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​Why it's harder to choose which iPad works best for you

Apple's tablet lineup has expanded from six configurations to more than 50 in four years. Has the product lineup become too complex?

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The iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3 are Apple's latest tablets, but join an existing family of devices that the company plans to continue selling at discounted prices. James Martin/CNET

Apple has never sold so many different types of iPad tablets all at the same time.

After the debut of the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3 last week, Apple now sells five different models, allowing for 56 configurations with prices from $249 to $829. With so many choices, the iPad lineup is starting to look less and less like the "simple and elegant" design mantra Apple uses to describe its products.

It's hard to say definitively yet whether having so many options will confuse consumers or, worse, if it's evidence of a defensive Apple reacting to competitors and a sputtering tablet market. Critics who think Apple isn't the trailblazing company it once was question whether CEO TIm Cook's leadership is steering the gadget maker toward a more confusing and less profitable array of products. Having that many choices isn't a product philosophy espoused by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who unveiled the iPad in 2010 and handed over the reins of the company to Cook in 2011.

"It's really the difference between Cook and Jobs," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at the Enderle Group. "Jobs created a very unique model. His idea was to create a simple line and drive people to it."

If you walked into an Apple store four years ago, when the tablet market had yet to come into its own, the consumer choice was in line with that Jobsian vision. Potential iPad buyers only had to consider a few questions: how much storage (16, 32 or 64 gigabytes), and whether the tablet would to work solely on Wi-Fi networks or have cellular connectivity. As the iPad won over fans (the company sold 225 million units since its debut), the tablet market matured and competitors flooded the market with their own devices.

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Apple's full iPad lineup is now more complex than ever, offering five different models at the same time. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

Apple began to offer more choices to lure consumers who didn't think a higher-end, 9.7-inch model was the perfect fit -- the same strategy it employed to win over a mass market audience for its iPod digital media player and is now doing with the iPhone.

For the iPad, the expansion of the product line meant not just a smaller tablet -- the 7.9-inch iPad Mini, which debuted in October 2012 -- but a reinvention of the 9.7-inch model with last year's pencil-thin iPad Air. Almost every time a new model was announced, Apple discontinued an older product to streamline consumer choice. The iPad 2 replaced the first generation model, the iPad 3 was quickly replaced by the fourth iteration, and the iPad 4 was replaced by the iPad Air.

Yet now, Apple is keeping both the first- and second-generation iPad Mini available alongside the first iPad Air. The iPad Mini 3, which got only only 40 seconds of stage time from Apple marketing VP Phil Schiller at Thursday's product launch, is only slightly different from its older sibling: it adds more storage and the Touch ID fingerprint sensor in the home key. That Apple kept the iPad Mini 2 on board at a reduced price of $299 already has reviewers advising consumers to steer clear of the Mini 3 and opt for the cheaper Mini 2, a rarity for a company known for driving consumers upward and commanding premium prices for the best hardware.

So what's the deal? Analysts say it may be a sign that Samsung, Apple's chief rival in the market for tablets and smartphones, is winning away more customers with the many models it sells across numerous product lines at different prices.

"Tim Cook is trying to compete with Samsung," Enderle said. "The customer instead of having a clear choice has a hard choice."

That choice manifests itself in consumer doubt around how to avoid making a buying mistake like buying the 16GB iPad Mini 3 when you actually wanted the 64GB iPad Mini 2. "They have so many obsolete products in the market right now that it's pretty damn hard for the consumer," Enderle said. "Therein lies the difficulty for Apple longterm."

Apple did not respond to a request comment.

The role of cheaper iPads

There are other factors at play, too. Tablets aren't sold at a reduced or subsidized price by wireless carriers. That's driven consumers to hold on to them longer because there aren't cellular carrier subsidies driving you to upgrade every two years (or less). Apple has built its smartphone business by urging consumers to get the best and latest iPhone. But it can't mirror that strategy easily with the iPad.

Much of that has to do with the maturing of the tablet market.

Though Apple has sold 225 million iPads since the device's introduction in 2010 and has more than 675,000 dedicated apps for the gadget, the company's tablet share has dropped from 33 percent to 27 percent in the second quarter of 2014, according to market researcher IDC. The iPad is still Apple's second-best selling product line behind the iPhone at about 15 percent to 20 percent of revenue (the iPhone accounts for more than half of revenue).

Yet while the tablet market is expected to continue growing, with consumers expected to buy as many as 229 million units this year, its growth is estimated to have slowed from a substantial 55 percent increase last year to as little as 11 percent in 2014, according to a forecast in a report from research firm Gartner this month.

Given that competing devices from companies including Samsung, Google and Amazon sell at prices below the iPad, Apple is wading into tricky waters. Google's newest tablet, the Nexus 9, is a quality device that stacks up well against the iPad Air 2, but is priced like an iPad Air at $399.

There's also the effect it may have on the brand. "I think it's a bad ideas to sell old products as current. It degrades the brand," Enderle said.

But that may be where having a wide array of choices comes in strategically, says Rhoda Alexander, director of tablet and monitor research at IHS Technology.

"What happens is that Apple starts the customer out on a choice selection of the product that's affordable," she said. That range is now as low as $249 for a 16 GB first-generation iPad Mini, a 2-year-old device that lacks the frills of its newer siblings.

In other words, Apple's strategy may be to get consumers into stores with lower-priced models -- and rethinking how much money they're willing to spend when they see what a little more cash can buy them in terms of features. "When you want to move up...to the 64 GB model or to have the gold casing, you think, 'Now that I'm here, do I want this product or the 9.7-inch Air?' Because they're the same price," Alexander said.

In that sense, Alexander says, "it's all carefully calibrated to move the customer up the decision tree." So even though a tablet may be something you shop for only once every few years, getting more consumers to want that tablet in the first place -- using the $249 iPad Mini for instance -- gets them thinking about how much bang for their buck they can get once they begin considering, say, the iPad Air 2 for only $500.

Are five iPads too much?

There is still the possibility that consumers may look at Apple's charts and come away scratching their heads. "There's the risk of that, particularly for someone who is just coming into the product line," Alexander said.

However, Apple has played this game before with the iPod. The original iPod, with 5GB of storage, was the one and only device in 2001. By 2009, Apple had moved through multiple iterations of every iPod model it unveiled -- delivering the Shuffle, Mini, Classic and Touch -- changing up the designs and adding colors. The experimentation paid off and the iPod became the dominant digital media player in the world.

With the iPod, each model played a unique role that consumers could identify -- the iPod Shuffle for exercising, the Touch for game players who don't listen to a lot of music, the Classic for iTunes junkies. With the iPhone now too, consumers are given an obvious choice between big and bigger screen sizes.

The differentiation for iPads isn't quite as obvious -- the smaller iPad Mini can be held more easily in one hand and can fit more comfortably in a purse or backpack. But consumers will still be using them in very much the same way, with the same apps in the same tablet environment that tends to be when we're at home connected to Wi-Fi. That poses a problem when you cannot easily pinpoint which tasks the Mini or the Air are better for. Alexander says that Apple will have to offer clarity there, but that its in-person stores are designed to tackle those kinds of consumer questions.

"You're looking at a system in a mature market that has a lot of retail stores that help walk people through the decision process," she said.

Having 56 iPad configurations isn't as messy as it sounds when you consider the things consumers most care about -- color, storage amount, and display -- are easily communicated. "The product line is maturing. There's more to offer," Alexander added. "There's not necessarily a reason to discontinue old products."