Just like the Mac and iPhone line-up, Apple’s tablet options are expanding. You now have four separate models of tablets to choose from, including the regular iPad Air, the iPad mini, and two sizes of iPad Pro.
This has left many confused about which tablet to opt for, particularly if you have the budget to spare, but you’re not sure you’ll take advantage of all the Pro models have to offer. After spending some time with each tablet, we’ve come up with a guide to help you choose between them.
Still a Great Choice: iPad Air & mini
Six months ago there were only two models of iPad to choose from: the iPad Air 2 and the iPad mini. Both of these are still solid choices, and though the Air sports the faster A8X processor, the main difference between the two is a choice of 7.9″ and 9.7″ displays.
If you don’t think you need the extra power that Apple has shoe-horned into the iPad Pro models, the second-generation iPad Air is still probably the best tablet you can buy. The truth is that most users won’t need the extra power from the A9X chip yet, though picking a less powerful model means that the iPad Air will show its age earlier than the iPad Pro will.
Apple releasing a more powerful model of tablet doesn’t mean that developers will no longer be targeting Air users as their primary market. The second-generation iPad Air has the same amount of RAM as the new 9.7″ iPad Pro, and a processor with enough grunt to handle every new app and game in the App Store.
If you’re not interested in Apple’s first party peripherals — the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil — or maybe you already own a nice portable Bluetooth keyboard, then you might be better off with the Air. If you don’t see yourself using two apps side-by-side using the iPad Pro’s 50-50 Split Screen feature, the Air may be a better choice too.
That’s before you’ve even considered the budget. You can get a 16GB iPad Air for $399, but the base model iPad Pro 9.7″ (32GB storage) costs $599 — and that’s before you’ve added $149 for a Smart Keyboard or $99 for the Pencil. An iPad Air isn’t exactly cheap, but it costs what we’ve come to expect from a high-end tablet. Apple’s iPad Pro models are getting into the “decent notebook” price-range when you add in the accessories.
Don’t take photos on your iPad? Pick the Air. Upgrading from a really old model? The current iPad Air flies in terms of performance, so you’ll notice a massive improvement without spending more money. Looking for the most portable iPad on the market? The iPad mini weighs 299g, compared to the smallest Pro and Air models at 437g.
The Air and mini are still likely to make up the majority of Apple’s tablet sales, and that’s because they’re powerful, premium tablets at a price range people have already gotten used to. For most tablet tasks like browsing the web, reading the news, watching cat videos, and answering email, the iPad Air is more than adequate.
If you want the best iPad money can buy in a portable package, the iPad Pro 9.7″ takes the prize. Its killer features are the A9X processor (clocked slightly slower than its bigger brother), the best tablet screen Apple has ever made, a full set of stereo speakers, and compatibility with first-party accessories like the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil.
A smaller screen means a smaller keyboard, so the iPad Pro 9.7″ delivers a slightly more cramped typing experience than the 12.9″ model. It took me a good 30 minutes to adjust, but even my big hands and clumsy fingers got used to it in the end. If you fancy typing on the go with an ultra-thin, pricey first-party keyboard then the 9.7″ model is as portable as it gets.
I’m not sure I’d recommend the iPad Pro for digital artists, but its official stylus compatibility makes it a solid choice for those of you who love annotating documents and taking handwritten notes — if you can stomach the extra $99.
If you’re thinking of using your iPad for shooting photo and video (shock horror), the iPad Pro 9.7″ offers an iPhone 6s-quality camera with 4K video, 12MP stills, and remains unmatched by any other tablet offered by the company. Taking photos on a tablet may be one of the greatest sins of the 21st century, but for professional users looking for a business tablet, and for video production on a screen where you can actually see what you’re doing, the 9.7″ model can’t be matched.
The smaller iPad Pro also has a fantastic screen, utilising what Apple dubs a “True Tone” display which adjusts whites to better match your environment (and it works really well). A wider color gamut means colors look more vivid, and images look more true-to-life. These are great features to have whether you’re typing for hours on a white background, or shooting and editing footage on-the-go.
If portability is your main concern, but you have the budget and desire for Apple’s latest and greatest, the 9.7″ is the iPad for you. The smaller display means that the iPad Pro 9.7″ can still be an iPad, and it does all of the things you’re used to from a tablet. It’s a great sofa companion, you can hold it with one hand, play Angry Birds on it, and wave it around without it feeling too unwieldy.
If you already have a main Mac or PC (whether it’s an iMac or something like a MacBook Pro), a smaller iPad Pro is cheaper than a MacBook Air (even with the Smart Keyboard accessory), more portable, and works great as a tablet too. iOS is a productive environment when you pair it with the right apps, and Split Screen allows you to run multiple apps at the same time.
The 9.7″ iPad Pro is a timewaster and a workhorse in equal measure. It’s a little more hefty than a regular iPad once you’ve attached the Smart Keyboard, and at around $750 for the pair it’s hardly cheap, but what’s not to love about a more powerful and refined version of the iPad Air?
Size Matters: iPad Pro 12.9″
Many people drooled over the thought of a huge iPad before the 12.9″ iPad Pro was first released. Those same people leapt for joy when it finally arrived last year. If you were one of those people, the smaller 9.7″ model probably isn’t going to win you over.
For creative, artsy types who want a giant digital canvas on which to draw, paint, edit photos and video, or run two apps in 50-50 mode with plenty of room for both, the iPad Air 12.9″ is the best choice. Pair it with Apple’s Pencil to make the most out of the stylus accessory, which can be put to great use in ready-to-rock apps like Procreate and LightRoom.
Turn your iPad Pro 12.9″ into a proper Wacom-style graphics tablet with Astropad (also works on regular iPads and the iPad Pro), take advantage of apps and games that use the larger screen size, and type on a full-sized keyboard if you opt for Apple’s first-party accessory.
If portability is less of a concern than getting stuff done with plenty of space on the screen to run two apps comfortably, the 12.9″ iPad Pro dominates. It’s arguably at its most productive when used in 50-50 Split Screen mode, providing plenty of screen real estate and a fairly productive work environment that is iOS 9.
The larger iPad feels like more of a replacement for your notebook, though there are some limitations you should consider before going full-iPad. It’s more portable than a MacBook Air, and though the tablet and keyboard accessory will cost you more, you’ll get a better battery life too. For heavy typers who value a full-sized keyboard, the 12.9″ model is more comfortable, easier to use on your lap and better suited to those with big hands.
It’s not a great sofa companion, though, and it feels quite unwieldy when used like a tablet rather than a notebook. To me, the 12.9″ Pro feels more like an ultra-portable touchscreen laptop that runs iOS, and then there’s the cost…
It’s easily the most expensive iPad you can buy. A base-model iPad Pro 12.9″ will cost you $799, and that’s just for the 32GB model. Up it to the 128GB model, and you’ll pay $949. Add a Smart Keyboard for $169, and you’re already looking at $1,118. While it’s not as portable, nor is the battery life as good, you can get an 11″ MacBook Air with 128GB for $899 — which should give you something to think about.
Arguably, the main factors that should influence your decision are budget and portability. First ask whether you want screen real estate or a portable unit, then whether or not you can actually afford it.
Let us know which iPad you’ll be choosing next in the comments below.