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Grandma wants an iPad: the multigenerational buyer's guide

Are you getting an earful from parents or grandparents about which iPad they should buy? Read on for our guide to buying the right iPad for Mom, Dad, Grandma or Grandpa.

Two bits of anecdotal evidence that there's a digital revolution in progress: In the past year, both my mother and my mother-in-law have purchased iPads.

My mother uses a Windows PC at work, and has had a Windows-based laptop for the past few years. It was starting to get old and slow, however, and the battery doesn't hold a charge anymore. She was thinking about getting a new laptop or an e-reader, and asked me for guidance.

My mother-in-law has had a Windows PC in her house, but never really felt comfortable using it. She had a Nook which she enjoyed, and saw my iPad and liked the fact that it was a "one thing at a time" device.

Recently, my mother-in-law was visiting her father and stepmother, my wife's grandparents. She showed the iPad to them, and her stepmother became very interested in it. One stumbling block: she didn't know anything about which one to get, or how much it would cost. My mother-in-law (who, by the way, never sent an SMS text message in her life) immediately sent me an iMessage from her iPad, asking me to help figure out which iPad her stepmother should get.

Given the publicity thunderclap of last week's iPad announcements, I know there are thousands of similar conversations playing out this week across the generations (Mike Rose tells me he had the exact same chat with his father-in-law this weekend). For those of you in the digital natives cadre -- the ones on the receiving end of these inquiries from friends and family -- if you've got questions of your own, I'd like to help.

I hope this guide will be useful to you and to your family members, regardless of age. There may also be other technologically-inclined daughters and sons (or granddaughters and grandsons) who are being asked similar questions, so feel free to pass the guide along.

"Which iPad should I get?" (Long Answer)

This is a straightforward question, and fortunately Apple's straightforward product lineup makes it relatively easy to answer (as several guides, including Marco Arment's excellent rundown, have done over the past few days). I'll go into the details behind each iPad feature, so that when you're discussing it with your friends and family you have all the background you need -- but if you just want to know what I think you should buy without all the how and why, skip on down to the end.

There are three core choices to make when purchasing an iPad:

1) "Which color: white or black?" For iPads, the color choice refers to the border (also called the bezel) around the front of the iPad. You can see both models illustrated in the image above. Unlike the white and black iPhone models, this color effects only the front of the iPad; the back is always brushed aluminium.

In my experience, people have an almost immediate preference when they see both the white and black models. Having used them both, I prefer the black border; I find that it is less noticeable, especially when using the iPad at night.

What's important to know: This is only a cosmetic difference/personal preference; the models are technically identical. Choose whichever color you like.

2) "What size (capacity)?" The iPad currently ships with three different levels of storage: 16, 32, or 64 gigabytes (GB). The number of gigabytes tells you how much storage space is available for apps (programs that you can download), pictures, movies, and music.

Video takes up the most storage space, followed by music; some applications such as games can also chew up quite a bit of storage, and the new iPad's Retina Display means that graphically intensive apps will take up more room. Very large collections of pictures can also take up a lot of space.

How much space you need depends on how you plan to use your iPad. Unfortunately, you can't change this after the fact, so you have to decide before you buy. The 16 GB version starts at $499, the 32 GB is $599, and the 64 GB version is $699. Generally I think the 32 GB is the best balance of price versus space, but both my mother and mother-in-law chose the 16 GB version and have not run into any problems. Unless you plan to do a lot with video, music, or games, the 16 GB version will probably be enough.

One exception to the storage equation: the iPad's camera, now vastly improved from the iPad 2's hardware, will shoot really lovely video at 1080p (the highest resolution for HD television and consumer video cameras). This really lovely video will really take up a lot of room, and if the iPad owner intends to edit or play with captured video on the device... well, take whatever storage level sounds reasonable and go up one notch.

If you can live with the 16 GB size, you now also have a choice of buying the iPad 2 starting at $399. That is the cheapest iPad ever, and is a great deal. We'll tackle "iPad 2 vs. new iPad" in section 4, below.

What's important to know: Unlike some other tablet computers, the iPad has no memory card slot and cannot be upgraded with additional storage (at least, not in the conventional sense). Get what you think you will need, not the bare minimum you can live with.

