Which iPad should you buy? Holiday edition

Lots of models. Lots of prices. Do you get this year's version, or get last year's at a discount? Let's weigh the options.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

It's a funny time for iPads. Usually, Apple's latest models are a slam-dunk recommendation. This year, it's not as simple. There are more iPad holiday sales than ever, and some impressive discounts that can be had. Last year's models are being offered at some pretty good deals.

So, do you go for an older model or a newer one? Big or small? Or do you get one at all?

iPad vs. the competition

There are plenty of tablet alternatives that are really good: very affordable Kindle Fire tablets for kids, and Android tablets galore. The Nvidia Shield Tablet is a good value at $299, with expandable storage to boot. The Google Nexus 9 is good-looking and versatile, has an optional keyboard case, and costs $399. Meanwhile, Amazon Fire tablets are some of the best bang-for-the-buck deals, with the 6-inch Fire 6 starting at an amazing $99. And Windows tablets lurk in the wings with some decent prices of their own.

The iPad, however, still has the best top-to-bottom collection of apps. They're well-built. They're pretty kid-friendly, too. They just lack expandable storage.

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iPad Mini 2 on top, Air 2 on bottom. Sarah Tew/CNET

Best value: 32GB iPad Mini 2, aka iPad Mini with Retina Display

This year's iPad Mini 3 only adds Touch ID to the exact same product as last year. What you want is the iPad Mini 2, previously known as iPad Mini with Retina Display. While it's "last year's model," the new pricing is 16GB for $299, or 32GB for $349. That's $100 and $150 less than you would've paid for the same models before mid-October, and both are better deals than the $399 16GB Mini 3. You can't update storage later, so spend the extra $50 to double your storage now. Skip the Wi-Fi plus Cellular models unless you need it for business: they cost at extra $130 and require a cellular data plan. You can always tether to your phone or find Wi-Fi hotspots.

iPad Air vs. Air 2

It's a tougher debate for the larger iPad, the Air. Both the iPad Air and this year's Air 2 look virtually identical, but they're a little different under the hood. The Air 2 has a faster A8X processor versus last year's A7, as well as more RAM, and a better camera. It also has Touch ID: not a big deal, but some apps use it to pay online via Apple Pay.

iPad Air (left) and Air 2 (right): nearly identical design. Sarah Tew/CNET

On paper, it's a beast, especially with multitasking between apps. But iPads just aren't built to really multitask much at all compared to what you'd do on a PC, at least not right now. And the new Air 2 has one downside: its battery life is a couple of hours shorter than that of last year's Air.

If you get the older 2013 Air, you'll still get a perfectly good, even great tablet for most uses. If you want to future-proof your iPad, however, for more powerful apps and future versions of iOS, getting the Air 2 might make sense.

iPad Air: Get the $449, 32GB version (or find a way to pay less)

Apple sells last year's model starting at $399 for 16GB. Pay an extra $50 for 32GB. Again, you can't upgrade the storage later. Or, try to find one of last year's models with more onboard storage on clearance.

iPad Air 2: The 64GB version is worth the upgrade for $100

Having 16GB of storage on an iPad works only if you're merely using it for basic Web browsing, streaming, and a handful of key apps. Anything more -- particularly downloading movies or games -- and you'll hit a wall fast. Paying $100 to go from 16 to 64GB in storage is worth it over time.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Best deals generally come in gift cards or instant extra savings

Many stores offer additional savings on particular models in the form of gift cards. Target's offering $100 gift card kickbacks for the entry-level 16GB iPad Air and Air 2. If you can get an iPad for $299, even if it's got less storage than you might need, it could be too good a deal to pass up. Apple's one-day Black Friday specials also tend to offer some sort of gift-card bonus, but the deals almost always tend to be better from big-box retail stores like Walmart, Best Buy and Target, and gift cards from those stores are also more versatile (the stores just sell more things).

Look for discounted 2013 models to get more storage for less

Looking for more storage? Some stores are clearing out limited supplies of older models. Best Buy is selling the Wi-Fi iPad Mini Retina with 64GB of storage, in black, for $396: you're basically paying $100 to quadruple the base 16GB of storage. I'd take that deal, particularly if you download lots of movies or games. Some places are selling used or refurbished models, too: just make sure the place you're buying from guarantees the quality of refurbished models.

2012 iPad Mini: Buyer beware

A lot of places might dangle impressively good deals on the original iPad Mini. Walking away with an iPad for $200 could be tempting -- Walmart is offering the 16GB model for $220 -- but the older Mini, while fine for a lot of basic needs, is aging fast. It doesn't have a Retina display (not a deal-breaker, but it makes text fuzzier), and its older A5 processor basically means it's a 2011 iPad 2 in a smaller shell. In another year or two, it'll have difficulties running apps that the iPad Mini 2 will load with ease.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Bottom line: the iPad Mini 2 is the best bang for the buck

As good as the larger iPad Air 2 is, the best all-around bang-for-the-buck iPad is the Mini 2. It's the one I'd get someone for a gift. The larger Air has its advantages, but you're paying up for the extra features and may not end up using them.

Editors' note: This story has been completely updated from the earlier version originally displayed here that was published in March of 2014.

About the author

Scott Stein is a senior editor covering iOS and laptop reviews, mobile computing, video games, and tech culture. He has previously written for both mainstream and technology enthusiast publications including Wired, Esquire.com, Men's Journal, and Maxim, and regularly appears on TV and radio talking tech trends.

 

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