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How to choose an iPad: A practical guide to Apple’s tablets

It’s been a while since Apple made choosing an iPad easy.

There was an overwhelming number of iPad models on store shelves for quite some time and Apple caught a lot of well-deserved flack for the complexity of its tablet portfolio, most of it centered around the difference — or lack thereof — between iPads. There were multiple versions of the Air and Mini, and that was before the company introduced the 9.7-inch and 12.9-inch Pro models.

More: What’s the best MacBook for your money? Hint — you can forget the Touch Bar

Thankfully, the iPad hierarchy is now a lot simpler. The 12.9-inch Pro is the most expensive at $800, and its smaller cousin, the 9.7-inch Pro, sits below at $600. The 9.7-inch iPad, at $330, is your budget option, while the $400, 7.9-inch Mini 4 is the only small iPad still available.

Just because the new iPad lineup is smaller, however, doesn’t mean choosing the right model for you has become any less challenging. Spec breakdowns are one thing, but context is another. What good is a 12-inch screen if you value portability above all else? And why pay more for a top-of-the-line graphics chip if you only game casually?

In an attempt to answer those questions and others, we’ve evaluated every iPad pragmatically in an attempt to identify the most appropriate use for each. It’s a buying guide in the truest sense of the phrase: The merits and deficiencies of each iPad are laid bare in everyday language. To say it’ll lead to the perfect purchase is facetious — there’s no such thing, after all — but our guide should, at the very least, help you choose which iPads to consider and which to avoid.

The budget-conscious iPad — iPad ($330+)

The latest 9.7-inch iPad, unveiled in March, is one of the most affordable Apple has ever offered. It’s the cheapest option in the current iPad lineup, after the iPad Mini 2 was discontinued.

This is a great tablet for watching movies, thanks to a 9.7-inch Retina display with a 2,048 x 1,536-pixel resolution. It has a speedy A9 processor and a big battery that can go for 10 hours on a single charge. You’ll also find an 8-megapixel rear camera, a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera, two speakers, a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, support for Apple Pay, and a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack.

With the announcement of the new iPad, Apple also revealed that the iPad Air 2 will be discontinued. There’s actually little difference between the two. The new iPad is thicker at 7.5 millimeters, compared to the svelte, 6.1-millimeter Air 2. It also has a newer, faster processor than its sibling, and it’s a little heavier, with a bigger battery. But the new iPad lacks the cutting -edge processing power and the 12-megapixel camera found on the 9.7-inch Pro.

What’s that all that mean in practical terms? If you don’t demand a superior shooter, play the latest games, or run extraordinarily demanding apps, the iPad will suit you just fine. It’s comfortable in the hand and ideal for casual content consumption — reading, watching movies, casual gaming, etc. It may do for productivity in a pinch, too, and you’ll have no trouble snagging a decent keyboard. But for serious work, the Pro range is where to look.

It’s hard to find much fault with the iPad at $330. It’s the cheapest model you’ll find outside the used or refurbished market. If budget is your primary consideration, the iPad is the obvious winner.

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The powerful and compact iPad — iPad Mini 4 ($400+)

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If power in a small form factor is what you seek, the iPad Mini 4 delivers. An evolution of the much-maligned iPad Mini 3, it addresses all of its predecessor’s shortcomings and more: it’s got the same A8 processor as the iPhone 6, an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera, faster Wi-Fi (802.11ac), Touch ID, and a thinner (6.1mm) and lighter (0.65lbs) aluminum exterior.

But the differences end there. It takes design cues from the iPad Mini 3, has the same quoted battery life (10 hours), and sports an identical screen screen resolution (2,048 x 1,536 pixels).

There’s new software to consider. The iPad Mini 4’s updated silicon supports all of iOS 9’s multitasking features — Slide Over, Picture in Picture, and Split View. Split View, by far the most compelling of the three, lets you arrange and interact with two side-by-side apps. You can copy and paste text from an adjacent Wikipedia article into a Word doc, for instance, or watch a video while answering email. (Multiple windows on a screen size that comparatively small may be difficult to maneuver, granted.)

The iPad Mini 4 has chops in other areas. The 8-megapixel camera packs autofocus and aperture improvements over the iPad Mini 3, and the A8 — which powers the new Apple TV, incidentally — can handle almost any graphics-intensive game thrown at it.

