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iPad Mini vs. iPad 9th gen vs. all the rest: Which iPad should you buy now?

New iPads mean a lot of choices, from the phone-like 5G iPad Mini to a revamped classic iPad.

Apple has two new iPads: an improved entry-level 10.2-inch iPad and a revamped iPad Mini. One's super affordable; the other, not so much. And Apple already has an iPad Pro (in two sizes) and the iPad Air. Which should you buy, if any? After reviewing the two latest iPads, we finally have answers.

Here's some hopefully sanity-restoring shopping advice: When in doubt, go with that low-cost ninth-gen iPad. Here are my thoughts, now that all the new iPads seem to be out of the bag for 2021.

Now playing: Watch this: iPad Mini 2022 vs. iPad 9th gen, reviewed: Which to buy
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I've always appreciated the entry-level iPad for its affordable price. The new entry-level model gains a couple of useful extras: more storage for $329 (64GB, rather than the ridiculously low 32GB of the last model), a faster A13 chip and better cameras (most importantly, a wider-angle higher-res front-facing Center Stage camera that tracks your face via digital pan and zoom). It still uses the first-gen Apple Pencil, but I'm not sure that's a big deal (the older Pencils work fine and cost less). It's still compatible with a range of keyboard cases, too. It doesn't have USB-C, but at this price, that seems expected for Apple. This is my main go-to recommendation right now, although I haven't held it or reviewed it yet. Its predecessors were often on sale for $299 or less and that should be true this holiday season as well. 

The downsides to the entry-level iPad have mainly to do with the bezel-heavy older display (which adds TrueTone for adjusting color balance in different lighting conditions, but is still 10.2 inches and doesn't support a wide color gamut like the iPad Air, Mini and Pro). It still has not-fantastic speakers (they're functional on the eighth-gen model, but you'll probably use headphones, right?) and the old circular Touch ID home button on the front (maybe you prefer it, but it takes up space where the display could be made larger, or the iPad made smaller). Apple says the ninth-gen iPad works with older cases for the eighth- and seventh-gen iPads, which is good news for finding deals or using what you already have.

The step-up model costs $479 ($50 more than last year), but has 256GB of storage, a bump up from the eighth-gen model's storage cap of 128GB. This matches the storage tiers of the iPad Mini and iPad Air. The newest iPad doesn't feel that changed, but it's even better, and is a super solid pick for kids or budget shopping.

Scott Stein/CNET

The new iPad Mini is intriguing. It's a smaller version of last year's iPad Air and, starting at $499, it's hardly super affordable. But it has some interesting upsides. It has optional 5G, which only the iPad Pro had before. It also has that new digital-zoom Center Stage camera, like the iPad and iPad Pro. The larger 8.3-inch screen looks promising, but lacks Mini LED like the Pro models, or 120Hz ProMotion. It works with second-gen Pencils, so you can magnetically snap a Pencil right onto the side, which is nice. But the new design means it'll need all-new cases and keyboard accessories. The price could rack up based on 5G and storage, case and accessory upgrades, but this could also be considered a phablet-like iPhone alternative for a lot of people. Maybe it is? It's the closest thing Apple has to such a product.

After using it, I was won over by the new Mini's design, and it's extremely updated. You just have to do the math on whether a smaller tablet at this price makes sense for you (for some people, it totally does). The biggest thing the Mini misses out on is slipping into keyboard-connected laptop-like uses.

I liked using the iPad Mini several years ago, but the smaller size also means it's not as ideal for dual-app multitasking, something the iPad has been leaning on more in recent years. The new Mini should handle all the multitasking tricks, but it has less screen real estate per app than larger iPads... and a bit more than the previous Mini.

One downside for the Mini, if you use your iPad for text editing, could be its smaller display and lack of a smart connector. There aren't any Apple-made keyboard accessories for the new Mini, and it may be harder to find a good keyboard case.

Read our Apple iPad Mini (2021) review.

 

Last year's iPad Air: Suddenly not aging that well

So the weird thing now is that the previously charming iPad Air, which seemed to split the difference between iPad and iPad Pro, now feels a little lost in the lineup. Starting at $599 (but often on sale for less), the Air has an A14 processor (worse than the iPad Mini) and doesn't even have the useful, digitally zooming Center Stage camera you get on the entry-level iPad. There's also no 5G support -- which I wouldn't recommend for most people anyway, and in many areas doesn't feel any faster than LTE, but still.

The Air might be a good value on sale, but I'm concerned about its future. Right now, its no-sale retail price seems too high. As features keep dribbling down to the entry-level iPad, this Air's destiny could end up being like the older 2017 iPad Air: It might end up being absorbed into the entry iPad completely.

Apple iPad Pro M1

The iPad Pros are stellar hardware, but also seriously expensive.

Scott Stein/CNET

The Pro: Power at a price

The M1 processor-equipped Pro has excellent speakers, microphones, a vivid Mini LED display and multiple rear cameras with lidar for AR apps and 3D scanning. It's also absurdly fast. It's a lovely piece of hardware if you can afford it. But the iPad Pro runs the same OS that every other iPad does, which means it's not going to transform into a Mac. It's limited by iPadOS, in many ways. If you're hungry for its power or are a graphics or art pro with the budget for it, however, it's got a reason for existing. But it's not necessary otherwise, unless you have a lot of money to throw around on fun tablet toys.