Comparing the five current iPads: iPad Pro 12.9 vs. Pro 9.7, Air 2, mini 4 and mini 2
iPads aren't flying off the shelves like they used to, and Apple's response has been to reach and rebrand, hoping a new definition of "iPad" will bring the tablet back to the relevance of its glory days. Apple has already changed naming conventions several times (once retroactively) along with a new "Pro" series that's trying to reframe the iPad as a Microsoft Surface rival. Confused? Or just wondering which one to buy? Let's compare your iPad options.
We have two standard-sized iPads (the first iPads, starting back in 2010, had the same screen size as the iPad Pro 9.7 and Air 2), along with two mini iPads and one giganto-tablet.
For most people we recommend one of the 9.7-inch models, but the two minis could be good if you own a smaller smartphone (if you have a phablet, we don't think mini-tablets have enough extra real estate to be worth it). The super-sized 12.9-inch iPad Pro can make for an ultra-immersive device for anyone willing to deal with its pricey compromises (more on that in a minute).
The old iPad mini 2 is the only one that doesn't feel very light for its size.
No surprises here, as every iPad to date has had an aluminum unibody design.
The new iPad Pro 9.7 is the first to ship in a pink (or, in Apple speak, "rose gold") color option.
If the 9.7-inch iPads look small in this visual, well, they aren't. It's more that the enormous 12.9-inch iPad Pro is big enough to make any sane-sized device look teeny-weeny by comparison. If you've never seen one, prepare for an absurdly large tablet – its screen is almost as big as two iPad Air displays and close to three iPad mini screens.
The 12.9-inch Pro is a great size for laptop mode, but its software still makes for a compromised faux notebook. Though the idea of an iPad as a 2-in-1 is fun enough, only some people, those with limited workflows, can pull this off. There's no trackpad so you'll be constantly reaching up to swipe and tap the screen, getting content from one app to another can be a pain (if not impossible) and pro or enthusiast photographers can't even directly import RAW images into Lightroom Mobile.
Ultimately we think Apple's "Pro" branding is more about getting you to think differently about the iPad, to plant seeds for the future, than it is a promise it can keep today.
All five of today's iPads have sharp Retina Displays. Apple hasn't bothered with the pixel density arms race we've seen in Android devices, capping iPad PPIs at the same levels for the last few years, but finer details like color gamut, white balance and brightness all keep improving. The new iPad Pro 9.7 is slightly better than the rest in these categories.
True Tone display
The 9.7-inch iPad Pro is also the first Apple product to use sensors to match its display's white balance to your ambient environment. The idea is to make the screen look a little more natural, closer to how light would reflect off of paper.
We don't find it to be a must-have feature (more of a neat bonus than anything), but it is nice to have if you're already buying the Pro 9.7 for other reasons.
Only the old iPad mini 2 (first seen in late 2013) lacks a fingerprint sensor home button.
While Apple is using its own keyboard covers to prop up the iPad Pro series as a Surface rival, all iPads can get a similar experience from third-party Bluetooth keyboards. Some of them even let you adjust the screen angle, something Apple's Smart Keyboard doesn't do.
The big difference is that the Pro series has "Smart Connectors" that snap onto official keyboards just by making contact with a corresponding connector on the keyboard – no wireless pairing needed.
Apple Pencil support
The two Pro tablets also support Apple's active stylus "Pencil." Like the keyboard, it too is sold separately.
You can buy styluses for use with the other iPads, but without active stylus support they just simulate finger touches – a fairly crude approach that lacks the Pencil's precision and artistic abilities.
The two iPad Pro tablets have desktop-level performance, but unless you're looking ahead to a few years down the road, don't expect to find many iOS apps that will come close to pushing them to their limit. For casual apps (which, despite the Pro brand campaign, is still what the vast majority of the App Store's content is), the iPads Air 2 and mini 4 hit a better balance today of performance and price point.
The larger iPad Pro doubles the RAM of its three closest siblings. The dated iPad mini 2 will have slower multitasking performance, with its mere 1 GB of RAM.
The iPad Pro duo are the first iOS devices to offer 256 GB storage.
For some reason, Apple put the same rear camera from the iPhone 6s in the iPad Pro 9.7. Normally we wouldn't complain about better cameras in any device, but a) how many people use a tablet for remotely serious photography? and b) the iPad Pro 9.7 got an inexplicable US$100 price hike over all of Apple's previous 9.7-inch iPads. If the camera had anything to do with that, we'd much rather see a weaker shooter along with the old $499 starting price.
In our battery tests, all five had similar scores – and Apple estimates the same "up to 10 hours surfing the web on Wi-Fi" for all of the iPads.
The Pro series has an extra pair of stereo speakers – making that handheld House of Cards binge sound a little better.
All five ship with the latest software, iOS 9, but we wouldn't be surprised to see the aging iPad mini 2 phased out from future iOS updates before long – maybe within two years or so.
iOS is still the world's best tablet operating system, but just remember that, if you're buying one of the Pros to use as a 2-in-1, it's much more limited as a laptop than something like a Surface. Desktop-class performance only goes so far when you're dealing with mobile software – things like sandboxed apps, no file system access, most apps designed for casual use, and so on.
Slide over multitasking
Starting in iOS 9, all five current iPads now let you get a dual-screen view of two apps – by swiping over from the right edge of the screen and choosing a secondary app. The next category, though, takes it a step further.
Split view multitasking
All but the iPad mini 2 let you actually use both of those split-screen apps at the same time, while also letting you resize the split between the two apps. On the mini 2 (as well as no longer for sale iPads like the iPad Air 1 and iPad mini 3), you can only look at the second app.
Part of the reason we don't like the iPad Pro 9.7's price hike is that its new features are about what we'd expect for an
Unless you really want the official keyboard and stylus support, we think you get a better deal from the $399 iPad Air 2 than either of the Pro tablets. Later versions of the iPad Pro may very well make for great laptop replacements (maybe), but right now these two are only incremental steps forward in the faux laptop narrative compared to older models.
Also remember that, if you want the full iPad Pro experience, the tablet prices aren't the full story. The Apple Pencil costs another $99 and the Apple Smart Keyboard rings up for either $169 (12.9-inch) or $149 (9.7-inch). Those keyboard prices are a little insulting – especially considering Microsoft's superior Type Covers for the Surface Pro 4, which have better keys and glass trackpads, cost $130. And we'd thought that was a little high.
With the iPad Air 2's recent price drop, we're looking at the odd situation of the Air 2 and iPad mini 4, two tablets with nearly identical internals but different screen sizes, costing the same. Would it have killed Apple to drop the mini 4's price by $50 or so, to reflect its smaller size?
For more, you can read our reviews of the five current iPads:
If you're all good in the tablet department and are shopping for an Apple smartphone, you can hit up our iPhone Comparison Guide.