iPad Buyer's Guide: Sussing Out Six Configurations

Apple’s iPad tablet, which becomes available April 3, is a first-generation device, and you’ve got a rule: never buy first-gen hardware. The iPad won’t let you truly multitask, either. It lacks a camera, it’s a closed system, it uses AT&T’s network for 3G wireless connectivity (which elicited boos at the iPad’s Jan. 27 unveiling).

And yet -- you want one as soon as humanly possible. Or you’ve been tasked with buying iPads for your company. In the prior article, "19 Key Considerations for the iPad as Enterprise Mobile Device," we covered security, deployment , mobile application and online collaboration issues. So, with six different iPad configurations, the only questions left to ponder are: Which one is the right one for you or your users? Let’s break it down so you can figure it out.

Mobile Device Dilemma: Six iPad Configurations, Two 3G Options

There are a total of six different iPad configurations. Three iPads offer Wi-Fi connectivity only; these iPad models will be available April 3. The other three provide Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity on AT&T’s network and are due in late April.

The Wi-Fi-only iPads have 16GB of storage for $499; 32GB for $599; and 64GB for $699.

IPads with Wi-Fi and 3G begin at $629 for 16GB, then go to $729 for 32GB and $829 for 64GB.

Unlike the iPhone, you can get AT&T 3G wireless iPad service without a contract. Also unlike the iPhone, you’ve got two 3G plan options: $15 per month for up to 250MB of data or $30 per month for all-you-can-eat service.

Apple says you can sign up for and discontinue the AT&T 3G service directly from your iPad as well as monitor your data consumption on the device as you go. “You’ll receive onscreen messages as you get close to your monthly data limit so you can decide whether to turn off 3G or upgrade to the unlimited plan,” according to Apple.

This is good news, because you can consume 250MB of data thisfast. For instance, one episode of Mad Men in HD downloaded through iTunes is about 1.4GB, while a standard resolution Mad Men is approximately 475MB. Heck, even a 22-minute "Modern Family" episode in standard resolution will consume nearly 250MB.

Start with the iPad’s Storage

To figure out how much storage your iPad should have, take a look at what’s in your iTunes library and/or on your iPhone now, and give some thought to how important it is to have all your current and future content stored on the iPad.

Example: I currently have 17.18GB of music, 2.95GB of movies, 17GB of TV shows, and 85.8MB of audiobooks in my iTunes library. I’ve got nearly 1GB of photos, 598MB of apps, and 241MB of other data (such as contacts and calendar items) stored on my iPhone. All told, that’s nearly 40GB of data. So if I wanted all of this data (plus future downloads) on an iPad, I’d have to spring for a 64GB configuration.

If you or others in your company hope to travel with an iPad in lieu of a laptop, you’d probably need a 32GB or 64MB configuration. A 16GB model is probably fine for those who plan to carry only a portion of their multimedia content and who plan to use the iPad primarily for e-mail and Web surfing. But for others, the 16GB limit will most likely be too confining.

The Connectivity Question: How, When, and Where Will You Need Wireless?

Deciding how much storage is needed is the easiest part for some people. Choosing between a Wi-Fi-only vs. Wi-Fi and 3G iPad can be trickier.

If you’re frequently on the go for work—be it a long train or bus commute or constant air travel—you’ll probably want 3G connectivity. This is especially true if you hope to replace your laptop with an iPad when you travel, at least part of the time.

When you travel with a laptop and an iPad, you can download content into iTunes on your laptop, then sync the iPad to transfer that content to it. So having 3G connectivity on the iPad in this scenario probably isn’t essential.

Similarly, you could use the wireless connection on your laptop or smartphone to handle e-mail and Web browsing while traveling, which also makes 3G service on the iPad unnecessary. But if it’s just you and the iPad on the road, having 3G on the tablet grows more important.

The decision between Wi-Fi-only and 3G plus Wi-Fi gets murkier when you’re watching the budget and might only occasionally want 3G service.

You could achieve clarity by making a list of all the scenarios in which you anticipate needing wireless connectivity on the iPad. Describe the activity, such as checking e-mail, surfing the Web, and downloading podcasts. Make a note of all the places where you’re likely to perform each action, such as airports or hotels, and consider whether you’re likely to have Wi-Fi available at each of those locations.

In the end, for those on a tight budget, it comes down to a trade-off: get a Wi-Fi-only iPad with more storage or a Wi-Fi and 3G iPad with less storage. Example: A 32GB Wi-Fi-only iPad costs $599, while a 16GB iPad with Wi-Fi and 3G is $629.

If this were my choice, I’d opt for the iPad with both Wi-Fi and 3G but only 16GB of storage. I’d rather have less multimedia content on the iPad than to go without wireless access when I need it, even if it’s only on occasion.

Additional Considerations for Buying an iPad

There’s more to your decision than just storage and wireless connectivity. Some other things to think about:

1. Will GPS be important for location-based apps or other reasons? If so, you should get a 3G iPad, because the Wi-Fi-only models don’t have GPS sensors.

2. Do you truly need the iPad now or can you wait a few months? Apple hasn’t given many app developers access to an iPad before its April 3rd availability. Understandably, many developers won’t release their apps until they’ve had a chance to test them on actual iPads. So it might take a while before you know exactly what the iPad app selection will look like. That makes it difficult to predict all the ways you might use the device. And not being clear about how you’ll use the iPad later could cause you to buy the wrong configuration now.

3. Do you truly, absolutely need an iPad at all? Remember that rule you have about never buying first-generation hardware? It’s a good one, because when you buy a first-gen device, you’re paying money to be a beta tester, more or less. I’ve never heard anyone lament the fact they bought the second-generation Kindle instead of the first gen, or that they let that very first Asus netbook pass them by.

James A. Martin has written about mobile technology since the mid 1990s. He’s coauthor of "Getting Organized in the Google Era."


iPad, Apple, Wi-Fi, mobile IT, mobile device