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Your guide to buying the right iPad

By Brian X. Chen
Picking the right iPad will depend on the buyer's habits, what other gadgets they have.
Picking the right iPad will depend on the buyer's habits, what other gadgets they have.
  • Three versions of the iPad will be available this weekend, and a total of six will be soon
  • First iPads will be Wi-Fi only -- good for at home, but maybe not if you travel a lot
  • On Wi-Fi-only iPad, the 32-GB or 64-GB versions may be worth the price for extra storage
  • Your choice of which iPad, or whether to buy at all, depends on how you use your phone

(Wired) -- If you're planning on buying an iPad when it goes on sale this Saturday, you have some deciding to do.

Unlike the iPhone, there are six different versions of the iPad, ranging in price from $500 to $830.

The three models shipping this weekend are Wi-Fi only, while another three -- shipping late April -- include both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity.

Your first decision is between those two fundamental differences: Wi-Fi only, or 3G plus Wi-Fi? After you decide which route to take, from there you need to pick a storage capacity: 16 GB, 32 GB or 64 GB.

For a lot of us, the decision is complicated by the fact that we already own an iPhone or iPod Touch -- or another smartphone, for that matter.

So let's break it down for you.

Wi-Fi or 3G?

Let's face it: in its current state, the iPad is primarily a device you'll use to veg out on your couch for watching movies, listening to music and playing games.

A lot of these media-consumption activities are going to work just fine offline, so even in places where you're without Wi-Fi, you shouldn't feel completely deprived.

For the majority of users, Wi-Fi will probably be sufficient, assuming you have a wireless network set up in your home. (Even AT&T seems to believe that the iPad is mostly going to be a Wi-Fi-driven device.)

But nonetheless there's a strong argument for choosing one of the 3G-equipped models. If you travel often, you'll inevitably find yourself in a hotel lobby or restaurant that doesn't have Wi-Fi, and at that point the lack of 3G could be irritating.

Also, if you commute for work, you'll probably enjoy a 3G connection for those times when you're on the train or bus -- assuming you can get a signal from AT&T in those spots. On top of that, the 3G model of the iPad includes GPS, while the Wi-Fi-only version does not, making it a more capable traveling device.

3G will cost you more, of course. Each 3G model costs $130 more than the corresponding Wi-Fi counterpart with the same storage.

What makes the 3G option especially intriguing for the iPad is there's no contract. It's all month-to-month, and you only buy a plan when you need one: $15 a month for 250 MB or $30 a month for unlimited data. During the months when you're not traveling, you can simply turn the 3G service off.

In short, if you're a very mobile person, the 3G model probably suits you best. If you're a homebody, you'll be happy with the Wi-Fi version.


Video: iPad demo in The Situation Room
Video: Steve Jobs quietly stops by Apple store

If you take the Wi-Fi route, you're probably going to be using the iPad mostly in your living room for consuming media such as movies, music and graphic-intensive games -- all of which will be stored on the iPad's flash drive.

For that reason, larger storage should be more important for Wi-Fi only customers. We'd recommend either going with the 32-GB or 64-GB model for Wi-Fi-only models, as you'll fill up 16 gigs pretty fast.

If you go with 3G, you'll have the flexibility of accessing your digital life through the cloud in addition to the iPad drive itself anywhere you go.

So for the 3G route, storage is a bit less important. If you don't have a lot of music or movies, a 16-GB model with cloud-based apps, such as Dropbox or Pandora, could very well suffice.

(One could argue that you can access your data through the cloud with a Wi-Fi-only device as well, but we'd say it's inconvenient to live in the cloud without a constant internet connection.)

With all that said, we strongly favor the 32-GB model for 3G, because its feature set strikes a chord for those with a healthy balance of work and play.

We'd argue that the 64-GB iPad 3G is a bit too expensive ($830) and impractical. The 64-GB iPad 3G model is best designed for media-obsessed workaholics -- a pretty small group of users.

The iPhone/iPod Touch factor

If you already have an iPhone or an iPod Touch, a good question to ask is whether an iPad will fit in to your life at all. The truth is the iPad is so new that it hasn't proven to become a necessity for anyone, and if you're using an iPhone, you might find it fulfills most of a tablet's potential functions already.

Also unknown is the degree to which the iPad will play nicely with your iPhone -- in particular, whether it'll be possible to tether the iPhone to the iPad, which would eliminate the need to spend more money on a 3G model and its associated monthly fees.

Steve Jobs said in an e-mail to a customer that tethering an iPhone to an iPad would not be doable, but we doubt that's completely true, if you're willing to take a few risks.

There's a good chance the iPad will be jailbroken (i.e., hacked) as soon as it's released, so a tethering workaround seems probable -- though be aware that jailbreaking can void your warranty.

If you own an iPhone, our advice would be to wait a few weeks to see if a tethering solution emerges before deciding between the 3G or Wi-Fi model.

And if you own an iPod Touch, which was cleverly touted by Jobs as an "iPhone with training wheels," then the iPad 3G is a good opportunity to graduate to the cloud. The best part is that you won't need to commit to a hefty monthly contract like you would with an iPhone, so an iPad 3G is all the more appealing.

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Copyright 2011