leisurely flicked, scrolled and swiped his way through web sites and applications before a captive audience last January, he made clear that his latest brainchild was intended as nothing less than the consummate media consumption device for the early 21st century. It had different meanings for different people: a “netbook killer” for tech-savvy aesthetes and Macheads, a multipurpose tablet with few barriers of entry for newbies, and if Jobs is to be believed, a babe magnet and icebreaker.

Bolstering the iPad’s “magical” features — as one of the 2 million-plus owners, I say “magical” with utmost sincerity — was AT&T’s (T) own data service options at the time, including the standard, but generous, unlimited data plan for $30 a month.

But as we talked about recently, AT&T’s unlimited data plan is dead, and the general concept of unlimited Web data warrants a spot atop the endangered species list. AT&T subscribers who missed the June 6 cut-off find themselves saddled with scaled-back metered data options that make them nervous – and rightfully so. Because every web site browsed, every Netflix movie streamed, and every book and app downloaded will feel like they come with a price, bringing the user closer  and closer to that data monthly cap.

Me? I’m an early adopter who threw caution and common sense to the wind, decided he just couldn’t wait for the 3G edition and jumped aboard the “bandwagon” — a seductive slab of cool aluminum, obsidian black, and oleophobic glass — and haven’t looked back.

I don’t regret it.

Instead, I’m taking the road less traveled and picking up a Verizon (VZ) or Sprint Nextel (S) MiFi router. Both offerings, a plastic sliver slightly larger, but much thinner than a deck of playing cards, transforms a traditional cellular network signal into a mobile WiFi-like hot spot or bubble. On battery power alone, expect a semi-decent 4 hours of continuous data usage and 20 hours of standby time, which should be enough to get you through a day of moderate usage.

It’s all about speed: Verizon’s fastest

Real-world tests of Verizon’s MiFi2200 router for instance reveal download speeds of around 1.4 megabits per second (mbps) and upload speeds of at least 0.6 mbps. Novarum, a wireless industry consulting firm, released a study that clocked average AT&T 3G download speeds at 0.7 mbps and upload speeds at 0.5 mbps.

Sure the iPad offers 3G connectivity without the need for an extra item to carry around and recharge, but MiFi proves its usefulness (and then some) by allowing up to five devices access the signal at once, so long as they’re within range. If you’re concerned about appearances, hiding the router is as easy as tossing the thing in your bag and leaving it there.

As a side note, Fortune’s Google 24/7 blogger Seth Weintraub offers an entirely plausible alternative for reducing the “extra baggage”: get an Android phone. All Android users will eventually get a mobile hotspot feature when the Android 2.2 OS becomes available to their phones.

Of course, for the Apple faithful, signing on to Weintraub’s plan would mean turning their backs on the iPhone 4 and switching over. For some tech-heads that’s tantamount to changing religions — maybe even more blasphemous.

Sprint first, Verizon second

While some will pick up an iPad 3G for occasional 3G usage, let’s face it: many more, particularly smartphone owners, are accustomed to constant connectivity regardless of situation and location.

If you’re addicted to your signal bars, seriously consider Verizon or Sprint. Below are how things shake down in terms of numbers. We focused on the 2-year plans for 5 GB:

AT&T 3G for iPad
For 4.001 gigabytes to 5 GB*
$55 for 2 years = $1,450.00** (No activation fee.)

Verizon MiFi
For the 5 GB plan
$59.99 for 2 years = $1,504.75, with discounted $29.99 router unit fee and $35 activation fee

Sprint MiFi
For the 5 GB plan
$59.99 for 2 years = $1,439.76  (Free wireless MiFi router, no activation fee)

Surprisingly, the three plans end up being pretty competitive, and again, the MiFi options let up to five devices access a MiFi signal at once compared to AT&T’s one, and depending on the areas in which you surf, one of these providers might offer you superior signal coverage over the others. In Sprint’s case, you’d actually be paying slightly less than AT&T’s plan.

So say what you like naysayers, but if made to choose between a low-capped data plan for one device or signing up for one that will power my iPad, MacBook, iPhone 3GS, and any two other devices I or my friends happen to be toting along, from a BlackBerry (RIM) to a Nintendo DS? Well, no contest.

*By default, AT&T does not offer a 5-GB data plan option. My calculations include the now standard 2 GB plan for $25 and factor in an additional $30 for the extra gigs. And for those wondering about the 4.001 GB figure, know that if you go even one gigabyte over, you’re automatically bumped up to the next price tier. So theoretically, you’d be paying the same amount for 4.001 GB of data consumption as you would if you were paying for 5 GB.

** This price also includes the $130 premium one pays for choosing an iPad equipped with 3G over a Wi-Fi iPad.

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