Review: Apple iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G (16GB/32GB/64GB)
Pros: An impressively built tablet computer, featuring a clean industrial design borrowed from Apple’s MacBook Pro computers, internal components derived largely from its iPod touch and iPhone pocket devices, and stable, multi-touch software. Runs over 150,000 applications, thousands of which have been optimized for this device, offering iPod-equivalent sonic performance, better than iPod- and iPhone-quality visual performance, and 10+ hour video/Wi-Fi battery life unmatched by any current-generation Apple product, or most competitors. Superb for book and periodical reading, strong for web and video viewing, more capable of content creation than iPods and iPhones. Supports 720p HD video playback. Unlike standard Wi-Fi version, connects to 3G cellular networks and requires no long-term contract. Achieves nearly 9-hour battery life under 3G torture test conditions, and offers assisted GPS for enhanced navigation capabilities.
Cons: Cannot serve as a standalone computer; in addition to iTunes dependence, horsepower is presently shortchanged by limited, iPhone-class multitasking that forces all third-party applications to occupy and waste entire screen; lack of camera similarly limits value for video communications. Screen dimensions are sub-optimal for movies, including HD content. Confusing battery charging requirements and slow iTunes synchronization. Initial iPad-optimized applications, as well as Apple’s strategy for performing and selling color digital publications on the device, need additional work. In addition to anti-glare, anti-fingerprint screen film, most users will need new in-car, docking, and/or speaker accessories. AT&T network substantially underperforms relative to device’s speed capabilities, making uploading sluggish and limiting data capabilities for both audio and video streaming purposes. Rather than supporting inbound or outbound tethering, cellular data plans are sold separately from iPhone data services, forcing most iPhone users to choose between one device or the other.
There are two critical differences between the prices of the iPad with Wi-Fi and the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G. The first one is obvious at the time of purchase: in the United States, Apple charges a $130 premium for 3G-equipped iPads over the Wi-Fi-only versions. Consequently, the 16GB standard iPad sells for $499 versus the 3G version at $629, while the 32GB versions are $599 and $729, and the 64GB versions are $699 and $829. It’s unclear as to whether the higher prices are purely attributable to added hardware, or also up-front compensation for AT&T’s micro-SIM cards.
Once you turn on the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G, the second pricing difference kicks in. Unlike the standard iPad, which requires nothing more than a connection to iTunes to get you up and running, the cellular-ready iPad starts with a Connect to iTunes screen, and then continues to a “Waiting for activation” dialog box, noting that “This may take some time.” U.S. iPad users will then see the word “Searching…” appear at the top left of the screen, most likely giving way to antenna bars, an AT&T logo, and a 3G indicator thereafter. The “Waiting for activation” dialog will remain on the iPad’s Home screen, however, and you’ll need to go into the iPad’s Settings application, then into Cellular Data, to activate cellular data service for the device.
One big difference between the iPhone and iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G needs to be underscored at this point: every iPad ships unlocked and unsubsidized, without any requirement that you sign up for a cellular data plan. In other words, if you don’t purchase a cellular subscription for the iPad, it can still be used with any 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi network—just like the iPad with Wi-Fi. But if you want to be able to access the Internet with the iPad outside your home, office, or free Wi-Fi hotspots, you’ll have to pay a monthly service fee to do so, and as of review time, AT&T remains Apple’s only cellular partner in the United States.
Apple deserves some credit for the deal that it negotiated with AT&T for iPad cellular service—it’s not “revolutionary” as the company has claimed, but it’s better than committing to AT&T for the long term. With the iPad, you have no obligation to continue as an AT&T customer, and signup and service plan changes can be done directly through the device, generally without having to call the company on the phone. Apple has made the AT&T sign-up process from the iPad extremely easy, using the aforementioned Cellular Data settings menu to open a window that gives you a choice between plans, requests billing address and credit card information, then charges your card and activates service. In our first test on launch day, activation took only a minute after we entered credit card information, but there were delays and hiccups later in the day as more people received their iPads and signed up for plans. One of these hiccups lead to double-billing of our credit card for iPad activation charges—just par for the course with AT&T.
AT&T currently offers users two data plan choices: a limited 250MB per month plan for $15, and an “unlimited” data plan for $30, with automated e-mail and dialog box warnings when you’re reaching the limits of the 250MB plan. There are several tricks here, though. First, you’re supposedly able to “upgrade” the $15 plan to the $30 one at any time if you need more data, but it turns out that AT&T actually just charges you twice: $15 at the time you choose the first plan, and then another $30 on top of that. Second, rather than letting customers buy just a month of service at a time, AT&T will auto-bill your credit card every 30 days until you use the “Cancel Plan” option under the Cellular Data settings menu’s View My Account window; there’s no way to opt out of automatic billing. Third, as alluded to before, the company somehow managed to bill us twice for the $30 plan—and once for the $15 plan—when we tried to do an “upgrade.” It’s unclear whether AT&T will try to bill us twice every month going forward, and somewhat amazing that its computers can charge a uniquely identified, SIM card-equipped device twice for the exact same service without recognizing that something went wrong. The iPad notably doesn’t provide a button or an AT&T contact number to protest billing mistakes, either.
We discuss AT&T’s data plans more in the next section, but in each case, the iPad is assigned a Cellular Data Number which looks like a regular telephone number—complete with your local area code—but can’t be called or text messaged: “the person you are trying to reach is not accepting calls at this time,” the number says when dialed, and SMS messages sent to the number never arrive on the iPad’s screen. To be very clear on this point, the iPad is not designed to be a cellular phone, and even though it communicates with the same cell towers as an iPhone, signing up for an AT&T plan does not give users any direct calling capability; the plans are purely for “cellular data,” not “voice.” Some workarounds are available with Voice Over IP (VoIP) applications such as Skype, as discussed below, but they may also be prevented from working over AT&T’s 3G network.
AT&T also offers an optional “one-time international plan” for the iPad that gives travelers 20MB of data for $25, 50MB for $60, 100MB for $120, or 200MB for $200, each spread over 30 days, with the ability to set a start date for the plan. On the plus side, the plan is a flat rate that applies across a huge number of countries, but the prices are so ridiculous that you’d be better off bringing a paperclip (or the micro-SIM tray removal tool) along and swapping the iPad’s micro-SIM for a foreign one whenever you leave the country. If you’re traveling for any length of time, you’ll probably save enough money on data fees to buy an iPad or a speaker system when you get home.