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.
Surprising those who had guessed that the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G might ship with a new version of Apple’s iPhone OS system software, the device arrives with the same version 3.2 pre-installed, and there are only a handful of obvious software differences from the Wi-Fi version; most are buried in the iPad’s Settings menus. Initially apparent is the replacement of the prior “iPad” name in the upper left corner of the screen with a cellular wireless strength bar, a carrier name, and a signal type indicator, which in the United States will start by showing up to five bars, the AT&T name, and 3G. Should other carriers offer iPad service, the name will change; the 3G logo can be replaced by an E (EDGE) logo in the event you fall outside of 3G service areas.
More changes can be found in the 3G iPad’s Settings options. At the top is Airplane Mode, which disables all of the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G’s wireless antennas using a simple on-off button, and has no secondary menu.
Most of the iPad’s new options are found under the heading Cellular Data, which includes five buttons: the first turns 3G cellular data on or off, in the process replacing both the AT&T logo and the 3G logo with the iPad name, temporarily turning the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G into a plain iPad with Wi-Fi. The second button enables or disables international data roaming, the third lets you view your cellular wireless account for the iPad, the fourth lets you manually set up cellular network settings, and the fifth lets you set up a PIN number to lock the SIM card.
A glance at the new iPad’s About screen also shows the Cellular Data Number, IMEI, and ICCID number, none of which are included on the iPad with Wi-Fi. Another menu called Usage contains your cellular usage statistics—data sent and received—as well as oddly hiding the Battery Percentage feature that’s found one menu level up on the standard iPad with Wi-Fi. Other settings are the same between the two models.
Apart from the cellular networking hardware, the single biggest hardware difference between the two models is GPS functionality that’s included in the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G but not the Wi-Fi-only model. Load the Maps application on the two devices and the Wi-Fi-only iPad will display your location as a blue dot inside of a white circle, the latter conveying an estimate of your location that could be off by blocks. On the Wi-Fi + 3G version, the map looks the same, but the blue dot pulses with a blue glow to let you know that it’s confident in your location. Like the iPhone 3G and 3GS, the iPad’s built-in GPS hardware does a good but not great job of tracking your current location—it can be off by a block, and thrown off during turns, but it’s typically better that that on both counts. Still, even this iPad could benefit from both an external GPS antenna and superior included GPS software.
Tapping again on the locator icon in either iPad’s Maps app activates the iPad’s digital compass, which is included in both devices and displayed as a blue ray of light projecting out from the blue locator dot. The compass remains strongly subject to magnetic interference, and continues to provide different headings based on the iPad’s vertical and horizontal orientation, such that it may claim you’re driving down a straight street on a 45-degree angle if the iPad’s being held upright.
Because the addition of cellular service doesn’t fundamentally change the way most of Apple’s applications work, differences in these applications are negligible to non-existent, depending on the application. The only exceptions are YouTube, which as noted above strips even HD videos down to an extremely low, basically unwatchable resolution over a cellular connection, and iTunes Store and App Store downloads. Apart from iTunes Store video previews, these downloads are still subject to the maximum 20MB-per-file cap of the iPhone 3G and 3GS, increased from the prior 10MB, a limitation that exists whether you’re paying by the Megabyte or using the unlimited 3G service. You need to connect to Wi-Fi or iTunes to download anything larger than 20MB to the iPad.
As with the iPhone family, iPad third-party applications may vary a little in capabilities from version to version of the device. On the plus side, turn-by-turn driving applications—notably including the just-released CoPilot Live HD—can draw on the GPS hardware in the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G to offer more accurate location services than the standard iPad, which won’t run turn-by-turn driving applications at all without assistance from as-yet-unreleased GPS accessories. Third-party GPS applications have to specifically denote themselves as both iPad and GPS-capable in order to work on the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G: the iPhone version of CoPilot will not install on either iPad, and though the HD app will install on both iPads—for now—it hangs on the Wi-Fi-only iPad when trying to determine its current location. The iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G runs it quite well, though with small bugs that should and most certainly will be fixed in a future update.
Expanding on a point mentioned above, third-party audio and video streaming applications might not work at all on the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G in cellular mode. Skype refuses to make a voice connection, displaying a message that says, “You need WiFi to call over Skype. Skype calls over 3G networks are currently not allowed due to contractual restrictions.” Loading the ABC Player similarly brought up a message reading, “Please connect to a Wi-Fi network to use this application. Cellular networks are not supported at this time.”
This is particularly noteworthy given that these messages—VoIP and video alike—even come up when using AT&T’s $15 250MB per month plan, which conceivably should let users burn their data usage at whatever rate suits their needs. AT&T appears to be trying to blame iPhone application developers for the messages, but it’s obvious that the developers would like to let apps such as Skype run on 3G, and are being precluded from doing so. [Editor’s Note: Following our review, ABC announced that 3G support for its iPad application will be added in an upcoming update. Other developers of video and VoIP applications may add 3G support in the future, as well, depending on how well their apps can adapt to the speed limitations and significant variations in cellular network performance discussed in the following section.]