iPad buyer’s guide – Spring 2014 [updated to include iPad 4]

Thinking about buying an iPad? Well, you’re in luck as we’ve decided to update our in-depth iPad buyer’s guide in order to help you make the right decision when purchasing an iPad over the coming weeks (or beyond).

There are a lot of things to consider when buying any new piece of expensive tech such as an iPad. What do you intend to use the device for? What’s the most important, portability or larger screen? What amount of storage capacity do you need? Can you live with an older, cheaper model or do you want the newer, more expensive version?

iPad buyers guide spring 2014

We’ll take you through pricing, screen size, hardware configurations, software, cameras, battery life and much more to hopefully tell you all you need to know to get the iPad that is right for you or for the lucky recipient.

Models and Price Points

The choice of iPad was made increasingly difficult in October when Apple announced the all new iPad Air and the iPad mini with Retina Display. Apple also simultaneously continues to sell the fourth-generation, iPad with Retina Display (iPad 4, for ease) and the first-generation, non-Retina iPad mini.

All of these devices are also available with cellular connectivity so it’s important to assess your needs before purchasing too.

Here is a price breakdown of all of the current iPads available from Apple:

iPad buyer's guide spring 2014 2

As you can see, the price points are relatively close in some cases. The cheapest point of entry to the iPad is the 16GB Wi-Fi only, first-generation iPad mini at $299 if price is your main concern.

But this may not necessarily be the wisest decision and shelling out a little extra cash can get you a lot more for your money. It really is worth considering what hardware you can get for your dollar.

Display

Apple offers two different screen sizes for its iPads. The iPad Air and iPad 4 are both 9.7 inches in size, while the iPad mini and iPad mini with Retina Display are both 7.9 inches in size. All four iPad lines have LED-backlit Multi-Touch displays.

iPad Air

In terms of display quality, iPad models with Retina displays have higher resolutions and pixel density making for higher clarity in use at a normal distance. You’ll find a Retina display in 2013’s iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display as well as in 2012′s iPad 4, but not in 2012’s iPad mini. Figuring out which display is best is difficult.

Here are the iPad models in order of screen density:

  • The iPad mini with Retina display features a 2048-by-1536 resolution at 326 pixels per inch (ppi).
  • The iPad Air features a 2048-by-1536 resolution at 264ppi.
  • The iPad 4 features a 2048-by-1536 resolution at 264ppi.
  • The original iPad mini has a 1024-by-768 resolution at 163ppi.

As you can see, the densest display is the Retina iPad mini at 326 ppi. That’s because it is the same resolution as the iPad Air and iPad 4, but shrunk down to the 7.9 inch size. In daily use, that probably won’t make much difference as you may hold it slightly closer than you would the larger iPads.

The first-gen iPad mini display has the lowest pixel density at 163ppi and is the only non-Retina iPad Apple currently sells.

Going Retina is a tough decision and one that is a purely personal preference. The screens are a much higher resolution than the alternative but if display resolution is not a sticking point for you, a lower resolution iPad may be a way to save some money for you.

The displays in iPad Air and iPad 4 are identical in terms of resolution, so there is no choice to make between them in terms of pixels per inch at the 9.7 inch size.

If you are considering the smaller form factor, the best display at 7.9 inches comes with the iPad mini with Retina Display.

Although important, displays aren’t the only thing to consider though.

Size and Weight

iPad Air

The decision between iPads got tougher late last year with the launch of the iPad Air and the iPad mini with Retina Display. Size and weight (and $100) are the main differentiators between the Air and the Retina mini as, internally, they are pretty much the same device.

It boils down to a decision between productivity and portability. The extra ~2 inches on the Air makes the device much more open to productive possibilities whereas the mini feels cramped, particularly the on-screen keyboard, for any real work.

But the iPad Air, although much lighter than previous full-sized iPads, is heavier and larger than the Retina iPad mini making it less portable and makes holding the device for long periods slightly more uncomfortable.

Here are the size and weight facts you need to know for all of the iPads currently on sale from Apple:

iPad buyer's guide spring 2014 3

None of the iPads are particularly heavy, although the smaller form factor of the mini lends itself to activities where the device will be held for a long time like reading, for example.

If you want a device for productivity, consider opting for a larger screened iPad. If you want portability, a 7.9 inch iPad should suit you just fine.

Storage

iPads come in 4 different storage configurations – 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB. The iPad models launched in 2013 are available in all four storage capacities, with last year’s iPad mini and the iPad 4 only coming in the 16GB capacity.

If you are planning on storing lot of photos, music or apps on the iPad and you think you will need more than 16GB of space, then you will have to consider either the iPad Air or iPad mini with Retina Display. If you feel 16GB would be enough, then all four iPad models are available to you.

Something to note if storage is most important to you, you can get more storage for your money in the smaller form-factor iPad mini with Retina Display. For example, a 32GB iPad mini with Retina Display costs the same as a 16GB iPad Air. It may, therefore, be worth considering whether you can sacrifice screen size for extra storage capacity.

ipad colorColors

Color choice is possibly the easiest part of choosing an iPad. Unlike the iPhone, which now comes in a multitude of color options, the iPad, essentially, remains a simple choice of two – Black or White.

The iPad Air, iPad mini with Retina Display and first generation iPad mini come in White/Silver or Black/Space Gray colorways. The iPad 4 comes with Black or White front panels, both with a brushed aluminium back similar to Apple’s MacBook lines.

Power

Processing power varies greatly among the current crop of iPads.

The A7 processor found in the iPad Air and the new iPad mini is blazingly fast. It features desktop class, 64-bit architecture and the M7 motion co-processor. Now, if all that sounds like mumbo-jumbo, put it this way – the A7 chip packs roughly the same amount of raw power as a 2010 MacBook Air. The M7 also allows for movement tracking which apps can plug into.

