Choosing the Best iPads for 2021 – And What to Look out for in Each

Image: Apple

If you’re looking to buy a new iPad, you have a pool of options to choose from. Apple makes many iPads these days and the differences between them aren’t all that obvious. However, buying an iPad can be tricky, even though it should be simple. Apple sells four main iPad models, and each of those offers two to four colour options and its own strengths. Since all these devices look fairly identical, it’s important to know what you’re buying and what you should pay for it. This guide covers the best iPads available right now, the important differences between each model, and every old model that exists (including the ones you shouldn’t buy at any price).

Buying Guide: What to Look Out For

When it comes to buying an iPad there are a few different questions, but they all come down to one main consideration: what do you need from an iPad?

Apple currently sells four iPad models altogether, and each of those offers two to four colour options, one to three storage capacities, and the option to get Wi-Fi and cellular or just stick with Wi-Fi. That’s a lot of configurations: clearly we’ve got work to do. Let’s get started!

Size

The first decision will cut out options drastically. Do you want a mini, 7.9-inch iPad (the mini 4), a standard-size, 9.7-inch iPad (the iPad or 9.7-inch Pro), or a big-screen, 12.9-inch iPad Pro?

The larger screen, the better – and that is obviously better for immersive entertainment. Whether watching films or playing games, it’s a more enjoyable, richer experience.

If you’re worried that an iPad mini will feel cramped, we’d point out that the mini screen feels much closer to the mid-size iPads than you might think. And we’re getting increasingly used to watching films and TV shows on phone screens.

Don’t discount the mini as an entertainment device — it’ll do you proud.

Speed

The newer the iPad you’re looking at, the faster it’s likely to be in terms of both general processing and graphics. But you’ll also find that the larger iPads tend to be faster than their smaller equivalents.

If you want to use highly demanding apps such as video and image editors, or if you’re into graphically advanced games, you should be edging towards the larger models.

If you’re going to be using your iPad for the odd bit of email and web surfing, you should be leaning towards the minis (and the mini 2 at that), because the power of the 12.9-inch Pro, for example, will be wasted on such gentle workloads.

If you want to buy a new iPad, here’s what you should know. First, the performance and features improve as you move up in the line. The current lineup for Apple’s iPad includes the 2020 eighth-gen 10.2-inch iPad, fourth-gen 10.5-inch iPad Air and the second-gen 11- and fourth-gen 12.9-inch iPad Pro models. There’s also the fifth-gen 2019 7.9-inch iPad Mini.

Battery Life

For all four currently available iPads, battery life will last “up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video or listening to music” or “up to 9 hours of surfing the web using a mobile data network.”

iPad 10.2 inch:  10:9  

iPad Air 2020: 10:9

11-inch iPad Pro: 10:9

12.9-inch iPad Pro: 10:9

Different models have different generations of battery technology, and different demands are placed on their power consumption, resulting in drastically different battery life performance.

Storage Capacity  

Storage capacity is mainly used up by three things: music, photos, and videos, in increasing order of storage drain. If you want to keep lots of films — or even a few, to be honest — then you need high storage: probably 64GB or higher for video fans.

Same applies to large photo or music libraries, to a lesser extent, although Photo Streams and iTunes Match respectively make it practical to keep your stuff in the cloud and access it remotely. Luckily 32GB is the base storage capacity now, so you’ll be OK if you want to keep any sort of media library on your iPad.

The other thing that will fill up your storage is apps, but the amount of space they take up varies enormously. The heavy-duty games will use up a lot of space, and gamers should aim high on storage — 64GB is a good bar to aim at, with 32GB the new low end.

Smart Extras

Regardless of which iPad you go with, though, all the current iPad models support the latest version of iPadOS (a special version of iOS specifically for iPads) and work with Apple’s Smart Keyboard and with either the first generation Apple Pencil or second generation Apple Pencil. That’s good news for anyone who’s looking to do more than stream videos and music, look at websites and play Apple Arcade games on their Apple product. Plus, all of the current iPad models support mouse and trackpad use for a more MacBook-like experience.

