Apple

Which iPad Is Best for You in 2021?

Posted on September 16th, 2021 by

In 2010, Apple released the first iPad. Available in one size (9.7"), with three storage options (16, 32, or 64 GB), a Wi-Fi only version was released first, with a Wi-Fi and cellular model following shortly after. At the time, this ground-breaking device was competing with netbooks (remember them?) for primacy in the lightweight/portable device market. It didn’t take long for the iPad, and the tablet in general, to flourish.

Over the years, Apple has iterated the iPad many times, with nearly two dozen different models in many sizes.

It used to be easy to choose an iPad. When there were just a couple of models available, all you needed to choose was the color and how much storage you wanted. But things have changed. Nowadays, you have multiple options to choose from, each with varying configurations; it’s not so simple to determine which iPad is best for you.

If you want an iPad today, there are four different models, each with different feature sets. There are five different sizes, and the base price ranges from as low as $329 to as much as $1099 (these prices are for Wi-Fi only, with the base storage amount, and without any of the accessories that enhance some iPad models). You can choose models that offer Wi-Fi, or both cellular and Wi-Fi, and even 5G on some models, and there are as many as five color options, depending on the model.

Based on your needs, how can you tell which iPad you should get? In this article, I’m going to look at the different iPad models and recommend which iPad is best for you, depending on how you plan to use it.

You work on your iPad

If you do a lot of work on your iPad, and want the fastest, most feature-rich device, you definitely want the iPad Pro; either the 11” model or the 12.9” version. The latest iPad Pro models include Apple’s M1 chip, the same one that powers their latest Macs. They also have Apple’s Smart Connector, which allows you to use the Smart Keyboard Folio or the new Magic Keyboard, making these devices great for both typing and tapping. Unfortunately, these keyboards aren’t cheap. The Smart Keyboard Folio costs $179 and $199, for the 11" and 12.9" models respectively, and the Magic Keyboard is a whopping $299 or $349. But the larger iPad boasts impressive qualities, and can replace a laptop: It’s got lots of room for you to work comfortably with text, spreadsheets, graphics, and more. In fact, either iPad Pro model, paired with the Magic Keyboard, and leveraging the features in iPadOS, could be a substitute for a laptop for someone who wants the ability to type and use the device with touch.

With the iPad Pro, you can also use the second-generation Apple Pencil ($129). This stylus is great if you draw, take notes, or edit photos. The first-generation Apple Pencil is compatible with a wide range of iPads (see this Apple page for a full list of compatible devices), and it costs $99. The Apple Pencil is an amazing tool; if you do a lot of work on your iPad, from drawing to text editing, you should get one, particularly with the Scribble feature in iPadOS 14, which lets you enter text with the Pencil anywhere.

If you’re wondering if an iPad can replace your laptop, see this article. We looked at the multi-tasking features in iPadOS, and options for external keyboards, which can make an iPad a compelling choice for people who need to work on the go.

You want an iPad that does (almost) everything

In October 2020, Apple released an update to the iPad Air. When this device was first released in 2013, it was thinner and lighter than other models, which made it an interesting, if slightly limited, alternative. The new iPad Air (4th generation) inherits the name of this series, but little more. Its overall body is different: it has the straight sides of the iPad Pro. It’s also got Apple’s A14 processor, which was, at the time, the most powerful of Apple’s A series chips, only recently superseded by the new A15, and the M1 chip used in the iPad Pro and new Macs. (The processor alone isn’t enough to judge its overall capacity, but it’s an important benchmark.)

At 10.9", it’s almost the same size as the smaller iPad Pro (11"). But it’s close enough to allow use of the Magic Keyboard. And since the Touch ID sensor is incorporated in the power button, the bezels around the screen are smaller than the previous model. Starting at $599, it’s $150 less than the similar-sized iPad Pro. There are some differences: two speakers instead of four; a less sophisticated camera; storage options only go up to 256 GB; and the display doesn’t have all the top features, such as ProMotion technology. But this iPad really hits the sweet spot: it balances price and capabilities quite well, and you get a choice of five colors. This is my recommendation for most people who want to use an iPad for work, but don’t need the larger 12.9" size.

