Should you buy the iPad 2 or the iPad Air? Or the iPad mini or the iPad mini 2 with Retina display? We help you find the best iPad for you in our iPad buying guide, covering specs, price, features, screen size, portability and more.
Last year Apple unveiled its latest full-size iPad - the iPad Air - alongside a new iPad mini: the iPad mini 2 with a Retina display. But the relatively elderly iPad 2 and first-gen iPad mini are still on sale. Here, we help you decide whether you should buy the iPad 2, which comes in at just £329 for the WiFi model, or go for the more expensive iPad Air (which starts at £399). Or whether you're better off going for one of the iPad mini devices, which both start at lower prices than even the iPad 2.
The beautifully slender iPad Air, seen edge-on (obviously)
We discuss some of the issues surrounding this buying decision in our comparative reviews: iPad Air vs iPad 2 comparison review: Which iPad should you buy? and iPad mini 2 vs iPad Air comparison review: Which new iPad should I buy? But we'll try to summarise the key points here, and help you decide if the iPad 2, iPad Air, iPad mini or iPad mini 2 with Retina display is the iPad for you.
Full-size iPad or iPad mini? Screen size
The first decision will cut our options in half and make things much easier. It's a simple issue: do you want a full-size iPad (the iPad Air or the iPad 2, both of which have 9.7in screens) or an iPad mini (both of which have 7.9in screens)?
The larger screen is obviously better for immersive entertainment - whether watching films or playing games, it's a more enjoyable, richer experience. The iPad minis have only about two-thirds of the screen area.
However, the iPad mini screen feels much closer to the full-size iPads than it does to the iPhone. And we're getting increasingly used to watching films and TV shows on phone screens. Don't discount the mini as an entertainment device - it'll do you proud. This is simply a question of priorities. Are you more set on getting maximum screen space, or are you willing to compromise on that front in order to get a lower price tag and improved portability?
Full-size iPad or iPad mini? Portability
Very roughly, we're looking at three weight categories here: the minis, just over the 300g mark (the mini 2 with Retina display is a bit heavier, and both add on a few more grams if you want 3G/Cellular), then the iPad Air, which is about half as heavy again (469g, or 478g if you go for Cellular), and finally the heavy old iPad 2, which is around the 600g mark - not far off twice the weight of the iPad mini.
The iPad mini units are more portable, as you'd expect, with markedly lower weights and smaller bodies too, which slip easily into a rucksack pocket or even a jacket pocket (we found that the iPad mini 2 can slip into even a trouser pocket, but it was stretching the material rather ridiculously). If you plan to mainly use your iPad out and about, on holiday or commuting, the iPad minis are your best bet. Rule out the iPad 2. The iPad Air closes the gap between full-size and mini iPads, and is pleasingly portable, but it can't match the mini models for pocketability.
Full-size iPad or iPad mini? Price
Perhaps the biggest mark in favour of buying an iPad mini is the price. Starting at just £249, the first-gen iPad mini is the cheapest iPad by a clear £70, and even the new iPad mini 2 with Retina display undercuts even the iPad 2 - or its most basic spec, at least.
Okay, so you've settled on either a full-sized iPad, or an iPad mini. We'll look at the full-sized iPads first to narrow things down further; if you've plumped for an iPad mini, jump ahead to that section below.
iPad 2 vs iPad Air: Retina display
The iPad 2 was the last full-size iPad to come with a non-Retina display. What's a Retina display? Essentially it's screen where the pixels are packed so tightly that it fools your eye into thinking it's not a screen at all. We explain the ins and outs more fully in our feature What is a Retina display, and are they worth the money?
Essentially, though, the difference is relatively minor: the iPad Air's Retina display is super-sharp and vivid, but the iPad 2's screen isn't bad; you'll notice some pixellation when reading and on some highly detailed images, but it's not painful. If you've never used a Retina display, you'll find the iPad 2's screen fine; once you've tried Retina, though, you may find it harder to go back.
See also: iPad Air review
iPad 2 vs iPad Air: Processor power
The iPad Air is a lot quicker at general processing and handling graphical tasks than the iPad 2.
If you only want an iPad for light use - email, web browsing, FaceTime, a little light work on the go - then the iPad 2 will be fine. But for more demanding tasks - 3D games, video and photo editing, and a vast range of processor-intensive apps that will be released in the next few years with the iPad Air in mind - then you're likely to find yourself struggling.
iPad 2 vs iPad Air: Weight and dimensions
The iPad 2 is perfectly portable, and indeed seemed a dazzlingly lightweight portable computing device when it launched. But the popularity of the iPad mini and other mini-tablets shows that there is a demand for lighter and slimmer devices.
