iPad buying guide: How to choose an iPad Pro, iPad Air, or iPad mini

These days, picking an iPad can be tricky, but here's the lowdown on which model is right for you.

So you’re in the market for a new iPad. Excellent choice—I couldn’t live without mine. It’s my companion when I’m catching up on news and email in the morning over tea, reading a comic book in the evening to unwind, or watching a movie while traveling on a plane.

But these days, picking an iPad can be tricky. Apple currently sells five different models of iPad, with prices ranging from the $US269 (AU$369) to $US1079 (AU$1699). There are size, storage, color, and connectivity options to consider. All in all, there are 61 different variations of iPad from which to choose. So which iPad is right for you? Read on.

If you want it all: iPad Pro

The iPad Pro is the newest and biggest iPad, with a 12.9-inch diagonal screen. It’s a bit like someone ripped the screen off of a 13-inch laptop and turned it into an iPad. The iPad Pro is also the fastest iOS device ever and offers many features that aren’t available on any other device.

ipadpro lineup late 2015 stock Apple

iPad Pro

If you’re an artist who has dreamed of having a larger and more responsive iPad to draw on, the iPad Pro is a dream come true. It’s the only iPad that supports the $US99 Apple Pencil, and while there are other pressure-sensitive iPad styluses on the market, this is the one that’s made by Apple—and that means it will probably be the best in its class, if for no other reason that it will be deeply integrated into the iPad Pro’s software. The iPad Pro’s screen can scan for the location of the Apple Pencil 240 times per second, twice the rate of other iPads.

If you’re someone who does a lot of serious work on your iPad, the iPad Pro is made for you, too—its larger screen is perfect for running two apps in Split View. And rather than having to rely on a Bluetooth connection to attach an external keyboard, the new Smart Connector supplies data and power to both Apple’s $169 ($AU269) Smart Keyboard (which doubles as a carrying case) as well as other forthcoming keyboards, including the Logitech Create.

But despite its name, the iPad Pro isn’t just a tool for artists and other people wanting a more powerful and expansive iPad to get work done. It’s also a fantastic (albeit pricey) entertainment device, thanks to its stereo speakers and that gorgeous 2732-by-2048-pixel display.

For all its size, the iPad Pro doesn’t feel heavy. At 1.6 pounds, it’s about as heavy as the original iPad—but its weight is spread over a much larger area, making it comfortable to hold.

Color options: Silver, Gold, Space Gray.

Storage options: 32GB ($US799, $AU1249 ) or 128GB ($US949, $AU1499).

Cellular option: Only the 128GB model is available with a cellular variant, for $US1079 ($AU1699).

Who it’s for: Artists, people who use their iPads to get work done, and anyone who wants a big, bright screen (and good audio) for watching videos.

The all-purpose powerhouse: iPad Air 2

It was introduced more than a year ago now, but the iPad Air 2 is still the beating heart at the center of the iPad product line. It was so advanced compared to any other iOS device that preceded it, that even a year later it’s the model that most people should consider when they’re shopping for a new iPad.

apple ipad air 2 3up stock Apple

iPad Air 2

In terms of tech specs, the iPad Air 2 is impressive: It’s got a three-core Apple A8X processor and 2GB of RAM. This year’s iPad Mini 4 can’t even match it in terms of speed, and the extra RAM improves almost everything when it comes to switching among a bunch of different apps. While it’s technically “last year’s model,” it’s probably more accurate to say that the iPad Air 2 was next year’s model back in 2014, and in 2015 it’s still in its prime.

The iPad Air 2’s 9.7-inch display puts it firmly in the center of the iPad product line. It’s got the same screen size as the original iPad model from five years ago—but of course, things have advanced an awful lot since then. This screen is a Retina display at 2048-by-1536 pixels, and is laminated to an anti-reflective glass coating, the result being a relatively low-glare screen that feels incredibly close to the surface. It’s also thin and light, weighing in at less than a pound.

Yes, the displays of the iPad Air 2 and the iPad mini 2 offer the exact same number of pixels. What sets them apart is sheer size. On the Air, those pixels are given room to breathe—and if you’ve got aging eyes, you’ll be grateful for that. I’ve found reading comic books much more pleasurable on the iPad Air 2 than on the iPad mini, and it’s entirely down to the fact that everything on the screen is bigger.

To sum it all up, the iPad Air 2 is a powerful, thin, light iPad with a beautiful screen. It’s the mainstream iPad and the one that most potential iPad buyers should consider first.

Color options: Silver, Gold, Space Gray.

Storage options: 16GB ($US499, $AU699), 64GB ($US599, $AU829), or 128GB ($US699, $AU959).

Cellular options: 16GB ($US629, $AU859), 64GB ($US729, $AU989), or 128GB ($US829, $AU1119).

Who it’s for: Just about anyone, but especially people who are happy to trade a little weight and size for a larger screen that’s more comfortable for imperfect eyes to scan.

