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Issue #2: Picking the right iPad

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Hey there!

We’re two issues into this thing and I’m thrilled by the response thus far. To all of you signing straight up for a monthly or yearly subscription: Thank you for believing in me, and this venture! It’s truly amazing to see how helpful you’ve all been. Please continue to share Switch to iPad, and do send it to a friend if you think they’d be interested in the topics I cover.

For this issue, we’ll tackle the ever-present question of which iPad to get. I don’t know how many times each year I get asked that, but the answer just isn’t that simple, there’s no one size fits all here.

iPad, mini, Air, Pro, what?

Picking the right iPad is tricky, perhaps more so than it should be. The current lineup is strong, and consists of:

  • iPad, the standard iPad (10.2”, 7th generation) with an A10 processor. It’s the cheapest iPad, supports the original Pencil, has a Smart Connector, and is quite the bargain.
  • iPad mini, the smallest iPad (7.9”, 5th generation) with an A12 processor, is just slightly more expensive than the standard iPad. It supports the original Pencil too.
  • iPad Air, which is basically the previous generation’s smaller iPad Pro (10.5”, 3rd generation), running the A12 processor. It supports the original Pencil and has a Smart Connector.
  • iPad Pro, the most powerful iPad with the A12Z processor, comes in two sizes (11”, 2nd generation, and 12.9”, 4th generation – yes, that’s messy, 2020 models is a better description for these), with a new form factor that supports the new Pencil and the Magic Keyboard through the Smart Connector.

Pricing varies depending on where you live, but it starts with iPad, then iPad mini, iPad Air, and then to the iPad Pro models. How much storage and if you go with wifi only or wifi with cellular connectivity (which requires a contract) matters too.

The standard iPad has the weakest processor of them all, but you might not even notice that. These are powerful devices. That being said, it’s likely that at least the original iPad will get a spec bump soon, which might be worth taking into account if you’re in the market for an iPad right now.

Now, the beauty of Apple’s iPad lineup is that you know that newer models of a set product line will be better than the previous one by a reasonable magnitude. The processor will improve, there might or might not be more RAM, the cameras will get better, possibly the screen too, and so forth. But that doesn’t mean that older models are worthless, on the contrary, they tend to hold their own for quite some time. Unless you’re hellbent on doing something extreme with your iPad, chances are the previous generation – or generations! – will work just as well, and you can get it for a lower price too. Indeed, I find it hard to see any difference in performance between my 2018 iPad Pro 12.9” and its 2020 counterpart, despite the former running the not entirely stable iPadOS 14 beta. (It is the 1 TB model though, so it has 6 GB RAM, just like the 2020 iPad Pros – I have no idea if that matters, probably not to be honest.)

Size does matter

Let’s talk about screen sizes. The thing with screens – iPad, laptop, computer monitors, TVs too – is that you look at them all the time. Don’t skimp out on your screen, ever. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the bigger screen is the better choice, but if it is, you should acknowledge it.

For most of us, the smallest screen is the wrong choice. I’ll say that flat out: The iPad mini is probably not the iPad you should switch to. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely form factor for a lot of things, reading in particular, but for everything else that screen size is lacking. Supporting the Pencil (in current models, older ones didn’t, just like the original iPad) helps, but it’s just not good enough. Your needs might be different from mine, but if you do anything other than emailing, browsing the web, play games, and, err, yeah, that’s about it, then this isn’t the one for you. Unless size is extremely important, I guess, in which case by all means go for it – it’s a great machine. It’s just small…

Then there’s what’s called just iPad. This is the most sensible (and cheapest) choice for most, with a decent screen size at 10.2”, although its processor is the weakest. The screen isn’t on par with the iPad Air (which is just marginally larger at 10.5”, and has True Tone), but if you don’t put them side by side you shouldn’t be too bothered. That said, it’s quite obvious that the iPad is a product slotted into the lineup to be at the entry level, whereas the iPad Air is a previous generation’s smaller pro device. The standard iPad doesn’t have True Tone, nor antireflective coating, and the colors aren’t as well calibrated. If you can afford it, go with the iPad Air rather than the standard iPad, but either way, you won’t be disappointed.

