Which iPad is best? That depends on you: your budget, and your computing needs. In this article we explain the difference between Apple's full-sized iPad tablets, and its slimmed-down iPad minis, and help you decide which type of iPad to buy.

[Update, 15 October 2014: We're virtually certain that Apple will be unveiling new iPads tomorrow, the 16th October: the iPad 6 (or iPad Air 2), almost definitely; the iPad mini 3, quite possibly; and maybe, just maybe, we could get to see the iPad Pro/iPad Plus. Expect any new iPads unveiled tomorrow to go on sale in the UK a week to 10 days later. Obviously this may influence any iPad buying decisions you are considering! Here's how to watch the 16 October press event, which may see the announcement of new iMacs and MacBooks as well as iPads.]

When the first iPad was launched, cynics called it a giant iPod touch. But Apple's tablet turned out to be much more than that: more powerful, more capable, more useful, more everything. Instead of being arithmetically bigger than the iPod touch, the iPad offered exponentially more of everything that was good about it.

As well as even more popular successors - there have been a total of five full-size iPads, of which the iPad 2 and iPad Air are currently available - Apple scored a hit with a cut-down version of the iPad called, logically enough, the iPad mini; and that too has been followed by a big-selling successor, the iPad mini 2 with Retina display.

Some of the same cynics have disparaged the iPad mini devices as just smaller iPads. But somehow, this time around, such a description feels more accurate, as the minis offer nearly all the features, power and capabilities of their full-size siblings. They even run the same apps. The result is a pair of devices that - far more than the Mac mini or even the old iPod mini - give you nearly everything of their non-mini namesakes in a smaller package.

But calling them smaller iPads glosses over the advantages of plumping for an iPad mini. In this article we're going to explain the differences between an iPad mini and a full-size iPad, and try to advise you on which is a better choice for your needs and budget.

See also: iPad Air review | iPad 2 review | iPad mini 1 review | iPad mini 2 with Retina display review

What's the difference between an iPad and an iPad mini: Size and weight

iPad mini 2 with Retina display

First things first: very obviously, the iPad mini tablets are smaller than the full-size iPads. But how much smaller? That depends which models we're talking about.

The iPad mini 1 and iPad mini 2 with Retina display are very similar in physical size: the iPad mini 2 is just a shade thicker (and heavier) to accommodate the more powerful battery needed to run that Retina display (which we'll be talking about shortly).

  • iPad mini 1: 200 x 134.7 x 7.2 mm (height x width x thickness); 308g (Wi-Fi model; 3G model is 4g heavier)
  • iPad mini 2 with Retina display: 200 x 134.7 x 7.5 mm; 331g

The full-size iPads, however, are almost as different physically from each as they are from the iPad minis. Look at the difference in their vital statistics:

  • iPad 2: 241.2 x 185.7 x 8.8 mm (height x width x thickness); 601g (Wi-Fi model; 3G model is 12g heavier)
  • iPad Air: 240 x 169.5 x 7.5 mm; 469g

The iPad Air is slimmer, narrower and even a bit shorter than the iPad 2 (despite having the same screen size), and about 22 percent lighter. (It's 28 percent lighter than the iPad 4, which had put on a bit of weight over the years.)

iPad Air

So where does that leave us? Essentially, the radical crash diet that Apple put the iPad Air on means there are now three iPad 'form factors' (horrid phrase) for you to choose from. The minis are the smallest and most portable of all, certainly, but the iPad Air is in turn much more portable than the iPad 2.

Nevertheless, an iPad mini is usable in situations where a full-size tablet - even an iPad Air - isn’t practical. You can hold it in one hand and slip it into the pocket of a jacket. Remember the adage that the best camera is the one you have with you? The best tablet is the one you have with you, and we've found ourselves taking an iPad mini to places we wouldn't take a standard iPad.

The iPad minis can't match the light weight of Amazon's standard Kindle (170g) or the Paperwhite (213g), but 331g is still light enough for long reading sessions. We've used the mini for several two-hour stretches of reading, and have no complaints about the weight or size. It was a welcome change from reading on an iPad 4, certainly, although the iPad Air is far more plausible as a reading companion.

