Apple's 3G-equipped iPad shipped this week to its fleet of iconic retail locations as well as to consumers who ordered it weeks in advance. The staff of TabletPCReview stood in line with the hordes of Apple faithful and picked up a new 3G-enabled version. Should you? Read on and find out.
Prices for Apple's 3G iPad start at $629 (like this review unit). 32 and 64GB models cost $729 and $829, respectively. The 3G iPad is available from Apple's online and retail stores as well as Best Buy.
Build and Design
The 3G-enabled iPad features the same elegant design as its wifi-only sibling with one exception: a black plastic strip that runs along the top of the device. Since the metal casing blocks electromagnetic signals, Apple was forced to modify the design of the iPad so that the cellular modem antenna could actually get a signal to the surrounding towers. On this review unit, the plastic strip here didn't fit perfectly against the rest of the device. It's barely noticeable, but it's there, though it doesn't feel flimsy in the slightest.
Along the left-hand side of the device is a sight familiar to iPhone owners, with a small round hole inside of an aluminum cutout. This is the SIM card slot, a necessary addition to the iPad's hardware. In a move away from industry standards, Apple decided to go with a micro-SIM card instead of the traditional SIM card most GSM-standard phones take today. In terms of functionality, the two cards are exactly the same; they both have the same metal contacts on the rear. The micro-SIM, or 3FF, is simply smaller, clocking in at just 48% of the original's size.
Apple has yet to say why they decided to go for the micro-SIM form factor over the regular SIM card; while saving space is a likely consideration, so too is the fact that it makes using non-official SIM cards in the new iPad more difficult. The upcoming iPhone, scheduled for release later this summer, will very likely use the standard as well.
Now that the iPad 3G is out, the Internet can likely expect a wave of adapters that fit micro-SIM cards to the larger SIM card form factor since users will no doubt try to take advantage of the cheap data plans AT&T introduced. As stated earlier, there's no difference between the two SIM card styles apart from physical size; an iPhone owner could even file down their full-sized SIM card to the shape of a micro-SIM and slot it into the iPad. We don't recommend doing either, though.
3G Internet Access
Obviously, the big draw to a 3G-enabled iPad, as opposed to the Wi-Fi only models, is that you can access the Internet anywhere. Well, anywhere that AT&T's network happens to stretch, at least. While AT&T suffers a lot of flak for the quality of their 3G network, the experience with this iPad has been nothing short of stellar. The iPad didn't lose signal despite driving through city, suburban and even rural areas, and the speed was frankly the best I've used on a mobile device. Websites loaded fast, and though noticeably slower than over Wi-Fi, the experience was stellar.
We ran a number of tests to determine what kind of speed the iPad could draw over 3G. Of course, the test came back with 3200kbps, and that couldn't be right, so we redid the test five more times - every result came back over 3000. The average of six tests produced a download speed of 3339kbps and an upload speed of 301kbps.
Thanks to the Wi-Fi and 3G iPads, we know the hardware is nice. The software is fast and responsive. Even AT&T's network proved to be more than capable. Can the software take advantage of the network? Several applications have been developed for the iPad that you stream video in some capacity or another; the most well-known of these are probably the YouTube, ABC and Netflix apps.
Unfortunately, all three are blocked or otherwise forced to degrade their signal when being used on AT&T's 3G network. ABC's video player seems like it's going to play ball, but as soon as you tap on a video to play, a box pops up, saying you have to be connected to Wi-Fi in order to use the software. This is infuriating, and frankly, it feels disingenuous on the part of AT&T and Apple.
Netflix video over Wi-Fi
Netflix video over 3G
YouTube video over Wi-Fi
YouTube video over 3G
Given how the Cupertino juggernaut touted YouTube's retooling of their content for Apple products, and how well the iPad displayed video, it's almost shocking how poor the video sharing service appears. Zinio, a long-time purveyor of digital periodicals, faces a similar conundrum to ABC - downloading new issues is completely blocked while on 3G; you'll have to find a Wi-Fi point to update your subscriptions. While measures like this come as no surprise - many similar applications were blocked from fully taking advantage of the iPhone's ubiquitous connectivity - it's much more noticeable on the iPad's larger screen.
Even iTunes, as tightly connected to Apple's ecosystem as the iPod itself, doesn't escape the clutches of the bandwidth monitors. Any item, be it application, podcast or video, that's over 20MB in size will force users to connect the iPad to a Wi-Fi access point for download. Anything smaller can be downloaded over 3G; larger items, however, will stay in the iPad's download queue until such time as they can be retrieved.
Herein lies a major problem with users who might consider the iPad as a primary computing device. Before the criticism begins, it's clear that the iPad is simply not as capable as something like a laptop. Many considered the device to appropriate for users with fewer computing needs; I'd considered suggesting a 3G iPad for my mother, since she can't get broadband Internet access where she lives in the country. 3G is abundant, but with restrictions like this, it would probably render the experience frustrating. Alternate solutions include purchasing 3G or 4G access points from providers such as Verizon or Sprint; monthly costs are certainly greater, but, and AT&T should take note, so is the enjoyment those devices engender.
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