iPad buyers guide spring 2014 update: Explaining the differences between iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, iPad 4, 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 then there's the resurrected iPad 4 and the held-over 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, or are you just waisting money if you get more tablet than 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, iPad mini with Retina display, iPad with Retina display (iPad 4), 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 4 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 iPad 4 start at the same price — $399.
iPad difference: Specs
Here are the differences between the iPad mini, iPad 4, iPad mini Retina, and iPad Air on paper:
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 4 has the same white and black faceplate options, but the backs are identical shades of aluminum.
iPad difference: Storage capacity
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 4 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.
iPad difference: Display size and density
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 iPad 4 also has a 9.7-inch 2048x1536 Retina display at 264ppi. Unlike the recently discontinued iPad 2, when you step down to the iPad 4, you're no longer stepping down in display quality.
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 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.
iPad difference: Physical 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 4 is bigger and heavier than the iPad Air. It's also slightly bigger and heavier than the iPad 2 was. It's 9.5 inches (241.2 mm) x 7.31 inches (185.7 mm) x 0.37 inch (9.4 mm), and 1.44 pounds (652 g) for the Wi-Fi version, 1.46 pounds (662 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.
iPad difference: Performance and battery life
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's 64-bit which means it'll drive the most advanced software now and for the foreseeable future, and it supports OpenGL ES 3.0 which means it'll render the most demanding, most intense games with ease.
The iPad 4 is powered by the 2012 Apple A6X chipset. It's the same custom 32-bit Swift CPU that powers the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5c but with quad-core graphics to push around all the pixels on that big Retina display. It's not the latest or the greatest any more. It's not 64-bit and it doesn't have an M7 coprocessor, but it's still a great chipset.
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.
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.
iPad difference: Carriers and LTE
You can, optionally, get cellular data connectivity with any model iPad. They all support 3G and LTE on both GSM and CDMA networks. The iPad Air and the Retina iPad mini, however, support more LTE bands than any previous generation iPads.
All iPads are GSM unlocked, though Verizon and Sprint iPads will only work on their respective CDMA networks.
iPad difference: 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 4 and iPad mini support 802.11n Wi-Fi on both 2.4 and 5GHz, though without the extra boost of MIMO.
They all support Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy which is needed for most modern implementations, including AirDrop and iBeacon.
All cellular iPads also have both GPS and GLONASS radios.
iPad difference: iSight rear-facing cameras
The iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, iPad 4, 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.
iPad difference: 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 4 and iPad mini have a 1.2 megapixel, 720p FaceTime camera but with a smaller pixel size and no backside illumination.
iPad difference: Software and services
The iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, iPad 4, 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.
iPad difference: Sensors and connectors
The iPad Air, iPad 4, Retina iPad mini, and iPad mini all have three-axis gyroscopes, accelerometers, proximity sensors, and ambient light sensors. None of them have Touch ID yet. That's still exclusive to the iPhone 5s.
The iPad Air, Retina iPad mini, iPad 4, and iPad mini all use the new, intelligent Lightning connector. That means they'll work with all the latest accessories and peripherals, now and into the future. If you have older 30-pin Dock connector accessories you'll need to get an adapter.
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 4 is for those who want a full-sized iPad, don't care about how heavy or thick it is, but simply can't afford anything more than $399/$529 for it.
The iPad mini is 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.