Which iPad should you buy?

Apple has four iPads for sale. Which do you get? Let us help.

Josh Miller/CNET

Want to buy an iPad? Not every one does -- or should (see our Android picks for alternatives) -- but as of this moment, Apple is selling four distinct versions of its tablet. Now that the fourth-gen Retina iPad has replaced the iPad 2 in the roster, which of Apple's tablets is the right one? Which is the best value? What should you do?

Let's take a look at each: there are two iPad Minis, and two larger 9.7-inch iPads. The good news is this is a better selection of iPads than before. But, I also think it's getting a little confusing to make a good choice.

All these iPads have Lightning connectors, at long last, and all of them can be outfitted with cellular LTE antennas for $129 at purchase (not including data plan, of course). And they all have great battery life: at least 10 hours in our tests, often more. But they don't have the same stuff under the hood: the iPad Mini has a lower-res display and A5 processor, while the larger iPads and Retina Mini have a lot more in common.

Sarah Tew/CNET

$299: iPad Mini (non-Retina)


Apple's most budget-minded iPad is still $299, and even though it came out in late 2012 it's showing its age: there's an A5 processor inside, which is what the now-discontinued iPad 2 also had. And it's only available in 16GB. LTE costs $129 extra, for $429.

It's the lowest-price iPad. Value-shoppers, consider that the 16GB Mini costs the same as a 32GB iPod Touch, and it's a full $200 less than the cheapest iPad Air.

It's small. The non-Retina Mini is the thinnest and lightest of the iPads, so if you're looking for a Kindle-like iOS lightweight, this is a good choice.

File sizes tend to be smaller. Strange but true, 16GB goes a longer way on the non-Retina iPads. Movie downloads on iTunes and game/app downloads are differently sized at times. You can put more movies, in a sense, in the same space, and you won't notice it because you can't enjoy retina-optimized content anyway.

No Retina display. With a 1,024x786 screen resolution, the original iPad Mini is the only non-Retina iPad you can still buy from Apple. It's not as bad on a 7.9-inch screen as it was on larger iPads, but if you're using it for reading text (Web pages, e-books, whatever), it's definitely less crisp than Retina models (163 pixels per inch, versus 264 on the larger Retina iPads and 326 on the Retina Mini).

This has the worst processor, by far. The A5 dates back more than two years, and was already old when the iPad Mini featured it in 2012. The A6X and A7 processors in the other iPads are far better. It's equivalent to the iPhone 4S. This won't age well.

BUY IF: You want the cheapest iPad, or want a basic, no-frills e-reader type of iPad.
DON'T BUY IF: You're anyone else.

Josh Miller/CNET

$399: iPad with Retina Display (4th-gen)


The late-2012 iPad makes a comeback, knocking the iPad 2 out of the Apple Store. It only has 16GB of storage, just like the iPad Mini, and you can buy an LTE version for $529.

Same Retina display as the iPad Air. You can save $100 off the cost of the Air and still get the same-quality display here: same 2,048x1,536 resolution, same picture quality, same 264 pixel per inch density.

The heaviest iPad. At 1.44 pounds, it's chunky. It still packs well in a bag, but you can feel the difference versus the Air or the Minis.

Better than you think. The A6X processor isn't as good as the A7, but it's a step up from the A6 that's on the iPhone 5. It's an underrated performer, and excellent all-around for games or video.

Older iPad cases will fit. iPad 2s and third and fouth-gen Retina iPads tend to have cross-compatible keyboard accessories, cases, and lots of other extras (except for those that use 30-pin cables versus the current Lightning connector). If you have old cases kicking around, that could come in handy.

Similar camera quality to the Air. If you really care about cameras on your iPad, rest easy knowing that the front and rear-facing ones are pretty much the same as on the Retina Mini and iPad Air. All you're missing is built-in 3x digital zoom when video recording in Apple's Camera app.

BUY IF: You want a great-looking screen but want to save a few bucks.
DON'T BUY IF: You want a light tablet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

$399: iPad Mini with Retina Display


For the same price as the 16GB fourth-gen iPad, you can also get last fall's new Retina Mini, which starts at $399 for 16GB but also comes in 32, 64, and 128GB capacities...or LTE for $129 more at each price point.

A better processor. The A7 in the Retina Mini is a tad slower than the one in the iPad Air, but it's the same as the one in the iPhone 5S. It has better graphics oomph and overall speed, sometimes by a significant degree.

Compact, yet has Retina. It's a bit heavier than the non-Retina Mini, but it's hard to notice. And the 7.9-inch screen has the same 2,048x1,536 resolution as the larger iPads with higher pixel density (326 ppi). For text, it's incredibly crisp. Color saturation isn't as rich as on the iPad Air and 4th-gen iPad, though, so screen perfectionists beware.

Same features as the iPad Air. An M7 motion co-processor, same camera quality, 64-bit processing capability, and the same improved Wi-Fi and LTE antennas are here in the Mini. This is literally just a smaller, less-expensive Air.

It's $100 less than the Air, but it's also physically smaller. That's great for me, and I prefer the Retina Mini over any other iPad. But videos are physically smaller, and great keyboard covers and accessories don't fit the Mini very well.

BUY IF: You want the best tech in an iPad for the least amount of money, or want the most compact, best iPad.
DON'T BUY IF: You want the best-looking Retina display, or do a ton of video-watching or photo editing, or want to use your iPad as a laptop replacement with keyboard.

Josh Miller/CNET

$499: iPad Air


Here we are: Apple's flagship iPad. This is the one flashed in the ads, and the one most people recognize. Is it worth the bump in price? You're paying for the best specs, but also for that physically bigger 9.7-inch screen over the Mini. Know that the difference between this and the Retina Mini is smaller than you think.

Really light. Yes, it matters, and yes, it feels good. The iPad Air almost feels like a middle-ground between the fourth-gen iPad and the Mini.

Needs different cases and accessories. Because of that new size, you'll need to shop for a new cover, or folio, or keyboard case. That could cost you extra.

64-bit processing: at least it's there. Right now, the leap from the fourth-gen iPad's A6X processor to the iPad Air's A7 is big but not earth-shattering. The bigger long-term difference might be 64-bit processing. It's vague how that will impact apps right now, but it could be a cut-off point for app compatibility in the future.

Better antennas. Both the Retina Mini and iPad Air have improved Wi-Fi and LTE antennas. That could be the biggest advantage: better range, better throughput, and for LTE, more carriers worldwide.

The most future-proofed? If you're spending $400 or more for an iPad, you want it to last a while. For future accessories and general obsolescence protection, you're safest with the iPad Air.

BUY IF: You want the best iPad regardless of price, and don't want to upgrade for a while.
DON'T BUY IF: You think you can get away with spending less.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Don't Miss
Hot Products
Trending on CNET

HOT ON CNET

Find Your Tech Type

Take our tech personality quiz and enter for a chance to win* high-tech specs!