Our full review of the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G is still a little ways off, but since the device will officially be on store shelves at 5:00PM tonight, we wanted to post some early findings that might help you decide whether to buy in or not. What follows is preliminary text from our not-yet-finished review, which we’ll update when we’re finished this weekend. Click on Read More or the title of this article for all the details. For additional pictures, you can also see our iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G unboxing gallery here. Editor’s Note: We’ve added 3G bandwidth and battery test results below.

Just as Apple sells separate iPod touch and iPhone devices, there are now two versions of the iPad: the original model released on April 3, 2010 “with Wi-Fi,” and now the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G ($629-$829), which appeared in stores on April 30. Unlike the iPod touch and iPhone, which are currently differentiated by several significant features, the two iPad versions share virtually identical form factors and performance characteristics, but differ in three key ways: pricing, small cosmetic changes, and a few hardware tweaks. We discuss each of the differences in separate sections below, preserving the bulk of our original iPad with Wi-Fi review unchanged.

Worth mentioning up front is our belief that the 3G version of the iPad represents the future of the product line, and reflects an even more substantial undertaking by Apple in realizing its vision for mobile computing. The company has indeed negotiated an impressive deal with its U.S. partner AT&T for the iPad, albeit with serious issues that undercut the value of this model for iPhone 3G users, and call the wisdom of one of the pricing options into questions. Yet despite the reasons—primarily the lower cost—some users will surely prefer the iPad with Wi-Fi over the more expensive iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G, the value of anytime access to the Internet is particularly visible on a device with the iPad’s feature set. We’ll have more to say on this point in our final review.

Design, Packaging and Pack-In Differences

 

The iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G retains the all-glass screen and largely aluminum body of the original iPad, making a couple of changes that render the two models physically distinguishable from one another. First and most obvious is a large matte black plastic panel that interrupts the 3G unit’s otherwise aluminum back, top, and front bezel between the headphone port and Sleep/Wake switch. Designed to let the device’s cellular wireless antennas communicate without interference from the iPad’s metal housing, this compartment measures roughly 4.63” by 0.63”, and isn’t designed to be opened by the user.

 

Unlike the iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPhone 3GS, which all had SIM card slots on their tops, right between their headphone ports and Sleep/Wake switches, the iPad with Wi-Fi and 3G has a Micro SIM card slot on the lower half of its otherwise bare left side. The Micro SIM is a newer and smaller version of the SIM cards that have been used in iPhones to date, and both its size and side-mounted location parallel changes noted in a prototype fourth-generation iPhone earlier this month.

 

The Micro SIM slot can be opened either by inserting a paper clip into a small hole on its edge, or by using a SIM tray removal tool included in the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G package. This glossy silver metal tool, the tray, and the Micro SIM card are the only significant differences in pack-ins between iPad models; they otherwise include the same stickers, a one-page instruction card, warranty book, wall adapter, and USB cable.

 

One big surprise regarding the two iPad models is the similarity of their packages. Despite the fact that the iPads actually look a little different from the front, both are packaged in white boxes that depict the fully silver-bezeled iPad with Wi-Fi rather than the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G. Their fronts and sides are the same, and their backs look almost identical from a distance.

 


Only a close inspection of two stickers on the back of each box distinguishes them from one another: the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G stickers include both capacity and “3G” badges, a reference to the UMTS, HSDPA, GSM and EDGE support in the 3G model, and IMEI and ICCID identifier numbers that aren’t on the Wi-Fi-only box. Apple may further distinguish the boxes in the future, but for now, the stickers are the only way to tell them apart.

Pricing and Data Services

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, at least, Apple charges a $130 premium for 3G-equipped iPads over the Wi-Fi-only versions. Consequently, the 16GB standard iPad sells for $499, with the 3G version at $629, while the 32GB versions are $599 and $729, and the 64GB versions are $699 and $829. You’re paying that surcharge primarily for the cellular networking hardware.

Once you turn on the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G, however, 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.” In the United States, you’ll 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 wireless service for the device.

 

Three things should be noted at this point. First, if you don’t purchase a cellular subscription for the iPad, it can still be used with a Wi-Fi network—just like the iPad with Wi-Fi. It’s not locked to AT&T’s network, and should you decide never to connect it or pay additional fees for cellular service, that’s entirely up to you. But if you want to be able to use the iPad outside your home, office, or free Wi-Fi hotspots, you’ll have to pay a monthly service fee to do so, and AT&T currently offers two choices: a limited 250MB per month plan for $15, and an “unlimited” plan for $30. Once you sign up for an AT&T account, it will auto-renew every 30 days until you use the “Cancel Plan” option under Settings>Cellular Data>View My Account. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t guide you to the sign-up screen or manage sign-ups through iTunes, Apple has made the sign-up process from the iPad extremely easy, and activation took only a minute after we entered credit card information to purchase the plan.

