Article courtesy of PC Mag Australia.
In 2020, Apple has four different iPad lines with five different screen sizes, ranging in price from $329 to $799 (baseline models; the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with cellular connectivity and 1TB of storage will set you back $1,649). Of these, Apple has recently updated the iPad and iPad Air in the fall of 2020, and refreshed the iPad Pro back in March. With all of these models, it can get pretty complicated if you’re shopping for a new tablet.
To help you figure out what you’re getting with each iPad, let’s look at all the differences between the various models, including what’s changed with the latest versions. But let’s start with the similarities, and what you can expect from any Apple tablet you buy today.
Across the Board: Software, Wireless Connectivity, Apple Pencil, and Magic Trackpad
For years, the iPad ran the same operating system as the iPhone: iOS. It was Apple’s standard mobile operating system for over a decade, running through 12 separate iterations. That changed with the release of iPadOS, formally splitting the iPad’s operating system off from the now-iPhone-only iOS. The tablet-specific operating system focuses on streamlining and expanding multitasking to improve the usefulness of iPads as workplace devices, with pinnable widgets and cross-app workflow features like split screen and rapidly sliding between screens.
Wireless connectivity is also almost universally strong across the iPad models. Every version has at least Bluetooth 4.2, dual-band 2.4/5GHz Wi-Fi with MIMO, and optional LTE cellular connectivity. As for future-proofing, none of the iPads support 5G yet; Apple hasn’t even announced its first 5G iPhone, so we’ll be waiting a while for a 5G iPad.
Every iPad also supports the Apple Pencil. This doesn’t mean every Apple Pencil is the same; the $99 first-generation Apple Pencil works with the iPad and iPad mini, while the $129 second-generation Apple Pencil works with the iPad Air and iPad Pro.
All iPads can work with Bluetooth keyboards, but the iPad, iPad Air, and iPad Pro all also feature Smart Connectors that make them compatible with Apple’s Smart Keyboard, and the iPad Air and iPad Pro also work with Apple’s higher-end Magic Keyboard and Smart Keyboard Folio. The most recent iPadOS update also adds support for the Apple Magic Trackpad 2, letting any iPad work with Apple’s touchpad accessory.
Apple iPad: Budget Baseline
For a time, the iPad and iPad Air were synonymous as Apple’s midrange tablet. The iPad Air simply replaced the iPad in 2015, and the iPad replaced the iPad Air 2 in 2017. Now Apple is offering current models of both the iPad and the iPad Air, and they’re very different from each other. Instead of sitting nestled between the iPad mini and iPad Pro in price and features, the standard iPad is Apple’s budget tablet, by far the least expensive at $329. It was the least powerful, but as of the most recent version it’s now as impressive as the pricier iPad mini.
The 2020 iPad is a marked upgrade over the 2019 version, mostly because of the processor. Apple replaced the aging A10 CPU with the A12, the same processor found in the iPad mini and the iPhone XR. It’s a good step up in performance, but otherwise the new iPad is untouched from the 2019 version.
Storage is limited, with only 32GB and 128GB models available, while the other iPad models start at 64GB and go up to 256GB for the iPad mini and Air, and up to 1TB for the iPad Pro. Since none of the iPads have microSD card slots for expanding storage, 32GB of space is pretty limited.
The screen is also the least advanced of the current models. It’s a Retina LCD just like the iPad Air and iPad mini, with a 2,160-by-1,620-pixel resolution for 264 pixels per inch. That’s actually a higher resolution than the iPad mini, but the mini’s smaller screen size makes for higher pixel density. It also lacks the lamination and anti-reflective coating of the more expensive models, and doesn’t feature Wide Color up to the DCI-P3 colour space or Apple’s True Tone setting.
The other lagging factor of the standard iPad is the selfie camera. While it shares the same 8MP rear-facing camera as the other non-Pro iPads, its front-facing camera is a meager 1.2MP. That’s a fraction of the resolution of the 7MP selfie cameras on the iPad mini and iPad Air, and iy means your FaceTime calls will look a lot less pleasant to whomever you’re talking with.
The big appeal of the regular iPad is the value it offers for the price. At $329, you’re getting a big, bright screen and lots of functionality that outshines any budget Amazon Fire or Lenovo Android tablet in build quality and polish, and still costs far less than Samsung’s Galaxy Tabs. If you want a versatile entertainment device for watching videos, reading books and comics, browsing the web, communicating with your friends, and even doing light text-crunching and presentations, it’s an excellent choice.
Apple iPad mini: Small but Fierce
This is obviously the smallest iPad. It has a 7.9-inch screen, weighs 0.66 pounds, and measures less than a quarter of an inch thick. It’s small enough to fit easily in a bag or even a large jacket pocket, and that has its own appeal if the larger, pound-plus iPads are too bulky for you. It’s the only iPad that doesn’t support Apple’s Smart Keyboard, however.
