iPad Pro vs iPad Air vs iPad mini vs iPad: Which one to buy?

These days, picking an iPad can be tricky, but we can help you figure out which one to buy.

Leif Johnson/IDG

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Apple makes four different models of iPad these days, and there’s no longer much of a difference between them in terms of software or basic functionality. All of the current models support the Apple Pencil, for instance (although not every Pencil works with every iPad), and they all feature the improved multitasking capabilities introduced in iPadOS.

Yet several significant differences remain, chiefly in terms of power, size, storage, and, of course, price. With such variety, there’s an iPad for every need, whether you just want a device for reading books in bed or if you plan on creating masterworks of graphic design. Below, we’ve made it easier to find that perfect tablet.

iPad Pro: For those who want all the power

If you’re serious about using an iPad in place of a laptop, you need an iPad Pro. Apple itself drove home this point recently when it released the 2020 models’ Magic Keyboard case, which comes with backlit keys and a trackpad that help this tablet pull off a reasonable approximation of a MacBook.

And if you are a true “pro” in fields like video editing or illustration, you’ll love its bright, roomy 12.9-inch or 11-inch displays—to say nothing of its 120Hz “ProMotion” variable refresh rate that greatly smoothens scrolling and similar actions. It’s also the only device that supports the second-generation Apple Pencil, which charges through a magnetic strip on the iPad’s side and lacks the first-generation model’s easily losable cap.

ipad pro 2018 Leif Johnson/IDG

Apple makes two different keyboard cases for the iPad Pro. This is the Smart Keyboard Folio, which lacks the trackpad and backlit keys found in the newer Magic Keyboard case.

The iPad itself charges with through a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, which doubles as a handy slot for hooking up external hard drives, secondary displays, or other peripherals. Like the iPhone 11 Pro, it’s also got an awesome 12MP camera that also takes 10MP ultra-wide photos.

On a related note, this is also the only iPad with Face ID, which is particularly well-suited to the iPad since you’re almost always looking directly at it. And if you’re interested in sampling Apple’s latest technology, the 2020 models is the only device with Apple’s new time-of-flight sensor that’s aimed at improving the accuracy and speed of augmented reality apps. We still find it awkward to use a giant, pricey tablet for AR, but it’s there if you want it.

But what isn’t there? For one—sorry, music professionals, there’s no headphone jack. You’ll have to get a pair of wireless headphones. Its Face ID design means there’s also no home button, and you won’t be able to hook up any Lightning-compatible accessories without a dongle. These are generally small sacrifices, though, and they shouldn’t detract you if you think this beast of a tablet suits your needs.

Apple is fond of saying the iPad Pro is more powerful than most laptops on the market, and there’s some truth to that. Just keep in mind that file management on an iPad still isn’t as simple as it is on a Mac.

  • Color options: Space Gray, Silver

  • 11-inch Storage options: 128GB ($799), 256GB ($899), 512GB ($1,099), 1TB ($1,299)

  • 11-inch Cellular options: 128GB ($949), 256GB ($1,049), 512GB ($1,249), 1TB ($1,449)

  • 12.9-inch Storage options: 128GB ($999), 256GB ($1,099) , 512GB ($1,299), 1TB ($1,499)

  • 12.9-inch Cellular options: 128GB ($1,149), 256GB ($1,249), 512GB ($1,449), 1TB ($1,649)

Who’s it for: Artists and creative professionals, people who want to use their iPads like a work laptop, and anyone who wants a big, bright screen (and good audio) for watching videos.

iPad Air: One size fits most

As we said in our review, the iPad Air hits the sweet spot for most users. Few people really need the ridiculous power you’ll find in the iPad Pro, and the A12 Bionic chip inside this tablet handles most tasks with ease.

Unlike the regular iPad—which has a similar 9.8-inch by 6.8-inch body, although the Air’s screen is slightly larger—you’ll get features like Apple’s TrueTone display, which automatically adjusts the white balance of your screen depending on surrounding lighting conditions. It doesn’t have Pro’s ProMotion tech, but it does have a higher color gamut than what you’ll find on the 10.2-inch iPad.

ipad air 2019 hero Dan Masaoka/IDG

It’s a good device if you want a decently powerful device that still has the old iPad form factor. Here you’ll find the old favorites alive and well: the headphone jack, the Lightning port, and the home button.

As an additional benefit, the entry-level model starts with 64GB of storage, which is a more reasonable amount for today’s file sizes than the 32GB we find in the 10.2-inch iPad. If you need to do a lot of typing, you can pick up Apple’s Smart Keyboard and attach it to the Smart Connector.

If you haven’t already figured it out, this is the iPad you should go for if you want the best bang for your buck. It starts at $500 as opposed to the regular iPad’s $329, but you’re getting a more powerful and relative future-proof device. Spend the extra $170 or so dollars if you can swing it.

