iPad buyers guide: Explaining the differences between iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, iPad 2, and iPad mini and how to figure out which one is right for you
'iPad' sounds like just one thing, but Apple has two distinct iPad lines - full-size and mini - and two distinct generations - new and old - available for sale right now. There's the brand new iPad Air and Retina iPad mini, and there's the held-over iPad 2 and iPad mini. But what's the real differences between all these iPads? Does more money really get you more features, does saving up-front cost you in the long run, and how much tablet do you really need? If you're looking to get your first iPad, or looking to get one for family or friends, figuring it all out can be confusing. Here's what you need to know!
Apple's 2013 iPad lineup consists of 4 different models, the iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, iPad 2, and iPad mini. The iPad Air and Retina iPad mini have 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB storage options, in either Wi-Fi only, or Wi-Fi and cellular models. The iPad 2 and iPad mini come only with 16GB, but still have Wi-Fi only, or Wi-Fi + cellular models. That makes for a dizzying array of possibilities.
Yes, both the new Retina iPad mini and the old iPad 2 start at $399. Wacky.
You can get an iPad Air or Retina iPad mini with 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, or 128GB of storage. They're the only iPads that offer anything more than 16GB of storage, so if you need a lot of space for your apps, music, videos, or other content, they're your only options.
You can get an iPad 2 or iPad mini with 16GB of storage. It's hard to recommend an iPad these days with that limited an amount of storage. If all you want is a thin-client internet interface, you might be fine. If you plan on downloading any amount of apps or media, it'll just end in frustration.
The iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, and iPad mini come in two different color options. The first is a white glass faceplate with sliver aluminum back. The second is a black glass faceplate with a space gray aluminum back.
The iPad 2 has the same white and black faceplate options, but the backs are identical shades of aluminum.
The iPad Air has a 9.7-inch 2048x1536 Retina display at 264 pixels per inch (ppi). It's gorgeous, and makes it look like apps, images, and videos are painted right beneath the glass. It also has excellent viewing angles.
The Retina iPad mini has a very similar display. It's 7.9-inches, but the same 2048x1536, which makes it even higher density at 326 ppi. Apps, images, and videos look every bit as good, and the viewing angle is just as excellent. However, the color gamut is narrower, which makes reds look less saturated.
The iPad 2 has a 9.7-inch 1024x768 standard display at 132 ppi. It's got excellent viewing angles, but it's not anywhere near as good as a Retina display.
The iPad mini has a 7.9-inch 1024x768 standard display at 168 ppi. Same excellent viewing angles, also nowhere near as good as a Retina display.
Size and weight
The iPad Air is the smallest, thinnest full-sized iPad ever made. It's so light for its size that it seems like it can't be real. It's 9.4 inches (240 mm) x 6.6 inches (169.5 mm) x 0.29 inch (7.5 mm) and 1 pound (469 g) for the Wi-Fi version, 1.05 pounds (478 g) for the Wi-Fi + cellular. It's not iPad mini small by an stretch of the imagination, but it's the closest full-sized thing.
The iPad 2 is bigger and heavier than the iPad Air. It's 9.5 inches (241.2 mm) x 7.31 inches (185.7 mm) x 0.34 inch (8.8 mm) and 1.33 pounds (601 g) for the Wi-Fi version, and 1.35 pounds (613 g) for the Wi-Fi and cellular. It was sleek for its time, but these days it's not looking so light or so thin.
The iPad mini with Retina display isn't quite as thin or as light as the original iPad mini, but it's still impressively slender. It's 7.87 inches (200 mm) x 5.3 inches (134.7 mm) x 0.29 inch (7.5 mm) and 0.73 pound (331 g) for Wi-Fi and 0.75 pound (341 g) for Wi-Fi + cellular. The weight, however, goes to the battery needed to power the Retina display.
The iPad mini, original version, is the smallest iPad Apple's made so far. 7.87 inches (200 mm) x 5.3 inches (134.7 mm) x 0.28 inch (7.2 mm) and 0.68 pound (308 g) for Wi-Fi and 0.69 pound (312 g) for Wi-Fi + cellular.
The iPad Air and Retina iPad Mini are powered by the 2013 Apple A7 chipset and Apple M7 motion coprocessor. It's one of the most powerful processor ever put into a tablet. (It could just as easily drive a netbook. Which is insane.) It'll drive all the latest software, including the most advanced games, now and likely into the future.
The iPad 2 and the original iPad mini are powered by the 2011 Apple A5 chipset. It's still capable of driving the tablets, but it's nowhere nearly as future proof as current chipsets.
The iPad Air, iPad 2, Retina iPad mini, and iPad mini all have three-axis gyroscopes, accelerometers, proximity sensors, and ambient light sensors.
Carriers and LTE
You can, optionally, get cellular data connectivity with any model iPad. They all support 3G on both GSM and CDMA networks.
The iPad Air and the Retina iPad mini support more LTE bands than any previous generation iPads.
The iPad mini has good support for LTE.
The iPad 2 only supports 3G.
All iPads are GSM unlocked, though Verizon and Sprint iPads will only work on their respective networks.
Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and location
The iPad Air and Retina iPad mini support 802.11n Wi-Fi on both 2.4 and 5GHz, with the superior performance MIMO (multiple inputs, multiple outputs).
The iPad 2 and iPad mini support 802.11n Wi-Fi on both 2.4 and 5GHz, though without the extra boost of MIMO.
The iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, and iPad mini all support Bluetooth 4.0.
The iPad 2 supports only Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR.
All iPads with cellular also have both GPS and GLONASS.
iSight rear-facing cameras
The iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, and iPad mini all have decent if not inspired iSight cameras with 5 megapixel stills and 30fps 1080p video, f/2.4, backside illuminated sensors with 5-elements, hybrid infrared filters, face detection, auto- and tap-to-focus, auto stabilization, high-dynamic range (HDR), and panorama modes.
The iPad 2 has a terrible 720p camera.
FaceTime front-facing cameras
The iPad Air and Retina iPad mini all have 1.2 megapixel, 720p FaceTime HD video cameras with backside illuminated sensors.
The iPad mini has a 1.2 megapixel, 720p FaceTime camera but with a smaller pixel size and no backside illumination.
The iPad 2 has a miserable VGA resolution FaceTime camera.
All iPads support up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi web surfing, video, or music playback, and all cellular-capable iPads get up to 9 hours of web surfing.
The iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, and iPad mini use the new, intelligent Lightning connector. That means they'll work with all the latest accessories and peripherals, now and into the future.
The iPad 2 uses the old 30-pin Dock connector. That means it'll work with older accessories, but not new ones.
Software and services
The iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, iPad 2, and original iPad mini all run iOS 7 and connect to iCloud. That means you can run all the latest software from the App Store - almost 500k tablet-optimized apps and growing - as well as manage all your email, calendars, contacts, backup your data, and more.
The iPad Air is a big screen iPad that's almost as light as a small-sized iPad. For working, watching video, reading comics, and similar tasks, it's the not only a miracle of engineering, it's damn near a miracle.
The Retina iPad mini is almost identical to the full-sized iPad, only much smaller, lighter, and more portable. For frequent travel, or for anyone who values portability over screen size, it's the close to perfect.
The iPad 2 is really only good for schools, enterprises, or small businesses stuck on the old connectors, or for people who just need a screen for the internet and nothing else.
The iPad mini is better than the iPad 2 but nowhere near as good as the Retina iPad mini or iPad Air. What you save up front will likely be eclipsed by annoyances that crop up over time.