Buyer’s guide: pay as you go iPad SIM cards
Tablets are now a very popular option for entertainment and keeping in touch on the move, offering much of the same functionality as a laptop in a far more compact package.
But tablets rarely (or never, in the case of the iPad) support USB mobile broadband, and so you either need to tether them to your smartphone, which rapidly drains the battery, or use a Wi-Fi dongle, which is yet more kit to carry around.
The easiest way to get an iPad online with mobile broadband is to purchase a mobile data model and slot in a SIM card, then when you’re outside the range of wireless networks you can get online at any time. And provided you’re not using it constantly and streaming lots of video, PAYG is a really cheap way to get mobile internet access.
The comparison table above lists offers for iPad SIMs only, which is perfect if you already own one or are buying one outside of a contract. If you’d prefer to get the whole package in one go you can also compare iPad contract deals.
How to choose an iPad: the iPad 2 vs iPad 4 vs iPad Mini
Apple has to date released five different models of iPad. The original iPad and the iPad 3 (aka ‘New iPad’) are no longer available, however that still leaves three different Apple tablets to choose from if you’re buying new. How do they differ?
Apple iPad 2
The oldest model still on sale, Apple has continued to make it as a budget option. The iPad 2 is very affordable but still carries some reasonably powerful hardware, and apps work as normal. The big difference between the iPad 2 and iPad 4 is the latter’s screen resolution, which is significantly different but not something you’ll miss too much unless you do a lot of photography work or want to watch 1080p HD video.
Apple iPad with Retina Display (aka iPad 4)
The flagship iPad with Retina Display (more commonly known as the iPad 4) is very similar to the discontinued iPad 3 - it has the same high res Retina display - but with some minor improvements in processor and graphics power. This is an extremely powerful and impressive tablet, but in all honesty most of us won’t notice the difference day to day, it’s only the App Store’s most demanding software and games that utilise it fully.
Apple iPad Mini
The newest iPad, and Apple’s cheapest tablet yet at just over £200 for the base model. This has a similar specification to the iPad 2, but its primary appeal lies in the small size; its 7.9-inch screen makes it less of a handful than the iPad 2 or 4. And because the screen ratio remains the same there are no problems with app compatibility.
iPad SIM sizes: which SIM do you need?
The iPad, iPad 2, iPad 3 and iPad 4 all take a micro SIM card. These can be made by cutting down a standard SIM, but if possible you should always just buy the correct card in the first place.
The iPad Mini differs as it uses a nano SIM. This is even smaller and you cannot cut down another SIM to fit this size, so if you’re buying a SIM card for an iPad Mini you must ensure it is a nano and not micro or standard SIM.
This table provides an easy reference for selecting the right SIM size for your iPad:
|Model||Nano-SIM card||Micro-SIM card|
|iPad (Wi-Fi + 3G)||•|
|iPad 2 (Wi-Fi + 3G)||•|
|New iPad / iPad 3 (Wi-Fi+3G)||•|
|iPad with Retina Display / iPad 4 (Wi-Fi + 3G/4G)||•|
|iPad Mini (Wi-Fi + 3G/4G)||•|
What to look for in PAYG iPad SIM packages
In our comparison table you’ll notice we’ve broken down the iPad SIM offers into various key parts. Here’s a few things to consider to help you get the best package for your tablet.
The up-front cost for the SIM pack. This may seem expensive for a bit of card and circuitry, but remember that you’re not just paying for the SIM here, you’re also getting a bundle of data to start with. Most will be around £10 but paying more will net you more inclusive data.
Estimated network speed, as provided by the network and based on its best possible performance. This figure should always be taken with a pinch of salt as it’s greatly affected by signal strength and network congestion, but you must also keep in mind that faster speeds will depend on the iPad supporting particular standards. To get Three’s ultrafast 3G (which is deployed throughout the UK) you’ll need to check your iPad supports DC-HSDPA, and only the most recent iPads have 4G support.
- Top-up costs
We also include the prices of top-ups in our tables to give you an idea of how much you’ll get for your money. As is usual with pay as you go, the more you pay at once the better value: it might be £10 for 1GB or £15 for 3GB.
How much data usage do you need?
Your data requirements will vary wildly depending on what you’re doing online, but if you don’t want to be constantly topping up your iPad SIM with credit it helps to have a rough idea of how different activities impact the usage cap.
File downloads (such as apps from the App Store) will obviously depend on the file size of the thing you’re downloading. You should be able to see that anyway and leave really big files until you’re on a Wi-Fi connection. It’s fine to download some apps and files but if you go overboard it’ll really run through that credit fast.
The big danger area is streaming video and music. This can use a deceptively large amount: an hour of standard definition YouTube streaming could consume 250MB, while HD video can run into 1 or 2GB per hour. Audio is more forgiving but can still use up several hundred MB per hour.
It’s really easy to unwittingly use a large amount of your data cap this way, so keep an eye on the credit level if you’re watching video or listening to music via mobile broadband.
The good news is that web browsing and email are very lightweight. Most web sites - particularly if they’ve been mobile optimised - do not have hefty file sizes so you can browse for many hours on a small amount of data. And for emails you’re not going to be using much either unless you’re sending or receiving file attachments - try to save those for your home connection.
For much more detail on data usage we’d recommended reading through our help guide “what do you get for your gigabyte?”. We’ve also put together this helpful infographic to illustrate common usage scenarios...