Maybe you’re not one of the millions of folks who already owns an iPad. And maybe you’re ready to do something about it. Apple’s added an extra wrinkle for you to consider: Which generation iPad should you buy?
Last year, when Apple rolled out a new model of its tablet, the decision was not terribly complicated—either you bought the new version or you didn’t. This time around, though, Apple has not only introduced the third-generation iPad but kept around the iPad 2—or at least, it kept around two versions of that tablet. So it’s not just a question of which model iPad to purchase: You also have to figure out if the 16GB iPad 2 and its reduced price tag prove to be more appealing than the latest version of Apple’s tablet.
First, the basics: Apple only offers the iPad 2 at one capacity now—16GB, with the Wi-Fi-only version priced at $399. A version of the iPad 2 that also includes the ability to connect to 3G networks costs $529. Comparable models of the new iPad cost $100 more—$499 for the Wi-Fi-only 16GB version and $629 for one that can connect to cellular networks.
Jason Snell’s iPad review goes in-depth on the merits of the latest version of Apple’s tablet. (And his iPad 2 review from last year is worth reading if you’d like to know about that version’s strong points.) As for making any iPad 2-versus-iPad comparisons, I find the best way to settle the issue is to ask a few questions about your plans for your new tablet.
What will you use your iPad for?
The most important factor to weigh is what you’ll use your shiny new tablet for. If you want to use it for watching movies, playing games, reading books, surfing the Web, checking email, and the like, the truth is you’ll be well-served by either version of the iPad. Text will look a smidgen crisper on the new iPad, as will videos, photos, and any apps optimized to take advantage of the new iPad’s Retina display; you’ll see even more detail in high definition movies or when looking at photographs with the new iPad, too. But many folks have contentedly used the iPad 2 for a year or longer, without finding that the non-Retina display employed by that older model looks blurry or unclear.
If, however, you envision yourself primarily reading on your new iPad, you may well benefit from getting that new iPad and its Retina display. Once again, the iPad 2’s screen isn’t lousy by any stretch, but prolonged reading periods may cause less total eyestrain with the high-resolution display in the new iPad ensuring the crispest text possible.
In fact, there’s only one iPad use case which entirely rules out the iPad 2 as an option—and that’s if you intend to use your new tablet as an oversized still and/or video camera.
The iPad 2’s rear-facing camera is lousy. It takes blurry photos little better than a non-smartphone’s junky included camera. The new iPad’s front-facing camera is unchanged from what you’ll get in the iPad 2, but it’s intended primarily for video chats. The rear-facing camera, on the other hand, is a 5-megapixel iSight camera. It won’t measure up to what you’ll find in an iPhone 4S, but it’s certainly comparable to the iPhone 4’s camera.
That said, an iPad makes an awkward camera: It’s big, and holding it up to snap photos requires two hands. But if you expect to use your iPad for photography, spring for the new model.
How much storage do you plan on needing?
The iPad’s storage isn’t expandable: What you get when you buy the tablet is what you’ll have for the rest of its life. As mentioned, the iPad 2 only offers 16GB of storage. The new iPad, on the other hand, is available in 16GB ($499), 32GB ($599), and 64GB ($699) sizes. If you plan to load your iPad up with not just oodles of apps, but also your full music library, a bunch of movies, and a heavy helping of photographs, 16GB may simply not cut it.
Thus, if you do expect to store all kinds of large media on your iPad, I wouldn’t consider a 16GB iPad model acceptable anymore. That means your lowest-cost option is the $599 32GB new iPad. If you instead don’t plan to store several gigabytes of music on your iPad—either because you plan to use iTunes Match, or sync no or little music—the 16GB size remains a viable option, which means you needn’t cross the iPad 2 off your list just yet.
How much networking speed do you need?
If you’re content with a Wi-Fi-only iPad, this question isn’t relevant to you. But if you want a model that has the ability to connect to a cellular network, you’ll need to consider the fact that the iPad 2 is only compatible with 3G networks.
The new iPad can connect with faster Long Term Evolution, or LTE, networks. This early version of fourth-generation (4G) cellular technology means faster, more efficient downloads, as my colleague Glenn Fleishman details in his look at LTE. And in his review of the new iPad, Jason Snell found that downloads and uploads over LTE gave Wi-Fi a run for their money. If you plan on connecting to a network with your iPad, the third-generation model and its LTE capability may be the way to go.
That is, if you live in an area that offers LTE coverage. Neither Verizon nor AT&T have extended their 4G networks across the nation yet. When LTE’s not available, your next-generation iPad will fall back to the same 3G networks that serve the iPad 2.
Still, carriers are building up their 4G reach. Verizon plans to be in 400 markets across the U.S. by the end of 2012 while AT&T is targeting the end of 2013 to entirely replace its current network with LTE coverage. You may not live in an area with LTE coverage now, but you might soon enough. For that reason, the third-generation iPad trumps the iPad 2 if you place a premium on network connectivity.
How to decide
So if you don’t plan to use your iPad for extensive photography and constant reading, you don’t need more than 16GB of storage, and cellular connectivity is a moot point for you, should you just save the $100 and go for the iPad 2?
The answer is a definite maybe. $100 buys an awful lot of apps; saving that extra hundred bucks on your iPad purchase affords a whole lot of games involving birds in various emotional states.
But the new iPad is, objectively, a better iPad than the iPad 2. Beyond the Retina display, the new model also adds support for voice dictation and more RAM than the iPad 2. When Apple inevitably releases another new iPad in 2013, it’s possible that new iPad 2 owners will feel more buyer’s remorse than folks who opt for the new iPad instead.
The original, first-generation iPad still supports iOS 5 completely. Will it support iOS 6, or will that be limited to the two newer iPads? At some point, an iOS update will surely leave the iPad 2 in the lurch while keeping the third-generation iPad supported. But then, at some point, the third-generation iPad will be out of date, too.
Thus, if you have the extra $100 to spend, the new iPad is objectively superior to the iPad 2, and more future-proof. But if saving the cash today helps your bank account, it’s impossible to be disappointed by the iPad 2, which is a perfectly fine tablet in its own right.
[Lex Friedman is a Macworld staff writer.]