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The iPad 3G hit stores and customer mailboxes on Friday afternoon, but how does this slightly modified model compare against the original? Is the ability to use 3G worth the extra $130 per model? After spending the weekend using the iPad 3G and comparing it head-to-head with a Wi-Fi-only model, we hope we can help potential buyers figure out what iPad model might be best for them.

For my own comparison, I used a 32 GB Wi-Fi-only unit that was purchased on launch day and a 64 GB Wi-Fi+3G model that arrived Friday. Both units were connected via 802.11n to the same home network and my 3G tests were done in the area of my house that gives the best AT&T 3G signal.

Look and Feel

First and foremost, the iPad 3G is, well, an iPad. That’s a good thing. Physically, the two devices look nearly identical, the only difference is in a small black band that is overlays the top of the back of the iPad 3G. This plastic shield is for the 3G modem and it remains flush with the rest of the device.

From a weight perspective, Apple says that the 3G unit is 1.6 lbs versus 1.5 lbs for the Wi-Fi only model, but it was difficult for me to tell any difference in my own tests (and the fact that I was comparing a 32 GB unit against a 64 GB unit blurred any weight differential further.)

One nice thing to note — the iPad 3G is sold unlocked — meaning you can use a micro SIM from another GSM carrier in place of AT&T. That means you can get EDGE quality data speeds with virtually any GSM provider. If you’re in the United States or Canada, the frequencies of the 3G modem will still tie you to AT&T or Rogers if you want to get 3G service, but if you want to take the iPad 3G to Europe and use a data plan there, you can without having to worry about paying the ridiculous fees AT&T charges for users that want to use their services overseas.

Data Plan Options

When it comes to setting up the 3G data plan on the unit, the process is very straightforward. You can use a new menu item for Cellular Data in the Settings app on the iPad and proceed with setting up a new AT&T account. You simply need to select what plan you want (the default is for the $29.99 a month unlimited data option, though you can also choose a $14.99 250 MB option) and then fill out your credit card and billing information.

You can’t tie your iPad 3G with an existing AT&T account, which is annoying, and the plan is set to auto-renew unless you cancel it before the end of 30 days. Just keep that in mind if you see yourself only using 3G data sporadically.

Once you have your data plan setup, you can view how much data you’ve used and how much time remains on your account at any time by going to the Cellular Data menu.

By default, if you are connected to both 3G and Wi-Fi, the device will choose whatever connection is faster or is more reliable. You can also turn one or both options off if you know you aren’t going to be using Wi-Fi or 3G at a specific location.

The best part of the current data plan structure, at least with AT&T, is that it requires no contract. This is really, really important for those individuals who might only need 3G on a irregular basis and don’t like being tied to yet another cellular contract when it won’t be used consistently. No contract is a very, very good thing.

iPad 3G: The Good

Moving on from the basics like look and feel and the overview of data plans, let’s look at some of the best aspects of the 3G-specific model.

In addition to having a 3G modem, the iPad 3G also has built-in GPS. This means that for mapping applications and other location-specific information, the iPad 3G will be more accurate than the Wi-Fi-only iPad, which uses Wi-Fi to grab location coordinates. Now, the Wi-Fi location solution isn’t bad — and for most uses, it’s more than adequate.

However, if you are wanting to do any sort of turn-by-turn work or you want a compass or to use mapping applications that really need to have full GPS support, the iPad 3G will be great for that. If you thought that having an iPad installed in your car was a cool idea before, think about it with full GPS support on a 9.7-inch touch screen!

Having a 3G modem also goes a long way at making the iPad a truly mobile device. For the last month, I’ve mostly used the iPad in the confines of my house, at Starbucks or some other place I knew I would have Wi-Fi. That meant that using it out by the pool was out (unless I wanted to spend some time hacking into Wi-Fi from one of the neighbors) and that using it in the car was limited.

Just knowing I can have a data connection virtually anywhere makes the iPad 3G instantly more useful as a go-to connected device. Before, I’ve always felt like I had to make the decision to just go with the iPhone or also pack up my laptop.

If you don’t already have a MiFi box or gadget and want something more portable than a laptop to take with you, the iPad 3G is nice, if only because you have the security that if Wi-Fi is crappy or isn’t available, you can still likely get data access.

iPad 3G: The Bad

The downside about the US iPad 3G, is that the 3G service comes from AT&T, of course. I had hoped that the speed of the 3G connection in the iPad 3G would somehow be better — even if just slightly — than that of the iPhone 3GS. It’s not.

