Editor’s note: Black Friday 2023 sales are already upon us and there are deals to be had on a number of iPads in this list, including the 9th gen model for a new low of $229.99 and the iPad Air for $499.99. Be sure to check out the rest of the Black Friday deals worth buying here.
Apple’s iPad lineup has gone from a single straightforward option to a sprawling array of different sizes, prices, options, and generations. Right now, Apple sells six distinct iPads in four categories. That can make choosing the best iPad for your needs challenging — especially when you look at how similar so many of the models are.
But with a little guidance and some consideration of why you’re planning to buy an iPad and what you intend to use it for, you can navigate Apple’s lineup with ease. I’ve spent years using various iPads for both entertainment and work and have tested all of the current and recent models to know what they are best suited for.
Out of the box, any iPad provides an excellent portable video or movie-watching experience; access to a wide array of apps and games through the App Store; the ability to read ebooks, documents, and web articles on a bright comfortably sized screen; and communicate via email, messaging services, or video calls. With accessories like Apple’s Smart or Magic Keyboard or the Apple Pencil, an iPad can serve as a drawing tablet or a productivity device, perhaps even replacing a laptop for some people.
The big secret here is that, with a few minor exceptions, any current or recent-model iPad you buy is capable of doing everything any other iPad in the lineup can do. Everything from the lowly ninth-gen base model iPad to the iPad Mini and all the way up to the largest iPad Pro 12.9 runs the same software and the same apps. iPadOS 16, the latest version of Apple’s iPad software, is available on devices dating back to 2015 and runs on any iPad you’re likely to buy at this point. Apple will be releasing iPadOS 17 later this fall and will be available for most models released in 2017 or later, save for the fifth-gen base iPad.
Still, there are nuances between the models that make them better suited for different needs. In this guide, I have recommendations for the best iPad for the majority of people, the best option if you’re buying an iPad for kids, the best model for getting work done or creating digital art, and the best iPad if your main goal is to use it for reading. But again, those dividing lines are not walls, and you can use any of the iPad models to accomplish the same things as any other. (Though I personally would not want to write a novel on an iPad Mini.)
Before I get into the recommendations, there are some things to be aware of when it comes to pricing. Apple doesn’t make a lot of changes between iPad generations, and the processing power in any recent iPad has so much overhead that it can easily work for years without feeling slow or sluggish. Apple also has a strong track record of supporting the iPad for many years with software updates, so even older models can benefit from the majority of new features. That means you can often find excellent options on secondhand, open-box, and refurbished iPads that save a lot of money and still offer an up-to-date, performant experience. So if you’re debating between, say, an iPad Air and an 11-inch iPad Pro, a refurbished prior model year Pro might end up costing less than the current Air while providing a few extra perks that aren’t available on the lesser model. There are also frequent sales on brand-new versions of last year’s iPad models, typically around when new iPads are announced in the spring and fall.
You can use this logic across the lineup, so it’s worth exploring the available options. The refurbished market changes too frequently for me to make specific recommendations in this guide, so everything here is based on the new, full retail cost. But I’ve personally bought multiple refurbished iPads over the years and have never regretted not having the latest and greatest model.
The best iPad for most people
Screen: 10.9-inch, 2360 x 1640 resolution 60Hz LCD, fully laminated / Processor: Apple M1 with 8GB RAM / Storage: 64 or 256GB / Port: USB-C / Cellular: 5G (optional) / Speakers: stereo / Compatible accessories: Apple Magic Keyboard, Apple Smart Keyboard Folio, Apple Pencil (second-generation)
For most people, the best iPad to buy is the midrange iPad Air, which starts at $599. Released in 2022, the fifth-generation iPad Air offers a bright 10.9-inch high-resolution display, extremely fast performance thanks to its M1 processor, a modern design with even bezels around the screen, and excellent speakers. It’s compatible with the same keyboard and stylus accessories as the iPad Pro, so it can work well as a small laptop-like device or digital notepad / drawing tablet. The Air comes in a variety of colors, including blue, pink, purple, gold (which Apple calls “Starlight”), and a dark gray.
