If set on iPad 2, your next decision: Where to buy?

Online sales of iPad 2 start early Friday at Apple, Verizon and AT&T retail stores at 5 p.m.

If you have decided on Apple's iPad 2, your next decision is where to buy it: your local Apple store, online, from Verizon Wireless or AT&T? Here are the basics to help you decide which way to go on Friday.

Both U.S. carriers and all 236 Apple stores in the U.S. will start selling the thinner, lighter, faster Apple tablet, with its front- and rear-facing cameras and 9.7-in. screen, in stores at 5 p.m. (local time) Friday. Expect lines if you're going to show up at a retail store.

Apple and AT&T will begin online sales at 1 a.m. Pacific (4 a.m. Eastern); Verizon will begin telephone sales at 5 p.m. Eastern.

If you're getting the Wi-Fi-only model and don't care about 3G access, your best bet may be the nearby Apple store or Apple's online store. That's because AT&T and Verizon both say they will only have the pricier models with both Wi-Fi and 3G access.

If you want the iPad 2 with 3G connectivity, both major carriers are offering 3G data plans without a contract, although the plans are priced differently. AT&T will allow you to prepay for data with a credit card or to post-pay on your monthly phone bill; Verizon still requires only prepaid data purchases.

iPad 2 pricing

The Wi-Fi-only versions of the black or white iPad 2s will sell for the same prices as the first-generation models: $499 for 16GB of storage, $599 for 32GB, and $699 for 64GB.

Wi-Fi+3G models will sell for $130 more from both AT&T and Verizon: $629.99 for the 16GB version, $729.99 for 32GB, and $829.99 for the top-of-the-line 64GB model. (These prices are 99 cents above Apple's suggested pricing.)

The Verizon model, which operates on CDMA/EV-DO, will be sold only in the U.S., but the AT&T version runs on GSM wireless, a standard used widely throughout the world.

Starting March 25, Apple will sell the iPad 2 with GSM outside the U.S., in 26 countries, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan and most countries in Europe and the U.K.

U.S. data plans

AT&T offers two monthly plans: one for $14.99 for 250MB, and the other for $25 for 2GB, whether purchased prepaid or post-paid.

AT&T is sweetening the deal by offering the first month free to customers who activate a new post-paid account at $25 for 2GB.

Also, the iPhone Personal Hotspot feature that is a part of iOS 4.3 will be available to AT&T customers who pick a $25 plan for 2GB, plus the $20 per month for a tethering option that provides an extra 2GB. That would be a total of $45 for 4GB monthly.

If you pay in advance at AT&T with a credit card, overage charges are the same as buying a second plan for 250MB for $14.99, or 2GB for $25.

If you pay after exceeding your data plan limits (on your AT&T phone bill), the overage for the smallest plan is an additional $14.99 for another 250MB, but only $10 per 1GB of overage on the 2GB plan.

Verizon offers four tiers of service: $20 per month for 1GB, $35 for 3GB, $50 for 5GB, and $80 for 10GB.

Verizon's overage charges are $20 for 1GB over its entry-level 1GB plan for $20, but those purchasing 3GB or more are charged $10 per 1GB of overage.

Decisions, decisions...

Can't decide between 3G data plans? Experts said that the added two tiers of service on Verizon's data network might entice heavier users, particularly those with gaming and video needs. On the other hand, tethering at AT&T with the iPad 2 and similar overage charges at Verizon for the biggest data plans could favor AT&T.

Some experts suggested using the carrier you trust and have experience with. Your assessment could include how good the 3G services have been on both carriers, and also how you have been treated when it comes to repairs and billing.

And many customers will exclude the carriers' 3G networks from consideration altogether, experts noted, sticking with the Wi-Fi-only version. As Wi-Fi has grown more widely available, it has become a viable option for many users, analysts and others noted.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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