Keep in mind, too, that the 2020 iPad Pro was updated around this time last year, so it’s possible new models could roll out sometime soon. We’re expecting to see things like improved displays, faster processors to match Apple’s M1 chips found in its latest MacBooks, and possibly an enhanced Pencil or optional 5G wireless. 

Which iPad is Best for You?

Here, we summarise what sort of buyer should choose each type. 

Standard iPad

  • Screen size: 10.2 inches
  • Good for: For watching video and web browsing at home. 

The standard 10.2-inch iPad is the cheapest you can buy, but also the heaviest and thickest of all the non-Pro iPads. While it still weighs under 50kg, the large screen and slightly bulkier size means it’s best suited for use when you’re sitting down.

 It doesn’t have the very latest tech powering its processor or cameras, and it doesn’t have Apple’s Face ID facial recognition features. All that said, if you just want a simple video-watching or web-browsing experience, it should deliver the goods.

 iPad Mini

  • Screen size: 7.8 inches
  • Good for: Using on the move

The iPad Mini is very similar to the standard iPad but smaller, at just 7.8 inches diagonally. The Mini typically comes with the same or a similar processor to the one in the standard iPad, meaning they usually perform very similarly. 

The main difference is the size and weight, which make the iPad Mini easier to carry around in your hands or pop in a small bag.

iPad Air

  • Screen size: 10.9 inches
  • Good for: Those looking for a more premium experience

The iPad Air ups the specs compared with the standard iPad. It gets the latest processor and the ability to magnetically connect to Apple’s range of Smart Keyboards so it can be used like a laptop. 

It has a large, 10.9-inch screen, but weighs less than the standard, smaller iPad. On the downside, some may find the extra screen size makes it a touch unwieldy to use while standing up. 

iPad Pro

  • Screen size: 11 inch or 12.9 inch
  • Good for: A tablet that doubles as a laptop

The iPad Pro comes in two sizes – the smaller is more or less on par with the iPad Air, while the screen on the larger is more akin to a medium-sized laptop. 

Both models are as fast as your typical laptop and are powered by the very latest processors. You also get an upgraded screen that can show colours more accurately and four speakers surrounding the device for a more immersive sound. Plus, like the iPad Air, Pro iPads can connect to Apple’s Smart Keyboard accessories. 

For most people these extras will be overkill, but if you are a creative professional who wants to edit photos, videos or 3D projects on the move an iPad Pro could be a great choice.

Reviews

Here, we review, compare, and provide short details on the latest iPads.

Apple iPad 10.2-inch 2020 – A Decent Starter Pick

Image: Apple
KEY SPECS

• Apple A12 Bionic chip with a Neural Engine
• 10.2-inch Retina display
• 32/128GB of available storage
• Built-in bottom/side-facing stereo speakers
• Compatible with first-generation Apple Pencil

Rating: 8.1/10

Buy

This is Apple’s standard iPad – the 8th generation, and it is still the best buy for most circumstances. The 2020 version of it has the A12 Bionic chip (which debuted on the 2018 iPhone XS) instead of the years-older A10. That means it will run your favourite apps and games slightly faster and can handle more multitasking. Like 2019, it has a 10.2-inch screen, a home button with Touch ID, as well as support for the Apple Pencil (first-gen) and the Smart Keyboard (Amazon). With the keyboard, you can even get some light work done.

The only downside you may notice: there is more of an air gap, or space between the glass and screen, than the iPad Air, Mini, and Pro. It’s completely usable and a fantastic tablet, but the pixels on the screen don’t feel as flush with the glass, which is especially noticeable when drawing with the Pencil.

