No one will ever accuse Apple of being a bargain brand, but the company's iPad tablet may prove to be more affordable than the first generation of Android slates, particularly the Dell Streak and Samsung Galaxy Tab.

Apple, a boon for bargain hunters? It's true if your new Android tablet is tied to a 3G data contract, a time-honoured tactic (at least in the United States) that lowers the up-front cost of the device, but tethers the buyer to a pricey two-year wireless data plan.

Dell's Steep Streak

Take the Streak, for instance. With a two-year AT&T contract, Dell's 5-inch tablet starts at $300. To get that price, however, you'll need to ink a voice and data plan. At Dell's site, the cheapest option is a $55 per month deal: 450 voice minutes for $40; and 200MB data for $15. That comes to $1620 for two years of Dell Streak usage: $1320 for the 3G plan; and $300 for the tablet.

Don't want a 3G contract? In that case, the Streak costs $550. Shockingly, that's $50 more than the 16GB (Wi-Fi-only) iPad.

Which would you rather buy? Of course, the Apple and Dell slates are very different beasts. Arguably, the Streak is more of a freakishly large smartphone than a tablet. It has two cameras. The iPad has none, although that's likely to change soon. Given a choice, most people would opt for the iPad, with its elegant design and larger display, over the relatively clunky Streak--which happens to cost more.

To be fair, let's price the iPad with 3G service. (It's important to note that you're not tethered to a long-term contract with the iPad. You can cancel AT&T's 3G service at any time.) The 16GB iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G costs $629 up front--more than twice the Streak's price. AT&T charges $15 per month for 250MB of data. So over two years, the least you'd pay for an iPad with 3G service is $989. (That's $629 for the device, plus $360 for 24 months of AT&T.)

Apple iPad

The Dell Streak cost $631 more to operate over two years than the iPad. Of course, you could cut costs by using the Streak as a cell phone too. But with its 5-inch display, the gargantuan Streak is awfully big for a phone.

Galaxy Mystery

The first Samsung Galaxy Tab models will include both 3G and Wi-Fi. They'll be offered by all four major U.S. wireless carriers, none of which has announced pricing details at this time. Industry watchers expect the subsidized units to sell for around $300, however.

If you want a Galaxy Tab with Wi-Fi only, there's good and bad news. The good is that Samsung plans to release a Wi-Fi only model; the bad is that it won't say when.

While every business is different, it's safe to say that many companies would choose a Wi-Fi-only tablet over a 3G/Wi-Fi model, particularly if the 3G option requires a long-term data contract. Some remote employees such as salespeople might benefit from 3G service, but tablet-toting workers in an office or industrial setting would function just as well with Wi-Fi.

Given the large number of Android tablets on the horizon, the Wi-Fi-only option will almost certainly become a standard option soon. But for now, Apple's iPad pricing is impressively affordable relative to its Android competitors. Who would've known?

(Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.)

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