How to choose an iPad in 2018: A practical guide to Apple’s tablets

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Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

There were a lot of iPad models on store shelves for a while there, and Apple caught some 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. The iPad hierarchy was confusing at best, maddening at worst.

Thankfully, it’s now a lot simpler. The 12.9-inch Pro is the most expensive at $800, and its smaller cousin, the 10.5-inch Pro, sits at $650. 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.

While the streamlined iPad lineup makes choosing the right model a little less challenging, you must still weigh your needs carefully. What good is a 12-inch screen if you value portability above all else? Why pay more for a top-of-the-line graphics chip if you only game casually? Fear not, we’re here to explain each iPad and help you choose the right one for you.

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

Apple iPad 2018
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The 9.7-inch iPad (2018) is one of the most affordable tablets Apple has ever offered and it’s the cheapest option in the current iPad lineup.

This is a great tablet for watching movies, thanks to a 9.7-inch Retina display with a 2,048 × 1,536-pixel resolution. It has a speedy A10 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.

Apple discontinued last year’s 9.7-inch iPad, but there’s actually very little difference between the two. The 2018 iPad has a newer, faster processor and offers support for the Apple Pencil, though sadly you’ll have to shell out an extra $100 to buy one.

What’s all this mean in practical terms? If you don’t demand a superior shooter, 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, and casual gaming. 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 9.7-inch iPad is the obvious winner. Read our full iPad review.

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The 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 (2048 x 1536 pixels).

There’s new software to consider. The iPad Mini 4’s updated silicon supports all of iOS’ 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.

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 can still handle almost any graphics-intensive game thrown at it. You also get 128GB of storage.

In sum, the iPad Mini 4 can multitask, take decent 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. Based on the hardware, the iPad Mini 4 seems expensive compared to the alternatives. Read our full iPad Mini review.

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

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Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

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 × 2,048 pixels, higher in resolution than any of the other iPads, and driven by the A10X processor, a beefed-up version of the A10, 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.

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The best of all worlds — iPad Pro 10.5 ($650+)

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Perhaps Apple realized that gigantic tablets don’t appeal to the vast majority of folks. The smaller variant of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro — dubbed the 10.5-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 10.5-inch iPad Pro replaces the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, however, while the screen size has gotten bigger, the device itself remains largely the same size, thanks to much smaller edges around the screen.

Under the hood, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro offers Apple’s A10X chip, which is touted as being 30-percent faster than its predecessor, the A9X. It also offers a hefty 64GB of storage, which should be plenty for most folks. If not, however, there’s also a 256GB model, as well as a 512GB model, which cost $750 and $950, respectively. It’s also compatible with many, if not all, of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro accessories, including the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard.

A big improvement in the new device comes in the form of an adjustment to the display’s refresh rate — it’s now 120hz. This should help maximize battery life and performance when necessary. Apple also upgraded the cameras to include the same sensors found on the iPhone.

For most people, this decision is a no-brainer. The 10.5-inch iPad Pro has portability and processing prowess in its favor, plus the added benefit of compatibility with future 12.9-inch iPad Pro accessories. And for many, the extra $250 will be worth spending for the improvements you’ll get.

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 is your best bet.

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Conclusion

There is, as we said in the beginning, no perfect iPad. The iPad lacks the Pro’s audio and top-of-the-line processor; the iPad Mini 4 is the only compact choice; and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a bit on the large side. However, there are iPads that are more suitable for some users over others. Want a cheap, relatively uncompromising iPad? The standard 9.7-inch iPad should do just fine. Want a top-of-the-line tablet you can fit in your briefcase? Opt for the 10.5-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 and weigh your options carefully, then buy your ideal iPad and enjoy the hell out of it.

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