Apple Inc.'s new iPad tablet supports Wi-Fi, and some models will support 3G wireless service in the U.S. at what many consider a bargain price of $30 a month for unlimited data on AT&T's network.
To illustrate how good that $30 price tag is, Apple CEO Steve Jobs proudly noted at today's iPad unveiling that a broadband 3G card for laptops costs an average of $60 a month.
Users who don't want to pay the $30 can get 250MB of data service for $15 per month.
IPad customers will have pay an extra $130 on top of the base price of the 3G-ready models to get the faster 3G service. Prices are $499 for the 16GB model, $629 for a 3G 16GB model, $729 for a 3G 32GB model, and $829 for a 3G 64GB model. The Wi-Fi-only models will be available in 60 days, and devices that support 3G will ship in 90 days.
The two biggest questions facing users might well be: "Do I need 3G?" and "If I get 3G, will it work, since 3G on AT&T has been a problem for some iPhone users?"
Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at research firm Gartner Inc., said having some Wi-Fi-only models of the iPad is a "clever move" on Apple's part, because some people will be using the devices in their homes or in classrooms or other locations with hot spots. "For some people, 3G is not necessarily what they want," she said in an interview.
After viewing Apple's iPad demonstration, Milanesi said she wanted to see how well video streaming works on a 3G network, since the demo was probably presented over a Wi-Fi connection.
"Definitely, the iPad is best going to be used for multimedia and browsing, so Wi-Fi works fine for that," since Wi-Fi can offer many times the speed of 3G, she said.
Conceivably, AT&T would be able to avoid having to handle an explosion of 3G data use, because iPad owners will have the option of using the carrier's 20,000 U.S. Wi-Fi hot spots instead of its 3G network, she noted. AT&T's 3G users will be able to use those hot spots for free, although about 11,000 hot spots at McDonald's are already free to all users.
Still, it's unclear how well the iPad handles video streaming, because that feature hasn't really been fully tested. The device's capabilities will become clearer after it ships to users who will carry out a wide array of tests for rich apps. If video runs well over 3G, the iPad could well prove to be the "magical and revolutionary device" that Jobs predicted it would be.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed .