A Guide to the Apple iPad Lineup

Which iPad Should I Buy?

The iPad may get overshadowed by the iPhone, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a successful product. What started as a blown-up smartphone has evolved into what Apple clearly believes is the future of computing. Depending on your needs, it’s entirely possible to use an iPad as your main computer.

There are many iPad models out in the wild, but only a small number of iPads that are actually for sale from Apple itself. The focus here is on the latest models at the time of writing and which sort of user each is best suited for.

iPad Mini (5th Generation 2019)

Many people were surprised when Apple refreshed the iPad Mini in 2019. This 7.9″ tablet fills a very weird niche these days, with modern smartphones commonly exceeding six inches and having virtually edge-to-edge screens.

However, it all makes sense when you look at the 4:3 aspect ratio of iPad screens and if you spend any time reading. Eight inches is just big enough to make reading books, comics, and magazines comfortable.

Just because it’s so much smaller doesn’t mean the iPad mini has small specs! This little guy is equipped with the latest A12 Bionic chip, which is a desktop-class CPU. It also has a retina display with True Tone. So you get a cutting-edge iOS device for (almost) the lowest price in the range.

The Mini also works with the first-generation Apple Pencil, which makes sense since this is one of the remaining iPads to still use the Lightning connector. Sizes of up to 256 GB are available and you can, of course, get cellular as well.

This is a tablet that exceeds the original 2016 iPad Pro in most ways. That’s astounding when you look at the asking price and how little time has passed between these two products. In terms of design, this is a rehash of the older iPad look, with its fairly chunky bezels and a home button with fingerprint reader. The top models now have thin bezels and use Face ID. It’s a minor sacrifice.

As with most non-Pro iPads, the cameras are nothing to write home about, but perfectly fine. You’ll get far fewer weird looks when taking photos with a Mini, though, since in some ways it looks more like a large phone than a small tablet.

If you are on a budget, this is better than the plain-Jane iPad by a significant margin, despite costing a bit more. If the larger tablets are too large for you, this is also an excellent compromise that still provides a roomy reading and general content consumption experience. It has only a two-speaker configuration, so temper your expectations in terms of sound. But if that and the slightly smaller screen don’t put you off, this is a fantastic iPad.

iPad (7th Generation 2019)

The first iPad was simply called “iPad”, and since then Apple has been pretty confusing in terms of its naming conventions. The plain “iPad” of today isn’t the flagship device anymore. Instead, it’s the entry-level mainstream unit. Reportedly, it’s known internally as the iPad “educational” and fits into Apple’s significant presence in education institutions around the world. Still, anyone can buy one, and so we must discuss whether you should be going for the entry-level iPad or not.

This iPad, despite having a spacious 10.2″ screen, is actually less expensive than the iPad Mini. That’s because this model is based on the older, less-powerful A10 system-on-a-chip. While the Mini and other iPads get the latest A12 Bionic hardware, you’ll have to make do with the flagship chip of yesteryear.

The thing is, the A10 is still plenty fast. It has more performance under the hood than most users need. In day-to-day computing, most people won’t notice anything but snappy performance. Even if you like to play intensive games or other more heavy apps, they should work at an acceptable level. Remember, there are fairly recent premium iPads and iPhones still running hardware at the same level as the new budget model. So apps still have to accommodate them.

One big cut is in the screen quality. This is still a Retina display with an IPS LCD panel, but it lacks the laminated display, anti-reflective coating, wide color gamut, and True Tone technology of more expensive models.

Does it look like garbage? No! This is still one of the nicest screens you’ll find on any tablet – it’s just not at the top of the iPad range. No sane person would call its screen anything but lovely.

It’s important to note that this base iPad also works with the first-generation Apple Pencil, which is great for both students and artists on a budget. If you aren’t editing 4K video or you don’t absolutely need one of the exclusive features of the more expensive iPads, then this is a perfectly good machine to buy for most people. You’re still getting the core iPad experience at a price never before seen.

iPad Air (3rd Generation 2019)

Before the iPad Pro there was the iPad Air and Air 2. I owned the latter model, coming from the fat third-gen model, and it was an utter revelation. It was the first iPad I had with true multitasking and the first time I actually didn’t buy a new laptop, switching to the iPad completely.

The new Air is technically the Air 3, but I guess as with the other models we’ll just be tacking on the year of release from now on. The Air is certainly very thin compared to the base iPad. Whereas the cheaper pad is a “thick” 7.5 mm, the Air is a razor-thin 6.1 mm. It’s also a whole 30 grams lighter. Look, you can probably detect a hint of sarcasm here, but it’s not as if the size and weight difference between these two devices is dramatic.

Design-wise, the Air looks more or less just like the iPad too. Unless you had them side-by-side, the casual observer couldn’t tell them apart. Under the hood however, there’s a huge difference in specifications, and they are more than worth the moderate price difference between these two tablets. The screen on the Air is slightly larger at 10.5″, but it benefits from all the snazzy display improvements that Apple came up with for the original iPad Pro. It’s got True Tone color correction, a wide color gamut, and full lamination for better image quality. The Air also has the A12 chip, bringing a lot of grunt to such a thin and light computer. It can do the sort of heavy lifting that the base iPad would choke on. If you’re looking for the best bang-for-buck gaming iPad, this is the one for you. It also just has the two speaker config and still uses the Lightning connector, but that also means you get first-gen Apple pencil support.

This is the mainstream premium iPad. It’s the one that most people should buy unless their budget can only stretch to the base iPad or they want the smaller screen of the Mini.

11 inch iPad Pro (2018)

My first iPad Pro from 2016 is still going strong today. There doesn’t seem to be any app it can’t run, and it powers through games, productivity, and media with aplomb. It’s completely understandable for someone with that tablet to feel no pressure to upgrade, yet if you look at what the latest iPad Pro offers, there’s a lot to make the price of a new machine feel almost painless.

This iPad sports the most modern design, doing away with the face button and switching over to Face ID technology instead. The bezels are now incredibly thin, allowing for an 11″ screen in a body that’s the same size as lower models. This iPad comes with the A12X chip, which is (right now) the most powerful mobile chip in any device of this type. It overlaps with laptop chips that produce way more heat and have shorter battery lives. Whether you want to play games, edit videos professionally, or do any other heavy tasks, this tablet can pretty much do it all. It’s a proper laptop replacement.

Storage options up to a staggering 1 TB is available, but the best feature is perhaps the shift to USB-C, which is becoming the global standard. That means you can only use the second-gen Apple Pencil with this iPad, but it also makes it very easy to find and use accessories.

The screen on the iPad Pro 11 is something very special indeed. It’s quite a bit brighter than the screen on the Air and has all of the improvements you find in that tablet. On top of this, it has a much higher refresh rate, marketed as “ProMotion” technology. This gives the tablet display incredible smoothness and responsiveness. This is one of the biggest user experience improvements I’ve seen on iPad, and it really makes a huge difference. You have to experience ProMotion in person to really understand how well it works. Since, of course, watching a 30 or 60 frames-per-second video won’t tell you anything!

This is also where the iPad cameras begin to become something that you’d actually want to use. With a 4K sensor and the latest Apple camera features, you can record, edit, and publish rather professional-looking content using just this tablet. Another feature I personally can no longer live without is the quad-speaker design of the iPad Pros. With one speaker on each corner, bass and mid-highs each get their own speaker, providing a drastically louder and clearer playback experience. If you like using your iPad as a portable TV, that alone is a major selling point.

If you are serious about using an iPad as your one and only computer, this is one of two models that make it possible. I don’t think this is the best iPad Pro for using the pencil as a serious design tool though – that falls to the bigger brother.

12.9 inch iPad Pro (2018)

This is the iPad Pro I currently have and it is a revelation. It’s essentially the same tablet as the 11″, but that large, luscious 12.9″ display makes a qualitative difference. That size might sound awkward, but the bigger Pro isn’t heavy or hard to handle. It is, however, more comfortable to hold with both hands.

This iPad Pro is better suited to content production and especially well-suited to drawing. The extra real estate makes using the Apple Pencil a dream, and in many ways this is the ultimate iPad.

As a laptop replacement it provides an experience closer to a 13″ MacBook, but apart from screen size and price, there’s little to split the two Pro models. So that’s down to your preference and bank account.

Older iPads

At the time of writing the above, iPad models are current and for sale, but you can still buy older models from third-parties, and even from Apple in some regions, for a real discount. Should you?

iPads have a much longer lifespan than iPhones, which means an iPad that’s two years old is still perfectly relevant. If a given iPad is fast enough and runs the latest iOS version, you can totally consider it if the price is too good to refuse. However, if at all possible, it’s best to buy the latest model and then upgrade every four years or so.

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