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.
As much as iLounge’s editors loved the iPad with Wi-Fi (iLounge Rating: A-)—Apple’s first tablet computer—the version we all wanted for ourselves was the more powerful iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G ($629-$829), which was released on April 30, 2010. Though it shares the same physical dimensions and 16/32/64-Gigabyte storage capacities, the Wi-Fi + 3G version adds a major new feature: like Apple’s iPhones, the more expensive iPad uses 3G wireless hardware to access cell phone towers, radically expanding the iPad’s on-the-road utility. Need to use a big-screen map in your car? Check a restaurant’s menu, send e-mails, or reach friends through Facebook on something larger than an iPhone but smaller than a laptop? The possibilities seemed endless—anything you could do from Wi-Fi, you could do with your 3G connection, right? Well, not exactly: as is commonly the case with Apple’s cellular devices, the reality of using the iPad in 3G mode falls a little short of the marketing. But the experience is still very good, all things considered.
As expected, the two iPad versions are nearly identical in hardware and iPhone OS system software, details that we previously discussed comprehensively in our review of the iPad with Wi-Fi. We won’t revisit all of the numerous similarities here: both versions have the same external buttons, ports, speakers, microphone, and screen, ship with the same applications, and perform identically on Wi-Fi networks. But there are some noteworthy differences between the models in pricing, cosmetics, and internal hardware—changes that potential iPad customers should know about before they choose between the two iPads, or decide to hold off on a purchase altogether.
This supplemental review of the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G discusses all of the new model’s unique positives and negatives in separate sections below. Those looking for common features between the iPads, or details on the standard iPad with Wi-Fi can check out our prior review. Everything you need to know about the new iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G can be found on pages of the drop-down menu below. Enjoy.
iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G Design, Packaging and Pack-In Differences
As noted above, the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G is physically very similar to the original iPad with Wi-Fi, which is discussed in our prior review’s second page, Introducing the iPad: The Body, Screen, and Pack-Ins. Though Apple documents have suggested modest dimensional differences between the two versions, the company’s official measurements list them both at 9.56” high, 7.47” wide, and 0.5” deep at the thickest point of their tapered backs, with the Wi-Fi model weighing 1.5 pounds and the Wi-Fi + 3G model coming in at 1.6 pounds. From a user’s standpoint, the differences are imperceptible, and cases we’ve tested thus far work equally well on both versions. The iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G retains its predecessor’s top-mounted headphone port, microphone, and Sleep/Wake switch, right side-mounted screen lock and volume buttons, and bottom-mounted Dock Connector port and speakers.
Every time Apple releases a device with cellular wireless antennas, it needs to include a plastic housing that lets those antennas radiate in a way that they can’t through metal—the reason the original iPhone had a black plastic compartment on its rear bottom. The iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G parallels that design, retaining the all-glass screen and largely aluminum body of the original iPad, while adding a large matte black plastic panel that interrupts the 3G unit’s otherwise silver metal back, top, and front bezel between the headphone port and Sleep/Wake switch. This compartment measures roughly 4.63” by 0.63”, and isn’t designed to be opened by the user. Apple’s 3G hardware provides access to UMTS/HSDPA 3G networks running at 850, 1900, and 2100 MHz, as well as older, slower GSM/EDGE networks running at 850, 900, 1800, and 1900 MHz, leveraging its antennas and dedicated GPS hardware to offer both assisted GPS and cellular location services.
Unlike the iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPhone 3GS, which all had SIM card slots on their top surfaces, the iPad with Wi-Fi + 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. A micro-SIM from AT&T is pre-installed in the American iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G, and needn’t be removed unless you want to switch providers.
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 two large Apple logo stickers, a sparing one-page instruction card, warranty book, wall adapter, and USB cable.
One 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 due to the black plastic interruption in the bezel, both are packaged in white boxes that depict the fully silver-bezeled iPad with Wi-Fi—the sort of little detail that Apple normally doesn’t let slide. The boxes’ 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 cellular support in the 3G model, plus IMEI and ICCID identifier numbers that aren’t on the Wi-Fi-only box. Apple may update the pictures on the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G boxes in the future, but for now, the stickers are the only way to tell the boxes apart.
iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G Pricing: Hardware and Cellular Data Plans
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, Apple charges a $130 premium for 3G-equipped iPads over the Wi-Fi-only versions. Consequently, the 16GB standard iPad sells for $499 versus the 3G version at $629, while the 32GB versions are $599 and $729, and the 64GB versions are $699 and $829. It’s unclear as to whether the higher prices are purely attributable to added hardware, or also up-front compensation for AT&T’s micro-SIM cards.