  • Color options: Space Gray, Silver, Gold

  • Storage options: 64GB ($499), 256GB ($649)

  • Cellular options: 64GB ($629), 256GB ($779)

Who’s it for: So long as you aren’t editing videos, this is a smart buy for almost anyone seeking an iPad. It’s a true middle-of-the-road option.

iPad mini: Travel buddy

This 8 by 5.3-inch tablet might be Apple’s smallest and lightest iPad, but you shouldn’t dismiss it for its size. After all, it’s what’s inside that counts—and inside you’ll find a scrappy A12 Bionic chip along with an 8MP rear camera and a 7MP FaceTime camera. It’s basically a miniature iPad Air, in other words, and you might recall that we said the Air is the best iPad the most people.

But the size of the mini makes it great for folks who want that kind of power yet also travel frequently or want a device so light—it’s one pound!—that it basically vanishes into their bags.

ipad mini smart cover Daniel Masaoka

The iPad mini with Apple's $39 smart cover. 

The size isn’t without its downsides, as it makes the iPad mini best suited to content consumption along the lines of watching movies, playing games, or reading books or websites. Typing? You’re going to have a rough time unless you tote along a full-sized external Bluetooth keyboard like Apple’s own Magic Keyboard, and of course that’s going to take up more room in your bags. Zagg makes a delightful Folio keyboard case that works well enough for short sessions, but typing on its cramped keyboard grows uncomfortable after only a couple hundred words.

  • Color options: Space Gray, Silver, Gold

  • Storage options: 64GB ($399), 256GB ($549)

  • Cellular options: 64GB ($529), 256GB ($679)

Who’s it for: Travelers, people who like to keep their work bags as light as possible

iPad (10.2-inch): Basic but capable

This is the iPad at its most basic, which is why Apple didn't embellish its name with any fancy descriptors. It starts at only $329, and you can often find it on sale for considerably less than that. It's the only model of iPad that still starts with a piddly 32GB of storage and its A10 Fusion chip—which still quite capable—gets soundly trounced in benchmarks by the chips in other models. Want features like TrueTone display and a 120GHz refresh rate? Well, too bad. You won't find them here.

You will get Apple's Smart Connector with the current model, but since you can effectively only use it with Apple's Smart Keyboard, it's not as exciting of a feature as it could be.

2019 10 2 inch ipad hero Leif Johnson/IDG

The 2019 iPad with a Smart Keyboard.

Yet for all that, it's not a bad tablet. It handles most apps well enough, although some might take a while to load and the graphics in some games might be a little muddy.

All of which is to say that this is the iPad you should feel most comfortable taking out in the world with you. If it breaks, the loss won't be as great as it would have been if you dropped even an iPad Air. This makes it well suited for children, students, or even as a shared device as a work environment. In most of these cases, it'll do its job well. And while it's not the flashiest iPad, it still a lot better than most of the other tablets on the market.

  • Color options: Space Gray, Silver, Gold

  • Storage options: 32GB ($329)/128GB ($429)

  • Cellular options: 32GB ($459)/128GB ($559)

Who’s it for: Students, people who share devices in workplaces, or people who want an iPad for basic tasks.

Apple Pencil

The Apple Pencil is a stylus designed specifically for the iPad. It’s primarily aimed at artists and similar creative professionals, but it’s also handy for taking notes by hand or making up PDFs. If you don’t see yourself doing anything like that, you don’t need one.

But if you do, you’ll have a device with palm rejection and wonderful tilt and pressure sensitivity. With its precision and fluid strokes, it feels a lot like holding a regular pen or pencil. On every current iPad model, you can use it to tap an iPad’s locked screens and a blank sheet from the Notes app will pop up.

Apple now makes two Apple Pencils, though, which is a bit confusing. Here’s what you need to know about them.

apple pencil Leif Johnson/IDG

The two Apple Pencils alongside a regular pencil. The second-generation model is at the bottom.

Apple Pencil (second generation)

This model only works with the 2019 and 2020 iPad Pros. That’s a shame, as it has a significantly better design. One side has a flat edge so the Pencil won’t roll off a desk or table, and you can charge it and pair it with your iPad Pro just by placing it on a magnetic strip on the tablet’s side. The actual performance is identical to that of the earlier Apple Pencil, but this model supports gestures that can shave a few seconds off the creative process. With a double-tap on the barrel, for instance, you can quickly switch from drawing mode to eraser mode.

Apple Pencil (first generation)

This model only works with all the other models besides the iPad Pro: the iPad Air, the iPad mini, and the basic iPad. It also works with many earlier generations of iPad as well. It’s still a fine stylus, and some artists prefer its slightly heavier weight and fully cylindrical body.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a hassle compared to the newer model. For one, the magnetic cap covering the Lightning plug used for charging stays in place well enough when it’s attached, but there’s a good chance you’ll misplace it when you take it off to charge the Pencil. As for actually charging it? The easiest way is to plug the Apple Pencil into the iPad’s Lightning port, but then you have to deal with the Pencil sticking out at a perpendicular angle. If someone bumps into it, both the port and the Pencil could suffer damage.

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