In sum, the iPad Mini 4 can multitask like a pro, take great pictures, and play the newest games. If those prospects excite you, go for it. But if they don’t, or if you’d like those features in a larger body, then consider stepping an iPad tier up or down. Read our full review.

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The elephant in the room — iPad Pro 12.9 ($800+)

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The iPad Pro is Apple’s biggest tablet, measuring a ruler-busting 12.9 inches. It’s thick and hefty, too, at about 6.9 mm deep and 1.57 lbs — a tad thinner, but heavier than the original iPad.

Justifying that footprint is what Apple’s been calling “desktop-level” performance and features, and our impressions support those assertions. The iPad Pro’s display is a whopping 2,732 x 2,048 pixels, higher in resolution than any of the other iPads, and driven by the A9X processor, a beefed-up version of the A9, paired with 4GB of memory. It’s well-endowed externally, too: The Pro sports a four-speaker array, a Touch ID sensor, an 8-megapixel camera, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and LTE connectivity. It’s a multitasking monster.

Accoutrements are only a part of the Pro equation, though. The real value proposition is ostensibly in the accessories. There’s the Smart Keyboard, an iPad cover with attached QWERTY keys, and there’s the far more interesting Apple Pencil. It’s Apple’s first attempt at a stylus, and the company’s touting its superiority to competing styli in the areas of pressure sensitivity (it can differentiate between hard and light presses) and battery (it lasts up to 12 hours).

All told, the Pro may be the ultimate iPad. It certainly delivers on performance, and extras like dual stereo speakers and Touch ID are icing on the cake. But it’s not for everyone. The Pro’s far and away the most expensive iPad at a base price of $800. Its immense screen is as unavoidably awkward as it is unwieldy — it’ll be tough to finagle the Pro on a subway, much less a plane. And the productivity tools that truly make it shine, the Smart keyboard and Apple Pencil, are an up-sell ($100 for the Pencil and $160 for the keyboard).

Apple’s angling for a very particular market with the Pro: enterprise and corporate users who might otherwise be swayed by a PC equivalent, such as Microsoft’s Surface. That’s not to say its features don’t appeal to the average crowd, but unless you’re willing to put up with the very real drawbacks the 12.9-inch Pro’s size confers, you might consider a more portable option. Read our full review

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The best of all worlds — iPad Pro 9.7 ($600+)

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Perhaps Apple realized that gigantic tablets don’t really appeal to the vast majority of folks. The smaller variant of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro — dubbed the 9.7-inch iPad Pro — will hit the sweet spot for a lot of people. It’s in many ways a carbon copy, albeit a smaller one, of its predecessor. The 9.7-inch model sports the same A9X processor as its larger sibling, along with the same multi-speaker array and Retina display with a 2,048 x 1,536-pixel resolution. It’s also compatible with many, if not all, of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s accessories, including the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard.

That’s not to say they’re identical, however. The diminutive iPad Pro packs only half the RAM — 2GB — of its counterpart, and features improved camera components in the form of a 12-megapixel rear-facing shooter and 5-megapixel front-facing sensor. By and large, though, the differences are negligible. From an experiential standpoint, you’re getting the same tech from last year’s iPad Pro in a slimmer, lighter package.

For most people, that’s a no-brainer. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s got portability and processing prowess in its favor, plus the added benefit of compatibility with future 12.9-inch iPad Pro accessories. And it’s only marginally more expensive than the iPad Air 2 — $600 versus $400.

If you’re compelled to pick up the latest-and-greatest Apple device and don’t mind putting down a few more Benjamins for the privilege, the iPad Pro’s your best bet. Read our full review

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Conclusion

There is, as we said in the beginning, no perfect iPad. The iPad lacks the Pro’s decked-out audio and top-of-the-line processor; the iPad Mini 4 is the only compact choice; and the 12-inch iPad Pro is a bit on the large side. But there are iPads more appropriate for some users than others. Want a cheap, relatively uncompromising iPad? The standard 9.7-inch iPad’s just fine. Want a top-of-the-line tablet you can fit in your briefcase? Opt for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Ultimately, of course, a written guide is no substitute for the real thing. When it comes time to make a purchasing decision, reserve some hands-on time. Scope out the iPads at your local Best Buy or Apple Store, and get a feel for their respective strengths and limitations. They aren’t the cheapest investment, after all, so take it slow. Weigh your options carefully.

Then buy your iPad and enjoy the hell out of it.

This article was originally published on June 30 and updated on March 23 by Simon Hill to include recent lineup changes.