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HolidayBuyer's Guide

iPad vs. iPad Pro vs. iPad Mini 4: Which is right for you?

Sarah Tew/CNET
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Apple just revamped its entire iPad lineup over the last few months. That's good news in case you were waiting to buy one, but that also means our recommendations have changed.

So, what should you do? Long story short: there are now four iPads in Apple's current lineup. There's a budget 9.7-inch iPad, new 10.5-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros, and one iPad Mini 4 that just keeps hanging on. 

  • The 9.7-inch 2017 iPad is a near-universal recommendation for almost anyone who wants a tablet.
  • The new 10.5-inch 2017 iPad Pro is the best overall iPad, and the best option for artists and power users.
  • The 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the iPad Mini 4 are at both extremes of the size spectrum, and only for those who are willing to live with the compromises therein.
  • If you have an iPad Air 2 or -- especially -- a 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro, there's no imperative to upgrade.
  • There are plenty of good non-iPad tablets to consider too, including kid-friendly models as low as $50 to $80.

With all that in mind, here's how our iPad recommendations break down.

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Everyday iPad: the 9.7-inch model is a great one.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iPad (9.7-inch): Good for anyone

This is Apple's entry-level iPad. Weirdly, it's just called "iPad." It replaces the iPad Air 2, which was great but old. The new iPad is less expensive and more powerful, but has a slightly less impressive display (same resolution, but it's more reflective, meaning it's more prone to glare).

It's a really great device, though, especially for the price. This is the basic "get an iPad" iPad.

Get it if you're:

  • On a budget.
  • Buying for an older kid.
  • Just using a tablet for everyday things like email, websurfing and games.
  • Don't need a fancy stylus for drawing or marking up documents (you can still buy a cheap one that's not a Pencil).
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Bigger screen, faster processor, the best iPad: the 10.5-inch Pro will cost you, though.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iPad Pro (10.5-inch): The best model, but not worth the spend for some

The Pro iPads are now one and the same as far as tech specs: there are new 10.5-inch and 12.9-inch models, and they have the same processors, storage, and everything else. You're just shopping for screen size and resolution.

iPad Pros have more powerful processors (superfast A10X chips), more RAM (which means more apps can be open at once, for faster switching), better cameras (iPhone 7-level on front and back), better antireflective displays with better color quality and faster refresh rates, and most importantly, they support a fantastic pressure-sensitive (and separately sold, at $99) Pencil stylus. They also have a Smart Connector, which is a magnetic side port for snapping on keyboard accessories that don't need recharging.

The 10.5-inch model replaces last year's 9.7-inch Pro, which was great. In fact, if you have that 2016 iPad Pro, you really don't need this new 2017 model. The new version has a slightly bigger screen in about the same size body as its predecessor. But, it's nearly twice the price to start ($649) as the basic iPad.

This is the best iPad. But only video and photo professionals are likely to need its step-up features.

Get it if you're:

  • Someone with money who wants the best thing.
  • An artist who can afford it.
  • Looking for the best display.
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The larger iPad Pro has upgraded specs and looks great, but it's big and expensive.

Ariel Nunez/CNET

iPad Pro (12.9-inch): The mega-iPad

This model has a giant 13-inch screen that has more pixels, but also feels like a laptop lid detached from a laptop. It's better used as a tabletop iPad, or a bigger tool for artists. One notable advantage of the 12.9-inch model is that its split-screen apps show two full-sized apps side by side with none of the squishing of the 9.7 and 10.5-inch models.

While the original 12.9-inch iPad Pro is less than two years old, this 2017 version offers some significant upgrades: a faster A10X processor, better cameras, and a significantly improved anti-glare, TrueTone color-adjusting display with a faster refresh rate. If you love this size and you use it every day, it's well worth considering an upgrade. Stay tuned for a review on this one, but I've been trying one out and it's exactly what you think it would be: a souped-up version of the larger iPad.

Get if you:

  • Are an artist who can afford a $1,000 iPad.
  • Care about having a big, movie-watching super-screen iPad
  • Are a hardcore split-screen app lover
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You're fine skipping the Mini 4 right now.

Sarah Tew/CNET

iPad Mini 4: The aging, smaller option

Apple still sells the iPad Mini 4, which is now the oldest iPad in current rotation. It's got a smaller screen, which used to feel more helpful before phones became megasize.

