Yesterday was an odd twist between the last few years’ big iPad launch events with the familiar, high gloss Apple keynote live streams and the occasional minor update to Apple’s product line that only solicits a press release. A 10 minute mini-keynote showed off the new low and high-end iPads, and like the format twist, these iPads are neither small nor large changes from the existing line. But the changes do help make the whole lineup make more sense if you’re in the market for a tablet.
iPads have come a long way since Steve Jobs sat down on stage with the first one in 2010. They are now capable of incredibly demanding work (and play), come in a variety of configurations and have a wide range of applications for everything from word processing to DJing to video editing. Yesterday, the pro-level DaVinci Resolve was pre-announced, marking a new stage in the iPad’s life as a professional multimedia editing tool, for example. The continued convergence of MacOS and iPadOS promises more such crossovers ahead.
Compared to devices like the Amazon Fire tablets (the most notable competitor) and various standard Android entries, the iPad is in an entirely different realm both in raw power and application robustness. To steal the metaphor of the ill-fated BlackBerry PlayBook’s marketing campaign, there are the “amateur hour” tablets and then there’s the iPad. Only Microsoft’s Surface line competes, and even there at a performance and battery life disadvantage.
The iPad range has grown sizably more complex over the last few years. Initially, there was just the iPad, and then a few years later the oft forgotten iPad mini. During those first years, the “cheaper” models would, much like is often the case with the iPhone, simply be the previous year’s model. But now there are no less than six distinct, current iPad options: iPad (9th Generation), iPad (10th Generation), iPad mini, iPad Air, iPad Pro (11”) and iPad Pro (12.9”).
If you’re in the market for an iPad, how do you make sense of this menagerie? Is Apple getting lazy or does this lineup make sense? The quick answer is that the lineup makes more sense than it has in some time and, at the same time, you can skip almost all of it and go for the low-end in most cases.
A quick detour on past models and their confusing positioning is worth the time, especially as frequent discounts on new or refurbished previous generation models (Best Buy has had many such sales on the previous generation Air) can be hard to sort through the value of. If you have no interest in a previous generation model (and there’s only one I would even consider at this point), feel free to skip this section.
When the iPad Pro first launched, it was clearly better than the lower end models — faster processor, better display, snap on keyboard support, Apple Pencil drawing stylist support and so on. In 2018, it also brought the edge-to-edge display style of the iPhone X to iPads. It was unquestionably better.
The lines have blurred since the return of the iPad Air line, as the Air has often tracked as a nearly as good alternative to the Pro for sizably less and even the lowliest iPad (without qualifier) has ramped up in speed far beyond competitors’ tablets and gained support for keyboards and the Apple Pencil.
Over the pandemic things got even messier as the iPad Air went to edge-to-edge display. Though the iPad Pro at the time had a marginally faster processor, it wasn’t markedly faster. Then, the iPad Pro leapt to the desktop class M1 processor present in the MacBook Air, Mac mini and iMacs of the time, again putting it clearly in the lead and making it undeniably a competitor in the actual laptop-class device space.
The Pro made sense again for a moment, while the Air’s position got more confusing as the iPad mini passed it up in speed with the latest iPhone chip in 2021. That cleared up once more as the Air gained the same M1 processor as the iPad Pro earlier this year, although in doing so, it called into question why virtually anyone would pick the Pro over the Air.
In fact, if you had asked me two or three weeks ago about buying an iPad Air or Pro, I would have advocated for the Air unquestionably. For hundreds of dollars less, you would get a very similar display and just as much raw processing power — for most people, the missing features to be gained in the Pro just were no longer enough. Even the expensive, but impressive, Apple Magic Keyboard accessory (providing a true, laptop class keyboard for the iPad) works interchangeably on the two.
