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.
Though we’ve never been huge fans of AT&T, we try every year to be open-minded to the possibility that it might have improved, and in some ways, it actually has: its slow data network has gotten faster, its so-so customer service has become a little friendlier, and its 3G coverage areas have expanded. But those are all relative changes, and in an absolute sense, the company has remained well behind the curve of its customers’ expectations. Three years after winning an amazing exclusive for the iPhone, AT&T has squandered most of the good will it could have generated by radically improving its network’s performance—to, say, Canadian levels—and billing its customers without sneaky surcharges, “accidental” double-charges, and other tricks. For American customers, it’s fair to say that the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G’s biggest caveats are far more AT&T’s issue’s than Apple’s.
iPad users will have two issues: first, the speed of AT&T’s 3G network, which we discuss on page 6 under 3G Speeds, and second, its 250MB per month data plan. At first, this $15 plan sounds appealing; one might guess that it offers just enough data to let most users safely wander off of their home or office networks. But in our testing, the 250MB cap felt like a bait-and-switch that was offered to create the impression of an affordable option—with the potential for a subsequent upcharge—rather than to actually provide something most customers would want to use on the iPad. If you sign up for the $15 plan, you’ll either find yourself nervously watching the iPad’s “Usage” meter all the time, or unexpectedly receiving “AT&T Plan Nearly Out of Data” notices well before the end of your billing cycle. Because we didn’t know for sure how much data we’d be using, we started by testing the 250MB plan, only to be stunned by how much data the iPad was consuming for common tasks; here are just a handful of examples.
Load a single Facebook page, one time, without clicking on anything: 0.4MB.
Use Tweetdeck to automatically check 3 Twitter accounts, one time: 1.1MB.
Briefly consult the Maps application for a cross-country trip, looking only at the directions for the first three turns: 7.2MB.
Send one e-mail with four pictures or one video attached: 4.9-5.5MB.
Watch a 30-second iTunes Store preview of a TV show, one time: 5MB.
Watch a 5-minute, radically downscaled YouTube video, one time: 10MB.
Download an app, song, or video from one of Apple’s stores at the maximum permissible size over 3G: 20MB.
Watch a 3-minute trailer for Avatar in the iTunes Store, one time: 40MB.
We need to emphasize that these numbers are one time uses—if you were to do six out of these eight things once, on one day, you’d already have used more than 1/5 of your 250MB allocation for the month, and if you want to watch videos over YouTube, you can expect to see “AT&T Plan Nearly Out of Data” e-mails in your Inbox within hours or days. Put aside any thought you may have of browsing all of your favorite web sites every day over 3G with the iPad; the simple act of checking Facebook, Tweetdeck, or Maps repeatedly over 3G will eat the $15 data plan alive. Our rough guesstimate is that a 500MB plan would be a bare minimum to make 50% of AT&T’s $15 customers happy, with 1GB a fairer number for a month of limited use. Based on the company’s track record, we won’t be holding our breath for such a change to take place.
Notably, video isn’t just bad on the $15 plan—it’s crippled on whatever 3G plan you choose. On one hand, the YouTube application downscales its videos over 3G so considerably that they look like blocky, virtually unwatchable messes on the iPad screen. These resolution reductions were designed for the iPhone family, but just don’t work here, particularly after you’ve seen YouTube playing “HD” videos over Wi-Fi.
On the other hand, Apple’s iTunes Store previews run at near-DVD-quality resolution on the iPad over 3G and look great—a trailer for Avatar is shown here as an example—but eat so much data that you’ll feel foolish if you ever play them on the $15 plan. Video through other apps differs on an app-by-app basis: the ABC Player, for instance, won’t stream video at all over 3G, while NetFlix streaming videos are downscaled, but work.
The only way that AT&T somewhat mitigates the mediocrity of its 3G service is by offering something that is mentioned on Apple’s web site but not emphasized during the data plan sign-up process: buying either plan entitles the user to “access” AT&T Wi-Fi hot spots at Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and other locations. Oddly, neither AT&T nor Apple has really explained what this “access” means, or guaranteed that AT&T will keep its hot spots free for iPad users—AT&T’s web site offers little additional detail, saying only that “you can fully experience iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G for superfast Web browsing and downloads, at more than 20,000 AT&T Wi-Fi Hot Spot locations nationwide.” We briefly tested the iPad at a Starbucks location and got the impression that Wi-Fi use doesn’t count against the user’s 3G data limitations, as it reduces strain on AT&T’s cellular network. The iPad made the connection almost instantaneously with a “Connecting…” dialog box, without displaying or requiring either an AT&T or Starbucks web page for sign-in. Users who can frequently leverage AT&T’s hot spots may find the limitations of its 3G data plans to be less problematic.
Why is there such a problem getting fast 3G service in the United States? AT&T has publicly blamed Apple’s users for consuming too much data, particularly with video, and it’s true that the iPhone and iPad—like a laptop or a netbook—are hungrier devices than the primitive cell phones of yesteryear. Apple’s users have blamed AT&T for selling “unlimited” data plans with slow speeds and crippled data services, particularly as demand for iPhones, similar smartphones, and 3G-ready laptops has surged. They’ve also noted that AT&T lags behind numerous foreign competitors in offering iPhone tethering—a shared iPhone-to-computer wireless connection, already offered for the iPhone 3G/3GS in many countries outside the United States, and by competing carriers within the U.S.—and failed to even offer the alternative of an affordable iPad add-on to an existing iPhone contract. Consequently, the monthly combined cost of iPad and iPhone cellular service is untenably expensive for most people, and most U.S. users will have to choose one or the other, while foreign neighbors have better options.
AT&T’s position, backed by billions of dollars in quarterly profits and comparatively small investments in infrastructure upgrades, has become increasingly offensive over time, and nothing has changed with the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G; if anything, its screen and HD video capabilities suffer more on AT&T’s network than iPhones have for the past three years. Having coughed up thousands of dollars in fees to AT&T over that time, and endured numerous instances of mediocre data and customer service in the process, we have little sympathy for its predicament—its continued poor choices and greed are the reasons so many people are anxious to flee the company for greener pastures.