It’ll come as no surprise that the iPad Pro models has the best screens by far. They’re also the largest, at 11” and 12.9”, and truly marvelous. The bezels (that’s the stuff outside of the screen) are smaller, and there’s no Touch ID, just Face ID like on the premium iPhones, so they can slim down even further. It’s a different body too, all in all just more robust, luxurious, and more pro so to speak. If you can get a Pro model, do that. You don’t have to, they’re not that far ahead, and you’d need some serious tasks – and apps – to push any of the modern iPads to the breaking point, but obviously the Pro models are the best. Size is the tricky part here though, because it’s quite a step up to 12.9”, and it does become a pretty unwieldy device in comparison. Consider what you want to do, and go with the screen size that fits best if you’re on the verge to pick up an iPad Pro. Other than size, they’re the same.

What about noise?

Many iPads are used for consumption, and that includes video. Getting one with nice speakers, if you’re unable to use headphones or a proper stand-alone speaker, might be key. I’m sorry to say that you only have one serious choice then, but it’s a bloody great one: iPad Pro.

The iPad Pro (any 2018 or 2020 model) speakers are great. You can’t complain about them, given the device’s size. Sure, proper headphones or connecting to a mid- to high-end stereo system will give you better sound, but that’s not the point. The iPad Pro is thin, powerful, and in stereo.

The other currently available iPad models aren’t as good, but perform well enough for tablets. If proper stereo is important to you though, then you’ll be disappointed, albeit not as much as you’d be from many other devices. Having a listen before going down that route might be a good idea, if you intend to use the speakers ostensibly. If sound quality is important, external solutions are recommended, just like with just about any other portable computing device, in other words.

Storage matters less

The general advice is to buy as much internal storage as you can afford. It’s still sound advice, but maybe less important these days since photos and videos – and even apps – offload to the cloud. You’ll need to look at what demands you have, which should be easy enough if you have an iPad today, and almost as easy if you’re coming from a traditional computer. This will be very individual: Some people have hundreds of thousands of photos, others have 689 of them. Clearly these people have different storage needs.

Not all iPads are created equal in this area. 128 GB is the maximum size for the standard iPad, whereas 256 GB is as much as you can get in an iPad mini or iPad Air. The iPad Pro models also have 512 GB and 1 TB tiers.

If I’m to generalize, which I’m not too fond of, I’d say that 128 GB is the smallest size you should consider, although people will get by with 64 GB too. 256 GB is plenty for most, 512 GB more than enough, and 1 TB is just plain silly unless you do serious photo or video work.

Making your pick

My advice when picking any kind of computing device is this: Buy as much as you can afford. What I mean by that is that you shouldn’t skimp out on processing power or storage if you don’t have to. If your budget is a 256 GB iPad Air, don’t go for 128 GB iPad to save money – you’ll regret it later because the iPad Air is a better machine, and you were already prepared to spend that particular amount of money.

It might make sense to go down a notch, in storage or choice of model, to get cellular with a contract rather than just wifi. It depends on your situation, how you intend to use your iPad, and if good and secure wifi is ever present where you’ll be most of the time. Knowing that you can always get online, sync, backup, and access the internet, is a great freedom, but it costs more – both in terms of buying the actual iPad, and the monthly contract with a mobile network. It might be worth considering relying on internet sharing from your smartphone, piggybacking on the contract you already have. Your options will wary greatly depending on where in the world you are. For example, I’m getting royally screwed on the extra SIM card I’ve got for my iPad Pro, but I think it’s worth it since I need to be online most of the time. You might not need that, then I’d consider putting the cellular fee in Apple’s iPad pricing towards storage instead.

Choosing the right iPad can be hard. I have this rule for computing devices, no matter what they are, that you should buy one that is the closest to what you can afford, without it feeling like an unreasonable expense. That usually means you’ll be happy with your purchase, and that it’ll keep because you didn’t skimp out on storage, memory, or whatever it is that can keep the prize down. You’ll enjoy your iPad more if you don’t wish you picked up the better model, and this is all about making computing more enjoyable.

I’ll share my iPad setup, warts and all, in the third issue, which is due on Tuesday next week. Until then, have a wonderful weekend, and remember: You can always hit reply to get in touch with me, or tweet to @tdh if you prefer.

Take care!

– Thord D. Hedengren

In the wild…