You take photos or videos with your iPad

Some people think that taking photos with an iPad is gauche, but lots of people do it. If you carry your iPad around with you, and want to take photos, the newest iPad Pro models are for you. With a similar dual-camera system as the iPhone 13 – wide-angle and ultra wide-angle cameras – the iPad Pro is a compelling device for photos and video. For some people who need to shoot videos professionally – such as to show off houses for sale or to create training videos – using in iPad with its large display, together with a tripod or gimbal, is a great option. The wide-angle camera has an f/1.8 aperture, making it excellent for low-light photos and videos, and the ultra wide-angle camera has an f/2.4 lens.

Both models shoot 4K video, at up to 60 fps, as well as slow-motion at up to 240 fps in 1080p. The iPad Air only has a single wide-angle camera, but it’s got an f/1.8 aperture, and can record the same 4K and slow-motion video as the iPad Pro. The iPad mini (6th generation) also has a 12 Mp ultra wide camera, and offers the same recording options.

You want the best display

The new 12.9" iPad Pro features what Apple calls the Liquid Retina XDR display. Apple says this provides extreme dynamic range, and this device is ideal for people who work with images: photographers, videographers, and filmmakers, who want to view content on a portable device with a large display. Other iPad models have excellent displays as well; they are all liquid retina displays, and offer True Tone technology, to adjust the color temperature of the display according to ambient lighting.

You play iOS games

If like to play iOS games – and I don’t mean solitaire or crossword puzzles – then any of the iPad models, other than the iPad (9th generation), will suit you. These models have desktop speed, and the graphics are excellent. If you want more portability, the new iPad mini (6th generation) is a great option, but for more immersive gaming, the iPad Pro models will be better. Be aware that some games take up a lot of storage, but with the base iPad Pro models now with 128 GB, you may not need to pay the Apple tax for more. However, if you do need a lot of storage, the iPad Air is limited to 256 GB, whereas you can order an iPad Pro with 2 TB.

You need lots of storage

You may travel a lot, and use your iPad to carry around files for work, or movies and TV shows to watch on the road. If so, you need lots of storage. Times have changed since the first iPad, which came with as little as 16 GB storage. Now, the iPad Pro starts at 128 GB and is available with up to 2 TB. The iPad Air (4rd generation) starts at 64 GB, with an option for 256 GB. The iPad (9th generation) has 64 GB with an option for 256 GB, as does the iPad mini (6th generation).

The USB-C port on the latest iPad Pro models supports Thunderbolt, and if you need a lot of storage, you also need fast data transfer rates. Thunderbolt provides throughput at four times the previous iPad Pro model, up to 40 Gbps. The iPad mini (6th generation) also has a USB-C port, but doesn’t support Thunderbolt.

You want a budget iPad

Apple’s naming of the iPad models is confusing at best. Your current options are the following:

  • iPad Pro 12.9" (5th generation) – starting at $1099
  • iPad Pro 11" (3nd generation) – starting at $799
  • iPad Air (4rd generation) – starting at $599
  • iPad mini (6th generation) – starting at $499
  • iPad (9th generation) – starting at $329

If all you need is a basic iPad, and have no special demands for speed or storage, the 10.2" iPad (9th generation), which was updated in September 2021, is a great deal. Since 2017, Apple has been releasing these iPad (without modifier) models at an affordable price of $329. With 64 GB storage, this iPad is sufficient for most needs, but you can bump that to 256 GB.

Note that you can find refurbished iPads on Apple’s website, usually discounted around 15%, so if price is key, you may want to check out that option as well.

You watch videos on your iPad

In the past few years, with the great retina displays on the latest iPads, I’ve taken to enjoying watching movies and TV shows in bed. I currently have a 2020 11" iPad Pro: the display is crisp and responsive, and the four speakers sound great. There’s a sort of faux surround sound on these devices, but it doesn’t sound artificial; it makes movies sound vibrant.

If you want to watch videos a lot, you might prefer the larger 12.9" model, but is also substantially heavier than the 11" (682 g / 1.5 lbs vs. 466 g / 1.03 lbs.)

The new iPad Air is also a great candidate, if you want something around that 11" size. But it only has two speakers, not four, so the sound won’t be as impressive. The iPad mini (6th generation) has what Apple calls "two speaker landscape mode," which should provide better audio than the iPad Air, but not as immersive as the iPad Pro.

I recently acquired Apple’s AirPods Max headphones, which provide surround sound – what Apple is calling "spatial audio" – for both music and videos. If you watch a video which does have a surround sound audio track on an iPad, with the AirPods Max or AirPods Pro, the sound is very impressive, so if you do watch a lot of videos, this is worth considering. The AirPods Max are expensive, at $549, but they offer excellent noise cancellation, in addition to the truly immersive spatial audio.

