Which iPad Is Best for You?

Posted on April 10th, 2020 by

Ten years ago this month, 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, recently releasing the 20th version of the device, the latest iPad Pro.

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 two or three 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 take a 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

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. These are the latest, fastest, most capable iPads, and they offer Apple’s new Smart Connector to which allows you to use the Smart Keyboard Folio, or the new Magic Keyboard. 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 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.

It’s worth noting that if you have a 2018 iPad Pro, then the recently released 2020 model offers little improvement, other than a camera system similar to that of the iPhone 11, and a LiDAR scanner, which is useful for augmented reality applications. But as there aren’t many of the latter, it may be too early for most people to consider buying the newest model for that feature.

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 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.

You play iOS games

If like to play iOS games – and I don’t mean solitaire or crossword puzzles – then you definitely want an iPad Pro. With the latest A12 processor, these models have desktop speed, and the graphics are astounding. 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. But, as above, if you have a 2018 iPad Pro, you won’t see much boost with the newest models. They have essentially the same processor, and initial tests have shown that the raw speed of these models isn’t very different.

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 (3rd generation) starts at 64 GB, with an option for 256 GB. And the iPad (7th 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 (3rd generation) – starting at $499
  • iPad mini (5th generation) – starting at $399
  • iPad (7th 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 7th generation is a great deal. Since 2017, Apple has been releasing these iPad (without modifier) models at a great price of $329, and the current model is the third in this product line. With 64 GB storage, this iPad is sufficient for most needs, but you can bump that to 256 GB.

The $499 iPad Air (3rd generation) is the next step up, and it has a better True Tone display, and a faster processor, but most people won’t notice the difference.

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 videos 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.

The newest iPad Pro models have similar displays and audio, so, as I’ve said a couple of times already, don’t upgrade if yours is the previous generation. However, 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.)

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.

You want to smallest (or biggest) iPad

There are five sizes in the iPad product line: the 12.9” iPad Pro, the 11” iPad Pro; the 10.5" 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 basic 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.

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. The iPad Pro, the iPad Air, and the iPad mini all have 7Mp front cameras; only the plain $329 iPad 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 plain iPad, 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 plain 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 a shorter lifespan going forward as Apple updates iOS. For $499, you get a much better display, a slightly faster processor, and a device that risks to remain compatible for longer as Apple iterates iOS.

Also, think about the longevity of an iPad. If you only use it at home, it may last a long time. 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, and will probably not be updatable to iOS 14. 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 13, 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.

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Macs, iPods, iTunes, books, music and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast and PhotoActive, and a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than twenty books, including Take Control books about iTunes, LaunchBar, and Scrivener. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →