Hardware

Should you go mini, Air, Pro, or plain old iPad?

A decade ago, there was just the iPad. Apple’s tablet was a revolutionary device — a large touchscreen canvas on which to work and play. At the time, your only decision was how much storage you fancied: 16, 32 or 64GB.

These days, things aren’t so simple. There’s the 8th-generation iteration of the iPad, but also the smaller iPad mini, the iPad Air, and two sizes of iPad Pro. Which should you buy? Our guide helps you decide, outlining the pros and cons of each model, and who each type of iPad is best suited for.

iPad (8th generation)

From $329/£329 • 10.2in display • A12 chip • 32GB/128GB • Touch ID • Lightning

Best for: iPad newbies or buyers on a budget

Compared to the original iPad, the bezels are thinner and there’s less heft, but the 8th-gen model is recognizably an iPad. You get the familiar Home button and a big 10.2in display that offers plenty of space for work and play.

With this latest revision, though, the entry-level iPad becomes a powerhouse by way of the same A12 chip that’s found in Apple’s iPhone 11 line. This represents a major boost over the comparatively underpowered iPhone 7-era A10 Fusion from the 7th-gen model. The result is an iPad that’ll last longer as an investment and that should run anything you throw at it, from casual games to demanding pro-grade apps.

Add a keyboard and an Apple Pencil and the device is solid for productivity, but there are caveats. Look closely and compromises Apple had to make to hit the low price-point become clear: an unimpressive 720p FaceTime camera; the annoyingly reflective display; the miserly 32GB storage with the entry-level model.

Still, at this price and with an A12 nestled inside, the 8th-gen iPad represents something of a bargain. Go for the 128GB model if you can, mind, because you can’t upgrade on-board storage after you buy — and don’t make plans to use the thing outside.

Pros: Affordable; powerful; familiar
Cons: Reflective display; 32GB is miserly

iPad mini (5th generation)

From $399/£399 • 7.9in display • A12 chip • 64GB/256GB • Touch ID • Lightning

Best for: a pocketable iPad for media consumption

Given today’s large smartphones, the iPad mini feels like an anachronism. However, this smallest of iPads can be a boon in the right hands.

The screen is the sharpest of any iPad — although be mindful everything is scaled down and smaller. At 0.68 pounds/308g, it is extraordinarily light. And the A12 chip packs a punch. All that suggests a surprisingly versatile tablet and content consumption device. That’s true to an extent, but the iPad mini can be hampered by its screen dimensions.

For example, it makes for a great e-reader but is small for comics. Games are mostly fine but sometimes fiddly. It’s good for YouTube but not movies. With an Apple Pencil and a copy of ProCreate it’s a superb pocketable canvas for sketching, but even adding a Brydge 7.9 Bluetooth keyboard won’t make you want to spend hours digging into emails and office work.

Perhaps suitably, given the dated design and relatively large bezels, the iPad mini meets the original aim of the iPad: a consumption-oriented device that sits between a smartphone and a laptop. If that closely aligns with your needs, the iPad mini could be a winner — but check it out in the flesh first to determine whether you’d be happy with the small display.

Pros: Small; light; sharpest iPad display
Cons: Can be fiddly to use/interact with

iPad Air (4th generation)

From $599/£579 • 10.9in display • A14 chip • 64GB/256GB • Touch ID • USB-C • Smart Connector

Best for: anyone who wants to balance power and value

The previous iPad Air was a cut-down 10.5in iPad Pro. The 2020 model is more audacious, echoing Apple’s current flagship tablet in all the ways that really matter.

The 4th-gen iPad Air dispenses with a Home button, giving you an ‘all screen’ design and flat aluminum edges on to which you can magnetically attach a 2nd-gen Apple Pencil. A Smart Connector adds compatibility with Apple’s Magic Keyboard (or Logitech’s more affordable equivalent) for a laptop-style experience. And there’s USB-C to connect all manner of external devices.

What’s ‘missing’ from the iPad Pro is rarely a concern. Smoother scrolling from ProMotion is a nice-to-have, but the Air’s screen is nonetheless excellent. Two speakers rather than four isn’t an issue when they’re — as here — stereo in landscape rather than blasting audio from one side. No Face ID is a pity, but Touch ID is integrated into the top button — something many people would like on other iPads and iPhones.

We’re less forgiving of Apple’s cynical storage options: 64GB is low for the entry model, and 256GB as the sole other option forces anyone who needs a lot of on-board storage to the iPad Pro — whether they want one or not. That gripe aside, the iPad Air gives you the best bits of Apple’s flagship tablet for a considerably lower outlay.

Pros: Most iPad Pro features — for less
Cons: Storage tops out at 256GB; no Face ID

iPad Pro 11in (2nd generation)

From $799/£769 • 11in display • A12Z chip • 128GB/256GB/512GB/1TB • Face ID • USB-C • Smart Connector

Best for: if you want the best iPad — and can afford one

With Jony Ive’s iterative, minimalist design for Apple, you did wonder if he’d only be happy one day on creating a device that was nothing more than a rounded black rectangle. And prior to his departure, that’s more or less what he served up with 2018’s iPad Pro.

It really worked. Finally, here was a device that fully made good on the original promise of the iPad, giving you a no-distractions blank canvas that could transform into anything: sketchpad; TV; recording studio; editing suite; office set-up; games console…

The premium feel is evident throughout the latest iteration. The metal edges feel good in the hand. 120Hz ProMotion tech gives you buttery smooth scrolling. A four-speaker system provides perfect audio whatever the iPad’s orientation. USB-C unlocks a wealth of accessories. Face ID is almost instant. This is, in effect, the perfect iPad.

There are two obvious reasons to not buy an iPad Pro: it might be overkill for your needs and it’s expensive. Under such circumstances, consider the iPad Air if you want something Pro-ish, or a standard iPad if budget is a major factor. But if you want the best tablet Apple — or, indeed, anyone — has to offer, the iPad Pro is it.

Pros: Gorgeous design; unrivaled features
Cons: Expensive

iPad Pro 12.9in (4th generation)

From $999/£969 • 12.9in display • A12Z chip • 128GB/256GB/512GB/1TB • Face ID • USB-C • Smart Connector

Best for: pro users who need more space

Finally, we come to the giant in the line-up — fully twice the size and weight of the diminutive iPad mini. This iPad gives you everything you find in the 11in iPad Pro, and so read that overview to get an inkling into the device’s capabilities. What we’ll tackle here is why you might buy Apple’s biggest — and most expensive — iPad, and any reasons why you perhaps shouldn’t.

The larger display is of course great for a wide range of tasks. It’s a bigger canvas for everything from painting to games. But also, you can in landscape get two full-size iPad apps in Split View (the 11in limits you to narrower iPhone views), and three-pane full-screen views in apps like Mail and NetNewsWire, rather than the maximum of two panes on the 11in model. Twinned with Apple’s Magic Keyboard, you get a laptop-style set-up with full-size keys. It feels great.

However, it is very expensive. The 128GB iPad Pro alone clocks in at almost a grand. The Magic Keyboard costs as much as an 8th-gen iPad. Plus the sheer heft and size of the 12.9in iPad Pro means it’s more tiring and unwieldy than its smaller sibling when used as a handheld tablet. On that basis, the 12.9in iPad Pro is far from an impulse purchase. But if you’re all-in on iPad, it’s a great investment if you need its combination of sheer power and spectacular display.

Pros: Big screen; superb sound; great with Magic Keyboard
Cons: A touch unwieldy; even more expensive than the 11in model