Ten years ago, Apple released the first iPad. Available in one size (9.7"), with three storage options (16, 32, or 64 GB), a Wi-Fi only version was released first, with a Wi-Fi and cellular model following shortly after. At the time, this ground-breaking device was competing with netbooks (remember them?) for primacy in the lightweight/portable device market. It didn’t take long for the iPad, and the tablet in general, to flourish.
Over the years, Apple has iterated the iPad many times, with nearly two dozen different models in many sizes.
It used to be easy to choose an iPad. When there were just a couple of models available, all you needed to choose was the color and how much storage you wanted. But things have changed. Nowadays, you have multiple options to choose from, each with varying configurations; it’s not so simple to know right off the bat which iPad is best for you.
If you want an iPad today, there are four different models, each with different feature sets. There are five different sizes, and the base price varies from as low as $329 to as much as $999 (these prices are for Wi-Fi only, with the base storage amount, and without any of the accessories that make the new iPad Pro models interesting). You can choose models that offer Wi-Fi, or both cellular and Wi-Fi, and there are as many as five color options, depending on the model.
Based on your needs, how can you tell which iPad you should get? In this article, I’m going to look at the different iPad models and recommend which iPad is best for you, depending on how you plan to use it.
You work on your iPad
A few months ago, I would have said that if you do a lot of work on your iPad, you definitely want the iPad Pro; either the 11” model or the 12.9” version. (I’ll explain why my recommendation has changed below.) These models offer Apple’s Smart Connector, which allows you to use the Smart Keyboard Folio or the new Magic Keyboard, making these device great for both typing and tapping. Unfortunately, these keyboards aren’t cheap. The Smart Keyboard Folio costs $179 and $199, for the 11" and 12.9" models respectively, and the Magic Keyboard is a whopping $299 or $349. But the larger iPad boasts impressive qualities, and can replace a laptop: It’s got lots of room for you to work comfortably, with text, spreadsheets, graphics, and more.
With the iPad Pro, you can also use the second-generation Apple Pencil ($129). This stylus is great if you draw, take notes, or edit photos. The first-generation Apple Pencil is compatible with a wide range of iPads (see this Apple page for a full list of compatible devices), and it costs $99. The Apple Pencil is really an amazing tool; if you do a lot of work on your iPad, from drawing to text editing, you should get one, particularly with iPadOS 14 and it’s new Scribble feature, which lets you enter text with the Pencil anywhere.
If you’re wondering if an iPad can replace your laptop, see this article. We looked at the new features in iPadOS 13, and options for external keyboards, which can make an iPad a compelling choice for people who need to work on the go.
You want an iPad that does (almost) everything
In September 2020, Apple announced an update to the iPad Air, which ships in October. When this device was first released in 2013, it was thinner and lighter than other models, which made it an interesting, if slightly limited, alternative. The new iPad Air (4th generation) inherits the name of this series, but little more. Its overall body is different: it has the straight sides of the iPad Pro. It’s also got Apple’s latest, most powerful processor, the A14, meaning that it has as much or more power as the iPad Pro. (The processor alone isn’t enough to judge its overall capacity, but it’s an important benchmark.)
At 10.9", it’s almost the same size as the smaller iPad Pro (11"). But it’s close enough to allow use of the Magic Keyboard. And since the Touch ID sensor is incorporated in the power button, the bezels around the screen are smaller. Starting at $599, it’s $200 less than the similar-sized Pro model. There are some differences: two speakers instead of four; a less sophisticated camera; storage options only go up to 256 GB; and the display doesn’t have all the top features, such as ProMotion technology. But this iPad really hits the sweet spot: it balances price and capabilities quite well, and you get a choice of five colors. This is my recommendation for most people who want to use an iPad for work, but don’t need the larger 12.9" size.
You take photos or videos with your iPad
Some people think that taking photos with an iPad is gauche, but lots of people do it. If you carry your iPad around with you, and want to take photos, the newest iPad Pro models are for you. With the same camera system as the iPhone 11 – wide-angle and ultra wide-angle cameras – the iPad Pro is a compelling device for photos and video. For some people who need to shoot videos professionally – such as to show off houses for sale or to create training videos – using in iPad with its large display, together with a tripod or gimbal, is a great option. The wide-angle camera has an f/1.8 aperture, making it excellent for low-light photos and videos, and the ultra wide-angle camera has an f/2.4 lens. Both models shoot 4K video, as well as slow-motion at up to 240 fps. The iPad Air only has a single wide-angle camera, but it’s got an f/1.8 aperture, and can record the same 4K and slow-motion video as the iPad Pro.
You play iOS games
If like to play iOS games – and I don’t mean solitaire or crossword puzzles – then you should probably choose between the iPad Pro and iPad Air. These models have desktop speed, and the graphics are excellent. Be aware that some games take up a lot of storage, but with the base iPad Pro models now with 128 GB, you may not need to pay the Apple tax for more. However, if you do need a lot of storage, the iPad Air is limited to 256 GB, whereas you can order an iPad Pro with 1 TB.
You need lots of storage
You may travel a lot, and use your iPad to carry around files for work, or movies and TV shows to watch on the road. If so, you need lots of storage. Times have changed since the first iPad, which came with as little as 16 GB storage. Now, the iPad Pro starts at 128 GB and is available with up to 1 TB. The iPad Air (4rd generation) starts at 64 GB, with an option for 256 GB. And the iPad (8th generation) offers 32 or 128 GB.
