Whenever I shell out US$500 or more for anything, I tend to think it over quite a while. The iPad 2 is no exception.
I thought simply deciding to hit the “Buy Now” button at the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) online store was the big decision. I was wrong. It turns out, it was just the first of many decisions. We all like to think that Apple is just offering two tablets — the old iPad and new iPad 2 — but really, Apple is offering no fewer than 18 possible combinations of iPad 2 features, depending on storage, color, and possible 3G cellular service carrier.
Then throw in the fact that both ATT (NYSE: T) and Verizon offer different data plans to support the iPad 2, not to mention tethering, and man, it’s been quite a while since buying an Apple product has been such a freaking headache. If I had plenty of expendable cash, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. If you’re like me, though, while you do get a lot of use out of electronic gadgets, you’re not in the habit of handing over your credit card with your eyes closed. Besides, you know that even just $10 a month adds up to $120 a year, and that’s real dollars that could go toward something else shiny and new.
The iPad 2 buying decision starts with your basic model: WiFi only or WiFi + 3G?
On the surface, this seems like an easy decision. If you have excellent WiFi in your home and don’t expect to travel much with the iPad, WiFi only is the way to go. However, might it be a good time to snag a first-generation iPad from Apple for $100 off? Apple is currently selling 16GB iPads for $399. That’s mighty tempting. For me, though, I want the camera in the iPad 2 for FaceTime video conferencing (or if I’m out and about and see a UFO or Bigfoot).
If you are going to travel outside of easy WiFi zones, should you pay an extra $130 for the option of buying cellular data service from ATT or Verizon, direct from the iPad 2 itself? If you travel a lot, the answer may be a no-brainer. If you travel sporadically, maybe you only need cellular access a few times per year. For me, I’m much more likely to roam around during the summer months and around the holidays. So about one quarter of the year might I really need 3G data access.
So clearly I need WiFi + 3G to cover my bases.
I have an iPhone 4, and with iOS 4.3 I can use Apple’s new Personal Hotspot feature, which turns my iPhone 4 into a WiFi hotspot that could be used to provide Internet access to a laptop, iPad or some other tablet device. As near as I can tell, with my ATT iPhone 4, to use that feature, it’ll cost me another $20 per month. That’s not terrible, and even as I type this, it’s still on the table as an option for data access.
But it’s more complicated than that. As an early iPhone adopter with ATT, I’m on an unlimited data plan for $30 per month. If I invoke tethering (pre-iOS 4.3) or the new Personal Hotspot feature, I’ll lose that unlimited data option and never get it back. I’ll be stuck paying for data at tiered rates, currently $25 for 2GB of data per month.
Right now, I’d save a few bucks each month with that plan. But in the future, I’m not so sure. For instance, I can stream Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) movies to my iPhone 4 over ATT’s 3G network. Works great. I’d sure hate to lose that option sometime down the road.
So tethering/Personal Hotspot is out, pending a new dire need.
Meanwhile, Verizon has been selling the old iPads with a MiFi hotspot device. Sure, the unit costs $130, but it also offers up a separate option for a $20 per month data plan. For essentially the same price as the WiFi + 3G, I could use Verizon and a MiFi personal hotspot, separate from my ATT iPhone, which would retain my unlimited just-in-case data plan. And I could let others use the MiFi hotspot, too. iPod touches, MacBooks, PCs. That would retain the most flexibility.
And yet, it’s unclear whether Verizon will charge $35 activation fees each time you want to spin up MiFi access. So, if I cancel the service during the winter months, but spin it up for a spring trip, then cancel it, then spin it up for some summer fun, how much might I spend in fees? I’m guessing Verizon will eventually clarify and make this easy on consumers, but trust … not sure I’m willing to give it out yet.
After I spent far too long obsessing over tethering and personal WiFi options, I realized that the WiFi-only iPad 2 is missing one important feature: assisted GPS. This means that even if you use a MiFi, a WiFi only iPad 2 isn’t so good for precise navigation. That throws out the option of using it as a GPS device while navigating strange cities.
And there is one last point regarding the WiFi vs. 3G conundrum. Ease of use and battery life. Making sure my new iPad 2 communicates with my iPhone 4 means that I’ll have to pay attention and manually make sure they’re aware of each other. Plus, if I am out and about, I don’t want to burn through my iPhone battery just to check my email and surf the Web on the big iPad 2 screen. That seems like a lot of hassle.
If you live in an area that gets lousy or fantastic service coverage from ATT or Verizon, choosing between the two carriers might be easy. I have good coverage from both carriers, though Verizon may have the edge when I travel out to more rural areas for visiting the great outdoors. Differences in download speeds, for me, are negligible.
At first, I thought I’d go with a Verizon model just so I would have basic contact on two networks if I’m traveling. This seems pretty smart. I can get email on my iPhone through ATT if I’m stuck somewhere with bad Verizon reception. Or vice versa. And yet, really, most of the coverage between the two is generally pretty good.
That leaves the data plans themselves. ATT will let me either pre-pay for the data via a credit card or roll it into my existing ATT bill as a post-paid option. The benefit of the postpaid option is that my data overages are automatically charged at $10 per extra gigabyte. Since I’d like to use as little data as possible several times a year, pre-paid is fine by me. That way I know I’m only using it if I need to, even if my overages mean I’ll simply have to “re-buy” the data again if I go over before my month of access is up. If I want to amp up usage, I have two core options with ATT. And that’s good.
How about the monthly data rates themselves?
What if you want 3 GB of data via ATT? There are two scenarios: 1) The prepaid option means you pay $25 for 2 GB, and when you want more, you buy two more GB for $25 more; 2) the postpaid option means you pay $25 for 2 GB, and when you go over, you get another 1 GB for $10. This second option puts ATT in line with Verizon’s 3 GB for $35 rate.
The truth is, I don’t like any of these plans. I want 500 MB for $10. Or unlimited for $30. Any which way I look at mobile data plans, either with tethering or direct access, I’ll basically be paying more than I’d like. So where does this leave me? Leaning toward ATT for the simplicity of having fewer accounts and the hope that ATT will become more price-aggressive as Verizon’s Apple-related competition heats up.
So now I’m leaning toward an iPad 2 for ATT, but what about storage? 16, 32 or 64 GB? I have a 16 GB iPhone. Seems to hold most of what I need OK, but will that translate to an iPad 2? Will that hold enough movies? What if I start editing video on the iPad 2? That’s an interesting idea, but how will I get video shot with my iPhone 4 over to the iPad? I don’t know. I do know that 32 GB will help guarantee a longer life for the iPad 2.
But then again, if it turns out that I use my iPad all the time, I’ve got a potential business case for upgrading in a year to an iPad 3. If I don’t, no worries. And if it gets broken or stolen, all that extra storage won’t matter much. I’m thinking saving $100 now is smarter than buying more storage than I truly need.
Whew. So, OK. I think it got nailed down: 16 GB WiFi + 3G, ATT as the carrier.
Unless, of course, I find some cool places to go that only have Verizon coverage. Hmm. Plus, I could still use the ATT-based iPhone Personal Hotspot feature as WiFi for a Verizon iPad 2 if it were necessary … this is nuts! Either version of iPad 2 will work fine for 99 percent of all the usage I can seriously imagine. I’ll know for sure which one I’m getting March 11. As for right now, I need Ibuprofen. Blasted headache!
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