The iPad Air is about 28 percent lighter than the iPad 2, and significantly slimmer too. For one-handed use it'll be a lot less tiring on the arm - for reading in particularly this will make a difference.
iPad 2 vs iPad Air: Lightning connector
One aspect that's been somewhat neglected is the iPad 2's old-fashioned 30-pin dock connector port (used for charging and syncing with PCs and Macs). The iPad Air, like the iPad 4 before it, has the newer Lightning connector.
Accessories are increasingly becoming wireless, which means speakers and other devices can work with any model of iPad. But if you've got an old speaker dock, say, and it's got the old style of connector, you may need to pay for an adaptor to use the iPad Air - or you may need to buy a new dock altogether. On the other hand, you'll struggle to find new accessories now with the 30-pin connection.
The iPad Air's Lightning dock, with speaker grilles either side
iPad 2 vs iPad Air: iOS 7 (and beyond)
Finally, while both iPad 2 and iPad Air will come with iOS 7 preinstalled if you buy them now, they won't handle it in the same way.
The iPad 2 is the lowest rung of the iOS 7 ladder - the oldest device that can run it. Accordingly, it doesn't get the full set of features. And being the bottom rung is risky when it comes to future updates. It's possible that when iOS 8 comes round next year, the iPad 2 gets an even more barebones version or (quite feasibly) can't update at all.
The iPad Air, on the other hand, is thoroughly future-proofed, for iOS updates as well as for third-party apps.
iPad 2 vs iPad Air: price
The iPad Air costs:
Wi-Fi: £399 (16GB), £479 (32GB), £559 (64GB) and £639 (128GB). Cellular: £499 (16GB), £579 (32GB), £659 (64GB) and £739 (128GB)
The iPad 2 is only available in 16GB capacities, and costs £70 less than the iPad Air in each of its versions: £329 for the Wi-Fi model, and £429 for 3G.
See also: Should I buy a refurbished iPad?
Watch our video as we unbox and set up a new iPad Air. Many thanks to Square Group for the loan!
iPad mini vs iPad mini 2 with Retina display: Screen
Okay, you've settled on an iPad mini. Which model is best for you?
The key question for most buyers - after all, it's right there in the name of the product - is the screen. Do you need a Retina display?
At the risk of repeating ourselves somewhat from the full-size iPad section above - although the issues are essentiually the same - a Retina display is one where the pixels are packed so densely that your eye can't make out individual pixels. (In theory, anyway - this is based on the average eye, and we're all different. But yes, a Retina display is about as sharp as you could ask a screen to be.)
The difference is noticeable, particularly on small text and highly detailed photos, but not earth-shattering. The iPad mini 2's Retina display is super-sharp and vivid, but the iPad mini's screen isn't bad at all; you'll notice some pixellation when reading, for sure, but it's not painful. If you've never used a Retina display, you'll find the first-gen iPad mini's screen fine; once you've tried Retina, though, you may find it harder to go back.
iPad mini vs iPad mini 2 with Retina display: Processor
The other significant difference between the iPad mini and the iPad mini 2 with Retina display comes down to the processor. As with the full-sized iPads, one has the old A5 processor, and the other gets the shiny new A7 chip, complete with its M7 graphics coprocessor. No prizes for guessing which is which.
Apple reckons the iPad mini 2 is up to four times as fast at general processing as the iPad mini, and up to eight times quicker at graphical tasks. That sounds astounding, but the reality is that you should be hearing the words 'up to' loud and clear. On a lot of the simple tasks and basic apps that make up three-quarters of the average iPad user's experience, the A5 iPads will do fine, and you may not even notice a difference between them and the iPad mini 2 and iPad Air.
Where the iPad mini 2 really holds its own over the iPad mini 1 is when you up the ante and start playing new, graphically demanding 3D games, or use powerful video- and photo-editing packages. The most advanced current apps will benefit from the A7's muscle.
More significantly, the apps that get released in the future will be designed specifically to take advantage of the A7, so the iPad mini 2 is a much more future-proofed option. It's also more likely to be able to use features in updates to iOS.
iPad mini vs iPad mini 2 with Retina display: Video
There's one other difference we think is worth mentioning: although the cameras on the iPad mini and iPad mini 2 are supposed to be the same, in our testing the iPad mini 2 shot noticeably better video. So if that's something you plan to do a lot, chalk another win up to the iPad mini 2.
iPad mini vs iPad mini 2 with Retina display: Price
We're nearly there - all that's left before we pick our iPad is to think about price tags. As with the full-sized iPads, Apple prices the two minis £70 apart for the equivalent models (although as we'll see next, the new iPad mini offers more up-spec options if you want to buy more storage.
In other words, the iPad mini 2 with Retina display costs:
Wi-Fi: £319 (16GB), £399 (32GB), £479 (64GB) and £559 (128GB). Cellular: £419 (16GB), £499 (32GB), £579 (64GB) and £659 (128GB)
The iPad mini 1 is only available in 16GB capacities, and costs £249 for the Wi-Fi model, and £349 if you want Cellular/3G.
