So you want an iPad — but how do you know if you need to go Pro?
Apple's iPads are the best-selling tablets for a reason — dollar for dollar they deliver more performance and a far more robust app ecosystem than any of the competition. Though there are a number of striking differences between Apple's various iPad models, choosing which iPad fits your needs can be tricky. Apple's newly refreshed iPad Pro models push the limits, offering both faster chips and high-tech displays, while the base-model iPad and iPad mini provide fewer bells and whistles at a more afforable price. Which one should you pick? Let's break it down.
Perhaps the biggest differentiator between Apple's four iPad models is size: They range from 7.9-inch diagonal screens all the way up to 12.9 inches, and each has its own pros and cons.
The "standard" iPad (starting at $329) has a 9.7-inch display with a 2048x1536 screen; the iPad mini 4 has a 2048x1536 screen as well, but it measures 7.9 inches diagonally, offering a compact display with better pixel density (326ppi versus 264ppi).
Fun fact: The mini actually beats every other iPad in the line on pixel density, including Apple's iPad Pros. That said, better pixel density is tough to notice with the naked eye — all iPad displays bear Apple's Retina moniker, which means that their pixels are already hard enough to distinguish between without magnification.
Speaking of displays, the $329 iPad's display isn't fully laminated and lacks the antireflective coating found throughout the rest of the lineup, making it more prone to reflections in bright lighting. (In contrast, the iPad mini 4 has a fully-laminated display with antireflective coating, as do both iPad Pro models.)
The iPad Pro displays are larger and have more pixels: The 12.9-inch model is 2732x2048, and the 10.5-inch model is 2224x1668, each offering a Retina-quality pixel density of 264ppi. Each also sports True Tone technology: The iPad sports an extra sensor that determines the color temperature of the room, and adjusts the display's color to provide a proper match. The displays also take advantage of the wider P3 color gamut; you'll notice it most in images with bright colors, especially vibrant reds and oranges.
Finally, the Pro models have what Apple calls ProMotion: It dynamically changes the image refresh rate of the display from 24Hz to 120Hz to provide faster scrolling and smoother drawing with the Apple Pencil when you need that speed, and save battery life when you don't.
The A10X Processor
No surprise here: The iPad Pro line has the best processors on the market. Both iPad Pro models come with a A10X system-on-a-chip; Apple boasts 30 percent faster single-core benchmarks than its predecessor, and it simply blows away the A9X in multicore benchmarks. This 64-bit chip delivers laptop-class performance, and that's partially why all the reviews of the 10.5-inch iPad Pro are so positive:
To compare that with the non-Pro iPads, the 9.7-inch iPad has an A9, Apple's third generation of 64-bit A-series SOC. That's not the A10 chip in the iPhone 7, or even the A9X that was in the original iPad Pro models, but it's still good enough to run iOS 11 and all its pro-caliber apps.
The iPad mini 4, however, is still running on an A8. It's slower than the iPad Air 2, and Apple will likely stop supporting it with iOS updates earlier than the other iPads being sold today. But it is a 64-bit chip and will support iOS 11.
The iPad Pro supports the Apple Pencil, and has a Smart Connector to work with Apple's Smart Keyboard. The Apple Pencil is sublime, but Bluetooth-enabled, pressure-sensitive styluses are available for the non-Pro iPads too—Adobe Ink, FiftyThree Pencil, Adonit Pixel, and Wacom Bamboo Sketch, for example.
Still, the Apple Pencil enjoys robust app support, and its performance is hard to match, especially since the iPad Pro's ProMotion technology can pump up the display's refresh rate when you're using the Pencil.
The Smart Keyboard does offer a few advantages over a Bluetooth keyboard or keyboard case. Since the Smart Keyboard clicks directly into the Smart Connector on the side of the iPad Pro, you never have to bother pairing the Smart Keyboard in the Bluetooth settings, or remember to charge it or power it down to save battery. Snap it on and it's connected, snap it off and it's off. Simple.
The regular iPad and iPad mini don't have the Smart Connector, so you can't use the Smart Keyboard. But you could just use a Bluetooth keyboard and any kind of stand, or look for a case with a Bluetooth keyboard built in. (Logitech and Zagg made my favorites for the older iPads, but the new 9.7-inch iPad is 14mm thicker than the iPad Air 2, so make sure when you're buying that your specific iPad is compatible, or that you can return the case if it's not.)
The difference in storage capacities is also quite striking. The iPad Pro models start at 64GB, and you can quadruple that to 256GB for an extra $100, or max out at 512GB for an extra $300. Having 512GB of storage in a tablet is huge—Apple's own MacBook Pro lineup starts at 128GB for crying out loud.
The lower-priced, non-Pro iPads, naturally, offer smaller storage sizes. The iPad mini 4 is available in a single configuration, 128GB of storage for $399. The regular 9.7-inch iPad is $329 for 32GB of storage, but the best value is $429 for 128GB of storage.
