Shopping for an iPad in 2021
iPad is Apple’s line of tablet computers. They’re powered by iPadOS, a modified version of the iOS operating system that runs on the iPhone. Using an iPad, you can run both tablet-optimized “universal” apps and standard iOS apps designed for iPhone.
Apple has introduced several different iPad models since the original came to market in 2010. This includes the “mini” range of smaller iPads, higher-end “Pro” models, and a premium “Air” range that offers a step-up over the base model.
Depending on which model you opt for, you can expand your tablet’s capabilities with a range of first-party accessories like snap-on keyboards and the Apple Pencil stylus. The iPad’s status as a premium tablet also means many third parties produce accessories like cases, flash storage, charging docks, and even game controllers.
To pick the right iPad you first need to figure out what you’ll be using it for. Generally speaking, the more you spend, the more you can do. Cheaper models can handle most basic tasks like checking social media, sending email, and playing games.
Higher-end “Pro” models have more powerful hardware that is better at multitasking and running creative or professional software with ease. These models have color-accurate, higher-quality displays for drawing, photo editing, and video production. The inclusion of USB-C and Thunderbolt further expands their usefulness since you can connect to high-speed external devices.
Let’s take a look at how the iPad range stacks up for some of the most common usage scenarios.
- ✓ Powered by Apple’s A14 Bionic system-on-chip
- ✓ Thin bezels and stylish modern design
- ✓ Excellent accessory support including Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil 2
- ✓ USB-C connector
- ✓ Similar capabilities as the Pro range for much less money
- ✗ Upper limit of 256GB internal storage
- ✗ More expensive than an entry-level iPad
The iPad Air sits right in the middle of the iPad range, starting at $599 for the Wi-Fi-only model, or $729 for the cellular option. With a screen size of 10.9-inches, the Air carefully treads the line between portability and usefulness. It’s available in various colors, including classic silver, space gray, rose gold, green, and sky blue.
The iPad Air range uses Apple’s A14 Bionic chip, first introduced alongside the iPhone 12 in 2020. This chip is fast enough for most users and provides a silky-smooth iPadOS experience. Since the chip is relatively new, the iPad Air should provide good performance for years to come.
Apple has also refreshed the iPad Air to bring it more in line with the iPad Pro and iPhone ranges. The latest model has thin bezels, a fingerprint sensor on the side, and no physical Home button. It’s finished with sharp, clean edges, unlike the rounded look of the original iPad.
You can use Apple’s latest and greatest accessories with the iPad Air, including the second-generation Apple Pencil ($129) and Apple’s flagship Magic Keyboard ($299) with its integrated trackpad and USB-C pass-through charging. This makes the Air as versatile as the Pro range in terms of accessories while still being a few hundred dollars cheaper.
A single 12MP wide camera can be found on the back, with a somewhat grainy 7MP front-facing camera for video calls and selfies upfront. This is a considerable step up from the base iPad model, but if taking photos or shooting video is important to you on a tablet, you should perhaps consider the iPad Pro 11-inch instead.
The iPad Air is ideal if you want a fast, modern tablet with excellent accessory support. It provides a much more modern iPad experience than the base model, and it will last longer in terms of software support and raw performance.
Best Overall iPad
- ✓ Perfect for basic tablet tasks like social media or email
- ✓ Get the iPad experience at a cheaper price point
- ✓ Some support for older Apple accessories
- ✗ Outdated design compared with other models
- ✗ Upper limit of 256GB internal storage
- ✗ Older chip means support will end before more expensive, newer iPads
- ✗ Doesn’t work with Apple’s latest first-party accessories
The entry-level iPad is the cheapest tablet Apple makes at just $329 for the Wi-Fi model, or $459 for the cellular version. With a 10.2-inch Retina display (plus Apple’s True Tone technology to match the white balance to your surroundings) and an A13 Bionic chip at the helm, the no-frills iPad is perfect for work and play on a budget.
The slightly older Bionic chip, first introduced to the iPhone 11 in 2019, lags the faster hardware seen in the iPad Pro and iPad Air but still provides enough power to handle common tasks. It’s perfect for schoolwork, web browsing, casual gaming, streaming video, and most other things people use their tablets for.
The base iPad uses Apple’s older design, which retains a physical Home button (also doubling as a fingerprint scanner) and thicker bezels than those seen on the Air and Pro line. On the back of the unit is an 8MP wide camera, while the front-facing camera has been boosted to a 12MP ultra-wide version.
That wider front-facing camera enables Apple’s Center Stage feature, which allows the iPad to follow you around the room while on a FaceTime call. Battery life is passable but nothing to write home about, with Apple quoting around 10 hours of wireless web or video playback.
You can expand the iPad with accessories like a first-generation Apple Pencil, the iPad Smart Keyboard, or your own choice of wireless Bluetooth keyboard. There’s no USB-C support on this model, so you’ll have to make do with Lightning peripherals and charging.
