Come for the Display, Stay for the LTE

I upgraded from my iPad 2 to an iPad 3 for one reason, and one reason only: the display. My biggest disappointment when the iPad 2 was announced was the lack of a retina display, and after a few months of experiencing the night-and-day difference between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 3GS, I knew how much impact a retina display would have on my primary iPad use-case: reading.

I read a lot. In 2011 I read 106 books (though at least half of those were audiobooks to take advantage of commute and dog-walking time) and I keep up with around 100 blogs and web sites. Add to this the regular review of 50-100 page legal agreements in my job and it totals out to a huge amount of time spent reading. I knew the retina display would be a game changer, and hence I ordered a new iPad the morning it was announced.

However, having had one for a week now I have to say that I’m at least as excited about the LTE support. When I’m at home, I am obviously on WiFi, but at the office I cannot connect to the WiFi network for security reasons from my iPad, and the guest network is at least as slow as a 3G connection… so when I’m at the office I use the iPad’s cellular connection. Additionally, I take a 1.5 hour train ride (each way) once a week to our San Francisco office, which is made not just tolerable, but valued, by the availability of the iPad with cellular connectivity. I love the uninterrupted time.

The performance that 4G provides is a real game changer. I didn’t expect this, because often on the train I used to tether devices to my HTC Evo 4G, but that uses WiMax rather than LTE– the Verizon connectivity in my new iPad is not only much faster, but more reliable in the bay area. I can easily stream full-quality YouTube videos, use Skype, and download podcasts without having to worry about whether or not I can find a WiFi connection. Additionally, remote desktop works flawlessly over 4G, so I can connect to my desktop machines in a pinch. It’s awesome.

I have not noticed a difference in battery life, which is still subjectively rated as “supernatural” even with constant LTE utilization.

A couple minor niggles: I wish they had upgraded the front camera instead of the rear camera– it’s the one that gets dramatically more use. I’m stumped (but by no means surprised) by this decision. Also, it does run quite a bit warmer than the previous generation, but not so much that it’s an issue. (Nowhere near a typical laptop’s heat generation, but definitely noticeable after heavy use, though.) Finally, it would be nice if there was an Amazon streaming app– they have a great library of content, and I have long-since cancelled my Netflix account in favor of Amazon’s streaming option, which is free with Amazon Prime (which we already pay for.)

I’m very pleased with the device, and consider it to have been worth the cost of upgrading (I sold my previous device to a friend, which softens the blow quite a bit. Additionally, I’ll be canceling the tethering portion of both my phone’s data plans, which will save me around $40/mo.) However, despite what seems like a ringing endorsement, my advice to 99% of people remains the same:

If you already have an iPad 2, it is probably not worth upgrading unless you (like me) spend more than half of your time outside the comfort of WiFi connectivity. Even if you do, it’s only valuable if you are not concerned with the cost AND you live in an area where LTE coverage is good. 99% of iPad 2 owners should probably not upgrade, but I suspect close to a third of them will ignore that advice because they are suckers like me.

If you have an iPad 1, this may be a good time to upgrade. However, a first generation iPad has at least 80% of the utility of a new iPad for most users, so depending on how price-concious you are, it’s by no means a no-brainer upgrade.

If you don’t have a tablet, now is a great time to buy. If you can spend $500-800 without blinking then by all means buy a new iPad. It’s a wonderful device, and you’ll be very happy with the purchase. If your financial situation is such that the thought of dropping $500-800 gives you even a moment’s pause, you should give serious consideration to the Kindle Fire. I do think the iPad is a better device, but it’s not 3 times better… yet the cost difference between a Kindle Fire and a typical iPad is 3X. Unless you must have cellular connectivity and/or GPS, the Kindle Fire merits serious consideration.

Honestly, I don’t see where Apple goes from here. It’s hard to imagine Apple creating a 4th generation iPad that I will be willing to pay to upgrade to. (There’s stuff left to do in iOS, but the hardware is going to be tough to materially improve.) The only way they will keep me from skipping the next generation is to diversify the line (I would LOVE a larger 15” or even 17” iPad!) It’s that good.