3) "Do I want Wi-Fi only, or Wi-Fi + 4G/3G?" For data connectivity, every iPad can use Wi-Fi, the wireless networking technology that laptop and other computers have used for years. There are also a lot of places which now offer free or inexpensive Wi-Fi connections: restaurants, libraries, offices, coffee shops, etc.

Free or cheap Wi-Fi isn't guaranteed everywhere, however. If you want to be able to get online (almost) anywhere, you will need an iPad which is capable of using either 3G or 4G (also called "4G LTE") networking. That is the technology which allows digital cellphones to get online (almost) anywhere there is cell phone service. (If you live somewhere where there is no cell phone service, you will not be able to use 3G or 4G service either.)

4G LTE service is relatively new and only covers some big cities in the USA; it is the faster replacement for the much more common 3G service. If you have a new iPad capable of 4G it will fall back to 3G if 4G is not available. The iPad 2 only uses 3G for cellular networking; it cannot take advantage of the faster 4G service. Both devices will prefer Wi-Fi coverage over cellular 3G or 4G since it's presumptively faster and more stable; that may not always be the case, though, if you do get 4G coverage, as it can be faster than conventional DSL or cable modem connections.

Unless you live in a big city or next to an airport, you are probably not in an area where you can get 4G yet, but (hopefully) both Verizon and AT&T will continue to improve their coverage. Verizon's 3G coverage is much more thorough in the USA, although there are some places where AT&T's coverage works better. Maps are available showing AT&T coverage and Verizon coverage, so you can compare the density in your area. If you know others who use AT&T or Verizon in your neighborhood, talk to them about their experience.

You have to decide when you buy if you want an iPad with 4G/3G, and if you want service from AT&T or Verizon. You can't switch after the fact. Getting a 4G-capable new iPad will add about $130 to the price (so the 16 GB version with 4G will cost $629, the 32 GB version is $729 and the 64GB is $829).

You have a to pay a fee to use the 3G/4G service. There's good news and bad news here. The bad news is that after you pay $129 to get 3G/4G on to your iPad, you have to pay a fee to use it. The good news is that there is no contract, unlike traditional cellphone service. iPad data is a month-to-month arrangement, similar to a pay-as-you-go cellphone plan.

Having no contract means that (for example) if you need wireless data in April you can pay for it in April, but if you don't need it in May, you don't have to pay for it in May. This is a great arrangement for people who don't have consistent or predictable travel schedules, but who sometimes find themselves on the road for a chunk of time (or in the RV, or at the lake, or visiting the grandkids). Even better, you can start your month of service or cancel it right from your iPad. You don't have to call anyone and have them try to talk you out of canceling the plan.

AT&T and Verizon each have different rate plans for their 3G/4G data. These rate plans are based on how much data you're allowed to download during each month, before additional charges kick in.

AT&T
Download Quota Cost Per Month
250 MB $15
3 GB $30
5 GB $50

Verizon
Download Quota Cost Per Month
1 GB $20
2 GB $30
5 GB $50

At first glance, AT&T seems to "win" for having the cheapest price; however, 250 MB is only going to get you a limited amount of traffic -- low volumes of email, some web browsing, but not all that much more; certainly not enough to support playing music over iCloud, for instance. AT&T also gives you 3 GB of data for $30 whereas Verizon only gives you 2 GB for the same price, but I suspect that most people who use more than 1 GB will use less than 2 GB.

What you need to know: You should probably get an iPad with 3G/4G, and you should probably choose Verizon. Individual circumstances will vary, but I believe that most people will find that Verizon's network works better, and they are more likely to live in an area where Verizon has data coverage.

Unless you are certain that you (or your parent/grandparent) are only going to use the iPad where you know Wi-Fi is available, having the option for 3G/4G is worth the extra cost. The price difference between $15 for 250 MB on AT&T and $20 for 1GB on Verizon is fairly minimal, but the practical difference between 250 MB and 1 GB is significant.

Note: You can use the iPad without a network connection for reading books, playing games, and more. However you cannot use the Internet, email, etc. without a network connection (either Wi-Fi or 3G/4G).