Apple iPad Air 10.9-inch – A Better Option for Most Consumers

Image: Amazon
KEY SPECS

• Apple A14 Bionic chip with a Neural Engine
• 10.9-inch Retina display with True Tone technology
• 64/256GB of available storage
• 12MP camera with 4K video recording
• Built-in stereo speakers
• Compatible with Magic Keyboard and second-generation Apple Pencil

Rating: 8.7/10

Buy

Apple’s 4th-generation iPad Air will make you wonder if there’s any need to shell out for the iPad Pro. Its speed and performance is on par with the Pro, and it uses the new A14 Bionic, just like the iPhone 12 range. It also looks exactly like the Pro, with uniform and slim edges around its 10.9-inch screen. You get many of the same features, including support for the second-generation Apple Pencil—which can magnetically attach to the edge for automatic charging and pairing—and a USB-C port. That last note means you can use your MacBook charger to juice up this tablet.

It has no home button, but Apple has integrated Touch ID into the power button, so you can still use your fingerprint to unlock the slate or to authenticate purchases. There’s also no Face ID, making it the option for anyone who hates the idea of using face recognition for security.

On the downside, the Touch ID occasionally takes a few tries to work, but it’s fast when it does register. Also, the screen’s backlight bleeds at the edges. You may want to ask Apple for replacement if you notice this problem.

Apple iPad Pro – 11-inch 2020 – A Powerful Ultimate Pick for Professionals

Image: Apple
KEY SPECS

• Apple A12Z Bionic chip with a Neural Engine
• 11-inch Liquid Retina display with ProMotion and True Tone technology
• 128/256/512GB; 1 TB of available storage
• Dual camera (12MP and 10MP), built-in LiDAR scanner, Face ID
• Built-in USB-C connector
• Four built-in stereo speakers, five built-in microphones
• Compatible with second-generation Apple Pencil, Magic Keyboard

Rating: 9/10

Buy Here or Here

Apple’s latest iPad Pro is the iPad to get if your new tablet budget has no restrictions. It brings meaningful improvements to the tech giant’s most capable iPad to date, including a more powerful chip, a dual camera joined by an ultrawide lens for snapping sweeping scenes, like on the iPhone 12; a LiDar scanner – the kind used to measure depth for self-driving cars, and five built-in microphones for a pro-grade audio experience. It’s the best tablet money can buy — by an insurmountable margin.

Also, with the size, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is like a magazine; it’s wonderfully large for drawing with the Apple Pencil (a separate purchase). The Pencil is like the one on the new iPad Air—it magnetically sticks to the edge of the iPad Pro and wirelessly charges. This slate is also the only iPad with Face ID if you really want the convenience of hands-free authentication, plus it has ProMotion, which offers a 120-Hz screen refresh rate for smoother scrolling and a more fluid software experience.

The 2020 Pro is still one of the most powerful iPads you can get. It has more speakers for better sound quality, more microphones to pick up your voice clearer and more base storage. It’s used to improve augmented reality features, though there’s a good chance you barely use AR apps. Like the Air, it’s compatible with the Magic Keyboard and the Smart Keyboard.

Apple iPad Pro 2020 12.9-inch – Best as a Tablet/Laptop Hybrid

Image: Amazon
KEY SPECS

• Apple A12Z Bionic chip with a Neural Engine
• 12.9-inch Liquid Retina display with ProMotion and True Tone technology
• 128/256/512GB; 1 TB of available storage
• Dual camera (12MP and 10MP), built-in LiDAR scanner, Face ID
• Built-in USB-C connector
• Four built-in stereo speakers, five built-in microphones
• Compatible with second-generation Apple Pencil, Magic Keyboard

Rating: 9.5/10

Buy Here or Here

If you think bigger is better, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is the best. Not only does it have the speedy A12Z chip that the 11-inch iPad Pro offers, but its 2732 x 2048-pixel Liquid Retina edge-to-edge panel is the largest digital canvas that apple offers. But that size doesn’t ruin its portability, as it’s a mere 0.4 pounds heavier than the 11-inch iPad Pro and just as thin at 0.23 inches.

