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iPad 2 buying guide - if you can find one

Apple employees cheer as iPad 2 goes sale The Grove Apple store Los Angeles Friday March 11 2011. The iPad

Apple employees cheer as the iPad 2 goes on sale at The Grove Apple store in Los Angeles Friday, March 11, 2011. The iPad 2 is the updated version of Apple Inc.’s iPad tablet computer. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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Updated: April 22, 2011 10:08PM

If you were on the fence about buying an iPad 2, your decision not to decide has paid off handsomely. Not because the iPad 2 is a dud. My full (and as usual, understated) review will run later this week, but suffice to say that if this tablet were any stronger, Apple would warn you against mixing it with alcohol.

No, procrastination has paid off because you now have another week or so to think about it. Hundreds of thousands of people didn’t wait for the reviews and snapped up every unit they could find. Three of the four stores I called this morning are completely sold out, and Apple’s online store warns that new orders won’t ship for three to four weeks.

(White or black, 16, 32, or 64 gigabytes, AT&T or Verizon, WiFi or 3G: it doesn’t matter. They’re all gone.)

If you’ve decided that this is the year that you buy a tablet computer, then you’ll definitely want an iPad 2. After getting some hands-on time with all of the major tablets that have been released or announced for 2011, I can only think of two possible situations in which anybody would even consider buying anything else:

Situation 1) You think the iPad’s 10-inch screen makes it so unwieldy that it’s a truly a nonstarter for you. I think if you borrowed a friend’s iPad for a day it’d change your mind about how portable it is ... but that’s a fair complaint. I hope the 7-inch Blackberry PlayBook is somewhere on your radar. It’s as-yet unreleased and unproven, but my hands-on time with prerelease hardware a few weeks ago left me impressed by its conception and its simplicity.

Situation 2) One afternoon, when you were a teenager, you got home from baseball practice early and accidentally walked in on your parents having sex in the living room. They were listening to some smooth music via (choose your age-appropriate Apple product: an iPhone connected to the home theater via AppleTV and AirPlay; a PowerBook plugged into speakers; a Mac 512K hooked up to a MIDI controller). The experience has scarred you against Apple products for life.

Okay, yes: I can definitely understand your dilemma. Motorola’s XOOM is the first tablet that’s in the iPad’s class. It isn’t nearly as good (blame Android 3.0, which still lacks clarity and cohesion, and Android’s as-yet miniscule library of tablet apps) but it’s a 10” tablet that can fill iPad’s basic role: it can be an ultraportable device that can take care of all of your mobile computing needs in those times and places when you can’t, or just don’t want to, carry a notebook computer. Other 7-inch and 10-inch Android 3.0 tablets are on the way ... but I expect them to have the same kinds of shortcomings.

I just don’t see anything on the horizon that stands any chance of making you regret you bought an iPad 2 instead of waiting. You’re clear all the way into 2012 at the soonest.

(“But what about the iPad 3?” you ask. “Do you think Apple will release another model at the end of the year?” Naw. I’ve neither heard nor read any convincing evidence that Apple is planning on a fall release. Furthermore, when Steve Jobs referred to 2011 as “the year of the iPad 2” during the device’s big rollout, it sounded like a pointed attempt to scuttle rumors that were based solely on the fact that 3 is one higher than 2.)

If you’ve decided to buy an iPad, which one should you go for? You have ... crumbs ... eighteen to choose from, all told.

Black or White? Black. The more you use an iPad, the more you appreciate the fact that the hardware becomes completely invisible. It’s just a picture frame for apps. I’ve only spent an hour or two with a white iPad and I found the border a little distracting.

Sixteen, 32, or 64 gigabytes?

I regard 32 gigs as the Default Choice. It’s not necessarily the best choice ... but it’s the perfect spot from which to begin the decision-making process.

You can save $100 and get the 16 gig model instead. But is it worth the tradeoff? Keep in mind that many movies weigh in at more than a gigabyte and many games come with hundreds of megs of data. A 16 gigabyte iPad is still very useful, but there’ll be some circumstances — particularly when you’re traveling — when you can’t carry all the stuff you’d like.

Or, you can get the 64 gig iPad for just a hundred bucks more than the 32 gig model. Do you really need double the storage?

No, you don’t. But I’ve owned a 64 gig iPad for a year now and I value the extra breathing room. If I want to load up a whole season of TV shows instead of picking and choosing, I don’t even think twice about it. Ditto when I think “I really want to take this huge pile of reference data with me, just in case I need it,” or when a friend wants to send me home with 6 gigs of files (there are apps that let you use your iPad as sort of a WiFi flash drive).

And it also means that I can connect my camera directly to my iPad, copy in all of the pictures and videos I shot during the day, and then free up space on my memory card for tomorrow’s shooting. It’s another reason why I can leave the office for several days with just my iPad.

If none of those ideas put a twinkle in your eye ... 32 gigs will work just fine.

3G or WiFi?

Remember that the extra $130 buys you GPS as well as 3G, and that whether you choose Verizon or AT&T, you can just buy a random month of 3G service without any contracts or additional fees.

Onboard 3G has become less important now that both Android and iPhones ship with the ability to share their own 3G connections via WiFi (for an additional fee); plus, you already have GPS and good mapping apps on that same device. If you want to economize, 3G is a good place to do it. If it’s “more storage, or 3G?” then “more storage” is the clear winner.

That said: having 3G onboard is conceptually more powerful with a device like the iPad. I flick it on, I do a bit of work or look something up, I flick it off again. Insert “I take my iPhone out of my pocket, turn on the hotspot feature ...” at the start of the process and some subtle elegance is lost. Also, be sure to factor the cost of all of the extra data you’ll be pulling down with your iPad, which will be billed against your phone’s data plan. It could actually be cheaper to pay for additional 3G service for your iPad.

AT&T or Verizon?

I’ve carried an AT&T iPhone and a Verizon iPhone through six states on two coasts over the past month and I’ve yet to be convinced that either network is categorically superior. If one carrier has stronger service in your home and office than the other carrier, then there’s your answer.

I’ve been carrying both carriers’ phones off and on for a few years now and I have found Verizon’s coverage to be superior. But the difference mostly seems to assert itself in spots where you’d be surprised to get coverage in the first place ... most famously, when my car blew a tire in a rural stretch of I-95. AT&T’s network has always tested faster — much, much faster, in upload speed — but given that the download speeds are still pretty close and that’s most of what you do with a mobile phone, it’s not a defining difference.

Even the two carriers’ rate plans are close. If you’re in the middle of the curve for usage (you consume two or three gigs a month), the rates are the same. If you plan to use next to nothing (less than 250 megabytes), the edge goes o AT&T. If you plan to transact an ungodly amount of 3G data, Verizon’s “10 gigabytes for $80” plan is much, much cheaper than buying AT&T’s top-tier plan and then paying their overage charges.

Otherwise: it’s too close to call. Verizon and AT&T have different ways of dinging you for using more data than you thought you would.

So clearly, you have some things to think about. But when you do go back to the Apple Store, be kind to the staff. You can expect them to be a little pale and skittish when you identify yourself as someone who wishes to buy an iPad 2. You may wish to simply point at the display model instead of saying that name out loud.

For the first week or two after the release of updated hardware and the crushing crowds of people, saying “iPad” to an Apple Store employee is like saying “Macbeth” to an actor inside a theater. It reminds him of doom, and disaster, and futility.

Like the actor, he or she might feel compelled to walk outside and circle the buildings three times to dispel the bad demons. Unlike the actor, it’s possible that he or she might just keep on running as soon as they get past the Cinnabon.

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