Whether it's a gift for yourself, a friend, or a loved one, buying your first iPad can be cause for some trepidation. After all, there are a number of combinations of three variables -- network type, carrier, and storage on the device -- that add up to puzzlement for some folks. In this Holiday Gift Guide, I'll give you some advice on how to pick the best iPad model for the lucky recipient on your gift list.
The big questions are whether or not you need 3G wireless capabilities, whether or not your 3G iPad should run on a GSM (AT&T in US) or CDMA (Verizon in US) network, how much storage to get, and whether or not to consider purchasing a used iPad.
Wi-Fi Only versus Wi-Fi + 3G
To really make the best use of your iPad, you're going to need an Internet connection. With the iPad, you have two choices: Wi-Fi (wireless network connectivity) models and Wi-Fi + 3G (adding 3G mobile data connectivity) models. If you ever need Internet connectivity away from Wi-Fi hotspots, buy the Wi-Fi + 3G version of the iPad. You can't add the functionality to the iPad later. In the US, the Wi-Fi + 3G models are about $130 more expensive than their Wi-Fi only counterparts.
Some other things to think about -- will you be using your iPad in places where there are no Wi-Fi hotspots? If so, the addition of 3G connectivity is a must. You can also use a tethering solution (Personal Hotspot) or a 3G router like the Sierra Wireless Overdrive or Novatel MiFi to connect an iPad to the Internet, so if you already have an iPhone that is capable of running Personal Hotspot or a 3G/4G router, then maybe a Wi-Fi only device will do the trick for you.
Remember that 3G connectivity isn't free, so you will have to purchase a data plan. Be sure to check with your carrier (AT&T or Verizon in the US) on the various plans available, and remember that most iPad data plans are month-to-month and can be turned off during those months you don't need the service.
One other thing to consider -- if you have a need to run apps that are location aware, note that the Wi-Fi + 3G iPads contain full Assisted GPS (A-GPS), while the Wi-Fi versions can only determine their position while connected to a Wi-Fi network with a router that has been scanned by a a geolocation service.
GSM versus CDMA
If you've decided to go with a Wi-Fi iPad, then you can skip this section. With a Wi-Fi + 3G device, you'll need to determine whether you wish to go with a GSM or CDMA network. What this means in the US is AT&T (GSM) versus Verizon (CDMA). For potential iPad owners in the rest of the world, the answer is much more simple, as the GSM cellular network standard is found in most other countries.
American iPad owners might want to consider which carrier works best in the locations where they'll be using the iPad most often. For example, in most of the city where I live (Denver, Colorado), AT&T service is pretty good. However, it's atrociously bad in the downtown Denver area, and if I was going to spend a lot of time using the device there, I'd jump on a Verizon CDMA iPad.
The next big question -- how much storage capacity do you need? You have three choices at this point in time: 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB. The difference between the 16 GB and 32 GB models is only $100, while the 64 GB model is another $100 over the price of 32 GB model. But how do you figure out which model to get? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
How big is your media library? If your library is small and manageable, you may be OK with the 16 GB model. If you already own a music device like an iPod touch, perhaps you'll want to continue using it for listening to music, since iPods are much more portable than your iPad. Also consider using iTunes in the Cloud to reduce your storage requirements. This service, part of iOS 5, makes it simple to listen to your music library by streaming tunes to your device. If you like to watch a lot of video, remember that movies can be from 500 MB to 1 GB in size, so plan accordingly if you wish to carry a lot of them with you.
Do you plan on carrying a lot of photos? Digital photos are usually fairly small, but if you carry around a few thousand pictures, you can chew up storage very quickly. I use my iPad to back up photos from my digital camera when I'm on trips, so I find that the 32 GB of storage I have gets filled up rather quickly.
Are you going to use your iPad to hold a lot of documents? Some people I know use their iPads as data storage and transfer devices, taking huge amounts of documents with them on the road. If this is a situation you're familiar with, think about getting more storage.
How long do you think you'll keep your iPad? Those who think that they'll keep their iPad for a longer period of time may want to pay more for more storage so that they can "grow into" the iPad. For those of us who turn over our iPads every time a new model appears, saving $100-200 in the hopes that a cheaper and more capable version shows up within a year may be a better idea.
Used versus New
If the iPad is for yourself or a child, you might not care if it's a brand new unit or a used one. Since the iPad has now been out for almost two years, some owners like to move up to newer models and you can get a heck of a deal on used devices.
Apple's the best vendor for used iPads. They often make refurbished units available at less than the suggested retail price of new equipment, and the the iPad comes with the original factory warranty. Visit the online Apple Store to find the latest refurb iPad deals.
eBay is also a great place to look for used iPads. Be sure to check that the dealer has photos of the exact unit you're bidding on, has a return policy, and has a flawless approval rating. If you buy an iPad from someone local, think about having an Authorized Apple Service Provider check the unit over before you device to buy.