iPad 3G released in US – what’s different?

Australian Macworld staff
3 May, 2010
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The 3G iPad models have begun shipping over the weekend in the US. US residents who had pre-ordered or who ventured out to an Apple Store to pick up an iPad 3G were able to get their hands on the device from Friday 30 April.

With the pre-order date for Australians only a week away (10 May!), it’s worth having a look at some of the differences between the two.

Judging a Pad by its cover

Outwardly, the 3G-enabled iPad looks mostly the same as its Wi-Fi-only sibling: all of th e controls are in the same place, the screen is identical, and so on. The 3G model is a tenth of a pound heavier than the Wi-Fi model, but via a very scientific “hold-one-in-each-hand” test, it’s hard to detect the difference.

There are only two external indications that you’re dealing with a different beast: the first is the prominent 4.5-inch long black plastic strip at the top of the iPad, which covers a portion of the aluminium bezel on the front and extends about half an inch down the iPad’s back. This is a window for the iPad’s 3G antenna — since radio waves can travel more easily through plastic than through aluminium, this helps improve reception.

The second is the micro-SIM card slot on the left-hand side of the device. As with the iPhone, you can pop out the tray carrying the card with a straightened paper clip; Apple also includes the same SIM removal tool that it packages with the iPhone. The micro-SIM card, as the name promises, is smaller than the iPhone’s own SIM card — it’s about half the size.

The inside job

Upon unlocking the 3G-enabled iPad, you’ll be greeted with the same Home screen as on the Wi-Fi model, with the addition of the familiar cellular reception bars and carrier tag in the top left corner.

Beyond that little icon, most of the changes in the 3G version’s software can be found in the iPad’s Settings app. Airplane Mode returns as the top item in Settings’s left-hand pane — as with the iPhone, you can switch all the radios off with a touch.

There’s also a new Cellular Data category, which gathers all the related controls in one place, instead of burying them under the General -> Network pane as on the iPhone. There are two switches here: one to turn all Cellular Data on or off (turning it off will return the “iPad” tag to the top left corner of the display, making it identical to the Wi-Fi model), and one to turn on or off Data Roaming, which helps prevent you from getting charged exorbitant fees for data usage while you’re travelling internationally.

Below those is a View Account button where you can sign up for 3G service, an APN Settings menu for advanced wireless settings, and a SIM PIN section that lets you set a code for accessing data stored on the iPad’s micro-SIM card. It’s unclear whether the iPad will offer the same level of integration with Australian carriers.

The other feature the 3G-enabled iPad adds is an actual GPS chip — unlike the Wi-Fi iPad, which relies solely on Wi-Fi-based location. A quick test in the Maps app between the Wi-Fi iPad and the 3G iPad showed no difference in speed in locating its current position, though the 3G iPad did enable a more precise location.

What’s in a charge?

Apple claims a nine hour battery life for the 3G iPad — down an hour from the Wi-Fi only estimates. iLounge put the two models to the test and found the official claims were pretty close:

Our prior iPad with Wi-Fi battery tests found that Apple was generally at least a little conservative in its estimates; for instance, we put the Wi-Fi model through a web torture test with repeated 1-minute refreshes of a large, completely loaded page for 10 hours and 21 minutes on 50% brightness over 802.11n. Repeating the exact same test on the Wi-Fi + 3G model with 3G turned on and Wi-Fi turned off, the iPad achieved 8 hours and 38 minutes of continuous reloading and displaying — 22 minutes shy of Apple’s estimate.

The verdict

Given that both models will launch here together, the choice between Wi-Fi or 3G is a little easier than for those in the US, where early adopters were forced to buy the Wi-Fi model first. If you want an always-on internet connection and GPS functionality, the 3G model is probably for you. The only real trade-offs are a higher price (though local pricing is still yet to be announced) and slightly shorter battery life.

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