This isn’t to say that using the iPad over 3G is unbearable. It isn’t; it’s just going to be significantly slower than a fast home broadband network accessed via 802.11n. I did a number of head-to-head tests between the 3G iPad and the Wi-Fi-only iPad, loading the same website from a clean cache and in each instance the Wi-Fi only model trounced the iPad 3G by a sizable margin.

Keep in mind, I’m also testing AT&T’s 3G network from an area that performs significantly better than many other major cities: Atlanta. The AT&T Mobility corporate offices are literally around the corner from where I live and a 3G tower is both close and unobstructed.

In some instances, the difference was less profound. For instance, when playing back video on, I couldn’t detect any difference in how quickly video started playing, or in quality. Now, I’m not sure how much of that has to do with the fact that that web video is likely optimized to fast-start on mobile connections, but it does look like the performance differences will be less profound if a site is optimized for a 3G connection.

Using the iPhone app, I ran speed tests with Wi-Fi on and Wi-Fi off on the iPad 3G. These are the results:

In short: As great as having 3G is as an option, don’t mistake AT&T’s 3G speed for what you can get from Verizon, Sprint or even local providers like Clear.

Battery Life

As a gadget junkie, I regularly discount 20% of a manufacturer’s promised battery life off of any product. That’s why I was so shocked to see the WiFi-only iPad consistently last longer than its 10 hours advertised rate.

The iPad 3G i
s rated to last 9 hours while using 3G, and in my tests, I found that to be an accurate estimate. The guys at iLounge did a much more scientific test than me, re-loading the same large website over and over until the battery died. I simply turned Wi-Fi off and used the iPad until it told me it couldn’t. This meant I accessed the web, downloaded apps, watched videos and played games.

The battery life isn’t quite as strong in 3G mode as it is when just using WiFi, but it’s still pretty strong. Just be aware that you’ll need to likely shave 10 – 15% off the lifespan of a Wi-Fi-only iPad if you are using it with 3G. Eight and a half hours is still nothing to sneeze at, but be aware of the energy constraints that 3G access takes on the device.

iPad 3G: The Ugly

The iPad has quickly established itself as a really competent media player. Thanks to iTunes, plus the Netflix and ABC apps (and apps like Air Video that let you stream videos off your Mac or PC to your iPad with ease), viewing video on the iPad is a real joy.

Unfortunately, if you are wanting to watch video without Wi-Fi, the 3G iPad presents some limitations — at least when used with AT&T’s service

First, look at what happens if you try to play video on the ABC app without using Wi-Fi:

AT&T has had a policy in place that requires any video streaming app to serve video in a lower bitrate option. We touched on this when discussing’s new iPad-optimized streaming options, and it looks like ABC just hasn’t optimized the app to serve video at a lower bitrate. YouTube, Netflix and most other video streaming sites will serve video in lower bitrates over 3G, but keep in mind that ABC doesn’t (at least for now) and thus doesn’t work over 3G.

While Netflix and YouTube will work in a lower bitrate mode, the quality difference is pretty noticeable. Check out these two screenshots; one is from the iPad while operating in Wi-Fi mode, the other while only using 3G. You can immediately tell the difference.

iPad on 3G

iPad on WiFi

I specifically chose King of the Hill from Netflix because as an animated series, the quality difference is usually less noticeable than other kinds of content. It’s watchable, sure, but it’s no where near as clear.

iPad 3G: The Bottom Line

So is the iPad 3G worth an extra $120? As with all decisions, this ultimately depends on your personal needs. If you don’t already have a MiFi solution (and you aren’t interested in getting one — keep in mind, most start at $60 a month for data, plus hardware cost and a two-year commitment) and want to be able to reliably use your iPad basically anywhere, the iPad 3G is the way to go.

If you already have a MiFi solution or are looking at getting one, the reality is that the data speed from MiFi will likely be faster than what you can get from AT&T. Plus, if you already have MiFi or something similar for your laptop, you can just share the connection with multiple devices and have one less bill.

The fact of the matter is, while AT&T’s payment options are fair, comparatively inexpensive and require no contract, the service itself puts certain limitations on what you can do and also will keep you surfing at speeds that may be slower than you are accustomed to using. If most of your day-to-day work is in an area with Wi-Fi, you might be better off skipping the iPad 3G.

For users who travel a lot on business — especially if you are in a car or on a train a lot — I think the 3G feature is definitely worth the money, if only to have as a “just-in-case” backup.

Have you tried the iPad 3G? What are your thoughts? Let us know!

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Tags: apple, Apple Tablet, ipad, iPad 3G, reviews