This means that if you plan to use your iPad as a laptop replacement, storing lots of large files like photos, movies, music, and using desktop-quality apps, you might find it easier to manage on an iPad Pro. Still, cloud storage is cheap these days, and products like the SanDisk iXpand let you keep some files on a detachable flash drive that's still accessible in iOS. So it's possible to juggle files on and off a lower-capacity iPad, it's just kind of a pain sometimes.
Are you using your iPad to take photos or videos? (Not at rock concerts, please...) The iPad Pro's cameras are better, naturally. The rear-facing camera can shoot 4K video and 12-megapixel photos, with optical image stabilization, and Live Photo stabilization too. They can capture the wider P3 color gamut, and feature a quad-LED True Tone flash designed to light up the scene without harsh changes to skin tones.
The rear-facing cameras on the 9.7-inch iPad and iPad mini 4 have none of those features. They each shoot 8-megapixel stills and 1080p video, with limited slo-mo support (720p at 120fps, while the iPad Pro boasts 1080p at 120fps and even 720p at 240fps). The 9.7-inch model can take Live Photos, but the iPad mini 4 can't.
The front-facing FaceTime camera is much better on the iPad Pro too, taking 7-megapixel stills and recording 1080p video, while the smaller non-Pro iPads only take 1.2-megapixel stills and 720p video. If the very idea of shooting photos and video with an iPad turns you off, you may not care. But plenty of cool apps take advantage of the iPad's camera, and the iPad Pro will deliver a better experience.
Who should buy the 12.9-inch iPad Pro?
Apple's biggest tablet, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro offers the same specs as the 9.7-inch model (as of the updates announced at WWDC 2017), just a bigger screen. That's heaven for people who love to draw and paint with the Apple Pencil, or anyone who needs a lot of screen real estate for editing large photos or video. People who love using splitscreen mode might also appreciate the biggest iPad—when you divide its screen in half, each side is about the size of the iPad mini.
Of course, you'll pay for that extra screen space. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro costs $799 for 64GB, $899 for 256GB, and $1099 for 512GB. Those are Wi-Fi only prices—add $130 for cellular.
Who should buy the 10.5-inch iPad Pro?
Apple's newest tablet is a clear favorite for its combination of powerful performance and svelte portability—it's just barely bigger than the 9.7-inch iPad Pro it replaces, but with a larger screen. That makes it a great laptop alternative, and it's a better value than the bigger iPad Pro too. This is the perfect iPad for almost everyone, unless you really need the bigger 12.9-inch screen, or you really need to save money with the (still capable!) non-Pro models.
The 10.5-inch iPad Pro is $649 with 64GB, $749 with 256GB, and $949 with 512GB of storage, Wi-Fi only. Add $130 more for cellular—which is a good idea if you love to work remotely, and don't want to tether your iPad to your iPhone.
Who should buy the 9.7-inch iPad?
Think of this one as the value meal that'll still fill you up. Its specs don't match the Pro line, but they're good enough for most iPad tasks: email, surfing the Web, reading, streaming movies and TV, music, taking photos, gaming, social media, and running iOS's huge ecosystem of apps. Unless you're downgrading from an earlier iPad Pro (and who would be?), you probably won't notice its lack of True Tone display, or miss the Apple Pencil support.
This iPad is particularly well-suited to families. Kids simply love iPads, and the starting price of the top-of-the-line iPads keeps creeping up. For years, the iPad started at $499, then the first iPad Pro started at $599, but now the barrier to entry for an iPad Pro is $649. This lower-cost iPad ($329 for 32GB, and $429 for 128GB) is a godsend for parents who want to let their kids use the tablet but limit their possible loss should a mishap occur that even AppleCare doesn't cover.
Who should buy the iPad mini 4?
The iPad mini 4 is kind of a strange bird in this lineup: It's the same model that debut in 2015, and today finds itself squeezed on one side by the big-screened iPhone 7 Plus, and on the other by the fifth-generation iPad, which is almost as inexpensive but more powerful.
Apple sells one SKU of the iPad mini 4, $399 for 128GB of storage. But if you want 128GB of storage, we think you'd be better served with the 9.7-inch 128GB iPad for $429. (It's got a faster processor, after all, along with the extra screen space.) And if you want to spend as little as possible on an iPad, the 32GB iPad for $329 is the cheapest. So perhaps the best customer for the iPad mini 4 is someone who already owns an iPad mini 3, plus several accessories for it, and just doesn't want to get a bigger iPad and have to re-buy, say, a keyboard case. Sad to say, the iPad mini will probably never see another refresh.
What iPad are you thinking of buying? How did you make your decision? Is there anything else we can do to help? Comments are open!
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