The iPad is shown Jan. 27 after it was unveiled at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The iPad may be a good alternative for your home computer -- as long as you're not away from your main machine for too long. (File photo / The Associated Press)
When Apple introduced the iPad, the critics' biggest beef was that it was simply an oversized iPod touch but that's our favorite thing about it.
To be clear, the device Apple released at the end of April is great, but let's face it, this is only a first generation machine, destined to spawn not just future iPads but many competitors and copycats, too.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't buy one now, but if you're hoping to swap it for your laptop the next time you deploy consider these facts:
The iPad plays music and videos. You can surf the Web and send e-mail with an Internet connection. You can read books, listen to audiobooks or watch the movie of the book when it comes out.
Thousands of applications and games are available, and if you own an iPhone or iPod touch, all the apps you've already bought will work on the iPad as well.
It's not a phone, but it has a built-in microphone and speaker, making it ripe for staying in touch with loved ones back home using Voice over Internet Protocol apps such as Skype or Truphone.
The downside to making iPad your only machine is that Apple has made it difficult to swap out movies and songs without a "mothership" computer. (If a buddy is taking his laptop on your next deployment, maybe he'd let you sync up to manage your files.)
The iPad we tested had only 16 gigabytes of storage and Wi-Fi. Apple offers models with up to 64 gigs and 3G connectivity through AT&T, the sole authorized provider.
All iPads come with a 9.7-inch-diagonal LED-backlit screen with Bluetooth that allows you to connect accessories wirelessly. It's a half-inch thick and weighs just 1.5 pounds. The basic Wi-Fi model starts at $499. A fully tricked-out version with 64 gigs and 3G sells for $829.
We didn't do an official test, but Apple's claim of 10 hours under some conditions seems pretty accurate. Your mileage may vary with Wi-Fi or 3G use, but even watching movies, the battery is long-lived compared to a laptop's. (If you're more likely to read books than watch movies, Amazon.com claims its $139 Kindle can last a month on one charge.)
With only 16 gigs of memory, the bare-bones iPad will likely leave you wishing for more storage if you'll be away from your main computer for long. For perspective, a 45-minute TV show takes up about 600 megabytes of space, and there are 1,000 megabytes in a gigabyte.
Internet & communication
All iPads come with built-in Wi-Fi, so your best bet overseas is to take advantage of Wi-Fi hotspots. MWR provides free access at many locations downrange.
If you won't have Wi-Fi access on your deployment, the 3G version allows access to the Web through cellular data networks.
AT&T offers a $25-a-month plan for 2 gigabytes of data, plus $10 a month for each added gigabyte.
Depending on call quality and available bandwidth, Skype calls use about 35 megabytes per hour. No worries if you have unlimited data or just use it when connected to Wi-Fi, but be particularly careful with 3G-enabled iPads overseas: Data roaming costs $20 per megabyte in most countries.
To avoid a monster bill, be sure to turn off data roaming before heading overseas. Or you can save some cash by signing up for one of AT&T's Global Data Plans starting at $25 a month for 20 megabytes. AT&T says all the plans will cover most U.S. hubs in Europe and Asia, as well as much of Iraq, but will only reduce charges in Afghanistan to $10 per megabyte.
If you don't mind voiding your warranty, you could also jailbreak your iPad to use a pre-paid SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card for the local cell phone network.
Although jailbreaking has been declared legal in the U.S., be advised: Apple recently filed for a patent that would allow it to identify and kill hacked devices.
Apps and accessories: Gear test: The iPad