You need cellular access

You’re in luck: all current iPad models offer a cellular option. It’s not cheap, though; add $130 to $150 in the US to be able to access data on the go. And the latest iPad Pro models even offer 5G (sub-6 GHz and mmWave, though mmWave is only available in the US). If you have an iPhone, and your carrier lets you set up a personal hotspot, that’s a great way to get data to your iPad or laptop when you’re on the road, so you can avoid the extra cost of the iPad, and the additional mobile contract.

You want the convenience of Face ID

Only the iPad Pro models offer Face ID, and this is very convenient if you use your iPad a lot. All other current models have Touch ID, and these security features allow all models to benefit from Apple Pay. New with the 2020 iPad Air, and also on the 2021 iPad mini, the Touch ID sensor is in the power button on the top edge of the device. This means that there’s more space for a larger screen with smaller bezels.

Of course, if you use your iPad when you’re out and about, Touch ID may be easier now, in this era of mask wearing. In that case, the new iPad Air or iPad mini might be what you want.

You want the smallest (or biggest) iPad

There are five sizes in the iPad product line: the 12.9” iPad Pro, the 11” iPad Pro; the 10.9" iPad Air; the 10.2" iPad; and the 8.3” iPad mini. If you want the biggest one, it’s clear which you should choose. The sizes of the three middle iPad models are similar enough that they don’t matter. But if you do want a light, compact iPad, the iPad mini is a great choice. It’s got an excellent display and it’s fast enough for most needs. In September 2021, Apple updated the iPad mini to its 6th generation, with the A15 processor, which is the same processor as on the iPhone 13, making it a very capable machine. I have long enjoyed using the iPad mini, and I consider it to be a sort of "paperback" version of my 11" iPad Pro.

You use FaceTime and Zoom a lot

It’s only recently that Apple has upped the resolution of the front cameras so they look good enough to use often for video conferencing. And these days, more and more people are using this technology with friends, families, and for work. The iPad Pro, iPad (9th generation), and the iPad mini (6th generation) all have 12Mp front cameras; only the iPad Air still has a 7-megapixel camera.

All current iPads, with the exception of the iPad Air, support the new Center Stage feature, which is designed for video chats. The camera follows you around when you move, so you don’t have to remain static in your FaceTime and Zoom calls. If you do a lot of video calls, you’ll find this to be useful.

So, Which iPad Should You Choose?

If you want a new iPad, you can spend anywhere from $329 for the iPad (8th generation) to as much as $2,399 for the 12.9" iPad Pro with 2 TB storage and cellular. And you may want to add the Apple Pencil ($129) and the Magic Keyboard ($349) to the iPad Pro, making it a $2,877 tablet.

Obviously, anyone opting for such an expensive configuration is a professional using the device for demanding tasks, and for such people the price is justified. But for most users, the ideal iPad comes in at a much lower price point. The basic iPad ($329) is great for casual use; it can handle games, video, and the usual web surfing and messaging.. With the iPad Air, at $599, you get a better display, a faster processor, and a device that is likely to remain compatible for longer as Apple iterates iPadOS. And the $499 iPad mini gives you a compact yet capable device, great for reading, playing, and watching videos.

Also, think about the longevity of an iPad. This is a device that generally lasts much longer that an iPhone, at least if you don’t carry it around with you all day long. I’ve had iPads in my household that have lasted for five or six years, with fairly heavy usage, before they became sluggish. iPads are reliable devices, and it’s worth considering that whatever iPad you buy may be around for some time. And remember that if the battery isn’t holding a charge very well, it’s worth considering having Apple replace the battery to give it a new lease on life.

No iPad is perfect for everyone. You may find that some of the above use cases match your needs, and others don’t. You need to balance features, size, and price, but the choices available should suit almost everyone. So consider all your options to choose which model comes closest to your needs.

 

How can I learn more?

Each week on the Intego Mac Podcast, Intego’s Mac security experts discuss the latest Apple news, security and privacy stories, and offer practical advice on getting the most out of your Apple devices. Be sure to follow the podcast to make sure you don’t miss any episodes.

You can also subscribe to our e-mail newsletter and keep an eye here on Mac Security Blog for the latest Apple security and privacy news. And don’t forget to follow Intego on your favorite social media channels: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Apple products and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast, as well as several other podcasts, and is a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than two dozen books, including Take Control books about Apple's media apps, Scrivener, and LaunchBar. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →