Apple iPad vs. iPad Air vs. iPad mini vs. iPad Pro: Which Tablet Should You Buy?

Apple offers four different iPad lines with five different screen sizes, ranging in price from $329 to $799 (baseline models; the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with cellular connectivity and 1TB of storage will set you back $1,649). With updates to these tablets coming nearly every year (the entry-level iPad and compact iPad mini are the most recent lines to be refreshed), it can get pretty complicated if you’re shopping for a new tablet.

To help you figure out what you’re getting with each iPad, let’s look at all the differences between the various models, including what’s changed with the latest versions. But let’s start with the similarities, and what you can expect from any Apple tablet you buy today.

Across the Board: Software and Accessories

A few years ago, Apple formally split the iPad’s operating system off from iOS, which powers iPhones, into iPadOS. The tablet-specific operating system is very similar to iOS, but focuses on streamlining and expanding multitasking to improve the usefulness of iPads as workplace devices, with pinnable widgets and cross-app workflow features like split screen and rapidly sliding between screens. Basically, it’s iOS optimized for much bigger displays.

Wireless connectivity is also almost universally strong across all iPad models. Every version has at least Bluetooth 4.2, dual-band 2.4/5GHz Wi-Fi with MIMO, and optional cellular connectivity.

Each iPad also supports the Apple Pencil. This doesn’t mean every Apple Pencil is the same; the $99 first-generation Apple Pencil works with the iPad, while the $129 second-generation Apple Pencil works with the iPad Air, iPad mini, and iPad Pro. All iPads can also work with Bluetooth keyboards, but the iPad, iPad Air, and iPad Pro also feature Smart Connectors that make them compatible with Apple’s Smart Keyboard, and the iPad Air and iPad Pro also work with Apple’s higher-end Magic Keyboard and Smart Keyboard Folio. All iPads can also work with the Apple Magic Trackpad 2, Apple’s touchpad accessory.

Apple iPad: Budget Baseline

These days, the standard iPad is Apple’s budget tablet, by far the least expensive at $329. It’s the least advanced, but the most recent refresh has given it nice a boost in processing power.

The 2021 iPad replaces the A12 CPU found in the 2020 iPad with the A13 Bionic chip, the same chip used in the iPhone 11 and the iPhone SE. It still lags in power compared with the iPad Air (A14 Bionic), the iPad mini (A15 Bionic), and the iPad Pro (M1), but the A13 Bionic is no slouch. According to Apple, it’s 20% faster than the previous model. Storage has been bumped up as well, with 64GB for the baseline model and a 256GB option for those who need more space.

The screen is the least advanced of current iPad models. It’s a 10.2-inch Retina LCD just like the iPad Air, with a 2,160-by-1,620-pixel resolution for 264 pixels per inch. It lacks the lamination and anti-reflective coating of the more expensive tablets, and doesn’t feature Wide Color up to the DCI-P3 color space. The only significant change to the new model’s screen is the addition of Apple’s True Tone feature, which adjusts color balance based on surrounding light.

The latest iPad’s rear-facing camera is the same 8MP sensor as the previous model, but its front-facing camera has received a significant upgrade. The new selfie camera is 12MP, with a 122-degree field of view and support for Apple’s Center Stage tracking feature. It’s nearly double the resolution of the 2020 iPad’s selfie camera, and should make FaceTime calls much nicer. It doesn’t support Face ID, though; that’s still exclusively an iPhone and iPad Pro feature.

The big appeal of the regular iPad is the value it offers for the price. At $329, you’re getting a big, bright screen and lots of functionality, now with an improved selfie camera and a faster CPU. If you want a versatile entertainment device for watching videos, reading books and comics, browsing the web, communicating with your friends, and even doing light text-crunching and presentations, it’s an excellent choice.

Apple iPad mini: Small, But Mighty

This is the smallest iPad, and like the entry-level model, it’s received some significant upgrades for 2021. Those upgrades translate into a higher price than before; the newest iPad mini starts at $499 rather than $399 for the 2019 model. The tablet weighs 0.66 pounds and measures less than a quarter of an inch thick, small enough to fit easily in a bag or even a large jacket pocket. That has its own appeal if the larger, pound-plus iPads are too bulky for you.

The iPad mini doesn’t make many compromises for its size. Its new Liquid Retina display is slightly larger at 8.3 inches, and features a higher resolution at 2,266 by 1,488 pixels. That’s still the same 326 pixels per inch as the previous model, however, so don’t expect a significantly sharper picture. It doesn’t have the ProMotion technology of the iPad Pro’s screen, but it features the same P3 Wide Color and True Tone modes, and it’s fully laminated panel with anti-reflective coating.

