Here's who should buy the new iPad

Apple's new iPad is beautiful, but it might not be the perfect fit for everyone. Whether it's your first iPad or just another upgrade, everyone can use a little buying advice before breaking out the credit card.

iPad image
There are worse ways to spend $500. In fact, if you have an iPad to sell, upgrading may be a smart move. Apple

These are the times that try men's souls.

Never has a tablet purchase so vexed the collective nerd consciousness of this great nation. And Apple doesn't make it easy, does it? Its "new" tablet looks a hell of a lot like the old one, only heavier! It's like Apple is toying with us.

But have no fear. Using a bracing mixture of logic and cheapskate wisdom, I'll walk you though this paralyzing first-world dilemma.

For the first-timers
If you've never owned a tablet and you're considering the new iPad for your first fling, think twice. You may be buying more tablet than you need.

Many of the new iPad's updated features are difficult to appreciate as a newcomer. If I showed you an iPad 2 and told you it was the new iPad, there's almost nothing about the device to indicate that I'm lying to you. Without a frame of reference, the iPad 2's screen and graphic performance are dazzling in their own right.

I know this sounds condescending, but the new iPad will be best appreciated by those who are upgrading from a previous model. It's for us poor strung-out tech junkies who've built up a tolerance for iPad "magic" and need something stronger.

Still, if you're set on getting an iPad, start with the iPad 2. Priced at $399 (or $529 with 3G), it offers all of the same overall features, only ratcheted down to slightly less impressive specs. It's capable of running all of the same software (in theory), it's technically lighter and thinner, and if you ever want to trade up to the new iPad, the resale value of the iPad 2 is one of the best you'll find for any tablet.

Better yet, if you're not completely sold on your first tablet being an iPad, you can save a lot of money buying a competing brand. It was once the case that the tablet market was divided between the iPad and everything else (and everything else pretty much sucked). But today, the iPad has fierce and affordable competitors at the high end, and some surprisingly capable alternatives priced at $199.

Put simply, if you're looking for a tablet that can be used for e-mail, Web browsing, and general amusement, $199 buys a lot these days if you can do without the Apple logo. It won't buy you bragging rights with your friends, but it's a great place to start.

For the upgraders
Here's where things get messy.

If you have a first-generation iPad, it's time to upgrade. After two years of use, you're now at a tipping point where your iPad's internal battery does a less spectacular job of holding its charge and the resale value of your particular vintage of iPad starts to plummet. If you sell now, you could make $100 toward your next iPad. If you wait, it'll cost you $100 (plus shipping) to have your vintage iPad's battery replaced. Take the leap.

The choice then becomes: iPad 2 or new iPad? Unless you're seriously jonesing for the improved screen, gaming performance, 4G data, or camera quality, the cheapskate in me would tell you to go with the $399 iPad 2. Coming from the first iPad, the iPad 2's slim design, light weight, dual-core processor, and dual cameras provide a substantial upgrade.

But there's a catch. The iPad 2 now only comes in one capacity (16GB). Also consider that the $100 you'll save going with the iPad 2 will also be taken out of the resale price when you go to sell this in the future. Logically, if you have the money to jump from the original iPad to the new iPad, it's a better investment and it also pays a dividend of early-adopter geek cred for the first few months.

For existing iPad 2 owners considering an upgrade, the choice is more difficult. On the plus side, the new iPad's vastly improved screen is stunning for e-books, movies, games, and photos, and the upgraded camera (and iCloud Photo Stream) makes it easy to feed that screen great shots. You also have those 4G models available from AT&T and Verizon, which seemingly offer the first good deal on 4G data we've seen on tablets.

But if you're happy with your iPad 2 and you don't want to part with any money (especially for an iPad that's technically thicker and heavier than your current iPad), there's not much here that dramatically improves the basic capabilities of the device. Unless you count dictation, there's nothing the new iPad does that the iPad 2 doesn't--it just does most things a little better, and one thing (the screen) better than anyone.

But if you're feeling the limitations of your iPad 2 and you'd like a version with more horsepower and more "pretty," you're in a cherry position to upgrade. The average trade-in value for a current iPad 2 is around $200, which knocks a nice chunk off the price of a new iPad. And like I said before, a new iPad will keep its value better than holding on to an iPad 2. Plus you get bragging rights, which are priceless, right?

For the Apple fans
You already ordered one in each color, didn't you?

Seriously, though, is there anything that pleases an Apple fan more than having a first-run feature like a Retina Display that can be shown off with unabashed smugness? This is your moment of glory, folks.

