How to choose an iPad in 2019: A practical guide to Apple’s tablets

iPad Pro (2018) review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

There used to be a lot of different iPad models on store shelves, which could make it tricky to work out which was right for you, but Apple has dramatically simplified the range. The sexy new iPad Pro, with slim bezels, no home button, and FaceID support, comes in 11-inch or 12.9-inch flavors, starting at $800 and $1,000 respectively. The older-style 10.5-inch Pro starts at $650. The 9.7-inch iPad, at $330, is your most affordable 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 12.9-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 iPad for everyone

iPad ($330+)

apple ipad 9 7 inch 2018 front in hand
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. It’s also the best tablet on the market right now for most people.

This is a great tablet for watching movies, thanks to a 9.7-inch Retina display with a 2048 x 1536-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.

Compared to its predecessor, 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.

The compact iPad

iPad Mini 4 ($400+)

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If 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 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 aging A8 can still handle almost any game thrown at it. You also get 128GB of storage. But there’s no disguising the fact that the Mini line is long overdue an update, and we’d much rather have the 9.7-inch iPad and save $70. The only reason to spring for this is if you really need something smaller. Read our full iPad Mini review.

The power user’s iPad

iPad Pro 11 or 12.9 ($800+)

iPad Pro (2018) review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The iPad Pro is Apple’s biggest and best, and it was redesigned for 2018 with slimmer bezels, unrivaled performance, and FaceID to replace the old home button. It comes in two varieties, with an 11-inch screen or with a 12.9-inch screen. There are no other differences between the two models.

This tablet will run everything you can throw it at, from the most graphically demanding games to photo editing software, but we don’t agree with Apple about “desktop-level” performance because iOS is still a mobile operating system first and foremost and you can feel that. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s display is a whopping 2732 x 2048 pixels, while the 11-inch is 2388 x 1668 pixels, higher in resolution than any of the other iPads. There’s also a refresh rate of 120Hz, which makes everything feel silky smooth and wonderfully responsive.

The A12X Bionic processor, a beefed-up version of the A12, which you’ll find in the iPhone XS, is lightning fast. It’s paired with 4GB of RAM, or 6GB if you opt for the 1TB storage version. This is a multitasking monster that’s leagues ahead of the tablet competition in terms of performance.

If you have the cash, the iPad Pro can become even more of a productivity powerhouse with the right accessories. There’s the Smart Keyboard, an iPad cover with attached QWERTY keys, and the far more interesting Apple Pencil, which attaches magnetically to the new iPad Pros and charges wirelessly. It’s a joy to use if you like to sketch or take notes by hand, but it will cost you an extra $130.

All told, the Pro is the ultimate iPad. The inclusion of a USB-C port, a 12-megapixel main camera, with the 7-megapixel TrueDepth camera on the front for FaceID, and four speakers 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. Apple’s redesign has made it much easier to handle, but the 12.9-inch version is also still pretty unwieldy.

While Apple’s clearly angling for enterprise and corporate users who might otherwise be swayed by a PC equivalent, such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro line, these tablets will also appeal to anyone seeking the best and willing to pay a premium for it. Read our full iPad Pro review.

The missing link

iPad Pro 10.5 ($650+)

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Beginning life as the smaller variant of the now discontinued, original 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro is a sort of missing link that shows Apple’s iPad evolution. It’s in many ways a carbon copy, albeit a smaller one, of its predecessor. The 10.5-inch iPad Pro replaced the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, however, while the screen size grew bigger, the device itself remained largely the same size, thanks to much smaller bezels around the screen.

Under the hood, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro offers Apple’s A10X chip, which is still respectably fast. It also offers 64GB, 256GB, or 512GB of storage, which cost $650, $750, and $950, respectively. It works with the older and cheaper Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard.

The display boasts a 2224 x 1668-pixel resolution with that same silky smooth 120Hz refresh rate. There’s also a decent 12-megapixel rear camera and a 7-megapixel, front-facing camera, though it retains the home button with TouchID and doesn’t support FaceID.

It’s a great device for watching movies, pairing that gorgeous screen with four speakers for immersive sound. We much prefer the look and feel of the new iPad Pro models, but you can save yourself some cash with this one.

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, but we don’t really recommend it because of the dated hardware; and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a bit on the large side. However, there are advantages to each iPad, too. Want a cheap, relatively uncompromising iPad? The standard 9.7-inch iPad should do just fine. Want a premium tablet you can fit in your briefcase? Opt for the 11-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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