What's the difference between an iPad and an iPad mini: Processing power and other components

Now we come to the component that runs the whole show: the processing chip. Here, the iPad minis and full-size iPads actually run the same components - in each category it's an A5 chip on the older tablet, and a super-powered A7 with M7 motion coprocessor for the newer model.

iPad mini 1 and iPad 2: A& processor The iPad mini 2, then, uses the same dual-core A5 processor, at the same clock speed, as the iPad 2. (It also includes the same 512MB of RAM, and features a display with the same resolution, 1,024 x 768 pixels. But the mini has the 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD (720p-capable) front camera and 5-megapixel (1080p-capable) back camera of the latest full-size iPad.)

The mini 1 and 2 both match the iPad Air when it comes to wireless, offering Bluetooth 4.0 and improved 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi performance thanks to channel bonding. Of course, the mini also uses Apple's new Lightning connector instead of the older 30-pin - the only iPad still using the 30-pin connector is the iPad 2.

Thanks to its iPad 2-matching processor, graphics capabilities and screen resolution, the mini 1 should offer performance on a par with that tablet. Indeed, in our benchmark speed testing, it performed identically to the iPad 2 in every test except for our web page-load test, where it beat its bigger brother by roughly 40 percent, most likely because of the aforementioned 5GHz Wi-Fi enhancements in the mini.

Real-world testing echoed these findings, as the mini felt much like an iPad 2 when playing games and watching videos. With rare exceptions, we experienced no stuttering or slowdowns, even when playing graphics-heavy games or mirroring the iPad's screen to an Apple TV.

iPad mini 2 and iPad Air: A7 processor That leaves the newer models, which are identically equipped with the high-powered A7 processor and its companion M7 motion coprocessor (which delivers superb graphics performance).

Apple has claimed that the A7 iPads are 'up to' four times as the A5 models in general processing, and up to eight times as fast when it comes to graphics. However, real-world experience won't see anything like that performance gap on current apps, for the simple reasons that they are designed to work on a range of devices and were probably created long before the A7 was announced.

The most powerful apps of all - new, graphics-intensive 3D games, photo editing suites, video editors and so on - wil benefit from the A7's muscle. And you'll start seeing more of a difference in the coming months and years, as apps are released which really take advantage of the new components.

Infinity Blade 3

Infinity Blade 3: A high-powered game that will benefit from the A7 processor, but still runs adequately on older iPads

What's the difference between an iPad and an iPad mini: Battery life

In terms of battery life, Apple says its iPad mini devices can last as long on a full charge as the standard iPads: up to 10 hours of Wi-Fi web surfing, watching video or listening to music; or up to nine hours of web surfing over a cellular-data connection. In our standard battery test, which involves looping a full-screen video at specific volume and screen-brightness levels, the mini 1 lasted nine hours and 12 minutes, compared to nine hours and 21 minutes for the iPad 4. This is a fairly standard result for Apple's tablets.

Apple quotes identical battery life figures for the four currently available iPad models, and our experience broadly bears that out.

What's the difference between an iPad and an iPad mini: Screen

Most obviously, the full-size iPads have bigger screens: 9.7in (measured diagonally, corner to corner) on both the iPad 2 and iPad Air, compared to 7.9in on the iPad mini 1 and iPad mini 2. The minis have about two-thirds of the screen space of their larger cousins, and you really feel it when watching movies or playing graphically ambitious games.

But here's another screen-related difference between the iPad minis and the full-size iPads: while there are Retina and non-Retina models in each category, the pixel density requirement to earn that Retina status is lower for full-size iPads. Allow us to explain...

See also: What is a Retina display, and are they worth the money?

The most controversial aspect of the iPad mini 1's launch was that, contrary to Apple's trend towards high-resolution screens, it didn't have a Retina display. Instead, it offers the same screen resolution as the original iPad and the iPad 2: 1,024 x 768 pixels. That’s considerably lower than the 2,048 x 1,536 screens of the third- and fourth-generation models.

