Should I buy an iPad mini or an iPad 4?

Features, specs and price compared: which is right for you?

Which to buy? Apple iPad 4 (also known simply as 'iPad with Retina display'), iPad 2, iPad mini? Or hold out for the iPad mini 2 or the iPad 5? Our buying advice will help you decide on your next Apple tablet.

Which iPad should you buy?
Which iPad should you buy?

Potential Apple iPad customers are faced with more questions than ever. Should you get a new iPad at all? If so, which model: iPad 4, iPad mini or iPad 2? What storage capacity should you opt for? And should you buy one with cellular connectivity? Finally, do upcoming launches of the iPad mini 2 and iPad 5 make it a better option to wait and see?

That's a lot of questions. We'll address them - and a few others - one by one. Before we dive in too deep though, here's a quick spoiler: which iPad is right for you depends on what you need, and there's no perfect answer. But we can at least run down the right points to consider before you decide whether to lighten your wallet, and if so, by how much.

Do I need a new iPad?

We love our iPads, but we're not convinced anyone truly needs an iPad. More than a computer, it still feels like a luxury device: you can derive great joy from one, but need is a strong word. The exception is if you have to replace an old Mac or PC, and your computing requirements are simple - email, web browsing, word processing, games, and the like - you can probably forgo that replacement PC and rely on a new iPad instead.

Still, if you want an iPad, and if you can find a model that fits your budget, then sure, you should buy one.

I already own an iPad. Should I upgrade?

If you already own an iPad, the issue gets a little more complicated. If you own one of Apple's original, first-generation iPads, the sorry truth is that your tablet from April 2010 is getting a little long in the tooth. Yes, it's still a fine device; despite its lack of a Retina display, it works well, runs apps, and can multi-touch with the best of them.

The problem, however, is that your original iPad can't run iOS 6. Already, some popular apps require the latest version of iOS as their base operating system, and that trend won't abate. If you're not already encountering apps you can't update or install on your tablet, then you can probably squeeze more time out of the device. But if you're frustrated by your inability to install certain apps - or to avail yourself of the many new features built into iOS 6 - with your original iPad, now is as good a time as any to upgrade.

Many existing iPad owners may lust after the new iPad mini. Apple would certainly love for them to buy that new, 7.9in tablet. But the company's key aim with the smaller offering is to attract buyers who don't yet have an iPad. Unless you're constantly bemoaning your current 10in tablet's size or weight, the case for existing iPad owners to buy a mini is tough to make. And unless your family could benefit from an additional iPad - or you're a gadget hound for whom money is no object - you may want to sit this release out.

I have the third-generation iPad. Should I buy the fourth-generation version?

Probably not. Your third-generation iPad is the same powerful, Retina-display-sporting iPad it was at launch time. Sure, the latest option has a faster processor and further improved Wi-Fi speeds. Remember, though, your model is no slouch - in fact, it's downright speedy.

I don't want to buy an iPad then see a new iPad appear weeks later. When are the next iPads likely to launch?

Predicting Apple's plans and being right 100 per cent of the time is impossible, but the fourth-generation iPad release was seen as an indicator that Apple is shifting the tablet's launch cycle from March to October, and the iPad 5 obviously hasn't shown up yet. We'll probably have to wait until October 2013 for the fifth-generation iPad to appear. Bookmark our iPad 5 launch date rumour page for regular updates.

As for the iPad mini 2... well that might turn up a bit sooner - see our iPad mini 2 launch date rumour page for more. Still, Tim Cook made comments recently that implied that most of Apple's big ticket releases will come in autumn.

Generally speaking, our advice is always simple: don't wait for the next release or you'll end up never buying anything. It's in the nature of technology that your buy will be (relatively) out of date soon, but unless you have solid reason to believe an upgrade is right around the corner, you may as well make the plunge - if the product in question is right for your needs, of course.

I have an iPhone; my wife has an iPod touch. Isn't the iPad mini redundant?

