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Originally published December 17, 2010 at 12:00 PM | Page modified December 17, 2010 at 5:17 PM

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Practical Mac: The holiday connections

With holiday vacations approaching, you may find yourself in transit and in strange locations — what's stranger than your parents'...

Special to The Seattle Times

With holiday vacations approaching, you may find yourself in transit and in strange locations — what's stranger than your parents' or in-laws' house? — struggling to find connectivity for your devices. Options multiplied during 2010 for ways to connect without costing an arm and a leg, whether via Wi-Fi or 3G cellular networks.

Mac and iPhone, iPod touch and iPad owners have many choices, all with trade-offs.

If you own an iPad, I'd urge you to consider leaving a laptop at home unless you absolutely have to work steadily during a vacation and use programs that don't have an iPad equivalent.

The iPad with an external Bluetooth keyboard and a simple stand (whether a dock that charges or just a block that holds the iPad in reading position) works quite well for writing documents or e-mail. (Apple's wireless keyboard costs $69, but is quite stylish and has the right layout for an iPad. But any standard Bluetooth keyboard will work. Mice need not apply.)

The iPad comes in two flavors: Wi-Fi only, and 3G plus Wi-Fi. The latter requires a service plan from AT&T for 3G usage, which automatically renews, but which you can cancel at any time without a penalty. It's $14.99 to use up to 200 MB of data during a 30-day period or $25 for up to 2 GB. Unused data isn't rolled over.

However, Verizon Wireless introduced an odd and interesting alternative a few weeks ago. Because Verizon's cellular technology isn't compatible with the iPad's 3G radio, it has a bundle: a Wi-Fi iPad coupled with the MiFi, a battery-operated cellular router (www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/splash/ipad.jsp).

The bundle adds $130 to the price of a Wi-Fi iPad, which is the price spread between a Wi-Fi-only and 3G iPad of the same capacity — 16, 32, or 64 GB. (If you already own an iPad, you can't get the deal, but you could buy the bundle and sell the iPad in its unopened box, keeping the MiFi.)

The MiFi lets you connect up to five devices — laptops, mobile phones, iPads, or whatever — via Wi-Fi, then relays traffic to and from Verizon's extensive U.S. 3G cellular network. This can let you provide access to anyone you're traveling with, or multiple devices you're using yourself. No special software is required on the devices.

The MiFi acts precisely like any other Wi-Fi access point. It's also useful on car trips with a car DC inverter.

If your destination lacks Internet service, or your parents still use a dial-up modem, the MiFi comes in handy there, too. Verizon charges from $20 for up to 1 GB used within 30 days to $80 for up to 10 GB. Additional gigabytes are $20 each with the 1 GB plan or $10 each with any of three higher-use plans.

The MiFi is also available from Virgin Mobile. There, you purchase the MiFi outright for $130, then buy service plans that don't automatically renew. You can purchase either 100 MB for use within 10 days for $10, or unlimited bandwidth for $40 used within 30 days. Usage is only on Sprint's network, which is national in scope, but more limited than Verizon's.

AT&T finally enabled tethering on the iPhone earlier this year, an option that lets you use the phone as a cellular data modem for a laptop or other computer. Carriers outside the United States have offered tethering since 2009. (iOS 4 is required, as well as an iPhone 3G, 3GS, or 4; see support.apple.com/kb/HT3574.)

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It's pricey, although it can be the right solution. AT&T has two standard data plans: DataPlus with 200 MB of usage each month for $15, and DataPro, which ups that to 2 GB for $25. Tethering requires DataPro.

Tethering itself adds an unconscionable $20 per month on top of the metered DataPro plan. No other carrier in the world charges so much; most offer tethering at no cost with sufficiently high-use plans, or charge a few dollars and include other add-ons.

Cross the border into Canada, and five carriers compete to sell you an iPhone while offering tethering as part of service plans.

If you'd like to stay away from mobile carriers altogether, you can seek out Wi-Fi. The trend toward free service has accelerated in 2010. Several airports switched off the fee bucket, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; Portland has been free since it started Wi-Fi service years ago.

Public libraries generally provide free Wi-Fi, and many cities and towns have free service in downtown areas, public parks, or city buildings.

Both Starbucks and McDonald's removed nominal fees or requirements in the first half of 2010 for their service, offered free now at more than 20,000 locations across the United States.

If you have an iPhone or an iPad with an active data plan, AT&T automatically logs you in to Starbucks, McDonald's and a few thousand other fee and free locations at no extra charge.

Of course, there's an alternative to all this connectivity. Power down. Send out e-mail a couple of weeks ahead, then a couple of reminders to your frequent correspondents explaining you'll be unavailable, and pull the plug entirely. Drink eggnog, pull out the board games and stare into the fire, not the computer screen.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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