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Tuesday, March 20, 2012, 03:45 pm PT (06:45 pm ET)

In-depth review: Apple's third generation iPad and iOS 5.1


4G LTE that doesn't destroy your battery life

The final big hardware feature incorporated by the new iPad is 4G LTE mobile data service. Replacing the 3G option of iPad 2, the new iPad offers an AT&T or Verizon Wireless version with 4G LTE networking (each is tied to the carriers' specific implementations of LTE, which is tied to the frequency bands of their licensed radio spectrum).

It is unfortunate the new 4G data service doesn't "just work" on every provider, an issue related to the LTE frequency bands supported by different carriers and made available by different countries rather than being a problem Apple can solve on its own. The iPad's LTE support is also currently limited to North American carriers (including Bell, Rogers and Telus in Canada), although Apple may introduce new models or new agreements with other carriers in the future.

To 4G or not to 4G, that is the question

However in addition to 4G LTE, the new iPad also supports what Apple calls "advanced 3G networks," including HSPA, HSPA+ and DC-HSDPA. Those include mobile networks a variety of carriers (and the ITU standards body) refer to as 4G because they can achieve theoretical download speeds of 21 to 42 Mbps, compared to the 3-7 Mbps theoretical maximums associated with typical American 3G service.

So even in countries that don't support the new iPad's LTE, its mobile data network capacity can still deliver speeds comparable with Wi-Fi and real world LTE speeds (and much faster than the 3G service available on previous iPad models), as many carriers globally have done what AT&T has done in the US: bolster their existing GSM/UMTS mobile networks with HSPA/HSPA+ upgrades. In fact, much of the rest of the world is further along in this effort than the US is.

Even in the US, LTE is only offered in limited, mostly urban areas. Verizon currently has a larger deployed LTE network (albeit still limited to major metropolitan areas), but in large part that was because Verizon's 3G network was the weakest, so it needed to build out LTE a little more desperately than AT&T (and the rest of the GSM/UMTS world) did.

Verizon has trumpeted 4G LTE out of necessity, and helped create the impression among tech pundits that LTE was the only "real" 4G, and that everything else, regardless of its actual speed, was phony marketing lies. The reality is that Verizon is really no less of a phony marketer than any other mobile carrier.

Apple is carefully taking the high road in avoiding overtly marketing HSPA+ and related technologies as "4G," although it has started indicating 4G service on the iPhone 4S when HSPA+ is in use. It still differentiates 4G and LTE service, to avoid upsetting people who have bought into Verizon's marketing lines.

US 4G and LTE coverage maps

In our testing of iPhone 4S on different networks, we found Verizon's 3G network was consistently about half the speed of AT&T's, in part because AT&T's UMTS 3G is simply faster than Verizon's older CDMA EvDo 3G. Additionally, AT&T's HSPA/HSPA+ networks are faster still, providing a middle ground between slow 3G and the fastest 4G.



If you break out AT&T's faster, more modern HSPA+ networks, which can deliver the same WiFi-like mobile speeds as LTE, the comparison between AT&T and Verizon's available "4G" networks tilt in favor of AT&T, as presented in the service maps of the Coverage app.

The top graphic below shows AT&T's (in blue) and Verizon's (in red) LTE network maps. The lower graphic adds all "4G" networks, allowing AT&T to get credit for its similarly performing, modern mobile networks.





Note that just because LTE can be fast, doesn't mean it always will be. In testing around San Francisco, Verizon's LTE downloads often hovered around the carrier's typical 3G EvDo speeds (1-2 Mbps) even while uploads oddly shot up into the WiFi/broadband range of 10 Mbps. As was always the case, just being within a carrier's coverage map doesn't mean you'll have a good signal, and having a good signal to the nearest cell tower doesn't necessarily mean you'll get a specific level of service.

Personal Hotspot enhances iPad 4G LTE allure

Another feature borrowed from the iPhone for the first time is the new iPad's Personal Hotspot feature, allowing iPad to share its mobile network connection with other nearby clients via Wi-Fi.

This feature is currently only supported by Verizon, which does not charge extra for the feature (as it does on smartphones). AT&T is not yet committed to delivering the feature, a continuation of their lagging support for Apple's Personal Hotspot features in iOS.

Because the Verizon version of the new iPad can connect to AT&T's non-LTE data services via a SIM card, and because it is the only option currently supporting iOS 5's Personal Hotspot, it seems to have a significant edge over AT&T for users on the fence, who are interested in the new LTE service but aren't sure which carrier to pick.

If you already have Personal Hotspot activated on your iPhone, you might choose to save the $129 premium for the 4G version and simply go with the WiFi iPad. You might also decide that contract-free 4G service better suits your needs, and cancel your smartphone's Personal Hotspot to get service through the new iPad instead.

With 4G on iPad, what's left for Android?

It's interesting to note that other smartphone and tablet vendors have now been selling 4G LTE devices for a year. However, to stay a step ahead of Apple they've been forced to use first generation chipsets that literally destroyed battery life, often chewing through so much power that their batteries can deplete even when plugged into a car charger.

And despite enjoying an exclusive year lead, their 4G devices have in total been less successful than Apple's 3G iPhone and iPad models. Even on Verizon, which has been banging the 4G LTE drum incessantly for the last year to highlight its incremental lead in deployment, Apple's iPhones have outsold all 4G devices combined.

Now that Apple is joining the 4G party (and bringing more efficient, modern chips that enable access to 4G without giving up battery life), it will be interesting to see what its competitors can offer to differentiate themselves from Apple's iOS offerings.

On page 5 of 6: Dictation, hold the Siri, new in iOS 5.1, AirPlay & AirPlay Mirroring