If you want more for your money and you’re happy to settle for an older model, consider buying an Apple-refurbished iPad instead.
Best Budget iPad
- ✓ Massive 12.9-inch Liquid Retina XDR display
- ✓ 120Hz ProMotion, P3 Wide Color, and up to 1600 nits peak brightness
- ✓ Support for the latest Apple Pencil 2 (and Magic Keyboard)
- ✓ Powerful desktop-class M1 chip
- ✓ USB-C and USB 4/Thunderbolt support
- ✓ 5G support on cellular model
- ✗ Apple’s most expensive iPad
- ✗ Large size makes it unwieldy for casual tablet tasks
If you’re buying an iPad for drawing purposes, you’re likely going to want the biggest canvas you can get. That’s exactly what the iPad Pro 12.9-inch delivers, with its massive Liquid Retina XDR pro-level display. In addition, this is Apple’s first tablet that uses mini-LED technology.
Not only is the display large, but the iPad Pro 12.9-inch has also got a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio only seen on this larger model. The XDR display has a full-field brightness of 1000 nits, and a peak brightness of 1600 nits on a limited window. It’s perfect for editing HDR photos and videos, as well as creating artwork in apps like Procreate.
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro features a 120Hz “ProMotion” display mode, which means that the refresh rate is double that of Apple’s other tablets. This means that the screen updates twice as fast (up to 120 times per second) for a buttery smooth and ultra-responsive user experience.
Naturally, the iPad Pro 12.9-inch also supports Apple’s latest Apple Pencil 2 stylus. It attaches magnetically to the iPad Pro and offers tilt and pressure sensitivity, what Apple terms “imperceptible” lag, excellent palm rejection, and wireless pairing and charging. You can also grab Apple’s Magic Keyboard and older folio keyboard cases if you want.
The iPad Pro 12.9-inch is powered by Apple’s desktop-class M1 processor. It can chew through professional-grade apps, edit 4K video, and handle the most demanding 3D games the App Store can throw at it.
Best iPad for Drawing
Need a Stylus?
Apple Pencil (2nd Generation)
The Apple Pencil (2nd Gen) is the best stylus available for your iPad. This latest iteration features wireless charging, palm rejection, and an intuitive touch interface.
- ✓ Cheap and capable tablet for school and play
- ✓ Plenty of third-party accessories available like cases
- ✓ Works with Apple Pencil 1 and older Smart Keyboard
- ✗ A13 Bionic is slower than the rest of the iPad line
- ✗ No support for latest accessories like Magic Keyboard
- ✗ Only 64GB of storage on the base model
The entry-level iPad is perfect for what most kids will use their tablets for, and it won’t break the bank starting at just $329 for the Wi-Fi model. This makes it the cheapest iPad to repair or replace should an accident occur.
The A13 Bionic chip inside the ninth-generation iPad debuted in 2019 and still packs plenty of punch. It can easily handle most things that kids use their tablets for, including word processing for school work, watching and listening to streaming video and music, browsing the web, and social media.
The iPad can also handle most App Store games without breaking a sweat, including 3D titles like Minecraft, online experiences like Roblox, and Apple’s own Swift Playgrounds which introduces tablet owners of all ages to programming basics. There’s a simple 8MP camera on the back and a better 12MP front-facing camera on the front.
Be aware that the base iPad only ships with 64GB of internal memory, which can disappear quickly if you install a lot of apps and games. For 2021 Apple has upped the next storage tier to 256GB which starts at $479.
One of the best things about the base iPad is that it has been around for a long time, so accessory support is fairly widespread at this point. This means you can easily find kid-friendly cases like the iconic HDE Kids Case with Handle for additional protection.
Best iPad for Kids
Protect Your iPad with a Tough Kids Case
HDE iPad Case for Kids with Handle/Stand
Designed for the iPad (9th Gen), the HDE Case for Kids is made from durable, non-toxic EVA foam and features an integrated screen protector, storage for Apple Pencil, and is available in a range of colors.
- ✓ Revised portable design for 2021, with an 8.3inch display and thinner bezels than the previous model
- ✓ A15 Bionic is faster than a base iPad in a smaller package
- ✓ USB-C connectivity and compatibility with the second-generation Apple Pencil
- ✗ 5G connectivity on the cellular model
- ✗ 10 hours of battery life may disappoint some
- ✗ Maximum of 256GB storage (and only 64GB in the base model)
If you’re looking for an iPad for travel, the portable form factor of the iPad mini (from $499 for the Wi-Fi model) is a solid choice. The design has been revised for the ninth generation, released in late 2021, with a new 8.3″ Liquid Retina display.
The new design does away with the Home button in favor of the thin bezel design of the latest iPad Air and Pro models. There’s no Face ID for unlocking your device with facial recognition, but the power button on the side of the unit doubles up as a fingerprint reader.