That takes care of the three most important concerns when you're figuring out what you want. Now, let's discuss some of the additional options.

4) "Do I want an iPad 2 or the new iPad?" The 3rd generation iPad (referred to by Apple as "the iPad" or "the new iPad") will be available starting on March 16; if you haven't ordered one already, and you're not interested in waiting on a long line on Friday, you probably will be waiting a few weeks before you can get one.

Budget shoppers who aren't hung up on having the newest, shiniest and fastest device now have a great option: the 2nd generation iPad (more commonly referred to as the "iPad 2") will still be available, but only in the 16 GB capacity. You can get the iPad 2 with 3G from either AT&T or Verizon. It does not support 4G but as I mentioned above, for many people, 4G may not even be available.

What's "new" about the new iPad versus the iPad 2? The new iPad has a faster processor, a much better camera, 4G support, voice dictation and the heavily touted Retina display (which means that words and images on the screen will look much sharper and clearer). The iPad 2 is still an excellent choice, but the price difference between the 16GB iPad 2 and the 16 GB new iPad is "only" $100. I say only because if you take the price of the iPad and average it out over the next 2–3 years, that extra $100 comes out to only a few dollars per month.

What you need to know: For day to day use, the iPad 2 is still a great device with a lot of life left in it. Most parents or grandparents would be perfectly happy with the iPad 2, and it will be readily available during the rest of March when the new iPad is likely to be very scarce.

If the iPad's camera is going to be used to any degree, however, don't bother with the iPad 2; just get the new iPad -- the improvement is pretty dramatic. Also, if the $100 price difference doesn't cause any hardship, get the new one.

5) "How do I get the lowest price on an iPad? Should I wait for it to go on sale?" The iPad does not go on sale. If you want to save money, I suggest looking at the iPad 2, or consider a refurbished iPad. These are used iPads which have been returned to Apple for repair, then they're fixed and put up for resale. Each comes with a a 1-year warranty, a brand new battery and outer shell. For all practical purposes, they are "as good as new."

Refurbished iPads also can be had for a significant savings. For example, a refurbished 16 GB iPad 2 with Verizon 3G can be purchased for $480 instead of $530 new. If you are looking for the lowest price on an iPad, this is definitely the way to go.

What you need to know: Offers for discounted iPads that sound too good to be true almost certainly are exactly that. Beware of online scams or dirt-cheap sales that require you to participate in a panel of offers or invite you to meet the seller in a dark deserted alley -- just get your iPad from a reputable reseller like Target, Radio Shack or Best Buy. Also, mentioning the iPad on Twitter or other social services may invoke a wave of spam replies with "get cheap iPad here" links that are usually virus-infected; don't click them, and report the Twitterers for abusive behavior.

6) "What happens if I drop my iPad or it stops working?" All iPads come with 90 days of telephone support and a 1-year warranty, but it does not cover accidental damage (drops, liquid spills, pet attacks). Apple does offer AppleCare+ for iPad which costs $100 and extends the warranty an additional year (for a total of 2 years of coverage).

During those two years you will also get telephone support for your iPad from Apple. Most importantly, AppleCare+ does cover accidental damage, so if your iPad gets wet or dropped and stops working, they will repair/replace it for $49. Apple will cover up to two incidents of accidental damage, for $49 each.

In the "learn from my experience" department: I dropped my iPad 2 and found out that Apple charges over $300 to repair a broken iPad screen. I highly recommend getting AppleCare+.

What you need to know: You can purchase AppleCare+ anytime within 30 days of purchasing your iPad, but I recommend buying it at the same time as your iPad so you don't forget.

7) "I saw a tablet in an ad in the Sunday paper that was cheaper, should I buy that instead?" No. No! No, no no no. Really, no. There are plenty of other companies which are making tablet computers, but the iPad has many more applications available, and is much better than the other options that are out there. Even the Kindle Fire from Amazon is nowhere near as good as an iPad. (I bought one and sent it back.)

What you need to know: If you ignore everything else I say here, please trust me on this. if you are going to spend money on a tablet, get an iPad.

