Review: Apple iPad 2 Wi-Fi / Wi-Fi + 3G GSM / CDMA (16GB/32GB/64GB)
Pros: An iterative improvement upon Apple’s first tablet computer, benefitting from modest size and weight reductions, two color options, as well as considerable under-the-hood improvements in speed. Still includes integrated apps for audio, video, and photo playback, web browsing, e-mailing, calendaring, mapping and more, plus a free downloadable book and PDF reading app, many improved at least a little over original 2010 versions; web browsing is markedly faster. In addition to running many of the original iPad’s nearly 75,000 applications at higher speeds than before, adds dual-core CPU and graphics processor capable of running dramatically more impressive games and apps. New FaceTime cameras enable video calling and simple photography/videography. Improves upon predecessor’s 10-hour battery life by adding 20-60 minutes of added juice under some situations. Improved video output capabilities, including screen mirroring and maximum 1080p output, when used with HDMI or VGA accessories. Now offered in separate GSM and CDMA 3G versions, accommodating Verizon and other CDMA customers.
Cons: New integrated cameras produce blurry, grainy images that are unacceptably weak for still photography and look poor when forced to fill the display; video recorded by the rear 720p camera is only acceptable. Modest reductions in headphone port audio and mic performance. Front glass continues to attract visible fingerprint smudges and suffer from glare issues, requiring film or a cover to improve usability outdoors and indoors. Still cannot run Retina Display iPhone/iPod touch apps at full resolution, and similarly downscales or crops HD videos to fit 1024x768 resolution, 4:3 display. Would benefit dramatically from combined GSM/CDMA 3G model; CDMA version exhibited slightly higher cellular battery drain and slower cellular data speeds, lacks SIM card slot, and offers fewer options for international travelers.
Last year, there were six versions of the iPad—one universal color scheme for 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities, each offered in “Wi-Fi-only” and “Wi-Fi + 3G” variations, the latter at a $130 premium over the standard $499, $599, and $699 prices. They all had the same 9.7”, 1024x768 multi-touch screen, 10-hour maximum battery life, Bluetooth 2.1 for keyboard and audio accessories, and Wi-Fi with support for 802.11b, g, and n networks. The 3G version added chip and antenna hardware capable of optionally connecting to GSM cellular networks for data service on the road, at the cost of roughly one hour of battery life, and interrupted the top of the iPad’s silver aluminum rear shell with a black plastic antenna bar.
This year, there are separate black- and white-faced versions of the iPad 2, identical from behind, each in the same three 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities. There are also now three different wireless options: Wi-Fi-only, Wi-Fi + 3G (GSM), or Wi-Fi + 3G (CDMA). The Wi-Fi-only version depends on a home, office, or hotspot wireless network for Internet access, while the Wi-Fi + GSM version also works on AT&T’s 3G network—or international equivalents—and the Wi-Fi + CDMA version instead is designed primarily for Verizon’s CDMA/EV-DO Rev. A 3G network in the United States. While the GSM iPad achieves higher peak cellular speeds and is more convenient for international travel, the Verizon version provides more consistent speeds in parts of the U.S. where AT&T’s service is weak, particularly in rural areas.
Few people expected that Apple, which is generally known for streamlining and simplifying product lines, would add so much to the complexity of selecting a model, particularly given that the company has recently started to use new 3G chips that can switch between GSM and CDMA as needed—assuming there are enough antennas in the device to handle both types of networks properly. Clearly, Apple couldn’t get the new antenna hardware ready in time for iPad 2’s launch, so it moved forward with what it could offer to all of its customers: separate versions. On the plus side, potential customers have a greater degree of choice than ever before, but on the other hand, the prospect of getting the “wrong” model—one that’s great at home but poor for travel or tougher to resell—has increased a little. The absence of a SIM card slot and GSM hardware in the Verizon CDMA iPad 2 means that you can’t just switch carriers at will when you travel overseas.
Three other factors may influence your purchasing decision. First, Apple and its cellular partners now enable iPhones to serve as “Personal Hotspots,” all but eliminating the need for separate iPad 3G data service if you have an iPhone. Personal Hotspot lets an iPhone share its cellular data plan with the iPad, providing it with up to 2GB of extra data per month, generally at an additional cost of $25. Many users will find this option viable, particularly since it saves $130 up front, and service can be turned on and off each month as needed. Using Personal Hotspot drains both devices’ batteries at the same time, but lets the iPad avoid the extra hour of battery drain demanded by integrated 3G hardware.
Second, both the GSM and CDMA versions of iPad 2 have one key piece of hardware that the Wi-Fi-only version lacks: GPS, for precise second-by-second location tracking. Using Personal Hotspot provides you with 3G cellular Internet service similar in speed, but leaves iPad 2 Wi-Fi users without the GSM and CDMA versions’ fast, generally accurate mapping hardware. If you’re planning to use the iPad 2 for live turn-by-turn guidance and maps, you’ll want one of the 3G versions, and if you plan to travel overseas, the GSM version has even more of an advantage.
Third, AT&T continues to be a remarkably messed up company; we have yet to go through an iPhone or iPad purchasing experience with AT&T without some problem establishing service, overbilling, or other similar issue. This time, one of the two GSM iPad 2 units we purchased for testing refused to activate properly on AT&T’s cellular network after we’d purchased service for it, a process that took several attempts because of problems reaching the company’s servers. When we went to call AT&T to resolve the issue—something that in the past has almost always required multiple phone calls, each 10-15 minutes in length—its telephone lines were closed, and the iPad 2 did not provide another option to get the issue resolved. After a second call, AT&T agreed to refund the service charge within 24-48 hours; a subsequent failure of the service to activate on the same device led to a third call and an explanation: the company had activated service for the wrong SIM card. Experiences like this are frustrating, and so common to AT&T that the company would be worth boycotting if it wasn’t the only iPad GSM provider in the country.
Based on the past 11 months of real-world iPad testing, as well as our tests of the Verizon iPhone 4 and all three versions of the iPad 2, our advice would be to pick the comparatively inexpensive Wi-Fi iPad 2 if you’re planning to use it primarily at home, an office, or at Wi-Fi-equipped businesses, especially if you already have an iPhone. Go with a 3G iPad 2 only if you need access to real-time GPS features or frequently travel outside the country, and the Verizon version solely if you often need cellular access and live in an area with poor AT&T coverage. Our separate ratings for the three iPad 2 versions reflect our belief that, for now, the Wi-Fi version is the most universally appealing version, followed by the GSM, and then the CDMA versions. It would be surprising to see separate GSM and CDMA variations for the next iPad, and our suspicion is that the CDMA iPad 2 will command lower resale prices than the GSM model. Take that risk if it meets your needs.