Which iOS Device is Best for You?

NotesIPadThinking about purchasing an iOS device? There are 3 types available. Which one is right for you? What do you want to do and what's your budget?


As shown here with Notes and Calendar, the user interface of some of the native apps was redesigned for the iPad to take advantage of the extra screen real estate.

Apple announced that, as of early September, it had shipped over 120 million iOS devices. These include the iPad and multiple versions of the iPhone and iPod touch. In the same announcement, they updated App Store specs: There are now over 200,000 apps listed, 25,000 of them have been developed for the iPad or updated to take advantage of its features. Finally, there have been over 6.5 billion App Store downloads.

The majority of this Buyer's Guide focuses on the best apps and accessories available for your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. This article is for people who are thinking about purchasing an iOS device. It's for those who have never owned one, someone who wants a second device, or someone who wants to replace an older device. There are only three types of iOS devices available—which one is right for you? To answer that question, you need to examine what you want to do, what you need to do, and your budget.

But first, let's take a look at the common features of these iOS devices.

Common features


The iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad have a lot in common. First and foremost, they all use Apple's iPhone operating system, which is now referred to as iOS. All iOS devices have a similar (but not identical) set of built-in apps, which include Mail, Calendar, Photos, Contacts, YouTube, Stocks, Maps, Weather, Notes, Clock, Calculator, Safari, iTunes, App Store, Settings, and the iPod (music and video) player. They all interface with iTunes to download music, install apps, sync calendar, contacts, and other content.

Third-party apps

The vast majority of third-party apps will work on any of these devices. For exceptions, see "Differentiating features" below.

Physical similarities

All iOS devices are designed to work the same. They have virtually identical, easy-to-use interfaces and the same set of buttons, audio jack, and sync port; learn to use one and you can use the others. In addition, they all store content in onboard flash memory. They all have Wi-Fi capability and ship with a sync cable and power adapter. Finally, all versions still being sold by Apple (iPhone 4 & 3GS; iPod touch fourth generation, and iPad) have processors that can take advantage of all of the features of iOS 4, including multitasking. (The iPad is waiting for the November release of iOS 4.2 to access that capability.)

Differentiating features

As mentioned, the suite of built-in (native) software apps is almost identical on the three devices. The iPhone is the only device that includes a built-in phone app. (However, there are third-party apps that let you place VoIP calls via Wi-Fi.) In addition, the layout of the built-in apps is more spacious on the iPad. Finally, accessing the music/video functions is somewhat different between devices. The iPod touch has separate Music and Video functions, which by default are accessed from the Dock bar. The iPhone and iPad access these functions through an iPod app, also located on the Dock bar.

Third-party apps

The only exceptions to the "all apps work" rule are apps that take advantage of features that are not found on all of the devices. So, for example, if an app has features that use the iPhone's built-in phone capability, the app (or those features) will not work on the iPad and iPod touch. In addition, apps designed to take advantage of the iPad's larger display will not work on the other devices. Apps have separate versions: one for the iPhone/iPod touch and another for the iPad. The majority of apps run on all three machines for just one purchase. Most of this Buyer's Guide is devoted to the best third-party apps.

Physical differences

The main differentiating feature is size. The iPhone is a little thicker than the iPod touch, but otherwise they're same size. The iPad is a tablet-sized device with a larger, easier-to-read screen. They all use a touch screen as their primary user interface, but the iPad's is larger and easier to use. In addition, the iPad, iPhone 4, and the new fourth-generation iPod touch all incorporate Apple's new higher resolution "Retina" display. These newer iOS devices also sport Apple's A4 processor which is more powerful and less power hungry than previous versions.

Finally, the iPad does not have a built-in camera. The iPhone 4 and the new iPod touch have two cameras: a rear-facing camera that can capture HD video and images, and a front-facing camera for VGA video, images, and video phone calls. Note that the rear-facing camera on the iPhone 4 can capture high-resolution (5 megapixel) photos; the same camera on the iPod touch captures lower resolution (less than 1 megapixel) photos. In addition, the iPhone 4 has an LED flash; the iPod touch does not. Finally, the iPhone 4 comes with GPS, and the iPod touch doesn't.

Each device is available in multiple versions with different amounts of internal memory. (The greater the amount of memory, the more music, videos, photos, and apps you can store.) The iPod touch does not have 3G data capability. In addition, the iPad is available with or without 3G. Listed below are the devices that were still being sold on Apple's online store (store.apple.com) as of early September:

  • iPhone 4: $199 with 16GB of memory; $299 with 32GB (U.S. price with 2-year AT&T service contract)
  • iPhone 3GS: $99 with 8GB (U.S. price with 2-year AT&T service contract)
  • iPod touch (fourth generation): $229 with 8GB; $299 with 32GB
  • iPad Wi-Fi only: $499 with 16GB; $599 with 32GB; $699 with 64GB
  • iPad Wi-Fi + 3G: $629 with 16GB; $729 with 32GB; $829 with 64GB (AT&T service contract sold separately)

iPad: Wi-Fi vs. 3G

Apple complicates the life of potential iPad consumers by offering the device with or without 3G data capability. If you're interested in the iPad, which version do you choose?