No. Your iPhone and iPod touch run iPhone apps. The mini runs iPad apps. Yes, when Apple first unveiled the iPad, people called it a big iPod touch, and the mini is a bit like a smaller big iPod touch. But they're different devices, geared toward different uses.

The iPad is an all-purpose portable computing device, capable of word processing, photo editing and relatively complex 3D gaming: it's absolutely capable of content creation, contrary to what early critics claimed. The iPad mini is more of a content consumption device. But the difference in screen size from the iPod touch and iPhone makes it a far more comfortable e-reader, a legitimate film watching device, a more advanced games unit. It's a wonderful crossover device.

I'm buying a new iPad. Should I pick the fourth-gen, the iPad mini, or the iPad 2?

Frankly, we think it's increasingly difficult to make a compelling argument for buying the iPad 2. Prices start at $429, while those for the iPad mini start at $369. Internally, every specification on the smaller option matches or surpasses what the iPad 2 offers, and it costs less money. You sacrifice a couple of inches of screen space, but the mini released in 2012 will support more iOS releases than the iPad 2, first released in 2011. The forward-thinking purchase is the more powerful iPad mini - if cost is a key concern for you.

The fourth-generation iPad starts at $539. If you don't mind spending the $170 difference between the mini and Apple's latest full-size tablet, this model is certainly worth considering: it's the fastest, most powerful iPad that's been made to date. Just as the mini will surely outlive the iPad 2, the fourth-generation model's beefier internals suggest it could outlive the mini.

If instead you prefer the smaller size, easier portability and one-handed use of the iPad mini, then it may well be the better option, so long as you won't begrudge its lack of a Retina display.

I know which iPad I want. Which size should I buy? Do I need the cellular option?

You can't upgrade your iPad's storage. Our advice is consistent: buy as much storage as you can afford. The base model of each iPad comes with 16GB; the 32GB model is available for $110 more, and the 64GB model costs $220 more. In the case of the fourth-generation iPad, the costs are $539, $649 and $759 for 16GB, 32GB and 64GB, respectively, though there's also a 128GB model available for $869. The iPad mini versions are $369, $479 and $589.

(The iPad 2, as is common with older Apple devices, has had its range of storage options slashes. Only the 16GB version is available. This could be another factor in your choice.)

Apps are getting bigger and bigger. If you don't use iTunes Match, your music library can take up a lot of space, too. And if you sync your photos and movies to the iPad well, now we're talking serious gigabytes. Quite simply, in our case 16GB is far too confining on an iOS device these days.

With iTunes Match and aggressive photo deletion (after syncing those photos to a Mac), we find that 32GB works fine for our needs right now. We only hope that Apple increases the iPad's base storage before even 32GB gets too tight.

Adding cellular data options to your iPad also adds $140 to its cost. A $539 16GB fourth-generation model costs $679 with a cellular option added on - and that's before you start paying for the data itself.

Whether or not you want a cellular-equipped iPad will depend on how you intend to use it. This writer manages just fine with a laptop and its Wi-Fi-only access to the internet, has never been let down by a Wi-Fi-only iPad, and has never used the cellular connectivity on his third-generation iPad in the half-year he has owned the device. But you may well use your tablet differently.

If you want your iPad online wherever you are, remember that - as with storage - built-in cellular connectivity is a now-or-never option. You can't upgrade later. If you'll ever want it, you need to buy an iPad that supports it.

Wrap it up for me: what's the final word?

In short, if you want an iPad and can afford an iPad, buy one. If you crave portability and aren't fussed about a Retina display - or if budget is a key concern - the mini is your best option. Don't choose the iPad 2 unless your priority is screen size (and not screen sharpness).

Purchase as much storage as you can afford, and get cellular connectivity only if you intend to use your device regularly while away from reliable Wi-Fi.

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Tags iPadsmartphonestabletsAppleiPhonehardware systemsconsumer electronics

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David Price

Macworld U.K.
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