To Apple’s further credit, the deal that it has negotiated with AT&T specifically for iPad cellular service is better than decent—assuming that you’re not already an iPhone owner. With the iPad, you have no long-term obligation to continue as an AT&T customer, and can upgrade the $15 250MB data plan to the $30 unlimited plan if you realize that you’re going to need more data than you initially expected. Signup and service plan changes can be done directly through the device, without having to call AT&T on the phone—another major plus. There’s every reason to love this deal if you’re not already paying AT&T service fees, and though we strongly suspect that people will burn through the $15 plan’s data at too rapid a rate to make use of it, at least it’s an option.

 

There are only two major problems with the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G’s cellular service. First and most important is the fact that Apple and AT&T have made no provision whatsoever for existing iPhone customers: the iPad’s $15 and $30 fees are being assessed on top of AT&T’s existing “unlimited” data plans and miscellaneous iPhone service charges, making the monthly combined cost of iPad and iPhone cellular service untenably expensive for most people. Whether through tethering—a shared wireless connection, already offered for the iPhone 3G/3GS in many countries outside the United States—or through a low-cost iPad add-on to an existing iPhone contract, these two devices should be able to co-exist on a single service plan at a lower price, and AT&T’s inability to do so is inexcusable.

The second problem is smaller, but not trivial. Despite the fact that AT&T now sells a specific quantity of monthly cellular data service—250MB—alongside a supposedly “unlimited” quantity of data, the iPad with Wi-Fi and 3G still contains some software-level limitations on what you can do with that cellular data. We discuss them in the next section on software differences, below.

Software Differences

Surprising those who had guessed that the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G might ship with an updated version of Apple’s iPhone OS system software, the device arrives with version 3.2 pre-installed, and only a handful of obvious software differences from the Wi-Fi version—most are buried in the iPad’s Settings menus. Most 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 E (EDGE) and dot (GPRS) logos 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, the second 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 a Cellular Data Number, IMEI, and ICCID numbers that aren’t included on the iPad with Wi-Fi. Another menu called Usage contains your cellar 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. 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 Maps on the two devices and the Wi-Fi-only iPad will display your location as a blue dot inside of a white circle, 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. 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.

 

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 iTunes Store and App Store downloads, which are still subject to the maximum 20MB file size cap of the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and YouTube, which strips even HD videos down to an extremely low, basically unwatchable resolution over a cellular connection.

 

Interestingly, the iTunes Store doesn’t do this for video previews, which remain at or near DVD-quality, and thereby consume more 3G network bandwidth. YouTube’s approach cuts down on data usage, over-compromising quality; the iTunes Store’s approach has a better chance of impacting your data usage bill.

 

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 the new device at all, 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.

 

It’s also worth noting that third-party video streaming applications might not work at all on the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G in cellular mode. Loading the ABC Player, for instance, 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 the message came up while we were testing the application on the $15 250MB per month plan, which conceivably should let users burn their data usage at whatever rate suits their needs.

Network Speed and Battery Performance

Though we still have a bunch of testing yet to go, the initial verdict on cellular performance of the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G isn’t surprising: in 3G mode, the iPad loads web pages with comparable speed to an iPhone 3GS on the same cellular tower, perhaps a hint faster. Note that there are substantial variations between 3G towers even within a given state, as well as from country to country, so the speeds we’re seeing right now may not be indicative of the ones in your area. In Western New York, the iPad in 3G mode is noticeably slower than either an iPad or an iPhone 3GS on Wi-Fi mode, with differences depending on both the Wi-Fi type (potentially big, depending on 802.11b/g/n) and the device (small), which is one of two reasons that running the iPad purely on cellular mode isn’t a great idea. After only a few hours of very, very light web and Maps testing, we were already over 30MB into our 250MB plan, and surely would blow through all of it in a few days of heavy cellular-only use. Only time and individual, personal usage tests will help you know whether the $15 or $30 plan is right for you.

 

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,” which is to say 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 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. 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—22 minutes shy of Apple’s estimate. We consider the shortage relatively unimportant given how demanding this particular test is—real users don’t load 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 is a battery hit of approximately 1.5 hours relative to Wi-Fi use.

Three iLounge editors spread across the country from New York State to Washington State and Texas have also been conducting bandwidth tests to see how the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G performs on AT&T’s 3G network. Thus far, we’ve seen fairly consistent upload speeds that range from 100kbps to 200kbps, falling mostly towards the upper end of that range, versus 802.11n speeds in the 1.7Mbps range. Download speeds over 3G so far average 1Mbps in some regions and 2Mbps in others, versus 802.11n speeds in the 3-4Mbps range. Performance on 3G will vary from city to city depending on the type of towers AT&T is using, the local iPhone/iPad user saturation, and other factors.

Conclusions

 

We’ll be filling this section of the review and updating the rest prior to publication. Hopefully the details above have provided some early guidance that will help you decide whether to buy the iPad with Wi-Fi, the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G, or hold off until later.