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How to Choose Your Ideal iPad and Accessories

by Tonya Engst

You know you want an iPad, even if you can't explain why. Or, perhaps you were in the market for something bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a laptop on which you could read books, play games, surf the Web, and watch movies. But you want one, or your family does, or you're being pestered by friends for advice. Read on for practical details about how to choose among models, storage capacity, and accessories.

Keep in mind, though, that if you buy a first-generation iPad you'll experience the thrills and chills of using cutting-edge technology. Some say that it's okay to be an early adopter because Apple has such a great brand (see Simon Spence's thoughts in "Pre-ordering the iPad: It's All about the Brand [1]," 29 March 2010) or because the iPad has received glowing reviews [2]. But the fact remains that Steve Jobs's famed reality distortion field [3] may be in full force. Your money might be better spent on gardening supplies or replacing that nasty old couch.

Without accessories or AppleCare, a Wi-Fi-only iPad costs $499 to $699, depending on the amount of built-in storage. Apple likely won't cut the price much, if at all, for some time. Historically, the company has instead chosen to add features and charge the same for most hardware revisions. Yes, the price of the original iPhone was slashed $200 within the first four months it was available, but that's because Apple realized cutting the price would strengthen its foray into the smartphone market. And that original iPhone was clearly overpriced, while the iPad's price is aggressively low.

You may be able to justify buying a first-generation iPad more easily if you can hand it down to a family member once later models are available. An aged iPad will likely make a great digital picture frame even years hence.

Which Model? You can choose between two iPad models, differentiated by how they connect to the Internet. The currently available model supports only Wi-Fi and is for sale only in the United States at the moment. The upcoming second model, due in late April 2010, adds a 3G mobile broadband radio and a GPS receiver. This Wi-Fi + 3G model makes it possible for the iPad to access the Internet anywhere there's a cell data network to which you're subscribed, and to pinpoint its exact location more accurately. Also in late April, both models should become available in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK.

I needed an iPad immediately, so I bought the model that lacks 3G, but had I been willing to wait a few weeks, I would have ordered the Wi-Fi + 3G model. TidBITS Contributing Editor Mark Anbinder discusses why he chose to wait in his blog post "Instant Gratification vs. the Right Choice [4]."

Just like a modern Wi-Fi-enabled computer, the iPad uses 802.11n to connect wirelessly to any Wi-Fi base station hotspot and thus to the Internet; this is a step up from the iPhone and iPod touch, which use the older, slower 802.11g standard.

The Wi-Fi + 3G iPad will rely on cellular data networks when Wi-Fi isn't available. In the United States, this means AT&T's national 2G/3G network. The iPad will try to use the faster 3G first, which covers most of AT&T's footprint, but in coverage holes, the iPad will switch down to the slower 2.5G EDGE service. (In some countries, carriers have put 3G everywhere they offer service, and have no EDGE to fall back to.)

There are some cons to the Wi-Fi + 3G model:

That said, the Wi-Fi + 3G model does have a number of benefits:

By the way, just like a mobile phone, the 3G iPad has a removable SIM card that stores your cellular subscriber information. The iPad's tiny SIM card is a Micro SIM (3FF) card, however, so you can't swap it out for the more common, larger-sized SIM cards used by most current devices and network carriers.

Storage -- The iPad stores software and files using internal, non-upgradable flash memory. You can choose 16, 32, or 64 GB of storage, and you'll pay an additional $100 for each doubling of capacity. Whether it's worth more money for more storage space depends on how you think you'll use the iPad, now and in the future.

I ordered the 16 GB iPad, because I didn't want to spend a lot of money on a first-generation device and because I'm not a big movie watcher, so I wasn't concerned about storing many gigabyte-hogging movies. I also don't anticipate using my iPad to store photos directly from a digital camera using the iPad Camera Connection Kit, which will likely require a lot of space. (This is different from syncing already-downloaded photos from iPhoto to the iPad, when they're automatically resized and/or compressed to save space.)

I checked my new iPad before loading any apps and found that its real-world capacity is approximately 14 GB, and about 200 MB was used up by "Other" items. This left me with roughly 13.8 GB for my own apps and data. I imagine that the 32 and 64 GB models reserve a similarly sized chunk of memory for overhead and system files. Here's approximately how much space some other items took up:

Spend a few minutes with a calculator to determine how much space you might want if, for instance, you want to sync 1,000 songs, 5,000 photos, and 10 hours of video, along with a selection of apps. Other than GPS apps that contain their own maps (which can run to 1.5 GB), few apps take significant amounts of space, so music, photos, and videos are where you should focus your attention.

Shopping -- Once you've decided on which model and storage capacity, it's time to shop. I was surprised when I shopped at the online Apple Store because I was prepared to spend about $500, but wasn't tuned in to the fact that I'd want to think about add-ons during the checkout process.

You can buy AppleCare for $99 and extend your warranty from 1 year to 2, plus extend your free phone support from 90 days to 2 years. I didn't buy AppleCare because it seemed like a lot in proportion to the overall cost of the device, but you may want AppleCare if:

The options presented in Apple's shopping cart also offer a year's subscription to MobileMe for $69, which is $30 less than Apple's regular retail price. MobileMe is especially useful with the iPad if you want to sync contact and calendar information, or Safari bookmarks, wirelessly between your computer and your iPad, or if you like the idea of the Find my iPhone feature, which works with the iPad, too. (Amazon often sells a MobileMe registration code in a shrink-wrapped box for $69 to $79 as well.)

Apple offers a 60-day MobileMe trial at no cost when you register your iPad; it's unclear if the $69 one-year offer can easily be activated after the 60-day trial.

The iPad itself comes with two important accessories at no extra charge: a USB Power Adapter that you use to charge directly from a wall outlet and a Dock Connector to USB cable that connects the iPad to a computer or the adapter. The iPad draws 10 watts, much more than most mobile devices, and some laptops, USB hubs, and even desktop computers charge the iPad quite slowly, and only when it's sleeping. Dan Frakes explains the details in a Macworld article [10]. You may want to purchase a second power adapter for travel or to leave at an office. (Note that the iPad 10W USB Power Adapter accessory includes the adapter, a 6-foot power cord, and the dock connector cable; the image at the Apple store shows only the adapter and power cord, which could make you think the dock connector cable needed to be purchased separately.)

Beyond those two freebies, you can buy a variety of accessories - some from Apple, some from other companies - that make your iPad more capable. Optional add-ons make it possible to:

The iPad's base price is well under the $999 price that some analysts thought Apple would aim for. However, by the time you equip your chosen model with the desired amount of storage space, buy it a dock and a case, and spring for a few apps - the new iPad apps are gorgeous but tend to cost more than iPhone apps - you may be nearing or even exceeding that $999 mark. If budget is a concern, I recommend trying an iPad in person before you shop or holding off on extras until you are sure you want them.