8) "Should I buy a Kindle or a Nook or some other 'ereader'?" If all you want to do is read ebooks, then a Kindle or a Nook is just fine. The models with e-ink screens are easier to read in direct sunlight, but how often are you going to sit in direct sunlight and read? The e-ink based devices also don't have a "backlight," which means that when you are inside, you will need another light to read by, just like a regular book. The Kindle Fire and the color/tablet Nook models do have backlights, but their screens have the same characteristics as the iPad screen in terms of bright-light readability.

Many people do find that e-ink screens are easier to read for a long period of time, but you have to weigh that against the fact that the classic Kindle and Nook are really only suited for reading books or magazines/blogs, whereas the iPad can do many, many more things. In fact, if you already own a Kindle or Nook, you can read your ebook collection on your iPad using apps from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

What you need to know: The Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook tablet both can run Android-based apps from their own app stores, but the selection of apps is a tiny fraction of what's available for the iPad. You might consider them "tablets with training wheels," but now that the iPad 2 is at the $399 price point there's little reason to consider them as general-use tablets.

9) "Do I need to worry about spyware or anti-virus software on the iPad?" No. While the iPad isn't absolutely, completely, 100% immune to any security problems for all time, in practical, real-world terms, you don't need to worry about anything like that.

In fact, one of the best parts of the iPad is that when you install new apps/software, each program is segregated into its own part of the iPad so that one program cannot interfere with another program. You may have learned to be very cautious about installing software on your Windows computer for fear that it might cause some sort of problem. With the iPad you can install any software you want from the App Store and not worry about "Program A" causing problems for "Program B." And if you decide you don't want to use some program, you can remove it simply: hold down your finger on the app's icon until it wiggles, then tap the "X" and it will be completely uninstalled.

What you need to know: Your iPad may be largely resistant to malicious software, but that doesn't make you 100% safe. Use common sense regarding emails asking for personal/financial information (ignore them, or check with the business directly); don't share your passwords; set a device passcode to protect your data; turn on Find my iPad so you can track your device if it's lost or stolen.

10) "Can I read or edit Microsoft Word/Excel/PowerPoint files on my iPad?" Yes! The iPad should be able to read any Microsoft Office file; if you get one in email, just tap the icon to preview it.

If you need to edit or create Office files on the iPad, you can do that too using three applications from Apple:

  • Pages for editing Microsoft Word documents
  • Numbers for editing Microsoft Excel documents
  • Keynote for editing Microsoft PowerPoint documents

Those applications only cost $10 each. And, remember, you only need to buy those if you need to edit those documents. If you just need to read them, you can do that for free. Pages, Numbers, and Keynote may not be 100% identical to the applications from Microsoft, but they should work for most people in most circumstances. You may even find that you like them more than Microsoft Office! Many people consider them easier to use.

There are other options for editing Office files, including QuickOffice, Documents To Go and Office2HD. If your new iPad buyer works with a company or volunteer organization that's expecting them to edit files, check with their IT folks to see if there's a recommended/supported solution.

What you need to know: As capable as it is, the iPad isn't necessarily the right computing environment for dealing with long/structured documents or desktop publishing files. Be sure to manage expectations about what will and won't work smoothly by finding out a bit about your new iPad owner's work habits and regular tasks.

"Which iPad should I get?" (Short Answer)

Was that confusing and/or overwhelming? Want me to tell you which iPad to buy, leaving out all the extraneous details? Here are my suggestions:

  1. iPad with Wi-Fi + 4G LTE for Verizon 32GB - Black (3rd generation) for $729 plus AppleCare+ for $99.
  2. You can save $100 by going to 16 GB instead of 32. [This is a good alternative if you want to save $100.]
  3. You can save $129 by getting a Wi-Fi only iPad, if you plan to use use the iPad largely where Wi-Fi is available. [Not recommended]
  4. If you want the cheapest alternative, see if Apple has the Refurbished iPad 2 with Wi-Fi+3G 16GB - Black - Verizon (second generation) available for $479.00. [A very good alternative at a great price.]

You can still choose whatever color you like, as long as it's white or black.

Michael Rose contributed to this buyer's guide.