Advantages of the Wi-Fi-only iPad: The iPad Wi-Fi is less expensive and does not require a monthly service fee. You can do everything you want via a Wi-Fi connection. The disadvantage is that you have to wait until you're near a Wi-Fi hotspot to check or send e-mail and browse the Web.

Advantages of the 3G iPad: This solution un-tethers you and lets you connect with the world from "wherever you are." I put the last phrase in quotes because 3G service is not ubiquitous. AT&T is spending billions to upgrade their network, but 3G connectivity is usually found only in major metropolitan areas of the U.S. Outside those areas, you have to connect via the slower EDGE network, and in more remote areas you won't find any data service. In addition to the coverage issue, the other main disadvantage to the 3G route is that you'll need an AT&T service contract to use it. AT&T offers this on a monthly basis for new customers ($25/m for 2GB of data; $14.99/mo for 250MB). Current subscribers of the unlimited data plan can continue with it. AT&T will alert you when you're close to your limit, and you can switch between plans without a penalty. Unfortunately, AT&T does not allow you to roll over unused data.

Which iOS device is best for you?

If all you're interested in is playing music and maybe watching video (on a very small screen), forget iOS and buy one of the less-expensive iPods. If you are interested in a more feature-rich solution that lets you do more than that, check out one of the iOS options. Below are the four major user scenarios and one other possibility.

  1. The iPhone user: Major interests for these users include staying in touch with the outside world via phone, instant messaging, and up-to-the-minute e-mail. They are also interested in personal productivity aspects of the device and third-party apps. Other interests include Web browsing, music, video, games, and other aspects of the device. He or she needs and can afford long-term cellular/data service contracts.
  2. The iPad user: This user's major interests include Web browsing, video, eBooks, news, and e-mail. Users of the Wi-Fi-only version of the iPad are willing to wait for a Wi-Fi connection to upload/download e-mail. Users of the iPad Wi-Fi + 3G want or need a live 3G data connection and are willing to pay for a service contract. The iPad user prefers a larger, easy-to-read screen and is willing to trade size for it. He or she is either satisfied with their current mobile phone or doesn't need one.
  3. The iPod touch user: This user's major interests include music, video, and games in a pocket-sized device. Other interests include personal productivity, Web browsing, e-mail, and YouTube. He or she is not interested in an expensive cellular/data service contract. He or she is either satisfied with their current mobile phone or doesn't need one.
  4. The iPhone + iPad user, or the iPod touch + iPad user: Some people may want two devices: a small, pocketable device when on the go and a larger, easier-to-read device around the home or office.
  5. Multiple iOS devices as gifts: There's probably not much call for one person to own both an iPhone and iPod touch unless he or she intends on loaning the iPod touch out to friends, associates, the kids, etc. Our enterprise editor, Nathan Clevenger, commented on this point: "I've ordered the new iPod touch for my parents and grandparents so they can FaceTime with my kids. I'm not sure if they will use it for anything else, but at $229, it's an inexpensive way to stay in touch without the price of a service contract!"

iOS 4.1 & 4.2

As this issue was going to the printer, Apple announced the release of iOS 4.1 for the iPhone and iPod touch. The update will be available for the 3G, 3GS, and iPhone 4 as well as the second and third generation iPod touch. In addition, they announced the coming November release of iOS 4.2, which will bring iOS 4 enhancements to the iPad which currently runs version 3.2. The November update will also be available for the aforementioned versions of the iPhone and iPod touch. iOS 4.1 and 4.2 include a number of new features.

Features new to iOS 4.1

Game Center: This social networking feature is focused on iOS games. It allows you to find friends, use an"auto match" feature to play multiplayer games, and track your achievements.

  • Support for the following iTunes enhancements has been added: TV show rentals for $0.99 each; access to iTunes' "Ping" feature to keep up with your friends' music and your favorite artists; upload HD video from your iPhone 4 to YouTube and MobileMe.
  • AirPlay: Let you stream content from your iOS device to Apple TV.
  • HDR Photography: Snap the Camera's shutter and it takes 3 quick photos and combines them for better exposure.
  • Bug fixes for the proximity sensor and Bluetooth.
iOS Devices
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