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Which iPad 2 should I get?

Apple’s not offering preorders for the iPad 2, giving everyone lots of time to agonize over which one to buy.1 There are 18 configurations: how do you choose?

We’ll start with the obvious question:

Should you get an iPad 2?

If you want an iPad but don’t already have one: Probably. You can argue that there might be another one coming out within the next 8-12 months… but that’s always going to be the case. And unlike a lot of other electronics, the retail price of any given Apple product will probably never change over its lifespan. Therefore, the best time to buy an Apple product is right when it’s released or updated.

If you already have an iPad 1, there’s not a lot in the iPad 2 that will make it worth upgrading, unless you can spare the money fairly comfortably, and you can either sell the old one for a good price or give it to a relative or spouse (and they won’t resent getting a hand-me-down instead of the new one).

As for the iPad 2’s improvements, I don’t expect the cameras to be used very often, but I bet the Smart Cover will be a very big deal in practice, making the entire package significantly thinner, lighter, and more fitting of its price and prestige.

The other big difference in day-to-day use will likely be the extra RAM, especially if you browse the web a lot in Safari: the RAM upgrade will allow the iPad 2 to hold more pages in memory before it kicks them out and requires you to reload them. And having more memory for multitasking means that fewer apps will need to manually rebuild their states on launch, so switching between apps will be faster in practice.

That’s really about it, though, for what you’d notice most of the time. If you’re happy with your iPad, there’s not a huge reason to upgrade. Casual gadget customers who already own iPads are probably better off waiting for the next version.

But for the sake of the rest of this post, suppose you’re buying an iPad 2.

Black or white?

This is mostly a personal preference. Keep in mind that it’s only the border around the screen — the back is brushed aluminum, and the case or cover is whatever color you want (and can always be changed later).

Black is the safest option if you’re unsure. I suggest seeing them in person before choosing white. While I haven’t seen them yet, I suspect that the white bezel is more likely to be distracting. You’re not supposed to notice the hardware while using it, and I bet the black will be easier to ignore than the white.

3G or not?

3G costs $129 extra on each model. There are two complicating factors:

It’s not doing any harm, except the higher purchase price, to get 3G “just in case” you ever need it. But if you’re a gadget nut and plan to buy every iPad, you really only need to consider whether you’ll need it in the next year, not whether you’ll “ever” need it.

A 3G 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 an internet connection, a 3G iPad can remove the need for a home broadband connection and crappy Wi-Fi routers that die every 8 months.

AT&T or Verizon?

If you go with 3G in the U.S., you have to choose the AT&T or Verizon model.

Their data plans are similar, so it’s mostly a network preference. The basic rule here is that AT&T is faster when it has great reception and coverage, but its coverage and quality is inconsistent and its speeds are often terrible in big cities, while Verizon is generally more reliable in most regions despite lower top speeds.

So if AT&T is great in the areas in which you’ll use the iPad, and you like their network better, go for theirs. Otherwise, in the U.S., the Verizon model is probably a better choice.

16, 32, or 64 GB?

Most iPad owners will be fine with the base 16 GB capacity. The most common uses for the iPad — web browsing, email, reading, most apps, and games — rarely come close to needing that much space.

Capacity is expensive — I really don’t think, for instance, that 64 GB is going to be worth the $200 premium to most users. And many people would find that the $129 for the 3G upgrade makes their iPad more “future-proof” than a $100 capacity bump.

The biggest reasons to go higher than 16 GB:

If any of those apply to you, you should consider the 32 GB version.

If you think you’ll need the 64 GB version, you should consider whether even that will be enough. If it won’t, and you’ll need to “edit” your collections to fit on the iPad anyway, consider whether editing them down to fit into 32 or 16 GB might be worthwhile.

Case, Cover, or other accessories?

Definitely try any cases or the Smart Covers in person, or wait for a lot of good reviews, before deciding. I expect to really like the leather Smart Covers.

If this is your first iPad, don’t jump right in and order the dock or keyboard. They’re pricey, and you probably won’t need them. If you find that you need them after using the iPad for a little while, you can always get them later.

Where to ensure best stock?

Whenever there’s a new iPhone or iPad launch, everyone thinks they know of a secret low-traffic AT&T store or Best Buy that will all but guarantee a short line and day-one availability. They’re usually wrong.

Apple’s own stores always have the most stock on day one. And if you wait on3 line, you’ll almost always get one. Sales this year start at 5 PM on Friday, and you usually don’t need to get on line more than an hour or two ahead of time to secure a relatively decent spot.

You may not even need to wait on line. Often, you can just show up a few hours after sales begin, or the next day, and get one without waiting. But if you do this, there’s a bigger risk that it will be out of stock. And with 18 different iPads, constrained stock may be more annoying: they might still have iPads, but not the exact configuration you want.

Good luck. I’ll see you on line at the Apple Store, where I think I’ll be getting a 32 GB Verizon 3G model, in black, with a red, navy, or black leather Smart Cover.

  1. They’re probably not taking preorders to ensure big, press-worthy lines on day one, as John Gruber speculated on The Talk Show #32↩︎

  2. I just walked around my lawn at 11 PM holding two iPads, a Wi-Fi and a 3G each running MotionX GPS, to test this.

    Me: “I’ll be right back. I have to go test something with my iPads on the front lawn.”
    Tiff: “Oooooooo-K.”

    These are the ridiculous things I do for science. ↩︎

  3. If you aren’t in New York, you probably say “in line”. Your pizza might suck, too. Sorry. But hey, your real estate is affordable. Win some, lose some. ↩︎