At the heart of the iPad mini is the same A15 Bionic that’s in the iPhone 13, albeit slightly down-clocked compared with the chip seen on Apple’s flagship smartphone. There are brand new cameras for 2021 too, with a 12MP wide on the rear and 12MP ultra-wide on the front which enables Apple’s intelligent Center Stage subject tracking on FaceTime calls.
For the first time ever, the iPad mini has a USB-C port plus support for the second-generation Apple Pencil which snaps to the side of the unit for charging. If you splash out for the cellular version (from $649) you’ll also get 5G connectivity, perfect if you’re traveling in a country with good 5G coverage.
Battery life and storage capacity mirror that of the base iPad, with 10 hours of wireless web or video playback and a paltry 64GB capacity on the base model.
Best iPad for Travel
8.3-inch Screen Too Small?
iPad (9th Gen)
The 9th Generation iPad is another excellent choice for travel. If you aren’t limited by a smaller form factor requirement, the base iPad is cheaper and perfect for checking email, reading, and entertaining you while you travel.
- ✓ Powered by the desktop-class M1 processor
- ✓ Support for the latest Apple accessories including Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil 2
- ✓ Up to 2TB internal storage
- ✓ High-quality cameras on the back and front, plus Face ID support
- ✓ USB-C with USB 4 and Thunderbolt support
- ✓ 5G connectivity on cellular models
- ✗ Expensive compared with iPad and iPad Air
- ✗ Overkill for many users
- ✗ Still runs iPadOS, so cannot fully replace your laptop
For desktop-class performance, the iPad Pro range can’t be beat. While the 12.9-inch model is perfect for drawing and videography, the 11-inch model delivers the same great performance in a more compact form factor. It’s also a bit cheaper, starting at $799 for the Wi-Fi version or $999 for cellular.
At the heart of the iPad Pro 11-inch is Apple’s desktop-class M1 system-on-chip. This is the same silicon that Apple is putting in computers like the MacBook Air and iMac. It allows the iPad Pro to run professional applications like video editors, digital audio workstations, and the most demanding 3D applications.
RELATED: What Is Apple’s M1 Chip for the Mac?
As a laptop replacement, the iPad Pro 11-inch has just about everything you’d need. It’s compatible with the latest accessories, including Apple’s Magic Keyboard that features an integrated trackpad. In addition, you can have up to 2TB of internal storage, and connect external devices like storage via the USB-C connector (with support for Thunderbolt and USB 4 speeds).
There are 12MP wide and 10MP ultra-wide cameras on the rear, with a high-quality 12MP front-facing FaceTime HD camera for amazing selfies, video calls, and live streams. There’s also Face ID support for unlocking and authorizing your device using your likeness, just like on the latest iPhones. If you opt for the cellular version, you’ll get 5G support too.
If the iPad Air comes up a little short, the iPad Pro 11-inch is the tablet for you.
Best Laptop Replacement
Apple’s Best Keyboard Accessory
- ✓ The largest iPad you can buy
- ✓ Powerful M1 processor
- ✓ Excellent compatibility with accessories like Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil
- ✗ May be too large for casual tablet usage
If you want an iPad with a larger-than-average screen, your only option is the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which starts at $1099 for the Wi-Fi model. This high-end tablet features a powerful M1 processor, excellent accessory support, and a beautiful mini-LED display.
It’s perfect for watching or editing videos, playing games, drawing and artwork, annotating documents, and multitasking. This comes at the cost of portability, with the 12.9-inch tablet feeling a bit too big for casual use. Holding the iPad in one hand while you browse Twitter on the sofa doesn’t feel as good as it does on other models.
We’d recommend heading into an Apple Store or other retail location where you can test the 12.9-inch model for yourself before you part with your money.
Best Large iPad
- ✓ The smallest iPad you can buy
- ✓ Faster than a base iPad (9th Gen) in a smaller chassis
- ✗ Lacks the premium features and accessory support of more expensive models
The $499 iPad mini is the smallest Apple tablet you can buy, and it’s perfect for anyone looking for the iPad experience in a very portable form factor.
The revised design for 2021 includes the A15 Bionic (seen in the iPhone 13), a larger display with thinner bezels than the last generation, 5G connectivity on the cellular models, and a USB-C port for charging and accessories.
There’s also support for the second-generation Apple Pencil which snaps onto the side of the iPad mini for charging and safekeeping. This makes the tablet perfect for annotating documents, taking handwritten notes, drawing on a smaller screen, or for use as a small graphics tablet.
The iPad mini is a great choice for those looking for a small tablet, with a more powerful chip than the larger ninth-generation iPad. If you’d rather have a larger tablet with more options for accessories, consider the iPad Air (from $599) instead.
Best Small iPad