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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.

Last year, the introduction of new and rebadged hardware led to an overwhelming number of models on store shelves: the iPad Mini, iPad Mini 2, iPad Mini 3, iPad Air, and iPad Air 2. Apple caught a lot of well-deserved flack for its tablet portfolio’s complexity, and most of it centered around the difference — or lack thereof — between iPads. And that was before it introduced the 9.7-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models.

Related: Everything you need to know about Apple’s new iPad Pro

With the cutting-edge new tablets at the top of Apple’s catalog, the iPad hierarchy is now a lot simpler. It’s ordered according to size, and that sizing now corresponds roughly to pricing. The 12-inch iPad Pro is the most expensive at $800, and its smaller cousin, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, sits below at $600. The 10-inch iPad Air 2 ($500), meanwhile, occupies the midrange slot, while the smallest iPads — the iPad Mini 4 ($400) and iPad Mini 2 ($270) — round out the low end.

Just because the new lineup of iPads is more diverse doesn’t mean choosing one has become any less challenging. Spec breakdowns are one thing, but context is another. What good’s 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?

Related: Why the Apple Pencil is a game changer for artists

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 iPads to avoid.

All iPads compared

The budget-conscious iPad — iPad Mini 2 ($270+)

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The iPad Mini 2 may be two years old, but thanks to undiminished support in the form of continued software updates (iOS 9 on September 16) and price cuts, it still sells at a steady clip.

Of the two smaller, 7.9-inch iPads that make up Apple’s current lineup, the Mini 2 is the lowest barrier to entry. There’s a simple explanation: it sports an aging processor (the same A7 found in the iPhone 5S), omits Apple’s fingerprint-scanning Touch ID sensor, and packs a lower-specced camera than the Mini 2’s pricier counterparts. In the plus column, it retains a Retina display and stereo speakers, and runs 10 hours on a charge.

What’s that all that mean in practical terms? If you prefer a smaller iPad and don’t dabble in photography, play the latest games, or run extraordinarily demanding apps, the Mini 2 will suit you just fine. It’s comfortable in the hand (7.5lbs and 7.5mm thin), and quite good for casual content consumption — reading, watching TV and movies, and perhaps tapping out a few emails. There’s nothing precluding any sort of productivity, of course — a few companies even sell aftermarket keyboards for the Mini 2 — but the lack of screen real estate and true multitasking (more on that later) are pretty big impediments to serious work.

It’s hard to find much fault with the Mini 2 at its newly reduced price of $270. It’s the cheapest you’ll find an iPad off the used or refurbished market. If budget’s you’re primary consideration, the Mini 2 is the obvious winner. Read our full review

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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).

But 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.)

And 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 most any graphics-heavy 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 king of the budget crop — iPad Air 2 ($400+)

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It may have been released a year ago, but the iPad Air 2 — the follow-up to the first-generation Air — is still an outstanding tablet. It’s incredibly thin (6mm) and feather light (0.96lbs), easily besting other iPads in those areas. More importantly, though, it’s fast. Super fast. At its core sits an A8X processor, a step down from the A9X chips that power the iPad Pro 9.7 and 12.9.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The iPad Air 2 has a 10-inch laminated screen with great color reproduction and deep blacks. It’s got the same 8-megapixel rear-facing camera as the Mini 4. It has a Touch ID sensor. It lasts 10 hours on battery. And crucially, it supports iOS 9’s multitasking features, including Split View.

Concededly, the Air 2 isn’t without its shortcomings. The speakers are tinny, and it lacks the (somewhat redundant) Mute/Rotation switch found on the Air and Mini 2. But neither are showstoppers.

The Air 2’s basically for the budget user who wants it all: a big, beautiful screen, power out the wazoo, and multitasking capabilities that’ll turn heads, and at a price point — $400 — that won’t break the bank. It may lack a few of the newer iPad Pro’s bells and whistles, but in terms of value, the Air 2 can’t be beat. Read our full review

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

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No longer is the iPad Air 2 Apple’s biggest tablet. The new iPad Pro easily takes that crown, 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 initial 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 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. It recently debuted a smaller variant of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro — dubbed the 9.7-inch iPad Pro — in the spring of this year. It’s in many ways a carbon copy, albeit a smaller one, of its predecessor. Thats said, 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 priviledge, 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 Air 2 lacks the Pro’s decked-out audio and speedy processor; the iPad Mini 4 trades real estate for a bump in hardware; 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 Mini 2‘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. iPad’s 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.