It’s also a powerhouse, shooting past the iPad and iPad Air with its A15 Bionic chip. That’s a massive leap over the previous iPad mini’s A12 Bionic CPU, which Apple says adds up to a 40% increase in overall speed and an 80% increase in graphical performance. That upgrade is likely the main driver in the newest iPad mini’s higher price.

The iPad mini also gets some new cameras in its latest revision. The selfie camera sees the same upgrade as the standard iPad, a 12MP ultra-wide camera that supports Center Stage in FaceTime, panning to track you. The rear-facing camera is also 12MP, with True Tone flash and Smart HDR.

The most interesting addition to the iPad mini, however, is 5G connectivity, so you can connect to the fastest cellular network available. It also features Wi-Fi 6, so it can take advantage of the most recent routers.

Oh, and it now has a USB-C connector instead of a Lightning port, like the iPad Pro (though with only USB 3.1 Gen 1 and DisplayPort; no Thunderbolt or USB 4).

Apple iPad Air: More Than iPad, Not Quite Pro

The iPad Air takes up a compelling position between the more budget-friendly iPad and the more powerful iPad Pro. It’s closer in design to the iPad Pro, with flat edges and a very slim frame around the screen that lacks a home button. It provides that premium iPad Pro feel and aesthetic for a lower price (but still higher than both the iPad and iPad mini), starting at $599.

The screen also takes up nearly the entire front of the tablet, moving the fingerprint sensor to the top edge. The Liquid Retina Display measures 10.9 inches with a 2,360-by-1,640-pixel resolution, for the same 264ppi as both the iPad and iPad Pro. It doesn’t have the ProMotion technology the iPad Pro has for smooth scrolling, but it boasts the same fully laminated design, anti-reflective coating, and P3 Wide Color support with Apple’s TrueTone mode.

It features Apple’s A14 Bionic processor, which is quite fast but now outpaced by the iPad mini’s A15 Bionic chip. You can still use it to edit 4K video on the tablet itself, but don’t expect to get good 4K footage from the front-facing camera; its 7MP sensor is now the least advanced and lowest resolution of the iPads. The rear-facing camera is 12MP, at least.

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Apple iPad Pro: Professional Powerhouse

Finally there’s the iPad Pro, released in early 2021 and standing out in the lineup as a processing monster. The Pro in the name makes it clear: The 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros are professional tablets, designed to offer the processing power and screen quality that artists, musicians, designers, and editors demand for their work. That distinction is important because it needs to justify the much higher $799 and $1,099 baseline price tags the Pro models command over the other versions.

The iPad Pro uses Apple’s M1 chip. That’s a desktop CPU, the same processor used in the iMac, the MacBook Air, and the MacBook Pro. This is a tablet that’s as powerful as a Mac, and it shows in its performance. At least, it would show in its performance if iPadOS wasn’t holding it back; there simply aren’t any iPad apps yet that really push the M1 to its limits.

The screens are the only major difference between the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models. The 11-inch iPad Pro has a Liquid Retina display with a 2,388-by-1,668 resolution and Apple’s ProMotion 120Hz refresh rate and True Tone technologies, and Wide Color support. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro has all of those technologies and a higher 2,732-by-2,048-pixel resolution (for the same 264 pixels per inch as the smaller model), but adds a mini-LED backlight system that can both get much brighter and more precisely control the light output of the screen for better contrast.

The cameras on the iPad Pro are also impressive. It has two rear-facing cameras, a 12MP wide-angle lens and a 10MP ultra-wide lens that can capture double the field of view, plus a new LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanner that can measure distance and time-of-flight. In addition, the cameras can record 4K video at up to 60 frames per second, while the other iPads can only capture 1080p. The front-facing TrueDepth camera is also 12MP, with support for Face ID, 1080p60 recording, cinematic video stabilization, and Smart HDR 3.

The iPad Pro also has a USB-C port, with support for Thunderbolt 3, USB 4, and DisplayPort. That’s a lot of power and flexibility.

So Which iPad Should You Get?

Ultimately, the best iPad depends on your needs. You shouldn’t drop over $1,000 if you just want a tablet to watch Netflix and read comics, but you also shouldn’t expect professional power and features in a $329 entry-level model. Thankfully, the iPad mini and the iPad Air mean that Apple’s tablet selection is no longer a question of just those extremes.

We really like the $329 iPad for its functionality and value, and its processor upgrade makes it even more appealing. If you just want an Apple tablet for entertainment and personal use, the iPad is still an excellent value, while the more expensive iPad mini features significantly more processing power in a smaller package. The iPad Air is a good choice if you want the premium look and feel of the iPad Pro without paying for the most expensive model, while the iPad Pro is a worthwhile investment for professional users.

No matter which model you choose, make sure you learn how to master iPadOS with our top tricks and tips.

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