The Mini 4 has an older A8 processor and can't handle split-screen as well as the other iPads. Its battery life isn't quite as good, either. It's a nice option as a portable reading tablet, but it's not the bargain that the now-discontinued iPad Mini 2 used to be. It would be a great tablet -- if you can find it on sale.

Get only if you're desperate for a smaller iPad for travel, or if you love the size.

Otherwise, get the 9.7-inch iPad. (You'll be happier.)

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Care about Pencil? Get a Pro. Don't need Pencil? Maybe you don't need a Pro.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Other considerations

Storage? Apple increased the base storage for the iPad Pro models to 64GB, which is great for everyday use. The leap beyond that goes right to 256GB, and then a whopping 512GB. If you're concerned about storage, 256GB is safe (but excessive). 512GB is only for people who have extreme photo-storing and video-editing needs: professional photo editors and video editors. The entry-level 9.7-inch iPad starts at 32GB, which is fine for basic use. But going up to 128GB costs $100 more, and isn't a bad idea if you're planning on downloading lots of movies or larger files.

Do you want a tablet that can be a laptop? Get a Microsoft Surface Pro or other Windows tablet. They're more versatile with keyboard/trackpad accessories and work like "normal" computers.

The cellular iPads are overkill for most people. You can tether with your phone for wireless using the Wi-Fi model. The LTE models are expensive upcharges. (Unless someone else is footing the bill, in which case, be my guest.)

Look out for discounts and shop beyond the Apple Store. As mentioned above, you can sometimes find decent discounts on iPads, but it nearly always involves shopping outside the official Apple Store. Major retailers such as Target, Staples, Walmart, Best Buy and even stores such as Toys R Us periodically offer decent-to-good iPad pricing, sometimes with trade-in offers. (Amazon isn't an official Apple retail partner, so it's generally not the best place to buy new iPads.) The 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro is still a great option if you can find it for $450 or less. The new 2017 iPad is often discounted from $329 to $299 -- a 10 percent discount. And the only time you should buy an iPad Mini is if it's on sale.

For younger kids and tight budgets, you can't beat Amazon's Fire tablet. While Amazon offers a dirt-cheap (and just upgraded) $50 Fire tablet, the better option is the $80 Fire HD 8. However, the dedicated kids' version of the 7-incher includes an unbeatable two-year "no questions asked" replacement guarantee. So you can get three Fire tablets -- two Kids Edition and one 8-inch "adult" version -- for less than the price of a new iPad. Just don't expect access to your iTunes library or Apple-specific apps.

Don't like iOS? You have plenty of other options. Beyond the Amazon tablets listed above, there are a plethora of Android tablets, Chromebooks (some of which now run Android apps, too) and touchscreen Windows devices. Depending on your price threshold and feature needs (entertainment versus work, gaming versus must-have apps), you have dozens of iPad alternatives to choose from.

What about sales? Some great models to target if you can find them: the iPad Air 2 is still great, and feels pretty similar to the current 9.7-inch iPad. Buy an Air 2 if it's offered for less, and if the storage makes sense. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro is great, too, and on sale it's a top pick. iPad Minis, at the right price ($200 or so) would be perfect for kids.

How much should you care about the iPad Pro's ProMotion display? Apple's newest displays can refresh at up to 120Hz, twice that of regular iPads (or almost any other phone or computer screen). It makes things look really smooth, and for games it could be great -- and, it makes the Pencil stylus work with lower latency. But for most people, unless you're ready to pay up for the privilege, it's not needed. But the total package of ProMotion and Apple's color-improved Pro displays (and their antireflective surface) adds up to a big display upgrade. It's like spending up for a better-quality monitor. Check one out for yourself.

What about Pencil? The pressure-sensitive Pencil is Apple's best iPad accessory -- it's one of the best art tools out there. But if you're a casual art-curious person, regular iPads work with non-fancy basic styli, too. However, if you're getting an iPad Pro, you'd better budget in getting a Pencil.

What's the deal with keyboards? Apple's iPad Pro Smart Connector enables some accessories with fast, responsive keyboards, but it's really not needed. Great Bluetooth keyboards work with regular iPads and offer similar function. One thing all iPad keyboards lack is a trackpad, so editing becomes a bigger challenge.

Should I wait? iOS 11 will offer a potentially huge set of multitasking upgrades to iPads, and we don't know how well any iPad model will handle the upgrade. You might want to wait until the fall to be sure (that's when iOS 11 launches, although a public beta should arrive this summer). But, as far as pure hardware goes, the iPad lineup is as upgraded and polished as it's been in years. It's a good time to get one, if you want one.