So, someone in your life wants an iPad. Sounds simple enough, until you take a look at Apple’s website and realize the company currently sells five different iPads, one of which is just called “iPad.” With iPad Air, iPad mini, iPad Pro, and iPad all competing for your money, how are you supposed to know which ones to gift and which to skip?
If you’re browsing Apple’s website, you’re going to see a lot of iPads, but only one called, simply, iPad. It’s confusing, to be sure, and likely adds to the stress of not knowing which model of iPad to buy for that person asking for one. It’s also referred to as iPad 9, since it’s the ninth-generation iPad, and iPad 10.2-inch, since it has a 10.2-inch display.
Apple’s “iPad” is its cheapest. At $329, it comes in $170 less expensive than the iPad mini. It features the A13 Bionic, the same chip found in the iPhone 11 series, and has the aforementioned 10.2-inch display. The iPad has a reputation among tech fans of being a “cheap” tablet. Other iPads are faster, have higher-quality displays and cameras, and sport a more modern form factor (this iPad still has a Home button).
Here’s the thing, though: For most people, the basic iPad is more than enough tablet. The iPad’s display might not be the brightest, have the highest contrast, or have the best color reproduction, but it’s a great display nonetheless. At just over 10 inches, it’s a great size for many different use cases. Watching movies, reading the news, or even acting as a second display for your Mac are all easily done through this screen.
Plus, this iPad supports the first-generation Apple Pencil (make sure you buy the right one!), as well as Apple’s smart keyboard case. The upgraded front camera is great for video calls and supports Apple’s awesome Center Stage feature, which tracks your face during your virtual meetings.
If you do have a little extra room in your budget, consider bumping up the storage size to 256 GB. At $479, it’s still cheaper than the 64 GB iPad mini, and you quadruple your storage.
The only feature that you really can’t get on the iPad is 5G. The cellular models for most other iPads currently support 5G, so if that’s important to the person you’re buying for, this iPad won’t be for them. However, if you’re only looking at wifi iPads, it’s not even something to think about.
In short, it’s an iPad. It cuts corners in areas only a niche audience will really care about. For most people, this iPad will do everything they want an iPad to do, and probably a lot more. It’s rare to see a “budget” version of an expensive tech product that is as competent and useful as the iPad, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone that doesn’t need the additional features we’re about to cover below.
The iPad mini has always been an interesting tablet. Its small form factor makes it ideal for travel and portability and for reading, so much so that I’d wager it’s the iPad that steals the most business away from Amazon’s Kindle—at least the more traditional models.
But for a long time, the iPad mini was a bit stale. It kept the same design for the longest time, which kept power users from taking it seriously. Apple changed that this year, releasing an iPad mini that basically looks like a mini iPad Air. Honestly, they could have named this the iPad Air mini and gotten away with it.
This latest iPad mini is fantastic. It features the A15, the iPhone 13 lineup’s chipset. That means it’s fast, and it will be supported for a long time. Apple currently supports my iPad Air 2 which came out in 2014, so you could expect 2021’s A15 chip to be supported through at least 2028 (and hopefully even longer).
The iPad mini’s 8.3-inch screen is excellent, boasting a P3 wide color display. That means colors are going to pop more on the iPad mini than they do on the iPad 9. However, you have to remember, there’s a nearly two-inch difference in size between the tablets’ displays. The iPad mini might not work for people who want to multitask on their tablet or use it as another display. While you can certainly do both on the iPad mini, it could feel a bit cramped, especially compared to the 10.2-inch display on the iPad 9.
That’s why, for all of the benefits of the iPad mini, we recommend it most for people who are going to use it for travel or who want a middle-ground between phone and tablet. For larger tablet needs, there’s obviously the less expensive iPad 9, but there is also…
The current iPad Air is in a bit of a conundrum. When it was first released, it was really the iPad to beat. The base iPad wasn’t quite as capable as the current one, and the iPad Pros were expensive. This iPad Air, however, was powerful, gorgeous, and had a great display for a reasonable cost. How could you go wrong?
Unfortunately, the 2021 holiday season finds the iPad Air in a strange spot. With the iPad 9 being so capable for the price, and the iPad mini filling those holes a bit, the iPad Air might be a tough sell for $600.
Here’s my sell, though: The iPad Air is the best iPad for anyone who wants more features than the iPad 9 but wouldn’t find the smaller form factor of the iPad mini to be useful. Someone who wants a larger screen for movies, multitasking, or other general use, who also wants a beautiful, P3 wide color display with a modern look would find the iPad Air to suit their needs best.
That said, keep in mind that the iPad Air, while $100 more expensive than the mini, is actually slower. It uses the A14 chip, while the iPad mini gets the A15. That’s not a huge deal (after all, we fully endorsed the A13 on the iPad), but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re comparing the pros and cons of these machines. Not to mention, the Air doesn’t have the mini’s 5G capabilities, if you’re looking at the cellular models.
Apple has been living up to the “Pro” name recently, and the latest iPad Pros are no exception. For 2021, Apple decided to give these iPads the same M1 chip found in the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and iMac, although, sadly, the iPad Pro can’t run macOS (a guy can dream).
Just as the iPad 9 is the iPad for most people, 11-inch iPad Pro is the iPad for most power users. It starts at $800, which is obviously expensive. But it isn’t the most expensive iPad Apple makes, and for $800, you’re getting a lot for your money.
It’s the second cheapest way to snag an M1 chip, for one (just behind the $699 Mac mini). It features an excellent dual-camera setup (including an ultra-wide shooter found on recent iPhones), comes with a 120 Hz high refresh rate display, and, besides offering 128 GB in the base model, it has the best microphones and speakers of any iPad.
It’s also compatible with Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio, which, while also expensive, puts a Magic Keyboard and trackpad into one case (talk about convenient). To be fair, you can use a smart keyboard with the iPad 9, and simply connect a Magic Trackpad to the iPad for a similar effect, but only the iPad Pro gives you the whole package in one Apple case.
God, I wish I practiced what I preached. For what I need an iPad for, I should be buying the iPad 9. Hell, I could get away with the 64 GB model. $329 is all I need to get my stuff done on Apple’s tablet. And yet …
Apple’s 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a fantastic, expensive, best-of-the-best iPad. Not only do you get all of the excellent features we listed with the 11-inch Pro, you also get my personal favorite feature: the mini-LED Liquid Retina XDR display.
The mini-LED display is the biggest leap forward for iPad displays in a long time. Unlike all other iPad displays, which rely on a single backlight to illuminate the display, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s display contains 10,000 mini-LED, which also contain 2,500 “local dimming zones.” In short, these zones can light up only the parts of the display that you want active.
The result is the highest contrast display you can find on iPad. If you’re watching a movie and there are black bars on the top and bottom of the movie, they will appear totally black. In dark environments, they’ll completely disappear so you’ll only see your movie. That applies to all dark elements of the display, but that feature is why I love OLED and mini-LED screens.
If you’re not someone who cares about displays in that way, you might not notice the effect without using two iPads side-by-side. I promise, it’s an awesome difference, and one that movie nerds and tech nerds alike love to see on an iPad.
Let me be clear, though: This is not an iPad that most people need. At an $1100 starting price, it’s one for professionals who need the largest display possible, and also people who love the highest quality displays possible. I happen to fall into the second category, so, if anyone has a connection at the North Pole, I’d love to get in touch.