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 presented a large collection of technical and other details above, real-world use of the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G is more than the sum of its parts. We wanted to explain why in order to put our mostly positive conclusions—and B+ rating—in proper perspective.
Rumors of prototype Apple MacBook laptops with 3G networking capabilities have been circulating for years, but Apple has never released such a machine, and though third-party add-ons exist, their drain on MacBook battery life is considerable: even squeezing three hours of 3G life out of a MacBook Pro may require some screen dimming. Competitors aren’t doing much better—AT&T and Verizon both sell non-Apple netbooks, for instance, but make no promises as to their 3G network run time. The very concept of a small, lightweight computer with a verifiable 8 or 9 hours of 3G network performance is exciting, and the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G achieves that, albeit with some limitations. For the time being, you give up multitasking, videoconferencing, VoIP, and full-resolution video streaming over 3G—all things you can do with a laptop or netbook and a 3G connection—and it remains to be seen which of these features Apple may bring over to the iPad from iPhone OS 4.0, which will add multitasking, improved VoIP support, and apparently videoconferencing to certain iPhone models.
Still, after using the Wi-Fi-only iPad for only a couple of days, we could could think of numerous applications for the upcoming 3G version: we were anxious to use the iPad Camera Connection Kit to upload photos and videos directly from any location, carry a keyboard dock and write about an event while at the event, take the iPad in a car and use Maps instead of a GPS device, or just Facebook from a park, a beach, or an aquarium. All of our editors were genuinely excited for the device’s second launch, and four of us actually bought the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G on launch day.
The iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G partially lives up to these real if not particularly ambitious promises. We’ve shot and edited photos using digital cameras and the iPad while on the road, even trimming and sending a video; we typed out part of this review while outside the office and e-mailed it back to a computer; we’ve even used iPad GPS mapping applications to plot routes to and from destinations. Leaving aside what the new iPad lacks, what’s there works, and generally at least a little bit better than on the iPhone 3GS; the accessory-aided digital photo-sharing functionality is particularly striking, and produces some beautiful results. Those accustomed to swapping photos from Apple’s grainy cell phone cameras will be blown away by how much better pictures look when synced to and e-mailed from an iPad.
But over AT&T’s 3G network, the process is slow—too slow for a device that’s supposed to be equally capable of creating, sharing, and performing media. Time and again, we’d send an e-mail over 3G only to see it taking minutes rather than seconds, and receiving e-mails with attachments dragged on at iPhone 3G-like speeds, which wasn’t so much of a surprise as a disappointment. Between the cellular-only restrictions on Skype and video streaming applications, there’s little doubt that use of AT&T’s cell network cripples the iPad’s naturally impressive capabilities—even when the user is literally paying by the dollar for a specific, limited quantity of bandwidth. There are plenty of possible opportunities for AT&T to blame Apple or its customers, and for Apple and customers to blame AT&T, but at the end of the day, the iPad performs wonderfully on Wi-Fi and less so on 3G, though battery strength is a high point in both cases. Those pluses are due to Apple engineering, and the minuses are enough to make some users consider portable wireless hotspots such as MiFi, which one iLounge editor is already using with a data plan-less iPhone and a Wi-Fi only iPad. Dumping AT&T altogether becomes more appealing by the day.
In sum, the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G has all of the impressive characteristics of the Wi-Fi-only version, but is dragged down somewhat by AT&T cellular service that falls short of what users should expect after paying a premium for the hardware and monthly service fees for data. Pick the $15 monthly service plan and you’ll be stressed out by normal usage—unless you rarely leave the comfort of a Wi-Fi network—or go with the $30 plan and use the iPad as much as you want, albeit with certain crippled applications and slow upload speeds whenever you’re on AT&T’s network. If you’re buying into the iPad family right now, our advice would be to pick the more expensive Wi-Fi + 3G version only if you really need the benefits of cellular mobility, even occasionally, and are willing to either pay the higher plan rate or rely heavily on Wi-Fi hotspots for most of your data needs, particularly uploading. After testing the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G, it’s obvious that Apple has once again delivered a piece of mobile hardware with far more potential than its harshest critics had expected, but until and unless the company offers the device through better service partners, it won’t thrill nearly as many people as it could.