It’s been a while since Apple made choosing an iPad easy.
Last year, the introduction of new and rebadged hardware led to an overwhelming number of models on shelves — the iPad Mini, iPad Mini 2, iPad Mini 3, iPad Air, and iPad Air 2. Apple caught a lot of well-deserved flack for its tablet portfolio’s complexity, and most of it centered around the difference — or lack thereof — between iPads.
That was before the iPad Pro. With the gargantuan new tablet at the top of Apple’s catalog, the iPad hierarchy is now a lot simpler: It’s ordered according to size, and size now roughly corresponds to price. The 12-inch iPad Pro is the most expensive at $800, the 10-inch iPad Air 2 ($500) and iPad Air ($400) occupy the midrange, the smallest iPads — the new iPad Mini 4 ($400) and iPad Mini 2 ($270) — fill out the low end.
Just because the new lineup of iPads is more clearly differentiated doesn’t mean choosing one has become any less challenging. Spec breakdowns are one thing, but contextualization of those specs is another. What good’s a 12-inch screen if you value portability above all else, for example? And why pay more for a top-of-the-line graphics chip if you only game casually?
In an attempt to answer those questions and others, we’ve evaluated each iPad pragmatically — to identify each model’s most sensible use cases. It’s a buying guide in the truest sense of the phrase: The merits and deficiencies of each iPad are laid bare in everyday language. To say it’ll lead you to a perfect match is facetious — there’s no such thing, after all — but our identifiable use cases should help you choose which iPads to consider and which iPads to avoid.
The iPad Mini 2 may be two years old, but thanks to undiminished support in the form of continued software updates (iOS 9 on September 16) and price cuts, it still sells at a steady clip.
Of the two smaller, 7.9-inch iPads that make up Apple’s current lineup, the Mini 2 is the lowest barrier to entry. There’s a simple explanation: It sports an aging processor (the same A7 found in the iPhone 5S), omits Apple’s fingerprint-scanning Touch ID sensor, and packs a lower-specced camera than the Mini 2’s pricier counterparts. In the plus column, it retains a Retina display and stereo speakers, and runs 10 hours on a charge.
What’s that all that mean in practical terms? If you prefer a smaller iPad and don’t dabble in photography, play the latest games, or run extraordinarily demanding apps, the Mini 2 will suit you just fine. It’s comfortable in the hand (7.5lbs and 7.5mm thin), and quite good for casual consumption — reading, watching TV and movies, and perhaps tapping out a few emails. There’s nothing precluding any sort of productivity, of course — a few companies even sell aftermarket keyboards for the Mini 2 — but the lack of screen real estate and true multitasking (more on that later) are pretty big impediments to serious work.
It’s hard to find much fault with the Mini 2 at its newly reduced price of $270. It’s the cheapest you’ll find an iPad off the used or refurbished market. If budget’s you’re primary consideration, the Mini 2 is the obvious winner.
If power in a small form factor is what you seek, the iPad Mini 4 delivers. An evolution of the much-maligned iPad Mini 3, it addresses all of its predecessor’s shortcomings and more: It’s got the same A8 processor as the iPhone 6, an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, faster Wi-Fi (802.11ac), Touch ID, and a thinner (6.1mm) and lighter (0.65lbs) aluminum exterior.
But the differences end there. It takes design cues from the iPad Mini 3, has the same quoted battery life (10 hours), and sports an identical screen screen resolution (2,048 x 1,536 pixels).
There’s new software to consider, though. The iPad Mini 4’s updated silicon supports all of the upcoming iOS 9’s multitasking features — Slide Over, Picture in Picture, and Split View. Split View, by far the most compelling of the three, lets you arrange and interact with two side-by-side apps. You can copy and paste text from an adjacent Wikipedia article into a Word doc, for instance, or watch a video while answering email. Multiple windows on a screen size that comparatively small may be difficult to maneuver, granted.
The iPad Mini 4 has chops in other areas. The 8-megapixel camera packs autofocus and aperture improvements over the iPad Mini 3, and the A8 — which powers the new Apple TV, incidentally — can handle most any graphics-heavy game thrown at it.
In sum, the iPad Mini 4 can multitask like a pro, take great pictures, and play the newest games. If those prospects excite you, go for it. But if they don’t, or if you’d like those features in a larger body, then consider stepping an iPad tier up or down.
The iPad Air, like the iPad Mini 2, is hardly new. The two were introduced the same year, 2013, and its hardware reflects that: the Air is basically a blown-up, 10-inch version of the iPad Mini 2, packing the same processor (A7), camera (5 megapixels), and Retina Display as its diminutive cousin. Even the quoted battery life’s the same — about 10 hours.