2012′s iPad 4 features last generation’s dual-core A6X chip with quad-core graphics. It’s not got quite the same clout as the A7, but it’s no slouch.

The first-generation iPad mini contains the A5 chip which pales in comparison to both the A7 and the A6X. The device is still usable but, as developers begin to create apps for the 64-bit A7 chip, the A5 may start to struggle going forwards.

For those that value power, the Retina mini and the iPad Air are clear winners here.

Connectivity

If you want an iPad capable of connecting to a cellular network, the device will cost you $100 more upfront plus the cost of a data contract that you choose. For those travelling a lot with the device, or using it as a mobile hotspot, that might be totally worth it. If you will only use the device at home or in the office where Wi-Fi is available, then the cellular models may be an unnecessary cost.

The Retina mini and iPad Air are compatible with more cellular networks, including GSM and CDMA in one device, as well as featuring more advanced Wi-Fi connectivity (MIMO) and LTE. Bluetooth 4.0 is also on board.

Apple’s iPad 4 comes in two different cellular variations: one for AT&T/T-Mobile and the other for Verizon/Sprint. Both variations support LTE. All iPad 4 models have Bluetooth 4.0 too.

It’s a similar story for the original iPad mini with different models required for GSM and CDMA networks and no MIMO for Wi-Fi. It also has LTE capabilities and Bluetooth 4.0.

Cameras

iPad Air

There are bound to be some iPadographers out there reading this who care deeply about the quality of the cameras on their iPads.

Fortunately, now that the iPad 2 is no longer on sale, the whole pack are evens meaning there is no choice to be made at all between iPad models in terms of camera quality. The original iPad mini, Retina iPad mini, iPad 4 and iPad Air offer the same front and back cameras. On the front, the backside illuminated FaceTime HD camera offers 1.2MP photos, 720p HD video and face detection. On the back, the iSight camera offers 5MP photos, autofocus, a 5 element lens, and f/2.4 aperture as well as 1080p HD video recording.

The camera quality is by no means as good as a traditional point-and-shoot camera, or even the iPhone 5s, but they are passable.

Battery Life

iPads have superb battery life and Apple has prided itself on maintaining the same amount of battery life ever year while adding more and more advanced hardware and software features. How they get such battery life out of devices with such small form factors I do not know.

Across the board, an iPad will give you about 10 hours of use or 9 hours of web browsing on cellular data.

Fortunately, battery life doesn’t have to be a concern when selecting an iPad.

Software and Services

ipad mini feature

All of the iPads support iOS 7 to varying degrees. The new Air and Retina mini were designed with iOS 7 in mind and support it the best with their A7 chipset. The iPad 4 also supports iOS to its fullest at the moment with its A6X chip.

For the original iPad mini, running iOS 7 is a little more troublesome with a more laggy experience. The odds of this device being supported when iOS 8 or 9 are released aren’t great and developers are likely to drop support for its A5 chip the soonest.

Siri, Apple’s intelligent, voice-driven assistant is available on all iPads.

If you want an iPad that is likely to be future-proof and supported 2 years down the line, 2013’s iPad Air and Retina iPad mini are the most recommendable at this moment. The iPad 4 should be supported for some time too with the A6X chipset.

The Verdict

Who should buy an iPad Air?

The iPad Air is probably the best full-size tablet on the market today. It features a beautiful 9.7 inch display and has the ridiculously fast A7 processor. Internally similar to the Retina iPad mini, it’s perfect for those that want the extra screen real estate and want to use it around the house, for school or in the office.

For those that value productivity ahead of portability (although the Air is not particularly cumbersome) or want to ditch their laptop for travelling, the iPad Air is the best bet.

Who should buy an iPad 4?

Since Apple stopped selling the iPad 2 and replaced it with the much more able iPad 4, the cheaper 9.7 inch option isn’t as bad a choice. It’s still a usable tablet with hardware that isn’t too old, originally launched in fall 2012, with LTE capabilities and the same camera set up. It’s limited to 16GB of storage which won’t suit everyone, though. It supports iOS 7 but probably won’t receive as many software updates going forwards as the newest iPads.

It’s certainly not as future-proof a device as the iPad Air and but can be recommended to those desperately wanting a 9.7 inch iPad and only have $399 to buy one with. However, if $399 is your budget, you could get more power for your money if you try the smaller form-factor iPad mini with Retina Display.

Those buying in bulk for education may also want to consider the iPad 4.

Who should buy an iPad mini with Retina Display?

The iPad mini with Retina Display has the densest screen of all the iPads on offer and features the same A7 chip as the Air.

If price is a factor, you can get more storage for your money with a Retina mini over the Air. The Retina mini is also perfect for those who value portability as its small size and low weight make it a perfect travelling device or content consumption device.

Who should by a first-generation iPad mini?

The original iPad mini was launched in October 2012. Therefore, its components, bar the Lightning connector, are previous generation. Its display is standard- and not Retina-quality and it contains the slower A5 chip instead of the A7 chip. It is also limited to 16GB.

The first-gen iPad mini can only really be recommended to those who want the cheapest entry point to the iPad ecosystem. If you can save up the extra $100 to go Retina and benefit from the screen and the improved internals, then do so as the experience would be greatly improved.

If you only have $299 for an iPad, the original mini is your only option. It’s usable, but not highly recommended as a future-proof device.

Having trouble deciding?

It’s certainly a difficult decision and one that you want to get right.

Check out our reviews of the new iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display for more information on those specific devices if you’re still torn.

Generally, sound advice is to get the iPad that you can afford but don’t look to save money and scrimp if you don’t have to. You get what you pay for, as the old adage goes. Your new iPad will hopefully be with you for years to come so get as much iPad as you can for your money and enjoy owning it!

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