And get to it quick. With Samsung acting as one of the manufacturers of the new iPad's breathtaking display, you know it's just a matter of time before it pops something similar into an Android tablet.

For Android tablet users making the switch
I feel obligated to make this category, but I'm not entirely convinced these people exist. If so, they're mythical and unique, like the Yeti. In my experience, Android users are staunchly loyal (and vocal, if you've read our comments section).

But just in case there are any Yetis reading this who haven't found themselves philosophically polarized into one mobile OS doctrine or another, my advice is to wait. The wave of Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) tablets is about to break, and Google's app and media offerings are stronger than ever.

Anyway, if you're going to bail on Android, at least wait until you see what Windows 8 tablets have to offer. I mean, if Android spoke to your nerd heart, I'm sure you already have a soft spot for Windows.

For professionals
In spite of being criticized as a "lean back" device, the iPad has infiltrated the professional world. If you already use an iPad for work and are wondering if the upgrade is worthwhile, here's how I would frame it.

Does the new iPad's high-resolution display give you a professional advantage? If you're a creative professional who routinely shows off a visual portfolio of work to clients, then it's a worthwhile purchase.

Next, consider what impact the 4G data capability may have for you. If you're a jet-setter who travels light, the iPad 4G offers a combination of durability, design, battery life, and wireless data bands that you won't find in other products.

Finally, there are the little touches that may hook professionals, such as Bluetooth 4.0 peripheral support, voice-to-text, and 1080p display mirroring over HDMI (with a $49 adapter).

Photo of iPad 3G.
Unlike the iPad 2, both the Verizon and AT&T models of the new iPad support worldwide GSM networks for 3G connectivity, but 4G is a different story. Josh P. Miller/CNET

To 4G or not to 4G?
Here's where I'm a little out of my comfort zone. For the past year, I've been criticizing 4G tablets as a thinly veiled ploy to rope people into two-year contracts for data coverage they probably don't need.

But the 4G data plans associated with the new iPad are a different story. Just like 3G data on the first two iPads, you pay by the month and there are no contracts to get in the way.

I still groan at the $130 you pay up front for the privilege of Apple soldering in a wireless modem that probably costs it a few dollars to produce. Still, as ploys go, it feels a little more honest to me than a two-year contract.

So, down to brass tacks. Is it worth the extra $130 for a 4G-capable version of the new iPad?

Well, if you have the extra $130, go for it. Aside from the up-front cost, it's a no-risk feature. You don't even have to activate it unless you're in a pinch and can't find a Wi-Fi connection. Think of it as a security blanket.

But before you take the plunge, it's worth spending some time figuring out if your phone can already act as a 3G/4G hot spot that can be connected to a Wi-Fi-only iPad. Your phone is something you're always likely to have on you, so it may be a better option for your "just in case" cellular data than spending $130 on a feature you may never use. Plus, looking at current resale prices of older iPads, the value of the additional cellular data feature doesn't necessarily add as much to resale value as an investment in capacity.

AT&T or Verizon?
When you go to buy an iPad 4G, don't just blindly choose the model on your existing carrier. The models and capabilities of each carrier's iPad 4G are slightly different, and since you're not tied to a contract, you're free to choose whichever carrier you'd like.

If you're really hoping to make the most of 4G data speeds, be sure to check each carrier's coverage map to see if 4G is even offered where you live. Also, check the pricing on each carrier's data plans for the iPad. Currently, AT&T offers the lowest entry-level monthly plan, but pricing may shift over time.

If you plan on taking the new iPad on any globe-trotting adventures, do some research to figure out which carrier's iPad will be most compatible with your travel plans. Fortunately, unlike the iPad 2, both carrier models for the new iPad support worldwide GSM/UMTS networks and include Micro-SIM card slots that can be adapted for foreign networks.

Finally, if the idea of using your new iPad as a cellular hot spot appeals to you, take a moment to make sure the feature is supported by your preferred carrier. At launch, only Verizon is supporting the iPad's new hot-spot feature . Even if AT&T jumps on board, there's a good chance that each carrier will handle the hot-spot capability differently, and there's always a chance that additional fees could pop up, so do your homework.

For more, see our separate CNET How To on choosing the right carrier for the iPad .

Final thoughts
Here's the spoiler: it really doesn't matter what you do. If you wait another year, the next iPad will only get better. If you buy it and you're unimpressed, there's a good chance that you can make nearly all your money back selling it used. Who knows? If you're lucky, there'll be a shortage and you can turn a profit.

But whatever your thoughts on Apple, the company has not made its billions by disappointing customers. Odds are, you're going to like this thing.

 

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