The iPad comes in so many varieties now. Do you even need to buy one?
The short answer is: no, of course you do not. If you have a laptop, a large phone, or even an iPad that's several years old, a new iPad is hardly a must-have device. Likewise, there are plenty of cheaper, "good enough" tablets: Amazon and Android tablets can be found at prices that approach free, especially during the holiday season.
However, the iPad is still a fantastic gadget for quick, beautiful on-the-go access to just about anything. Email, Facebook, games, videos, apps and apps and apps galore. The internet, in general.
It's not a complete solution for everything, but it can very well be a perfect stand-in for many, many needs. And if you're an iPhone owner who's already purchased games and apps, many if not most of them are probably already waiting to be downloaded to a new iPad at no additional charge.
So, if you're going to take the iPad plunge, the question is: which one? Apple's latest and huge iPad Pro is the biggest and most powerful, but it isn't necessarily the best.
The all-around tablet: iPad Air 2
Best value, best size, and best for nearly everything you'd basically need. The 2014 Air 2 still runs faster than the more recent iPad Mini 4, and you can get it on sale for a considerable discount if you look around. The large 9.7-inch screen is good for reading, movies, and works great when paired with a keyboard case to write on the go. Split screen apps run perfectly, too. This is the best bang for the buck and the best-sized iPad, even a year later.
Current sales have the 64GB iPad Air 2 for less than $500, which is a pretty good deal. That's the model I'd choose.
The previous-year iPad Air is still on sale, too: I wouldn't go for it, unless someone was offering a blowout deal. It lacks splitscreen app capability, and I worry that the slower processor will be phased out of iOS updates a lot sooner.
For (older) kids, or basic reading and browsing: iPad Mini 2
The most affordable iPad Apple currently sells is this 8-inch iPad Mini 2, formerly called the iPad Mini with Retina display. It came out back in 2013, but has had price drops since then. You get the same resolution display as the iPad Air, shrunken down. There's an A7 processor, still good for basics. There's no Touch ID -- Apple's fingerprint identification that allows for passcode-free unlocking, App Store purchases and online payments -- but you probably won't miss it most of the time unless you're using this as your everyday computer. And battery life is really good: well over 10 hours.
Downsides: this is an older gadget. And, current sale prices tend to be for the 16GB model, which isn't all that much storage unless you're planning to use this for streaming video, reading and web browsing. But, you might find older versions of the iPad Mini 2 (or even, the iPad Mini 3, which is the Mini 2 plus a Touch ID fingerprint sensor) for better deals. Storage size I'd aim for: 32GB.
For more serious multitaskers who want portability: iPad Mini 4
Compared to the iPad Mini 2, the iPad Mini 4's big additions are Touch ID, and a faster A8 processor which can handle split-screen multitasking for supported apps: email while web browsing, Twitter and note-taking. It's best for simple apps like Twitter, email and social media feeds. Compared to the Air 2, the Mini 4 slows down a bit with high-powered games, but it's so small and does so much... you just have to pay up a considerable bit.
It's a great little iPad, but it's pricey. And again, sale prices tend to currently offer the 16GB model, which is too little storage for what you'll be paying. Storage size I'd aim for, if the price was right: 64GB. (There is no 32GB version of this model.)
Artists, laptop-replacement hopefuls, those who want the biggest and best screen: iPad Pro
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is gigantic, and expensive: nearly the cost of a high-end laptop. Its biggest advantages are its special separately-sold Pencil, which turns the iPad Pro into an accurate, versatile art pad like nothing you've seen before. And there's that screen and its stepped-up speakers, which are fantastic for movies or looking at documents or websites in greater detail.
But its size makes it less portable, and it doesn't handle split-screen apps much differently than the Air 2: it just offers more room. You can connect special keyboards through a side port, too, but right now those keyboards don't do anything much differently than the Bluetooth ones you can get on other iPads.
There's another concern I have: how many optimized apps will really take advantage of the iPad Pro's increased size? There aren't that many right now. But if you want your iPad to feel like a mini TV or even possibly a desktop computer replacement in a spare room, and you can afford its lofty prices, take a peek at one in a store. Storage size I'd go for: 128GB, and I'd buy the $99 Pencil and one of the side-connectable keyboard cases (both Apple's Smart Keyboard and Logitech's Create keyboard feel good to type on, and cost nearly the same).
The iPad to avoid: The original iPad Air
Note that the original 2013 iPad Air is still on sale at a list price that's lower than its successor, the iPad Air 2. Ultimately, though, the math on this one just doesn't add up. It's got a slower processor than the Air 2, so it can't handle the multitasking split-screen apps. And it lacks the Touch ID fingerprint sensor.
With the 64GB Air 2 widely available for just $50 more than the list price on the 16GB original iPad Air, it's a no-brainer: go for the Air 2 every time.
LTE or not?
All iPads offer a chance to upgrade to a model with a built-in cellular LTE antenna for $130 extra. I wouldn't do it unless someone else (your employer) is paying your wireless bill, or you have your own business. It's easy to connect your Wi-Fi iPad to your phone in hotspot mode. Plus, getting LTE data means having a data plan, or one that allows an extra device. It's a business tool, not an on-the-road Netflix viewer.
What else should I buy?
I don't tend to buy AppleCare, but you probably should for a large glass-screened product like an iPad. Also, get a good case: protect the front and back.
If you are planning on using this to write, look at Bluetooth keyboards: you can get some good case-keyboard options specific to iPads (my favorite for the Air 2 is currently the Belkin QODE Ultimate Pro), but you can also use any Bluetooth keyboard for a cheap and easy way to connect on the go.