What’s it offer that the iPad Mini 2 doesn’t, then? A much bigger workspace. It’s great — “fantastic,” we said in our review — for watching movies, checking messages, reading, and playing casual games. But it won’t multitask. Thanks to the Air’s older processor, it, unlike the Mini 4, doesn’t support iOS 9’s Split View.
In that respect, the Air’s an anomaly. It not only offers the worst performance per dollar among iPads, but also lacks the one quality that might redeem it: good multitasking. The choice between the Air and its price analog, the iPad Mini 4, then, comes purely down to size. Pick the Air, if you’re willing to prioritize performance and features for a bigger display. Choose the Mini 4, though, if you can settle for compactness and want more bang for your buck.
It may have been released a year ago, but the iPad Air 2 — the follow-up to the first-generation Air — is still an outstanding tablet. It’s incredibly thin (6mm) and feather light (0.96lbs), easily besting other iPads in those areas. More importantly, though, it’s fast. Super fast. At its core sits an A8X processor, which is only a slight step down from the A9 chip that Apple introduced on September 9.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The iPad Air 2 has a 10-inch laminated screen with great color reproduction and deep blacks. It’s got the same 8-megapixel rear-facing camera as the Mini 4. It has a Touch ID sensor. It lasts 10 hours on battery. And crucially, it’ll support all of iOS 9’s multitasking features, including Split View.
Concededly, the Air 2 isn’t without its shortcomings. The speakers are tinny, and it lacks the (somewhat redundant) Mute/Rotation switch found on the Air and Mini 2. But neither of these detractions are showstoppers.
The Air 2’s basically for the user who wants it all: a big, beautiful screen, power out the wazoo, and multitasking capabilities that’ll turn heads. That all comes at a steep price — $500 — but if money’s no object, the Air 2’s the best iPad.
No longer is the iPad Air 2 Apple’s biggest tablet. The new iPad Pro easily takes that crown, measuring a ruler-busting 12.9 inches. It’s thick and hefty, too, at about 6.9 mm deep and 1.57 lbs — a tad thinner, but heavier than the original iPad.
Justifying that footprint is what Apple’s been calling “desktop-level” performance and features, and our initial impressions support those assertions. The iPad Pro’s display is a whopping 2,732 x 2,048 pixels, higher in resolution than any of the other iPads, and driven by the A9X processor, a beefed-up version of the A9. It’s well-endowed externally, too: The Pro sports a four-speaker array, a Touch ID sensor, an 8-megapixel camera, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and LTE connectivity. It’s a multitasking monster.
Accoutrements are only part of the Pro equation, though. The real value proposition is ostensibly in the accessories. There’s the Smart Keyboard, an iPad cover with attached QWERTY keys, and there’s the far more interesting Apple Pencil. It’s Apple’s first attempt at a stylus, and the company’s touting its superiority to competing styli in the areas of pressure sensitivity (it can differentiate between hard and light presses) and battery (it lasts up to 12 hours).
All told, the Pro may be the ultimate iPad. It certainly delivers on performance, and extras like dual stereo speakers and Touch ID are icing on the cake. But it’s not for everyone. The Pro’s far and away the most expensive iPad at a base price of $800. Its immense screen is as unavoidably awkward as it is unwieldy — it’ll be tough to finagle the Pro on a subway, much less a plane. And the productivity tools that truly make it shine, the Smart keyboard and Apple Pencil, are an up-sell ($100 for the Pencil and $160 for the keyboard).
Apple’s angling for a very particular market with the Pro: enterprise and corporate users who might otherwise be swayed by a PC equivalent, such as Microsoft’s Surface. That’s not to say its features don’t appeal to the average crowd, but unless you’re willing to put up with the very real drawbacks the Pro’s size confers, you might consider a more portable option.
There is, as we said in the beginning, no perfect iPad. The iPad Air 2 lacks the Pro’s decked-out audio and speedy processor; the iPad Mini 4 trades real estate for a bump in hardware; and the iPad Air’s just plain old. But there are iPads more appropriate for some users than others. Want a cheap, relatively uncompromising iPad? The Mini 2’s just fine. Want a top-of-the-line tablet you can fit in your briefcase? Opt for the iPad Air 2.
And ultimately, a written guide is no substitute for the real thing. Your purchasing decision should be based in large part on hands-on time. Scope out the iPads at your local Best Buy or Apple Store. Get a feel for their strengths and limitations. iPad’s aren’t the cheapest investment, after all, so take it slow. Weigh your options carefully.