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’s some pretty good news to report regarding iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G battery life. We previously discussed the iPad with Wi-Fi’s run times under various conditions in our prior review’s Battery Performance Summary—assuming that the Wi-Fi + 3G model’s Cellular Data feature is turned off, the same impressive numbers hold true for this model, as well. But there are differences: this model includes both Cellular Data and GPS hardware that can drain down the battery faster when they’re in use.
Apple claims that the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G offers nine hours of battery life when used for “surfing the web using 3G data network,” or an hour less than the 10 hours promised when “surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music.” Our prior iPad with Wi-Fi battery tests found that Apple was generally at least a little conservative in its estimates; for instance, we previously put the Wi-Fi model through a web torture test with repeated 1-minute refreshes of a large, completely loaded page for 10 hours and 21 minutes on 50% brightness over 802.11n, beating Apple’s number by just a little. Repeating the exact same test on the Wi-Fi + 3G model with 3G turned on and Wi-Fi turned off, the iPad achieved 8 hours and 38 minutes of continuous reloading and displaying, or 22 minutes shy of Apple’s estimate.
To underscore something that the numbers should say on their own, 8 hours and 38 minutes of 3G cellular networking time is excellent by virtually any standard—a point we’ll discuss further in the next section of the review. Moreover, the 22 minute difference between our and Apple’s numbers is trivial given how demanding this particular test is; few users reload or change pages every minute. But users who expect the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G to last forever when downloading data over the cellular network should go in with the realization that there can be a battery hit of approximately 1.5 hours relative to Wi-Fi use. It’s also worth noting that our test was conducted with the iPad showing 5 bars of AT&T signal strength in an area with roughly 1.5-2 Mbps per second download speeds at that time of day. Battery life will drop further when 3G signal strength falls into the 2-bar range, indicating that the iPad’s struggling to communicate with 3G towers, and unlike the iPhone 3G/3GS, there’s no option to extend the battery life on the iPad by switching back into EDGE mode. This makes sense in that the improvement in battery life would likely be small, and the performance hit profound.
Several other notes on battery performance concern power depletion generally, depletion using GPS, and recharging the battery. First, it should be noted that the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G is different from the iPhone family in that you needn’t and probably shouldn’t keep its Cellular Data feature turned on when you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network and not planning on going out. iPhones need to remain on to receive phone calls, but leaving the iPad’s cellular services turned on will unnecessarily drain the battery, we saw a 5% drain overnight when the 3G model was in 3G mode, Wi-Fi off, and screen off. Second, as with the iPhone 3G and 3GS, GPS use drains the battery at a faster rate than non-GPS use, and though the impact isn’t as sharply noticeable on the iPad as on an iPhone, using an iPad-specific car charger is advisable when accessing maps and GPS functionality from the road. Third, we noticed that recharging the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G took a little longer—even using Apple’s iPad 10W USB Power Adapter—than the standard iPad with Wi-Fi. Again, turning Cellular Data off will help.
One area of iPad performance that’s not especially impressive is 3G data speed over AT&T’s network, and though this is primarily AT&T’s issue, Apple shares responsibility for over-marketing. Apple currently claims that the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G “offers superfast data speeds up to 7.2 Mbps over 3G cellular networks around the world,” which is technically accurate, but highly unlikely to be achieved by most customers in the United States. Though performance on 3G will vary from city to city and even neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the type of towers AT&T is using, local user saturation, and other factors, we had four iLounge editors in different states—New York, Seattle, Texas, and Florida—test the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G using AT&T’s network. We re-tested, too: in one set of tests in College Station, Texas, we saw the lowest download speeds in the group, but in another set of tests there, the speeds were better, differences that speak as much to variations in hourly network congestion as issues with AT&T’s infrastructure.
Yet the numbers were never great on an absolute basis. Collectively, we saw download speeds averaging 1 or 2 Mbps, never higher than 2.7 Mbps, with upload speeds averaging 0.1 to 0.2 Mbps, never higher than 0.29 Mbps. This isn’t “superfast,” and compares poorly with regular Wi-Fi speeds of 3 to 4 Mbps for downloads and 1.7 Mbps for uploads over cable, which in our iPad testing went as high as 11 Mbps and 5.7 Mbps respectively over Verizon FIOS. A simple way to sum up all these numbers: the iPad is capable of blazing fast data speeds over Wi-Fi, but on AT&T’s 3G network, it chugs along like an iPhone 3G or 3GS—a problem when you’re trying to fill the iPad’s much larger screen with photos, videos, and other data, made even worse when you try to send large e-mails. Our tests suggested that Pad with Wi-Fi + 3G users should expect par performance over 3G relative to the iPhone 3GS, making use of Wi-Fi networks strongly preferable, particularly for uploading.