What’s the best iPad for you? A practical guide to Apple’s tablets

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 headliner is the sexy iPad Pro, with slim bezels, no home button, and Face ID support, which comes in 11-inch or 12.9-inch flavors, starting at $800 and $1,000 respectively. Then there’s the iPad Air, which starts at $500. The 9.7-inch iPad, at $330, is your most affordable option, while the $400, 7.9-inch iPad Mini 5 is the only small one 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+)

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iPad 9.7 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. 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 5 ($400+)

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If a small form factor is what you seek, the iPad Mini 5 delivers. We’ve been waiting a long time for a refresh of the Mini range — the iPad Mini 4 was released in 2015. The new iPad Mini brings all sorts of improvements. There’s a speedy A12 Bionic processor inside with 64GB or 256GB of storage. The front-facing camera has been beefed up to 7-megapixels and Apple has also added support for the Apple Pencil.

But the differences end there. It takes design cues from the iPad Mini 4, retaining Touch ID, the same big bezels, and that aluminum back. It also has a 7.9-inch screen, and sports an identical screen resolution (2048 x 1536 pixels). It’s still an IPS LCD, but the newer iPad Mini has support for True Tone, which should wring better performance from it.

Stereo speakers, 10-hour battery life, and an 8-megapixel main camera also remain the same on paper, though there are improvements inside the camera in the iPad Mini 5.

Starting at $400, the iPad Mini 5 is still a relatively expensive option, but with the newer processor inside and the other improvements, it represents much better value for money than its aging predecessor which has now been discontinued. It comes in silver, space gray, or gold.

The power user: iPad Pro 11 or 12.9 ($800+)

Apple iPad Pro 2018
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 Air ($500+)

iPad
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

With the 10.5-inch iPad Pro discontinued, Apple has launched a new iPad Air to bridge the gap between its cheaper options and the powerful iPad Pro range. This iPad has a 10.5-inch Retina display with True Tone support, a powerful A12 Bionic chip, and support for the Apple Pencil.

Design-wise the iPad Air has a familiar look with big bezels top and bottom of the screen and Touch ID. The main camera is rated at 8 megapixels and there’s a 7-megapixel, front-facing camera. There’s 64GB or 256GB of storage inside. You’ll also find stereo speakers and a 3.5mm audio jack. There’s support for the Smart Keyboard, too.

The iPad Air has identical innards to the iPad Mini 5. But how does it compare to the much cheaper 9.7-inch iPad? The answer is a slightly bigger screen, better performance, and that’s about it. It’s a great option for college students looking for a laptop alternative.

Want to know more? Check out our full Apple iPad Air review.

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 5 is the only compact choice. 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. When iPadOS arrives later this year, all of these iPads will get a boost in features and improvements with productivity.

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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