The iPad mini doesn’t make many compromises for its size. Its Retina display features the lowest resolution of the bunch, at 2,048 by 1,536, but the smaller screen means a much denser 326 pixels per inch. If you’re looking at crispness instead of the sheer number of pixels, it’s sharper than even the iPad Pro. It doesn’t have the ProMotion technology of the Liquid Retina display on the Pro, but it features the same P3 Wide Color and TrueTone modes, and fully laminated panel with anti-reflective coating.
It’s also a relative powerhouse for its size, with the same A12 Bionic processor found in the iPad and the iPhone XR. It was the least expensive A12-powered iPad you could buy, but as of the recent iPad launch, it comes in second place; you’re spending more for a very similar but more compact package, with a better screen.
Apple iPad Air: More Than iPad, Not Quite Pro
The iPad Air takes up a compelling position between the more budget-friendly iPad and iPad mini, and the more powerful iPad Pro. The newest iPad Air is drastically redesigned, making it physically much more similar to the iPad Pro, providing that premium feel and aesthetic for a much lower price (but still much higher than the iPad and iPad mini).
The new iPad Air does away with the curved edges of the previous model in favor of flatter edges to match the iPad Pro. The screen also takes up nearly the entire front of the tablet, moving the fingerprint sensor to the top edge. The Liquid Retina Display measures 10.9 inches with a 2,360-by-1,640 resolution, for the same 264ppi as both the iPad and iPad Pro. It doesn’t have the ProMotion technology the iPad Pro has for smooth scrolling, but it features the same fully laminated design, anti-reflective coating, and P3 Wide Color support with Apple’s TrueTone mode.
It features Apple’s newest A14 Bionic processor, which Apple says features a 40-percent faster 6-core CPU, a 30-percent faster 4-core GPU, and a 70-percent faster machine learning Neural Engine compared with the A12 on the previous iPad Air. That means you can edit 4K video on the tablet itself, an impressive feat for a non-iPad Pro. Of course, we’ll have to get the new iPad Air in ourselves and put it through its paces to really determine just how much faster the A14 processor is in real-life situations.
The redesigned body and faster processor mean the new iPad Air is a bit more expensive than before. While the previous iPad Air started at $499, the 2020 iPad Air starts at $599, which puts its price directly between the iPad mini ($399) and the iPad Pro ($799).
Apple iPad Pro: Professional Powerhouse
The Pro in the name makes it clear: The 11-inch and 12-inch iPad Pros are professional tablets, designed to offer the processing power and screen quality that artists, musicians, designers, and editors demand for their work. That distinction is important because it needs to justify the much higher $799 and $999 baseline price tags the Pro models command over the other versions.
Besides their sizes, the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models are effectively identical. They both use Apple’s A12Z Bionic chip, more powerful than the A12 of the iPad Air and iPad mini, and even the A12X in the previous iPad Pros. These are simply some of the most powerful tablets available. And with storage capacities of up to 1TB, you can even get as much space as a professional notebook.
The Liquid Retina displays on both iPad Pro models have the same 264 pixels per inch as the iPad and iPad Air, to complement their higher-resolution screens. The 11-inch screen is 2,388 by 1,688, while the 12.9-inch screen is 2,732 by 2,048. The displays are also fully laminated with anti-reflective coating and support P3 Wide Color and Apple TrueTone, as well as Apple’s ProMotion for up to a 120Hz refresh rate.
The cameras on the iPad Pro models are also significant upgrades over the other iPads. The updated iPad Pro now packs two rear-facing cameras, a 12MP wide-angle lens, and a 10MP ultra-wide lens that can capture double the field of view. Apple also added a new LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanner to the camera cluster, letting the iPad measure distance and time-of-flight at up to five meters away. The cameras can also record 4K video at up to 60 frames per second, while the other iPads can only capture 1080p. The front-facing TrueDepth camera is the same 7MP resolution as the cameras on the iPad Air and iPad mini, but adds an augmented reality-friendly depth sensor that supports Apple’s Animoji and Memoji features and improved portrait modes.
Users looking to accessorize get many more options with the new iPad Pro. Besides the Apple Pencil and Magic Trackpad support, Apple introduced a new Smart Keyboard Folio with a magnetically attaching Magic Keyboard. The new keyboard offers full-size, backlit keys and scissor switches, and USB-C pass-through charging so you can chain together other peripherals through it.
Which iPad Should You Get?
Ultimately, the best iPad depends on your needs. You shouldn’t drop over $1,000 if you just want a tablet to watch Netflix and read comics, but you also shouldn’t expect professional power and features in a $329 entry-level model. Thankfully, the iPad mini and iPad Air mean that Apple’s tablet selection is no longer a question of just those extremes.
We’ve really liked the $329 iPad for its functionality and value, and its processor upgrade makes it even more appealing. The iPad mini now seems a bit overpriced, considering it has mostly the same specs as the iPad for $70 more. If you just want an Apple tablet for entertainment and personal use, the iPad is still an excellent value, while the iPad Pro could be a worthwhile investment for professional users. The iPad Air looks appealing, with its new design and faster processor, but we’ll have to get it into the lab to reach a full verdict and determine where it sits in the iPad hierarchy, so check back soon for our results.