How to decide which iPad is best for you

By

Which one is best for you?
Which iPad model is best for you?
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

With the iPad lineup now verging on unwieldy, it’s harder than ever to decide which Apple tablet to buy. Which iPad is best for you? That’s going to depend on your needs, desires and budget — but your iPad buyer’s guide can help!

Do you go for the massive appeal of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro or opt for the smaller-but-newer (and slightly gimped) 9.7-inch iPad Pro? Will a tiny iPad mini suit you, or should you opt for an iPad Air 2, which is still a very capable, thin tablet?

All good questions! We’re here to help you answer them with this handy iPad comparison, just in time for when the new iPad Pro goes on sale Thursday, March 24 (most likely at 12:01 a.m. Pacific, according to Apple Support).

The 2016 iPad lineup

The full 2016 iPad lineup.
The full 2016 iPad lineup.
Photo: Apple

First off, let’s take a look at all the models in the current iPad line. All iPads come in three colors — silver, space gray and gold — except for the iPad mini 2, which doesn’t have a gold option, and the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro, which adds rose gold to the mix.

iPad portability

Size and weight will matter when you’re taking your new iPad around with you. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro weighs in at more than 1.5 pounds, while the smaller iPad Pro and iPad Air 2 both come in a little shy of 1 pound. In the mini series, the 0.65-pound iPad mini 4 is slightly slimmer and lighter than the mini 2 (0.73 pounds). Adding hardware for cellular data to any iPad adds about 0.02 pounds, but that’s negligible.

The largest iPad Pro is 12 inches tall by 8.68 inches wide, while the two mid-size iPads (the Pro and the Air 2) are 9.4 inches tall by 6.6 inches wide. The iPad mini 4 is 8 inches tall and the mini 2 is only 7.87 inches tall, while both mini models are 5.3 inches wide. Most iPad models are incredibly thin at just 0.24 inches, although the larger iPad Pro measures a slightly thicker 0.27 inches and the iPad mini 2 comes in at a downright chubby (by comparison0 0.29 inches.

iPad screen sizes and resolutions

All is coming up Retina.
Everything is coming up Retina.
Photo: Apple

You can see the screen sizes in the comparison shot above, with the 12.9-inch diagonal of the larger iPad Pro, the 9.7-inch diagonal of the smaller Pro and the iPad Air 2, and the 7.9-inch diagonal measurement for both iPad minis.

The entire iPad lineup gets what Apple calls a “Retina Display,” and the devices have surprisingly similar resolutions (which helps developers create similar app experiences across all models).

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro, iPad Air 2 and both iPad minis have a 2,048-by-1,536-pixel resolution, while the 12.9-inch iPad Pro bumps things up to 2,732‑by‑2,048. The pixels per inch increases as the screen size shrinks, so the 264 ppi density of the two Pro models and Air 2 is lower than the 326 ppi of both iPad mini models.

iPad performance

Interestingly, Apple says its entire iPad lineup delivers the same battery life: up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching videos or listening to music, and up to nine hours when doing so on a cellular data network.

The two iPad Pros have a third-generation A9X chip with an M9 motion coprocessor, though the smaller 9.7-inch iPad Pro has been underclocked by Apple. That makes the larger iPad Pro’s CPU 2.5 times faster than Apple’s A7 chip, which still powers the iPad mini 2. (The smaller iPad Pro runs 2.4 times faster than the A7.) Graphics performance is better, too: 5 times faster on the larger iPad Pro than with an A7 (4.3 times faster for the 9.7-inch model).

The iPad Air 2 sports the previous-generation A8X chip and an M8 coprocessor, bringing it in at 1.4 times faster than the A7 in terms of CPU and 2.5 times faster in terms of graphics performance. The iPad mini 4 (which also has an A8 chip and M8 motion coprocessor) comes close to that, with a CPU 1.3 times faster and graphics performance 1.6 faster than an A7 chip. The iPad mini 2 comes with an A7 chip with an M7 coprocessor, which is slightly slower overall than the rest of the iPad lineup.

iPad camera comparison

Camera options abound.
Camera options abound.
Photo: StockSnap/Pixabay

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro benefits from Apple’s latest, greatest camera technology, making it the only iPad in the line with a 12-megapixel camera, an ƒ/2.2 aperture for better light sensitivity, the new True Tone flash, Focus Pixels, and the ability to capture Live Photos. The rest of the iPad line, including the larger 12.9-inch Pro, settles for an 8-megapixel camera, an ƒ/2.4 aperture and none of the rest of the new stuff.

The FaceTime HD Camera on most of the iPad lineup is a meager 1.2-megapixel affair, though the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro has a 5-megapixel one and the ability to use the Retina Display as a flash. All can record video at 720p resolution and detect faces, which makes sense for the camera that faces our faces.

The new, smaller iPad Pro also has the advantage of 4K HD video recording at 3,840-by-2,160 resolution, as well as slo-mo video support for both 1080p at 120 frames per second and 720p at 240 frames per second. All the other iPads can record at 1080p with slo-mo video support for 720p at 120 fps.

iPad accessories

Only the two iPad Pro models sport a Smart Connector, which connect to Apple’s Smart Keyboards, delivering power and connection to the side of the iPad. All other models are stuck with Lightning ports only. Apple Pencil, by far the best stylus ever, only works with the Pro line, so don’t get one and try to use it with your iPad Air 2 or smaller iPad mini.

All models except the iPad mini 2 have a Touch ID sensor, letting you unlock the device with your thumbprint. All but the iPad mini 2 have a barometer, too.

iPad pricing

Sometimes a table is just necessary.
Sometimes a table is just necessary.
Photo: Apple

Most of us live on a limited budget, so price does matter. You’ll want to get the biggest bang for your buck, so checking out all the pricing options is key.

12.9-inch iPad Pro
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro hits at $799 for the 32GB model, $949 for the 128GB model and $1,099 for the 256GB model. Adding cellular connectivity bumps the 128GB model to $1,079 and the 256GB model to $1,229. (There is no 32GB cellular model for the larger iPad Pro.)

9.7-inch iPad Pro
The new 9.7-inch iPad Pro starts at $599 for 32GB and runs up to $749 for the 128GB model and $899 for the 256GB model. Adding cellular capabilities to the new Pro brings the total to $729 for 32GB, $879 for 128GB or $1,029 for 256GB.

iPad Air 2
There are only two storage tiers here, priced at $399 for 16GB and $499 for 64GB Wi-Fi models. Cellular data ups the price to $529 and $629 respectively.

iPad mini 4
The iPad mini 4 comes in at $399 for the 16GB model, $499 for 64GB and $599 for 128GB. Adding cell data brings the totals to $529, $629 and $729.

iPad mini 2

The iPad mini 2 only comes in 16GB and 32GB flavors, at $269 and $319. Adding cellular makes it $399 and $499.

Who should get which iPad then?

Which should you get?
Which should you get?
Photo: PIX1868/Pixabay

iPad mini 2: Cheapskates and kids
This is the bottom end of the iPad lineup. The lack of Touch ID and the fact that it has the slowest chip in it makes it a perfect buy for cheapskates the budget-conscious and for kids. The smaller form factor makes it perfect for smaller hands and the lower price will make any penny-pincher happy. The display is still crisp, too, making it a great e-reader.

iPad mini 4: Students and readers
The addition of Touch ID, a higher-capacity option (128GB), a gold color choice and the taller form factor — not to mention the thinner chassis, faster CPU and coprocessor, and better camera — make the iPad mini 4 a must-buy for anyone who wants a smaller iPad. It’s perfect for chucking in a backpack, reading in bed and playing games on the go.

iPad Air 2: Road warriors and the rest of us
I’ll be honest: I only recently upgraded to the iPad Air 2 from an iPad 3. The iPad Air 2 is a fantastic iPad for general use. With a judicious application of covers and keyboards, it stands in as a stunningly great netbook. The price is a good $200 to $250 less than the new iPad Pro in the same size, and while you won’t get in on the Smart Keyboard or Pencil action, the iPad Air 2 is great for just about everything, from gaming to graphics to reading. It’s super-thin, light and there are a ton of accessories available.

9.7-inch iPad Pro: Early adopters and pros on the go
The latest and greatest of all of Apple’s iPads, the new iPad Pro looks like an iPad Air 2, but packs so much more in its interior. If you want to use Apple Pencil and a Smart Keyboard but don’t want the massive bulk of the larger iPad Pro, this is the one to get.

Plus, there’s the new sensor, which changes the warmth of your screen tone according to the ambient light in the room you’re in. You’ll also get some higher-end camera joy, like a True Tone flash, Focus Pixels and a smaller aperture for increased light sensitivity. While the A9X chip and M9 coprocessor run a bit slower than the larger Pro model’s do, all the extras make this the best iPad yet.

12.9-inch iPad Pro: Creatives and power users
If you’ve seen one of these things in person, you know how stunning that massive screen is. There’s nothing better than making art on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen with an Apple Pencil, as the many testimonials from designers and artists attest.

Bigger is sometimes better, and that’s never been clearer than with the humungous iPad Pro. Sure, it’s a bit bulky and kind of pricey, but at what price, art?

So, which iPad is best?

Bottom line: Deciding which iPad is best for you is going to be a highly personal decision. They’re basically all great tablets, but your budget and particular usage demands will steer you toward one model or the other.

So, whether you’re getting your first Apple tablet or trading in your old iPad for some cold, hard cash, hopefully this iPad buyer’s guide has provided enough intellectual ammo for you to face the big decision head-on.

Remember: Preorders of the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro start Thursday, March 24, most likely at 12:01 a.m. Pacific. Download the Apple Store app, set an alarm on your iPhone or Apple Watch, and do the right thing.

Deals of the Day