Looking at a previous generation? Without covering every possible comparison, before you think you have found a good deal, note several things: which Apple silicon processor is included, what sort of display is included and what kind of camera is included. For most people, the processor is the big deal: even though several generations back of Apple silicon are more than adequate for light tablet usage, the rule of thumb is that Apple offers operating system updates for 5-8 years after a chip first premiers somewhere (quite frequently in an iPhone). So forget performance for a moment and think timeline: how long can this iPad last?
If you buy a low-end, previous generation iPad that has an A10 processor, say, expect it may have only a year or two of further updates, being just two generations/years off from the present “cutoff.” While that processor was quite impressive for its time, it is starting to show its age, so sheer performance is also worth considering, and, again, the timeline of support is relevant. Apple is generous compared to much of the industry, but that generosity on upgrades has its limits.
So, the current iPad lineup in view, where does that leave you? As of yesterday’s launch there’s a clear stairstep progression amongst models (the Mini excluded, perhaps).
While I have not been able to personally use or benchmark the three models released yesterday (and anyone who has is still under “embargo” and unable to release those observations), the components in them have appeared in enough other Apple products that I am confident the claims Apple made will be borne out and those claims make some pretty clear choices for someone shopping today.
First, Apple kept last year’s no-qualifier, base model iPad on the market, since its replacement adds some features that necessitate a higher price tag. This seems like a great call, since the A13 processor (first seen in the iPhone 11) remains very speedy. For anyone who uses the iPad as a modern replacement for grabbing the newspaper to catch up on the world while drinking morning coffee, this iPad, which sometimes appears on sale for as little as $269, is truly fantastic and should have 4 or 5 more years of full updates.
The one downside to this iPad is it is now the last iPad to utilize the Lightning connector that all iPhones and everything from the Apple Magic Mouse to the Apple TV Siri Remote have used for the last decade. The iPad is nearly fully transitioned to USB-C or Thunderbolt, just like the Macs have, and the European Union is in the midst of ill-advisedly forcing Apple to do the same with the iPhone (if Apple keeps a wired connection on iPhones at all). One can use adapters to connect things to Lightning port, but it is clearly on its way out, so if connecting a bunch of accessories is a big deal to you keep that in mind.
The new, tenth generation iPad slots in for $120 more than the MSRP of the model it ostensibly replaces (though the jump is more if you consider those frequent sales on the previous model). For that, you essentially get an iPad that is a very close approximation of the 2020 iPad Air, the first mid-range model to have the edge-to-edge style display. Both have the same A14 processor and same 10.9” size screen. Both come in a variety of vibrant colors.
While the new iPad sports a few advantages over that two year old mid-range model (a better front facing camera and 5G in the cellular model), as the new “base” model, it ditches a few features Apple has reserved for its higher end iPads, such as a superior laminated display and support for the snap on magnetic charging Apple Pencil 2 supported by higher end models. The new model is also 1mm thicker than the aforementioned, fourth generation iPad Air and cannot use the Magic Keyboard, though its new Keyboard Folio looks nearly as nice and costs a lot less.
If you’re looking for a step up from the cheapest iPad, this gives you an iPad that will have an experience in most cases just like the highest end current iPads and the A14 processor is a nice upgrade nearing modern Macs in speed. Not bad for under $500.
Crucially, if you want to hook your iPad up to various accessories, it makes the jump to USB-C, perfect for video output, docks, storage devices — the gamut — many without “dongles” required, even. If you can afford the jump and want to do some gaming or simply have the nicer screen, this is a reasonable upgrade.
(If you see the fourth gen iPad Air floating around for the same price, it is worth considering, given that it was originally a more premium offering.)
The present, fifth generation iPad Air remains a nice step up from there and, for most users, is the highest end iPad worth considering. At $599, the perks withheld when the guts of the fourth generation iPad Air became the tenth generation iPad (namely, the better display and Magic Keyboard support) are here, along with a significant processor upgrade. Two years after appearing in the first Apple silicon Macs, the M1 processor remains an incredibly fast, capable processor fully able to tackle high-definition video editing, machine learning photo work and other demanding tasks.
The iPad Air is perfect for someone who wants the iPad to be a laptop replacement or, at least, a serious secondary computer. Given a good keyboard and Apple Pencil, it can easily serve the needs of office workers, photographers and the like. With the M1 combined with the free upgrade to iPadOS 16 next week, it will even support extending projects onto multiple displays, something common on laptops, but new to the iPad.
I nearly skipped over the iPad mini in our tour, so let’s mention it just briefly. It is very reminiscent of the fourth generation iPad Air mentioned above, albeit with the newer processor found in the iPhone 13 and 14. It is a fine tablet, but at $499, its size limits it from being as useful as the $50 cheaper new iPad and its processor isn’t as powerful as the $599 iPad Air. Most users should stick to a larger iPad; those who really need a diminutive tablet probably knew that without reading this column.
Finally, there is the new iPad Pro. Almost everyone reading this can stop and just go buy one of the iPads I have already talked about. There’s one more, sure, but only those deeply involved with multimedia work need to consider it.
Almost no one would find the previous generation 11” iPad Pro worth the $200 jump over the iPad Air, since they both had the M1 processor. The new iPad Pro gains the spec bumped M2, which gives it a clear reason for existing above the Air once again. With a nice tick up in processing power and a more notable improvement in graphics performance, the M2 is not at all necessary for most users, but for those wanting to push the iPad into multimedia workstation territory, it is a good reward for the $200 upgrade.
If you are intrigued with possibility of using professional grade video tools, like the newly announced DaVinci Resolve, on an iPad, that’s probably a sign that the iPad Pro is a candidate for your new tablet. If you have no idea about color grading or HDR footage or the like, stop right here and ask yourself why you aren’t buying an iPad Air instead.
What else is netted in the jump to iPad Pro? A rear facing two camera array (inferior to that of recent iPhones — but still good) for more photographic options along with an improved display with ProMotion for better animation and video performance on the screen. Apple Pencil also gains a “hover” function that lets one preview the target on screen before making edits with the stylus.
These functions are nice, but none of them are so necessary that someone should put off buying an iPad just to gain them. If a current iPad Air is within reach and the Pro is not, just buy the Air.
Phew. That’s a lot, but a couple more caveats with the Pro. First, the 12.9” version is yet another upgrade (hence why I count it as a separate model), as its display is mini-LED like that of the higher end MacBook Pros. Apple’s mini-LED displays are amazing for multimedia work. While the larger size is a bonus for such work, if you want the iPad to be a hybrid — both the “modern newspaper” I mentioned earlier and a multimedia workhorse — the gained display performance may not be worth the bulkier size and heftier weight.
Finally, the iPads Pro (either size) come with either 8 or 16 GB RAM. While most of us who use iPads probably keep a lot of our data in the cloud, the RAM upgrade is only available if you jump to at least 1 TB of storage. Most users will be fine with the 8 GB models, however, the sort of user who wants an iPad Pro — pushing a tablet to do intensive multimedia work — may find it worth the extra expense of upgrading the storage to 1 TB for the sake of that extra RAM, making it easier to work with large video files, RAW photographs and the like.
All of this brings us back to what I said more than a thousand words ago: most users will be perfectly happy with the cheapest iPad, frequently on sale in the neighborhood of $269. The new tenth generation iPad alongside the fifth generation iPad Air offer a step into the future of iPads — edge-to-edge displays, USB-C support and so on — for not a whole lot more money. The former being a great “step up” for normal users and the latter being a perfect laptop-replacement caliber tablet for more demanding folks.
Meanwhile, the rarified air of the iPad Pro is impressive, albeit for a very exclusive group of users. The upgrade is real, especially in this latest generation, but unnecessary for most.
Regardless of choice, all the current iPads are powerful and it is hard to think of any serious competition to them. If you want a tablet that does more than the sub-$100 offerings from Amazon, you almost certainly want an iPad. Start with the low end, don’t upsell yourself unnecessarily and then enjoy.