Is it worth spending that extra £70 to get the iPad mini 2? Maybe, but it's less convincing than the decision we considered above. With the full-sized iPads that £70 gets you a slimmed-down chassis, better Bluetooth, a much-improved camera and a Lightning port along with the newer processor and Retina display, whereas here you're really just getting the processor and display.
The iPad mini 1 remains an appealing budget choice - at £249 it's a fantastic little unit. It's just a question of whether you can afford to spend the extra cash, and whether you need to. Is either the Retina screen or the A7 processor a deal-breaker for you?
If you're used to Retina displays already - you've got an iPad 4, say, or you borrow a friend's iPad mini 2 a lot - then you might find the iPad mini 1 a tiny bit fuzzy, but it's genuinely a decent screen for the money.
The A7 processor is a must-buy if you're seriously into iPad gaming - and even then, only if the games are advanced ones that make heavy demands on the processor. It's also a better choice if you plan to use new and advanced apps in the next few years, or if you're into photo and video editing on the iPad.
Conclusion: should I buy an iPad 2, an iPad Air, an iPad mini or an iPad mini 2 with Retina display? Which is the best iPad for me?
Phew! Are we close to a decision?
In a nutshell, our advice is to get the iPad mini 1 if you're looking for a bargain, the iPad mini 2 if portabiity is your key concern and you need either the Retina display or the A7 processor, and the iPad Air if you need those things too but are likely to use your iPad more around the home - or just want to enjoy fims and games on the bigger screen.
The iPad 2? With respect to an old favourite, its time is nearly over. The extra £70 is well worth it, and we'd strongly recommend the iPad Air over the iPad 2, unless you simply want a full-size iPad at the lowest possible price and aren't worried about processor speeds, display quality and future-proofing. This will apply to some school buyers, perhaps.
Otherwise, consider saving another £80 and buying the first iPad mini, which is still available for only £249 and has a processor that's as quick as that of the iPad 2. It's also lighter and more portable, of course - although its screen is smaller.
Last of all, what storage capacity should my iPad have? And do I need Cellular?
If you've gone for an older iPad, storage isn't something you need to think about - you're capped at 16GB. (Read on, however, to see if you need more - in which case you need to think about looking for a second-hand model with more storage, or one of the new iPads.)
Both the iPad Air and iPad mini 2 with Retina display, meanwhile, offer anywhere from 16GB to 128GB. How much storage capacity will you need?
Well, first of all remember that you can't upgrade the storage capacity of an iPad at a later date: this is your storage limit from now until you buy another iPad, so aim high and buy as much storage as you can afford. Apple is probably a little cheeky in how much more it charges at each storage point (this stuff is relatively cheap for a manufacturer to upgrade), but it's better to spend an extra £80 now than to buy an entire new iPad in six months' time.
Storage capacity is in our experience mainly used up by three things: music, photos, and videos, in increasing order of storage drain. If you want to keep lots of films - or even a few, to be honest - then you need high storage: probably the 64GB unit or higher for video fans. Same applies to large photo or music libraries, to a lesser extent, although Photo Streams and iCloud Match respectively make it practical (if perhaps not preferable) to keep your stuff in the cloud and access it remotely. Go for at least 32GB if you want to keep any sort of media library on your iPad.
The other thing that wil fill up your storage is apps, but the amount of space they take up varies enormously. Those heavy-duty games we talked about earlier will use up a lot of space, and gamers should aim high on storage - 64GB is a good bar to aim at with 32GB the compromise point.
I use a comic viewer app with lots of comics in it, and unsurprisingly they do their bit in helping to fill my (128GB) iPad to over half-capacity. If you think it's not possible to fill the largest iPads - well, it can certainly be done, but if I was on a lower-capacity model I'd be more incentivised to delete apps I use less often. I basically pay no attention to deleting old apps or photos, and I'm still closer to the 64GB mark than to the 128GB mark. But there's only one film on there - that's the killer.
16GB isn't much these days, but you can manage if you're willing to delete apps after you stop using them, don't use hardcore games, transfer photos fairly regularly to the cloud or your Mac, and don't use the iPad as a media/music library.
The Cellular option
Do you need 3G/4G? It's a luxury, I'd say, even if it's a nice one to have. For an extra £100, you'll be able to access the web and email, and use connected apps, away from a Wi-Fi network. (You also need to factor in the cost of a data plan, and the small hassle of getting a SIM card.) Consider carefully how often you're going to do that - with an iPad mini there's likely to be more on-the-go use than with a full-size iPad, but it's still a lot to pay for something you may only use from time to time. Have you got a regular (overground) commute where you'd enjoy catching up on news headlines or email? Then it could be worth the extra.
So that's it - hopefully we've walked you through the iPad buying decision without too many tears. We wish you many happy hours of iPad use.
See also:The Complete Guide to the iPhone 5s & 5c is on-sale now. Click here for buying information.