It's two and half weeks until Christmas and one of the most sought after gifts is Apple's iPad. I've helped purchase and set up a few iPads for friends and family including mothers-in-law, great-grandmothers and grade school children. Here are my thoughts on how to buy an iPad for someone you (really, really) love:
What to buy:
The tablet computer market is absolutely dominated by Apple. It's not that there aren't other tablets, Kindles are popular with avid readers, but if you want to read and email and surf the web and play games, many people won't accept anything but a genuine iPad. Also, iPhone and iPod Touch users already have some software that will work on the iPad, making it a natural fit.
iPad's come in a few different configurations, currently 16, 32, and 64 GB in storage. 16 GB, the cheapest, is doable, especially if the recipients don't have a lot of music or video hogging space on their device. 32 GB is a bit more roomy; 64 GB is more than most people need. You also have the option of adding "3G." This gives access to the internet, via cellular networks, while one is out and about. It costs per month, but if they're going to regularly travel with it, this is really important. If it's only going to be used at home on a WiFi network, it's unnecessary.
So for many people a 16 or 32 GB WiFi only Apple iPad 2 is the way to go. There are rumors of the next generation iPad coming out in February –– consider waiting if your iPad recipient absolutely must have the latest and greatest.
How to buy:
iPads are rarely more than $40 or $50 off the MRSP. You'll almost always pay the full price at any store whether it's an Apple store or Best Buy. Because you're looking at limited options and solidly fixed price, buying online might help by saving you sales tax. Shopping around for free shipping and no sales tax could spare you $50 or more.
If you're wanting to save money, which was our situation, consider going to store.apple.com and looking at refurbished iPads. You can save over $200 by getting an older, refurbished first generation iPad. It's marginally slower and doesn't have a camera, but otherwise there's little or no difference in the user experience. It has been factory repaired with the batteries and the outer shell replaced, with a new box, accessories, and a one year warranty. This is what our family did.
Before it's wrapped:
If you're not giving this to a geek (or at least someone who actively manages their own iTunes account on their iPhone) you might want to consider preparing the iPad in advance, especially if the iPad is meant for novice users. A new iPad can be used right out of the box with the basic software included, but our refurbished iPad needed to be upgraded from iOS 4.2 to 5.0. If you've already wrapped it, consider unwrapping it, getting it ready and re-wrapping it. Go ahead, I'll wait…
Before I wrapped our iPad, to be opened as an early Christmas present for the whole family, I unboxed it, updated it's software, added some photos, set up an iTunes account and bought some apps. This could probably be done in less than a few hours, especially if you've done it before and know which iTunes account you want to use. If you don't know, I recommend getting someone to help. The point is simply to prevent unwrapping the gift and having the user muddle through "user agreement forms" and registration pages for the first hour. I like to see a new user's face light up as they just play with it. The exception would be those geekier users who like that sort of thing.
Your iTunes account is how Apple identifies you and sells you things, both free and for money. If an iPad is going to be used for a family, I recommend having a "family identity" on iTunes. We have the iPad and both of our iPhones on this same account, through which we do all of our purchasing (music, apps, etc.). On my personal iPhone, I used a separate iTunes account (under a different email) that is specific to my iPhone. This account is for identification, backing up data, Gamecenter, etc. The family account is for buying things.
Hopefully Apple will improve this situation in the future, because it's not perfect as it works now.
There are a lot of great free apps to buy in iTunes. Search the lists in the App store, check the ratings, and READ THE REVIEWS! Some apps are not worth downloading even if they're free. Some of my favorite apps for iPad include: IMDB, NPR, Dictionary.com, WebMD, ESPN's ScoreCenter, PBS Kids Video, AllRecipes, Doodle Buddy, USA Today, TuneIn Radio Pro, 2Do, Delivery Status Touch, and Bible. If you're a DirecTV subscriber, their app for the iPad is incredible. Games and puzzles we like include titles such as: Zen Bound 2, Geared 2, Battleheart, Where's My Water?, Cut the Rope, Slice It, Marble Mixer, and Tilt to Live.
Because our iPad is primarily for our five kids to use for home school, we're actively looking for educational apps. We've found a few and Shannon and I will probably blog about that later as we test them out. Here's a spoiler: tablets like the iPad are the future of home schooling.
I use AppShopper, both the app and the website, to track apps so that I can buy them on sale or for free. I'm a very stingy app buyer.
Cases, keyboards and other accessories:
A case is a good idea because iPads get dropped. Look for something that will protect the corners and the front glass. I prefer a portfolio-style case that has a front cover to close. I'm not a fan of Apple's magnetic cover for the iPad 2 because it doesn't add any real protection but lots of other options meet this need.
Keyboards are mostly unnecessary unless the person does a lot of typing, like homework or lengthy emails. Even then some people surprise themselves at how quickly they adapt to the on-screen keyboard.
Beware of other "necessities." Most people don't end up wanting or needing external speakers, battery packs, props or easels, styluses or pens, or any of the other goofy, over-priced junk salesmen try to throw at you. There might be a few cool add-ons out there but credit Apple's design for standing so well on its own.