You want a budget iPad
Apple’s naming of the iPad models is confusing at best. Your current options are the following:
- iPad Pro 12.9" (4th generation) – starting at $999
- iPad Pro 11" (2nd generation) – starting at $799
- iPad Air (4rd generation) – starting at $599
- iPad mini (5th generation) – starting at $399
- iPad (8th generation) – starting at $329
If all you need is a basic iPad, and have no special demands for speed or storage, the 10.2" iPad 8th generation, which was updated in September 2020, is a great deal. Since 2017, Apple has been releasing these iPad (without modifier) models at an affordable price of $329. With 32 GB storage, this iPad is sufficient for most needs, but you can bump that to 128 GB.
Note that you can find refurbished iPads on Apple’s website, usually discounted around 15%, so if price is key, you may want to check out that option as well.
You watch videos on your iPad
In the past few years, with the great retina displays on the latest iPads, I’ve taken to enjoying watching movies and TV shows in bed. I currently have a 2018 11" iPad Pro: the display is crisp and responsive, and the four speakers sound good enough that I no longer use headphones, at least if I’m watching alone. There’s a sort of faux surround sound on these devices, but it doesn’t sound artificial; it makes movies sound vibrant.
If you want to watch videos a lot, you might prefer the larger 12.9" model, but is also substantially heavier than the 11" (641 g / 1.41 lbs vs. 471 g / 1.04 lbs.)
The new iPad Air is also a great candidate, if you want something around that 11" size. But it only has two speakers, not four, so the sound won’t be as impressive.
One note: when I watch videos, I find an iPad with white bezels to be distracting. The iPad and iPad mini are the only models that offer this option, if you choose silver or gold bodies. The iPad Pro and iPad Air only offer black bezels.
You need cellular access
You’re in luck: all current iPad models offer a cellular option. It’s not cheap, though; add $130 to $150 in the US to be able to access data on the go. If you have an iPhone, and your carrier lets you set up a personal hotspot, that’s a great way to get data to your iPad or laptop when you’re on the road, so you can avoid the extra cost of the iPad, and the additional mobile contract.
You want the convenience of Face ID
Only the iPad Pro models offer Face ID, and this is very convenient of you use your iPad a lot. All other current models have Touch ID, and these security features allow all models to benefit from Apple Pay. New with the 2020 iPad Air, the Touch ID sensor is in the power button on the top edge of the device. This means that there’s more space for a larger screen with smaller bezels.
Of course, if you use your iPad when you’re out and about, Touch ID may be easier now, in this era of mask wearing. In that case, the new iPad Air might be what you want.
You want the smallest (or biggest) iPad
There are five sizes in the iPad product line: the 12.9” iPad Pro, the 11” iPad Pro; the 10.9" iPad Air; the 10.2" iPad; and the 7.9” iPad mini. If you want the biggest one, it’s clear which you should choose. The sizes of the two middle iPad models are similar enough that they don’t matter. But if you do want a light, compact iPad, the iPad mini is a great choice. It’s got an excellent display and it’s fast enough for most needs. I have the latest iPad mini, and I consider it to be a sort of "paperback" version of my 11" iPad Pro.
It’s worth noting that the iPad mini hasn’t been updated since March 2019. It’s unlikely that Apple will abandon this model, because it is widely used in stores as a payment terminal. I have a feeling that it will become like the iPod touch, updated occasionally to maintain hardware compatibility with iPadOS, but I doubt we’ll see many new features on the iPad mini.
You use FaceTime and Skype a lot
It’s only recently that Apple has upped the resolution of the front cameras so they look good enough to use ofter for video conferencing. And these days, more and more people are using this technology with friends, families, and for work. The iPad Pro, the iPad Air, and the iPad mini all have 7Mp front cameras; only the plain $329 iPad still has a schlocky 1.2-megapixel cameras, which was long the standard on iPads. If you plan to use your iPad often for video chats, think how you’ll look to others with the cheaper front camera.
So, Which iPad Should You Choose?
If you want a new iPad, you can spend anywhere from $329 for the iPad (8th generation) to as much as $1,649 for the 12.9" iPad Pro with 1 TB storage and cellular. And you may want to add a keyboard: count $349 for the forthcoming Magic Keyboard for that model, making it a $2,000 tablet.
Obviously, anyone opting for such an expensive configuration is a professional using the device for demanding tasks, and for such people the price is justified. But for most users, the ideal iPad comes in at a much lower price point. I’d not recommend the basic iPad ($329), unless you’re only planning on using it for the bare minimum. Not that it can’t handle a lot of games, video, and the usual web surfing and messaging, but it will have more difficulty with demanding apps. With the iPad Air, at $599, you get a much better display, the latest, fastest processor, and a device that risks to remain compatible for longer as Apple iterates iPadOS.
Also, think about the longevity of an iPad. This is a device that generally lasts much longer that an iPhone, at least if you’re not using it for work. I have an iPad mini 4, released in late 2015, in my kitchen, where I use it to watch the news when I’m eating breakfast, and to display recipes when I cook. While it’s good enough for these limited use cases, it’s sluggish. But we also have an iPad Air 2, from late 2014, in my household, which works fine, and will probably continue to do so for another couple of years. (The iPad mini 4, while more recent than the iPad Air 2, has a slower processor.) Both of these are the oldest devices that are compatible with iPadOS 14, but they will still function if they can’t update to the next version of iPadOS. iPads are reliable devices, and it’s worth considering that whatever iPad you buy may be around for some time.
No iPad is perfect for everyone. You may find that some of the above use cases match your needs, and others don’t. You may want the features of the biggest iPad Pro, but not the price. So consider all your options to choose which model comes closest to your needs.