Once you turn on the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G, 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.” U.S. iPad users will then 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 data service for the device.
One big difference between the iPhone and iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G needs to be underscored at this point: every iPad ships unlocked and unsubsidized, without any requirement that you sign up for a cellular data plan. In other words, if you don’t purchase a cellular subscription for the iPad, it can still be used with any 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi network—just like the iPad with Wi-Fi. But if you want to be able to access the Internet with the iPad outside your home, office, or free Wi-Fi hotspots, you’ll have to pay a monthly service fee to do so, and as of review time, AT&T remains Apple’s only cellular partner in the United States.
Apple deserves some credit for the deal that it negotiated with AT&T for iPad cellular service—it’s not “revolutionary” as the company has claimed, but it’s better than committing to AT&T for the long term. With the iPad, you have no obligation to continue as an AT&T customer, and signup and service plan changes can be done directly through the device, generally without having to call the company on the phone. Apple has made the AT&T sign-up process from the iPad extremely easy, using the aforementioned Cellular Data settings menu to open a window that gives you a choice between plans, requests billing address and credit card information, then charges your card and activates service. In our first test on launch day, activation took only a minute after we entered credit card information, but there were delays and hiccups later in the day as more people received their iPads and signed up for plans. One of these hiccups lead to double-billing of our credit card for iPad activation charges—just par for the course with AT&T.
AT&T currently offers users two data plan choices: a limited 250MB per month plan for $15, and an “unlimited” data plan for $30, with automated e-mail and dialog box warnings when you’re reaching the limits of the 250MB plan. There are several tricks here, though. First, you’re supposedly able to “upgrade” the $15 plan to the $30 one at any time if you need more data, but it turns out that AT&T actually just charges you twice: $15 at the time you choose the first plan, and then another $30 on top of that. Second, rather than letting customers buy just a month of service at a time, AT&T will auto-bill your credit card every 30 days until you use the “Cancel Plan” option under the Cellular Data settings menu’s View My Account window; there’s no way to opt out of automatic billing. Third, as alluded to before, the company somehow managed to bill us twice for the $30 plan—and once for the $15 plan—when we tried to do an “upgrade.” It’s unclear whether AT&T will try to bill us twice every month going forward, and somewhat amazing that its computers can charge a uniquely identified, SIM card-equipped device twice for the exact same service without recognizing that something went wrong. The iPad notably doesn’t provide a button or an AT&T contact number to protest billing mistakes, either.
We discuss AT&T’s data plans more in the next section, but in each case, the iPad is assigned a Cellular Data Number which looks like a regular telephone number—complete with your local area code—but can’t be called or text messaged: “the person you are trying to reach is not accepting calls at this time,” the number says when dialed, and SMS messages sent to the number never arrive on the iPad’s screen. To be very clear on this point, the iPad is not designed to be a cellular phone, and even though it communicates with the same cell towers as an iPhone, signing up for an AT&T plan does not give users any direct calling capability; the plans are purely for “cellular data,” not “voice.” Some workarounds are available with Voice Over IP (VoIP) applications such as Skype, as discussed below, but they may also be prevented from working over AT&T’s 3G network.
AT&T also offers an optional “one-time international plan” for the iPad that gives travelers 20MB of data for $25, 50MB for $60, 100MB for $120, or 200MB for $200, each spread over 30 days, with the ability to set a start date for the plan. On the plus side, the plan is a flat rate that applies across a huge number of countries, but the prices are so ridiculous that you’d be better off bringing a paperclip (or the micro-SIM tray removal tool) along and swapping the iPad’s micro-SIM for a foreign one whenever you leave the country. If you’re traveling for any length of time, you’ll probably save enough money on data fees to buy an iPad or a speaker system when you get home.
iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G Harsh Reality: AT&T Still Sucks, And Its $15 Data Plan Is Awful
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.
iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G Versus iPad with Wi-Fi: Software Differences + GPS
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.]
iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G Battery Performance, and 3G Speeds
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.
iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G: Real-World Factors and Conclusions
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.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Inc.
Model: iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G