Does the object of your affection need an iPad at all?
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Cheapskate's Buying Guide 2011

iPad 3G can be expensive; choose wi-fi-only model instead

November 20, 2011

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, The Post-Standard

'Tis almost the season to be jolly, so you'd better get your gift list together while the geese are getting fat. To help select the best tech toys, here is the first installment of my Cheapskate's Buying Guide. This week: tablets and e-readers.

Apple's iPad is a cultural phenomenon, with projected sales of 32 million this year alone -- an average of one sold every second. It seems like everybody wants one. But there's a problem. Gifts that keep on giving are great, but ones that keep on costing are the very definition of a bad idea.

That's why I can't recommend the kind of iPad that connects to cell towers for its Internet connection. With these iPads, called 3G ("third generation") models, owners pay a monthly fee for the privilege of being able to get on the web or check your email practically anywhere. That fee can run from $20 to $100 every month.

For an iPad 3G model with 32 GB of storage, the initial cost of $600 could easily swell to $2,000 or even $3,000 over a two-year span because of monthly usage fees.

The other kind of iPad uses wi-fi for all Internet connections. (The 3G model can use only wi-fi, too, if you turn off 3G.) Wi-fi is nearly always free, and wi-fi hotspots (locations that have wi-fi signals) are literally all over the place -- at many homes, coffee houses, traditional restaurants, libraries, book stores, highway rest stops, visitor centers, high schools, colleges and all McDonalds fast-food restaurants.

The point should be obvious. If an iPad owner absolutely needs a connection practically anywhere, regardless of cost, a 3G iPad is the right choice -- as long as you keep in mind that there can be odd locations where 3G cell-tower signals will be too weak, such as mountainous regions, remote valleys and subways.

Otherwise, the wi-fi-only model will do well and will cost much less over the life of the iPad.

But does the object of your affection need an iPad at all?

I can't recommend any of the so-called "Android" tablets (from Motorola, Samsung, Toshiba and the like) because those companies aren't building tablets as a core business the way Apple is, and they could leave users without support if they decide to drop out of the market. And there's nothing like the choice of apps (tablet programs) for Android users as there is for iPad users.

However, a third option that might make sense is an advanced e-reader, which works as a book and magazine reader with the addition of web browsing, video playback, music listening and other functions. Amazon and its main competitor, Barnes and Noble, have just announced new models in this new category. They have fewer capabilities than the iPad but cost much less.

The Amazon device is the Kindle Fire, which costs only $200. Barnes and Noble's new Nook costs $250. Both have 7-inch screens instead of the iPad's 10-inch screen, but reading a single page of a book on a 7-inch screen is no problem. Watching videos works out great, too.

The Nook has a better display, but the price of the Kindle Fire is hard to resist. I'd choose the Kindle Fire for the strength of the Amazon brand, too; Barnes and Noble is faltering, but Amazon will be around a long time.

Next: Laptops.