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Which new iPad should I get?

My iPad 2 version of this post has been extremely popular for the last year. It’s time for the same choice with the iPad 3 (a.k.a. the “third-generation iPad”).

Should I get an iPad 3 if I already have an iPad 1 or 2?

If you’re looking to justify an upgrade, the Retina screen alone is going to be a huge improvement for the tasks that people do most on iPads: reading and web browsing. It’s also going to be very significant if you like viewing photos on your iPad.

And if you’re coming from an iPad 1, the new iPad is noticeably thinner and lighter, and much faster. These are major improvements that you’ll notice almost every day.

Should I skip this one and wait for the next iPad?

No. Nobody outside of Apple knows what the next iPad will be like, but it probably won’t come for another full year, and it will probably be a more incremental update (faster, better camera) compared to this update with the Retina screen.

If you prefer to skip generations, I bet it will make good sense to buy this one and skip the next one.

Should I get the iPad 2, which now costs only $399?

Probably not, unless the price difference is very important to you and it will mainly be used in ways that won’t benefit from the Retina screen, such as movie-watching or casual games.

Black or white?

Your choice. This is a personal preference. Keep in mind that it’s only the border around the screen — the back is brushed aluminum.

4G or not?

All iPads have Wi-Fi, but 4G costs $130 extra.

If you get 4G, there’s no contract, and you don’t need to buy a data plan: it simply gives you the option to get one, month-to-month, whenever you want, for $15-30/month (see “AT&T or Verizon” below).

I went Wi-Fi-only on my iPad 1 and regretted it, so I got 3G on my iPad 2. In practice, I found that I brought the iPad 2 more places and used it more because it was always internet-connected. This greatly improved the value of the iPad for me. If you see yourself taking the iPad outside of your house very often, it’s definitely worth considering the 4G option.

The 4G option is also required for GPS, which might sway your decision if you plan to use mapping a lot.

Like I said last year, a 4G iPad may also have a more useful life after you’re done with it. If you want to give it to a friend or relative who’s starting from technology-zero and doesn’t have home internet service, a 4G iPad can remove the need for cable or DSL and crappy Wi-Fi routers that die every 8 months and make your relatives call you for tech support.

Note that all of this decision-making applies whether your area is covered by 4G LTE service or whether you only have 3G coverage. 4G just increases the data speeds, but I’ve found that data connectivity on an iPad is much more important than whether it’s 3 megabits or 15 megabits or 70 megabits.

What about a Wi-Fi iPad connected via my iPhone’s tethering plan?

It’s certainly an option if you have a tethering data plan for your iPhone.

I used my iPad 2 with tethering for a few months. It wasn’t nearly as good as giving the iPad its own 3G service. With tethering, the iPad isn’t always connected. Getting and keeping it connected takes a bit of effort. Sure, it’s not a lot, but that friction adds up and just made me use it a lot less. And I never wanted to drain my iPhone’s battery faster just to keep my iPad connected.

Tethering can be a good substitute for direct 4G iPad connectivity if you already need a tethering plan (probably for a laptop) and rarely need to connect your iPad away from Wi-Fi. But if you’re going to be using your iPad over a cellular network on a regular basis, it’s better to get a 4G iPad with its own plan.

For 4G, AT&T or Verizon?

If you go with 4G in the U.S., you have to choose the AT&T or Verizon model. There are minor plan-pricing differences:

It’s very easy to activate, change, and deactivate the plans right in the iPad’s Settings app at any time, so don’t worry too much about which plan to select. Up front, you only need to choose a carrier.

Pick the one that covers your area best. If they both cover very well, I recommend AT&T: its data speeds, at least on 3G, tend to be faster in practice. Verizon has more 4G LTE coverage, but it still isn’t as widespread as 3G. If AT&T sucks in your area, go with Verizon, and vice versa.

Previously, with the iPad 2, only the AT&T model had a micro-SIM slot for roaming worldwide. With the new iPad, both the AT&T and Verizon models have the micro-SIM slot, so international travelers don’t need to avoid Verizon anymore. 4G iPads purchased in the U.S. are carrier-unlocked outside of the U.S.

16, 32, or 64 GB?

This depends a lot on how you plan to use the iPad. If you’re primarily reading, browsing the web, checking email, and playing games, 16 GB is probably enough.

Most people don’t sync a lot of music to their iPads, but if you’re going to sync a bunch of movies or photos to it, I highly suggest getting at least 32 GB. Keep in mind that the new iPad has iPhoto, so if you plan to use that to hold and manage a large library, 32 or even 64 GB might be wise.

The new iPad can also capture 1080p video from its rear camera, much like the iPhone 4 and 4S. Holding up an iPad to shoot videos is going to be awkward for many people, but if you plan to shoot video, definitely choose 32 or 64 GB.

For most people, 32 GB is probably the ideal choice. If I were buying an iPad for someone else and I wasn’t sure how they’d end up using it, I’d choose 32 GB.

Case, Smart Cover, or other accessories?

The Smart Cover doesn’t protect the back of the iPad at all, but is extremely thin and light. It’s nice if you’re keeping the iPad at home, or if you carry it in a bag that already has a dedicated soft pocket for it.

Otherwise, cases are really a personal preference. Folio-style cases are very practical and protective, but they add a lot of bulk. I like semi-rigid slipcases, especially the WaterField iPad Smart Case, but this is really a matter of preference.

If this is your first iPad, don’t assume you’ll need the expensive dock or a keyboard. You probably won’t use them. If you find that you need them after using the iPad for a little while, you can always get them later.

AppleCare?

Apple now offers the $99 AppleCare+ plan, which gives you a second year of warranty coverage and nearly-complete coverage from accidental damage: if you break your iPad under AppleCare, you can get a new one for $49, twice.

You probably already have an opinion on extended warranties, and that’s fine. The new accidental-damage protection makes this a lot more attractive than before. Personally, I’ve stopped buying extended warranties on almost everything, with the rationale that if I ever actually need to repair something out of warranty and it costs me a much larger amount of money than I would have been spending on extended warranties, I’ll start buying them from that point forward.

Preorder or wait on line at the stores?

Preorder it if you can.

If you can’t preorder it for delivery on day one (March 16), your best bet is to go to an Apple retail store and wait on line. Get there 1-2 hours early for the best chance of getting one without having to camp out and wait all day.

Don’t bother going to Best Buy, AT&T or Verizon stores, or anywhere else — they won’t have nearly as much stock as Apple’s retail stores, if they even have any on day one.

Good luck.

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