Small is beautiful: iPad mini 4

Apple pretty much took 2014 off when it came to the iPad mini, adding a Touch ID sensor (and very little else) to the iPad mini 3. But 2015 has been very, very good to fans of the smallest iPad. The iPad mini 4 is powered by a speedy A8 processor and has 2GB of RAM, making it almost—but not quite—the match of its big brother, the iPad Air 2. The Air 2 is a little bit faster, but only by a hair. And the iPad mini 4 has access to all the advanced features of iOS 9 that its predecessors didn’t have, including Split View multitasking.

ipad mini 4 models stock Apple

iPad mini 4

The iPad mini 4’s screen is also to die for. The Retina display is laminated directly to the glass, reducing reflection and making you feel like the pixels are right underneath your fingers. The 2048-by-1536-pixel resolution is the same as the iPad Air 2—the only different is that all 3.1 million pixels are packed into a 7.9-inch diagonal screen, as opposed to the Air’s 9.7-inch diagonal.

But making the trade-off that favors smaller size is what the iPad mini line has always been about. It’s a pretty great size, at 8 inches tall by 5.3 inches wide, and weighing two-thirds of a pound. My 11-year-old son has been toting around an iPad mini for the last couple of years, and he absolutely loves it. As for me, I always found the smaller size of the iPad mini preferable to the iPad Air, but in the last year I’ve become aware that my aging eyes feel a lot less strain when viewing all those pixels on a bigger screen.

If you want the smallest screen with the most power, though, the iPad mini 4 delivers.

Color options: Silver, Gold, Space Gray.

Storage options: 16GB ($US399, $AU569), 64GB ($US499, $AU699), or 128GB ($US599, $AU829).

Cellular options: 16GB ($US529, $AU729), 64GB ($US629, $AU859), or 128GB ($US729, $AU989).

Who it’s for: It’s the perfect device for someone who wants it all, but wants to keep it small.

Big screen, lower price tag: iPad Air

The original iPad Air, released in 2013, is still available for sale. It’s $US100 or $US150 less than the iPad Air 2, but it’s quite a bit slower and doesn’t have access to some new features like Split View multitasking. The screen, while the same resolution as the iPad Air 2, isn’t laminated to the glass, so it’s got more glare and feels a bit further away when you hold it.

ipad air pair stock Apple

iPad Air

This is not a bad iPad by any means, but it is two-year-old technology, and for the same price as the 16GB model you can buy the 16GB iPad mini 4, which is faster and has more RAM. The best buy in the line is the 32GB model, which is $US150 less than the iPad Air 2—but also has half the storage capacity. And you can’t get more than 32GB of capacity in this model—if you want more storage, you’ll need to buy a different model.

In general, we’re reluctant to recommend that anyone buy an original iPad Air unless price is absolutely the biggest consideration, and even then, the iPad mini 4 is worth considering. Chances are good that many future iOS features will not include this device, so if you care about speed and a long device life, steer clear. On the other hand, the iPad Air has a big 9.4-inch Retina display and is perfectly suitable for everything but the most taxing productivity multitasking and the latest cutting-edge games.

Color options: Silver, Space Gray.

Storage options: 16GB ($US399, $AU569), 32GB ($US449, $AU629).

Cellular options: 16GB ($US529, $AU729), 32GB ($US579, $AU789).

Who it’s for: Price-conscious buyers who want a full-size iPad and don’t mind if it’s a little slower than the mainstream model.

The low price leader: iPad mini 2

Like the iPad Air, the iPad mini 2 was originally released in 2013. As a result, it’s slower and has less RAM than modern models. But it’s the cheapest iPad by far, starting at $US269 ($AU369). For that price, you get a light (three-quarters of a pound), small iPad that’s got the same 2048-by-1536 resolution as the other iPad mini and iPad air models.

ipad mini 2 stock Apple

iPad mini 2

Yes, there are some concerns about buying a new iPad that’s using two-year-old technology. Certainly if you were someone who was committed to cutting-edge games and multitasking between lots of productivity apps, this model might not be for you. But if there’s someone in your life who just wants to play games, or surf the web, or check Twitter, this is a pretty great little tablet for a pretty great price.

Until this summer, when I switched to the iPad Air 2, my everyday iPad was an iPad mini 2, and I loved it. Yes, it’s not as good as this year’s models, but it’s still pretty great.

As with the iPad mini 4, my only caution is for people who are older and are dealing with aging eyes or failing eyesight. My mother’s first iPad was an original iPad mini, but she’s much happier now with a full-sized iPad Air. The mini screen size is ideal for people with good vision.

Color options: Silver, Space Gray.

Storage options: 16GB ($US269, $AU369), 32GB ($US319, $AU429).

Cellular options: 16GB ($US399, $AU529), 32GB ($US449, $AU589).

Who it’s for: Kids, casual users, pretty much anyone who wants a low-cost iPad and doesn’t mind the smaller screen size.

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