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How to Choose Your Ideal iPad and Accessories

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,” 29 March 2010) or because the iPad has received glowing reviews. But the fact remains that Steve Jobs’s famed reality distortion field may be in full force. Your money might be better spent on gardening supplies or replacing that nasty old

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.”

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:

  • Higher cost: The Wi-Fi + 3G model adds $130 to the base price of an iPad with Wi-Fi for each storage size, and the 3G connection requires a paid data plan. Apple has announced that two iPad data plans will be available from AT&T: one costs $14.99 a month for up to 250 MB of data (upstream and downstream combined), and the other costs $29.99 per month for unlimited data use. No contract is required; you can cancel at the end of each month, and resume at any time.
  • Bandwidth may disappoint: An overall con of using the Internet via a cellular data network is slow data transfer, noticeably slower than most home and hotspot service over Wi-Fi. 3G connectivity is okay – but not fabulous – for average Web browsing, but don’t depend on it for watching streamed video or downloading big files. AT&T’s Web site says that EDGE is fast enough for video and music, but I’ve not seen that in my experiences in rural upstate New York with an iPhone. I’ve found that access time with EDGE is almost unusable for apps that go beyond basic text. On the other hand, slow is better than nothing when you want to check the weather quickly.

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

  • Always-on connection: Unlike a Wi-Fi connection, a 3G connection is likely to be available when you are out and about – in locations like trains, parks, museums, and doctors’ offices. For example, give a kid an iPad 3G in the back seat during a car trip and the 3G connection may provide hours of online entertainment. A Wi-Fi connection won’t last long enough to make it worth figuring out how to connect (unless the car has a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, as does the Dodge 2010 Grand Caravan). Also, some Wi-Fi networks may cost $10-$15 per day for access, for instance at an airport or hotel.
  • Convenience: There’s zero effort to connect to a mobile broadband network. You don’t have to tap anything or enter a password. In contrast, connecting via Wi-Fi typically requires you to tap your iPad screen a few times and enter a password, though you can set up the iPad to connect automatically to a particular Wi-Fi network, a handy feature for quick connections at home or work, or anywhere you visit often.
  • Even more Wi-Fi: AT&T pairs automated access to its 20,000-plus Wi-Fi hotspots with an active iPad 3G service plan. That may seem paradoxical: If you have 3G, why do you need Wi-Fi? As I noted, the Internet connection for Wi-Fi hotspots tends to be far faster than 3G. The AT&T automatic connection means you’re hooked to the fastest connection – 3G or Wi-Fi. (Note that AT&T includes over 11,000 McDonald’s locations in its 20,000 count; McDonald’s in the United States now offers free Wi-Fi.)
  • Mapping: If you’ll be using the iPad as an on-the-go navigation assistant for determining where you are and how to get where you are going, whether with the built-in Maps app or a third-party GPS navigation app, the Wi-Fi + 3G model will be vastly superior. The Wi-Fi-only iPad can use Wi-Fi positioning (just like the iPod touch and first iPhone) to grab coordinates, but that requires an active Wi-Fi connection to send and receive data. The Find My iPhone service in MobileMe (which works with an iPad) also provides far more exact coordinates with GPS data, too.
  • Future planning: Even if you never need cellular connectivity, a future user of your iPad might need it.

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:

  • 100 songs (in 128 Kbps AAC format): 575 MB
  • 100 photos (380 MB on my Mac, automatically resized/compressed during sync to the iPad): 104 MB
  • 1 hour of standard video from the iTunes Store: 750 MB (iTunes video wasn’t compressed further during sync, but other formats may give different results)
  • 10 Take Control ebooks (PDF format): 30 MB
  • iBooks app: 18 MB
  • The three iWork apps (Keynote, Pages, and Numbers): 100 MB
  • iDisk app: 2 MB (iPad-specific version not yet available)
  • MobileMe Gallery app: 1 MB (iPad-specific version not yet available)
  • GoodReader Tablet Edition, a PDF reader (lovely for Take Control ebooks and a must-buy at a $0.99 introductory price): 9 MB

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:

  • You think you’ll want to talk to Apple’s support people instead of relying on friends or Web resources.
  • You’re worried about the battery. While the TidBITS staff overall doesn’t think you need to worry much about the battery – especially if you maintain it properly, the AppleCare warranty offers a replacement for any iPad that, within 2 years, can’t charge to more than 50 percent of its original capacity. The regular warranty covers just 1 year. (See the text of the AppleCare Protection Plan for iPad for details.)
  • You tend to be hard on electronic equipment, you know you’ll be moving your iPad around a lot, or you expect it to be in especially hot or cold temperatures. For instance, the iPad’s technical specs say you should use it only down to 32 degrees F (0 degrees C), though it’s okay to store it down to -4 F (-20 C).
  • You feel more comfortable with a longer warranty, especially on a first-generation device that may be more likely to suffer odd problems.

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. 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:

  • Transfer photos to your iPad: Apple is selling a $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit, available in late April, that includes two dock adapters: one with a USB jack and the other an SD card slot. The USB jack adapter works only with digital cameras. Through either adapter, you can download photos directly into the iPad for later syncing via iTunes to a computer.
  • Output audio to headphones or speaker: The jack on the iPad takes a 3.5-mm stereo cable, so you can plug in normal headphones and speakers. When it comes to headphones, however, you might prefer wireless Bluetooth headphones. For help finding good headphones, check Macworld’s end-of-2009 Headphone Buying Guide, by Dan Frakes.
  • Output video to a projector, computer monitor, or TV: Apple is selling video output cables for VGA, composite, and component. VGA is useful to plug into video projectors, while composite (all signals on one cable) or component (three cables separating out video components) are best for plugging an iPad into TVs. No adapters are available for DVI or HDMI as far as I know.
  • Dock your iPad: Apple is selling two docks. Both prop the iPad up at a good viewing angle. Both also offer two connectors: a USB port (for connecting to a computer or power adapter) and an audio jack. The idea is that you connect cables to the dock for use on a table or desk, after which you can easily pop the iPad out of the dock and take it away with no cables trailing. The $69 iPad Keyboard Dock (available in late April) comes with a unique iPad keyboard, which includes special keys for Home, Search, Picture Frame, Switch Input Language, iTunes Transport, and Screen Lock. The $29 iPod Dock (available now) doesn’t include a keyboard. I expect third-party docks will become available shortly.
  • The iPad is easy to switch into Picture Frame mode (just lock it and tap a button), wherein it shows specified photos in a slideshow. It then looks and works just like a digital picture frame. This is great fun, but you’ll want to mount the iPad in a somewhat vertical position, just as you would a framed photo. A dock or case with a “kickstand” is a must for this purpose.

  • Connect wirelessly to a Bluetooth keyboard: If you want to extend your iPad with a physical keyboard, you can get the iPad Keyboard Dock noted above or purchase the Apple Wireless Keyboard ($69); other Bluetooth keyboards also work. The onscreen virtual keyboard is acceptable for small bursts of typing, but for longer sessions, you may find it difficult to get the right ergonomics. One interesting quirk is that when a Bluetooth keyboard is paired with the iPad, the onscreen keyboard doesn’t appear. That makes sense, of course, but can be frustrating when you’re not near the Bluetooth keyboard, but it’s within range and paired.
  • If you aren’t sure what to buy, I recommend trying the iPad for a while first, to get a better sense of what you need. With my petite hands, I could type reasonably fluidly on the onscreen keyboard right away, but I missed instant access to some punctuation, which is located on a secondary view of the keyboard, one tap away.

  • Protect with a case: Some cases include a kickstand that supports the device at a good viewing angle. Many cases aren’t shipping yet. To see a large selection of upcoming and available cases, check out iLounge’s online gallery of iPad cases. I ordered Apple’s $39 simple, black case but it hasn’t arrived yet.

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.

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