iPad Buying Guide 2014

The Apple iPad Air and iPad mini are ridiculously, amazingly similar iPads. Apple has performed an engineering feat that has gone under-recognized: The iPad Air and iPad mini have essentially the same processors and have the same number of pixels on each screen. And yet, clearly the iPad Air and iPad mini are wildly different. How do you choose which iPad to buy?

The iPad Air vs iPad mini answers are simple when you turn inward and consider what you want to do with your iPad.

UPDATE: If you don’t need an iPad right now, consider the likelihood that Apple will introduce updated iPad versions in October. The latest rumor is that Apple will deliver a new 12.9-inch iPad in 2015. If you want an iPad with a bigger screen, the wait could be until January or even March. In the meantime, the questions below will still help you decide. . . .

Do you expect to “work” on your iPad?

If you’re looking for an iPad that will let you blast through work-related email, read .pdfs, spreadsheets, browse the web, interact with web-based apps, and generally do corporate business sort of work, go with the iPad Air. Why? The larger screen size will make seeing and interacting with pretty much everything easier over longer periods of time. You’ll be able to tap and swipe with more precision, and if you pair your iPad with an external keyboard, you’ll like the larger, sturdy screen for work.

Do you expect to use your iPad mostly for entertainment? Movies? Books? Web browsing and streaming?


Which iPad? The iPad Air or iPad mini with Retina Display? The answers are easy, actually. Take action: check models and prices at Amazon.

If you expect to read a lot of ebooks — particularly fiction or text-based non-fiction — the iPad mini wins hands down. It’s plenty big, but you’ll appreciate the smaller form factor.

For movies and TV shows, it’s a toss up. For personal viewing, the iPad mini is pretty compelling due to the form factor. Once you plan on sharing the screen with others — or setting up kids to watch a show while traveling — the larger screen on the iPad Air becomes very nice.

For a lot of web browsing, I error toward a larger screen. Why? Not all sites are optimized for mobile devices, and even when they are, being able to have larger text, relatively larger buttons . . . definitely better on the iPad Air even though all iPads do a fantastic job of recognizing your touch-based intents.

Do you already own an iPhone?

If you own an iPhone, the iPad mini with Retina Display is definitely a nifty tablet, but why have two form factors so similar in size? Go with the iPad Air.

How important is $100 to you?

In most every instance, the iPad Air costs $100 more than the iPad mini with Retina Display.

The 16GB iPad Air with WiFi retails for about $499 while the iPad mini with Retina Display retails for about $399. Each storage capacity increase — to 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB — results in a $100 increase in price. At the higher end, the 128GB Air costs $799 while the Retina mini comes in at $699. Note: During the holiday season, if Apple has trouble meeting demand, retail pricing sometimes rises. In such situations, Apple will retain its price points but ship dates take much longer and in-store supplies will be limited.

To add a cellular service capability, each price point rises by $130 over the WiFi-only price. The choice here is one of usage: Will you travel a lot out of easy WiFi access? If so, cellular is a compelling option. If not, you can safely ignore it. Plus, if you have a shared data plan for your smartphone that lets you use it as a WiFi hotspot, you can get by in a pinch by letting your iPad suck data through your smartphone.

Do you care about the tech specs?

The iPad Air specs boast a 9.7-inch screen vs the iPad mini with Retina Display’s 7.9-inch screen. Both feature 2048-by-1536 pixels, but the iPad mini jams more of those little dots of light into each square inch. Not a big deal for most people. The iPad Air and new iPad mini are the same width — less than 1/3 of an inch — but the Air weighs 1 pound while the mini comes in at .73 pounds. Both feature Apple A7 chip processors with 64-bit architectures and an M7 motion coprocessor. Amazing. The clock speed of the mini is slightly slower than the Air, but the difference is negligible. Both will capture 1080p HD video recording. Both come in WiFi only models with Cellular service capabilities as an option. Both batteries last up to 10 hours.

As you can see, the choice is really all about the overall size of iPad you want to use and pack around.

Do you have big fingers? Are you aging?

If you have big fingers, save yourself any headache and get the Air. If you’re looking for a present for grandma or grandpa, choose the Air, too. Not only will the size help with readability, the larger virtual buttons will be easier for aging hands to accurately touch.

Do you have a Mac or PC? (How much storage do you need?)

If you have a Mac or PC that holds the bulk of your photos and videos, the size of your storage is less critical — most people can manage on 16 GB; however, if you plan to do video editing or you want a lot of movies and photos on your iPad, start erring toward the most on-board storage you can afford.

What About the iPad 2 and Older iPad mini?

While Apple still sells the iPad 2 and older generation iPad mini that does not have a Retina Display, I have a hard time recommending them. Why? While they offer a $100 savings under the cost of similarly-sized latest models, it’s only $100. Seems like a lot right now, but how about in two years? In three?

A new iPad Air or iPad mini with Retina Display will last you at least three years of joyous use. I’m not so sure that the older generations of iPads will feel and work as well in a year or two. Apple will offer up new generations of iOS, and the older hardware may not fare as well. Plus, app developers will be optimizing their apps for Retina Displays and the latest iOS.

Plus, if you want to or have to, your resale value will be much higher with the newer models.

No matter what you choose, your odds of having a satisfactory experience remain incredibly high. With today’s iPads there is no disastrously wrong answer.

Check out prices and options at Amazon:

About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.