Just How Much Internet Will the iPhone’s 200MB Plan Get You?

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AT&T's new data plan limits your 3G usage, but how long will it take for you break through that 200MB cap with the low-end $15 DataPlus plan? Would it be better for you to spend the extra $10 for the $25 DataPro plan, allowing you 2GB per month? Let's do some real-world testing and find out.

I tested data usage amounts with six typical tasks using AT&T's 3G network on an iPhone 3GS, measuring the data sent and received during each for five minutes using the iPhone's internal data usage meter. Then, our lovely staff mathematician calculated how many minutes' worth of each you'd get before you used up your 200MB monthly limit.

For this test, I wandered around news websites such as Yahoo, Google, and The New York Times, stopping to read about half the time, and acting like a typical ADD reader by surfing and clicking the rest of the time. For the email testing, I manually checked email every 30 seconds, while continuously sending myself a text-laden email message.

For music streaming, I used Pandora the whole time, and for the Skype call test, I called my land line for five minutes with the free iPhone Skype app. For the other two tests, I simply did some typical Facebook browsing and continuous YouTube video watching.

Here's how long it would take for a user with a typically slow AT&T 3G connection (578mbit/sec down, 54mbit/sec up) to max out that 200MB limit while using an iPhone 3GS:

 Minutes until 200MBMinutes per day for a month
Reading news websites2:25 hours4.77 min/day
Email (checking every 30 sec)78:59 hours155.89 min/day
Streaming Pandora music4:55 hours9.7 min/day
Making Skype calls 9:25 hours18.6 min/day
Browsing Facebook app18:20 hours36.2 min/day
Streaming YouTube videos2:40 hours5.3 min/day

Baseline download/upload speed, AT&T 3G: 578mbit/sec down, 54mbit/sec up

Is it worth it to opt for the $25/month 2GB DataPro plan? That depends on where you go, your access to Wi-Fi, and what you want to do with your iPhone. If you're going to be streaming a lot of YouTube videos, the 5.3 minutes a day allowed by that 200MB cap might not satisfy you. However, if all you do is check email and browse Facebook for less than a half hour a day while you're out in the field, you'll be wasting your money by bumping up to the 2GB plan.

For example, I'm going with the $15 monthly DataPlus plan, because as you can see by the screenshot below (get a graphic like this of your own usage by logging into your AT&T Wireless account), I haven't used over 200MB in the past six months. But I'm working in a home office with access to a fast Wi-Fi connection, and when I'm occasionally on the road, I'm not usually doing a lot of data-intensive tasks on the iPhone.

I think all of these "plans" are spectacularly overpriced, but $15 a month sounds better than the $30 a month I'm paying now for AT&T's unlimited plan — that lower price saves me a total of $360 on the two-year contract. I'll jump at the chance to pay less for AT&T's awful 3G service (honestly, AT&T, 578Mb/s download speed? Lame).

What's right for you? Check your usage habits, and do the math.

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