Home PC Mag Apple iPad vs. iPad Air vs. iPad mini vs. iPad Pro: Which Tablet Should You Buy?

Apple iPad vs. iPad Air vs. iPad mini vs. iPad Pro: Which Tablet Should You Buy?

Apple iPad vs. iPad Air vs. iPad mini vs. iPad Pro: Which Tablet Should You Buy?
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In 2019, Apples has four different iPad lines with five different screen sizes, ranging in price from $329 to $999 (baseline models; the biggest iPad Pro with cellular connectivity and 1TB of storage will set you back $1,899). That gets pretty complicated if you’re shopping for a new tablet.

To help you figure out what you’re getting with each iPad, let’s look at all the differences between the various models. But let’s start with the similarities, and what you can expect from any Apple tablet you buy today.


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Across the Board: iOS 12, Wireless Connectivity, and Apple Pencil

Ever since its inception, the iPad has run the same operating system as the iPhone: iOS. It’s been Apple’s standard mobile operating system for over a decade, running through 12 separate iterations. That changes in a few months, when Apple officially splits iOS into separate smartphone and tablet branches. iPhones will get iOS 13, while iPads will get iPadOS.

The new tablet-specific operating system will focus on streamlining and expanding multitasking to improve the usefulness of iPads as workplace devices, with pinnable widgets and cross-app workflow features like split screen and rapidly sliding between screens. Our preview of iPadOS takes a closer look at the new system and everything it adds, so you can know what to expect when it comes out this fall.

For now, though, every iPad model available currently runs the latest version of the Apple’s catchall mobile operating system, iOS 12. Improved performance, expanded Screen Time controls, FaceTime with up to 32 people, and all the other features iOS 12 offers can be found on every new iPad.

Wireless connectivity is also almost universally strong across the iPad models. Every version has at least Bluetooth 4.2, dual-band 2.4/5GHz Wi-Fi with MIMO, and optional LTE cellular connectivity. As for future-proofing, none of the iPads support 5G yet; Apple hasn’t even announced its first 5G iPhone, so we’ll be waiting a while for a 5G iPad.

Every new iPad also supports the Apple Pencil. In fact, adding Apple Pencil support is the only significant upgrade the 2018 iPad got over the 2017 model. This doesn’t mean every Apple Pencil is the same; the $99 first-generation Apple Pencil works with the iPad, iPad Air, and iPad mini, while the $129 second-generation Apple Pencil only works with the iPad Pro (and conversely, the iPad Pro only works with the pricier Apple Pencil).

Apple iPad 2018

Apple iPad: Budget Baseline

For a time, the iPad and iPad Air were synonymous as Apple’s midrange tablet. The iPad Air simply replaced the iPad in 2015, and the iPad replaced the iPad Air 2 in 2017. Now Apple is offering current models of both the iPad and the iPad Air, and they’re very different from each other. Instead of sitting nestled between the iPad mini and iPad Pro in price and features, the standard iPad is Apple’s budget tablet, by far the least expensive at $329. It’s also the least powerful.

The 2018 iPad is, again, a very slightly upgraded version of the 2017 model. That means it uses Apple’s A10 Fusion processor, which is a good two generations behind the A12 Bionic used by the iPad Air and iPad mini. Don’t expect it to handle powerful apps or games, or juggle multiple apps at a time, nearly as smoothly as the other iPads. Storage is also more limited, with only 32GB and 128GB models available. The other iPad models start at 64GB and go up to 256GB for the iPad mini and Air, and up to 1TB for the iPad Pro. Since none of the iPads have microSD card slots for expanding storage, 32GB of space is pretty limited.

The iPad’s screen is also the least advanced of the current models. It’s a Retina LCD just like the iPad Air and iPad mini, with a 2,048-by-1,536-pixel resolution for 264 pixels per inch. That’s actually the same resolution as the iPad mini, but the mini’s smaller screen size makes for higher pixel density. It also lacks the lamination and anti-reflective coating of the more expensive models and doesn’t feature Wide Color up to the DCI-P3 color space or Apple’s True Tone setting.

The other lagging factor of the standard iPad is the selfie camera. While it shares the same 8MP rear-facing camera as the other non-Pro iPads, its front-facing camera is a meager 1.2MP. That’s a fraction of the resolution of the 7MP selfie cameras on the iPad mini and iPad Air, and that means your FaceTime calls will look a lot less pleasant to whoever you’re talking to.

The big appeal of the regular iPad is the value it offers for the price. At $329, you’re getting a big, bright screen and lots of functionality that outshines any budget Amazon Fire or Lenovo Android tablet in build quality and polish, and still costs far less than Samsung’s Galaxy Tabs. If you want a versatile entertainment device for watching videos, reading books and comics, browsing the web, communicating with your friends, and even doing light text-crunching and presentations, it’s an excellent choice. Just don’t expect it to do the heavy lifting the other iPads are capable of.

Apple iPad Mini 18

Apple iPad mini: Small But Fierce

With the standard iPad holding down the low end of the price range, the newly updated iPad mini is appealing for its size and power. To start, this is obviously the smallest iPad. It has a 7.9-inch screen, weighs 0.66 pounds, and measures less than a quarter of an inch thick. It’s small enough to fit easily in a bag or even a large jacket pocket, and that has its own appeal if the larger, pound-plus iPads are too bulky for you.