However, following (and potentially in response to?) popular demand, Apple added a Retina display to the iPad mini 2 - it's right there in the name.

iPad Air

Does a Retina display make a crucial difference? That depends largely on your frame of reference.

The iPad 2 has a resolution of 1,024 x 768 pixels and a pixel density of 132 ppi (pixels per inch). That compares to the 2,048 x 1,536 pixels at 264 ppi on the Retina-class iPads, including the iPad Air. In other words the pixel density is twice as high.

The difference between the iPad mini 1 and iPad mini 2 with Retina display is similar. The mini 1 has a screen resolution of 1,024 x 768 pixels at 163 ppi, while the mini 2 has a Retina screen at 2,048 x 1536 pixels and 326 ppi - twice the pixel density.

(Okay. So if you're wondering why the minis have higher pixel density than the full-size iPads yet still have the same 'Retina' classification, it all comes down to the distance from your eye where Apple expects you to hold the device in question. To class as Retina, a screen has to have sufficient pixels to fool the average human eye at a normal distance from the eye, and Apple expects you to hold mini tablets - and iPhones, for that matter - closer to your face. Hence they need to have sharper screens to be classified as Retina.)

The iPad mini 1's 163ppi, then, compares unfavourably to the 264ppi figure for the third- and fourth-gen iPads and iPad Air, and 326ppi for the latest iPhone and iPod touch models, and the iPad mini 2. If you're accustomed to one of those displays, the mini 1's lower pixel density will be immediately noticeable. This is especially the case with text, which is blockier; but everything - graphics, images, interface elements, you name it - simply looks less sharp.

Non-Retina display compared to Retina display

Non-Retina (left) and Retina iPad displays: a small but noticeable difference on text

Nonetheless, we'd stress that the displays on the iPad 2 and iPad mini 1 are decent - you certainly wouldn't call them fuzzy or unclear. The difference between them and the Retina displays is small but noticeable.

When we first started reading on the iPad mini 1 a year ago, the screen looked noticeably non-Retina (after seven months of daily use of Retina iOS devices). But we quickly acclimatised. After three days of only using the iPad mini 1, we still noticed the lower pixel density, but the difference wasn't nearly as glaring. Ultimately we liked the mini 1's size and weight more than we disliked the fact that it didn't have a Retina display.

Remember that most people in the world have never used a Retina-quality display, let alone used one regularly enough to find the mini's screen fuzzy. These are the people Apple marketed the iPad mini 1 to, not those of us who already have a recent iOS device.

Mind you, since the launch of the iPad mini 2, you don't need to compromise - you can have the smaller size and the Retina display.

What's the difference between an iPad and an iPad mini: Price

Perhaps the most crucial difference between the full-size iPad line and the iPad minis comes down to the price tag, and on this front the minis have a clear advantage. Even the iPad mini 2 with Retina display comes in at £10 cheaper than the equivalent iPad 2.

iPad mini 1: Wi-Fi: £249; Wi-Fi + 3G/Cellular: £349

iPad mini 2 with Retina display: Wi-Fi: £319 (16GB), £399 (32GB), £479 (64GB), £559 (128GB); Wi-Fi + 3G/Cellular: £419 (16GB), £499 (32GB), £579 (64GB), £659 (128GB)

iPad 2: Wi-Fi: £329; Wi-Fi + 3G/Cellular: £429

iPad Air: Wi-Fi: £399 (16GB), £479 (32GB), £559 (64GB), £639 (128GB); Wi-Fi + 3G/Cellular: £499 (16GB), £579 (32GB), £659 (64GB), £739 (128GB)

(If you'd like advice on which storage capacity to go for, see our article 'iPad buying guide 2014'.)

iPad Air

What's the difference between an iPad and an iPad mini: Bottom line

Should you buy an iPad mini or a full-size iPad? First of all, don't confuse 'mini' with 'lite'. Apple's slimmed-down mini tablets give you the full iPad experience, including access to hundreds of thousands of iPad-optimised apps, in a device that's about half the overall size and weight of the iPad 2, and still considerably more portable than even the iPad Air.