And with that A12Z processor, it means that the new iPad Pro is faster at image editing than actual laptops. And with 10+ hours of battery life, it also outlasts most PCs.

The 2nd Generation Apple Pencil (sold separately) packs gesture-based tricks in its barrel and a charging method that won’t feel like you’re breaking it, while the Magic Keyboard turns the iPad Pro into a laptop.

Best for those demanding creative pros who want the best iPad experience possible. Not only is it super-fast, but its larger screen — both in inches and pixels — provides the largest canvas for professional artists and video editors to do their work.

Apple iPad Mini 7.9-inch, 2019 – The Best Compact Option for Travel

Image: Apple
KEY SPECS

• Apple A12 Bionic chip with a Neural Engine
• 7.9-inch Retina display with True Tone technology
• 64/256 GB of available storage
• Built-in bottom/side-facing stereo speakers
• Compatible with first-generation Apple Pencil

Rating:

Buy

Apple updated the iPad Mini (5th generation) in 2019 with a speedy new A12 Bionic processor, which is the same one inside the new standard iPad. Outside of the speed bump, it’s nearly identical to the old iPad Mini 4—though it starts with 64 gigabytes of base storage. The big draw is the 8-inch screen, which is perfect for smaller hands and for traveling. Its thin, laminated display also makes it an ideal (albeit petite) tablet for writing and drawing, thanks to its new first-gen Apple Pencil support.

Specs Comparison Table

Features iPad 8th Gen iPad Air 2020 iPad Pro 11 iPad Pro 12.9

Display
Resolution


2,160 x 1,620

2,360 x 1,640

2,388 x 1,668

2,732 x 2,048

Processor

A12

A14

A12Z

A12Z
Audio
Two-speaker

Two-speaker

Four-speaker

Four-speaker
Rear Camera8MP Wide12MP Wide
12MP Wide
10MP Ultra Wide
12MP Wide
10MP Ultra Wide
Front Camera7MP 7MP 7MP
7MP
Video1080p at 30fps
4K at 24,
30 or 60fps;
1080p slo-mo at
120 or 240fps

4K at 24,
30 or
60fps (wide);
60fps (ultrawide)

4K at 24,
30 or
60fps (wide);
60fps
(ultrawide)
Connectivity
802.11ac – Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 4.2

802.11ax – Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 5.0

802.11ax – Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 5.0

802.11ax – Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 5.0

Storage

32/128GB

64/256GB

128/256/512GB
/1TB

128/256/512GB
/1TB

Unlock

Touch ID

Touch ID

Face ID

Face ID
Battery
Up to 10 hours
use over Wi-Fi;
up to 9 hours
over cellular

Up to 10 hours
use over Wi-Fi;
up to 9 hours
over cellular

Up to 10 hours
use over Wi-Fi;
up to 9 hours
over cellular

Up to 10 hours
use over Wi-Fi;
up to 9 hours
over cellular
Keyboard CompatibilitySmart Keyboard

Smart
Keyboard

Magic
Keyboard

Folio

Smart
Keyboard

Magic
Keyboard

Folio
Smart
Keyboard

Magic
Keyboard

Folio

Note: Avoid These iPads!

Apple iPad 1-4

iPad Mini 1-3

iPad Air 1 -2

Just don’t. Yes, money is tight, but your sanity is important, too. Yes, there’s a chance an older iPad could still perform decently, but unless someone is giving you one for free, try to hunt for a newer model. Many of the older iPads no longer receive software updates, and they’ll seem quite slow compared to your phone and your computer. If you can find it for $650 or less, the 2018 iPad Pro is still worth buying. It’s very powerful and matches the 2020 model in many ways. The Magic Keyboard with Trackpad supports it, too.

The Mini 1-4 and iPad 1-4 have low-res screens or are just too old. Forget buying an iPad Air 1 or Air 2—those are too long in the tooth. If you’re buying something for a child to use, try Amazon’s Fire tablets, which are cheaper than any new iPad and still have tons of kid-friendly features and parental controls.

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