The iPad mini doesn’t make many compromises for its size. Its Retina display is the same 2,048-by-1,536 resolution as the iPad, but the smaller screen means a much denser 326 pixels per inch. If you’re looking at crispness instead of the sheer number of pixels, it’s sharper than even the iPad Pro. It doesn’t have the ProMotion technology of the Liquid Retina display on the Pro, but it features the same P3 Wide Color and TrueTone modes, and fully laminated panel with anti-reflective coating.

It’s also a powerhouse for its size, with the same A12 Bionic processor found in the iPad Air, the iPhone XR, and the iPhone XS. At $399, it’s the least expensive A12-powered device you can buy.

Apple iPad air 22

Apple iPad Air: More iPad Than iPad

The new iPad Air takes up a compelling position between the more budget-friendly iPad and iPad mini and the more powerful iPad Pro. In other words, it can be seen as the new “standard” iPad, sitting in the middle of extremes.

At its heart, however, the iPad Air is simply a bigger version of the iPad mini, and both exist in the middle ground between the standard iPad and the high-end iPad Pro. The iPad Air is nearly identical to the iPad mini except in size, with the same A12 Bionic chip, the same wireless connectivity options, and the same 8MP rear-facing camera and 7MP front-facing camera. The iPad Air is closer to the regular iPad in size and weight, but everything else is identical to the iPad mini. This device is 9.8 inches long and weighs a pound, but that’s really the main difference.

The iPad Air’s screen is larger, of course, measuring 10.5 inches diagonally. It’s a Retina display like the iPad mini, with the same fully laminated panel, P3 Wide Color support, and True Tone mode, but with a higher 2,224-by-1,668 resolution. Of course, the higher resolution is spread across a larger screen, which means it has the same 264 pixels per inch as the iPad and iPad Pro next to the iPad mini’s 326ppi.

Choosing between the iPad Air and iPad mini is almost purely about size and price. The iPad mini is smaller and starts at $399. The iPad Air is larger and starts at $499. If you want a bigger screen, the Air is the obvious choice. If you want to save some cash while keeping the same hardware, the iPad mini is a better bet.

Apple iPad Pro 2018

Apple iPad Pro: Professional Powerhouse

Now we hit the highest points of the iPad lines. The 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros are the most powerful, most expensive, and simply the largest of Apple’s tablets. The Pro in the name makes it clear: These are professional tablets, designed to offer the processing power and screen quality that artists, musicians, designers, and editors demand for their work. That distinction is important because it needs to justify the much higher $799 and $999 baseline price tags the Pro models command over the other versions.

Besides their sizes, the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models are effectively identical. They both use Apple’s A12X Bionic chip, even more powerful than the A12 and comparable with professional laptops in sheer speed according to the few benchmarks we could run that let us directly compare the two types of devices. It even outpaces the Core i7 in a 2018 MacBook Pro in some tests. These are simply some of the most powerful tablets available. And with storage capacities of up to 1TB, you can even get as much space as a professional notebook.

The Liquid Retina displays on both iPad Pro models have the same 264 pixels per inch as the iPad and iPad Air, to complement their higher-resolution screens. The 11-inch screen is 2,388 by 1,688, while the 12.9-inch screen is 2,732 by 2,048. The displays are also fully laminated with anti-reflective coating and support P3 Wide Color and Apple TrueTone, as well as Apple’s ProMotion for up to a 120Hz refresh rate.

The cameras on the iPad Pro models are also significant upgrades over the other iPads. The rear-facing camera is 12MP, with a much wider f/1.8 aperture and quad-LED True Tone flash and Wide Color capture. It can also record 4K video at up to 60 frames per second, while the other iPads can only capture 1080p. The front-facing TrueDepth camera is the same 7MP resolution as the cameras on the iPad Air and iPad mini, but adds an augmented reality-friendly depth sensor that supports Apple’s Animoji and Memoji features and improved portrait modes.

The iPad Pros’ usefulness ultimately depends on what you need to do professionally. While they’re very powerful tablets, Apple’s software feels much more geared toward creatives than business-side number-crunchers, and we find the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 to simply be much more functional in the latter arena. With iPadOS coming soon and bringing new multitasking and workflow features, though, an iPad Pro might become much more compelling as a professional device.

Which iPad Should You Get?

You shouldn’t drop over $1,000 if you just want a tablet to watch Netflix and read comics, but you also shouldn’t expect professional power and features in a $329 budget slate. Thankfully, the new iPad mini and iPad Air mean that Apple’s tablet selection is no longer a question of just those extremes.

We still love the $329 iPad for its functionality and value, but the iPad Mini is our new choice for premium tablets. For just $70 more you step up two generations in hardware, which means much better performance than you’ll get on the iPad. You’ll have a smaller screen, sure, but like smartphones and phablets, the choice between big and small tablets boils down to taste more than anything else; it’s 7.9 inches to 9.7 inches, which isn’t a massive difference. The new iPad Air is also excellent, offering the same performance as the Mini in a larger form factor for $170 more than the regular iPad, with an even bigger screen (10.5 inches).

If you just want an Apple tablet for entertainment and personal use, and size doesn’t matter, go with the iPad Mini. It’s the best of all worlds in the smallest, sleekest package. If you want to save money and don’t mind aging hardware, the regular iPad is still an excellent value, while the iPad Air offers the best performance you’ll get in a full-size iPad without spending $1,000 on an iPad Pro. Of course, if you want to get serious work done on iOS (and later, iPadOS) and you want to stick with Apple’s ecosystem instead of switching to a Surface or other Windows device, the iPad Pro is still your best bet.

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