If you’re buying an iPad with the intention to use it for five or more years between upgrades, the Air is ideal. Its processor is newer and more powerful than what comes in the base ninth-gen iPad, which means it will keep its performance longer and will likely have a little bit longer software support. The Air’s screen is also nicer to look at and use than the standard iPad’s, and the accessory situation is much better. It’s worth the added cost — if you plan on using the iPad a lot and for a long time. More casual buyers will want to stick with the budget option below.
The Air’s middle-of-the-pack size is what most people think of when it comes to iPads because it’s close to what the original iPad was when it came out way back in 2010. It’s significantly larger than a phone and provides a better video-watching, reading, and multitasking experience, but it’s not nearly as large as a laptop display, so it’s easier to carry around or hold when lounging on the couch. The size makes it easy to transition from reading in portrait orientation to knocking out an email in landscape mode. The screen is bright enough to use outdoors. It also covers a wide color gamut with accurate reproduction, has no air gap between the glass and the panel, comes with an antireflective coating, and supports Apple’s automatic True Tone color adjustment.
You can equip the Air with 64 or 256GB of storage. The jump to 256GB costs $150 (at Apple’s regular retail price), but it’s worthwhile if you plan to hang on to this iPad for multiple years. More storage provides more room for apps, video, games, or whatever other documents you want to store on it. You can also opt for 5G connectivity so you have an always-on connection for $150 (plus service costs).
The Air’s design is the same as that of the iPad Pro, with a squared-off aluminum back and sides and evenly proportioned bezels around its whole display. The front-facing camera is on the short edge, which makes portrait-orientation FaceTime calls great. But when you’re holding the iPad Air in landscape orientation, the camera feels like it’s in the wrong spot, and Apple’s software tricks to correct it are not always the most convincing. (Apple has addressed this problem with its lower-tier 10th-gen iPad by moving the camera to the longer edge, but it has not yet done so for the rest of the lineup.)
It does not have a home button, so you navigate iPadOS using gestures, like on a modern iPhone. It doesn’t have Face ID; instead, its Touch ID fingerprint scanner is built into the sleep / wake button for easy login and purchase authentication. The Air’s stereo speakers (one on the left and right side, when held in landscape orientation) are loud and clear and work great for movie or video watching. There’s no headphone jack, but you can plug headphones into the USB-C port using an adapter (not included) or pair Bluetooth headphones for a more private listening experience.
The Air’s versatility is aided by the fact that it supports both Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio and the trackpad-equipped Magic Keyboard — the same keyboards that work with the iPad Pro. The keyboard accessories are expensive (the regular retail price of the Magic Keyboard is $299, half the cost of the iPad itself), but they do make it possible to get real work done, especially when on the go. The Air also supports Apple’s latest Pencil ($129 retail, sometimes on sale for less) for writing and drawing, and it can magnetically snap to the side of the tablet for charging and storage.
There are some concessions with the Air compared to the more expensive 11-inch iPad Pro. It doesn’t have Apple’s 120Hz ProMotion technology in the screen, so scrolling on it isn’t quite as smooth. The dual stereo speakers are excellent, but the Pro has four speakers that are even better. The optional 5G connectivity doesn’t support the ultrafast (and ultra-rare) mmWave networks that the Pro does. The Air’s M1 processor is great; the Pro’s M2 processor is even faster (though you’re unlikely to notice a difference between them in practice). And the Air’s USB-C port is limited to slower data transfer speeds compared to the Pro’s. But these differences are minor. The majority of people buying an Air will not miss them and are better off saving the $200 or so difference between the models.
Read my review of the iPad Air.
The best budget iPad
Also the best iPad for kids
Screen: 10.2-inch, 2160 x 1620 resolution 60Hz LCD / Processor: Apple A13 / Storage: 64 or 256GB / Ports: Lightning, 3.5mm audio / Cellular: LTE (optional) / Speakers: stereo / Compatible accessories: Apple Smart Keyboard, Apple Pencil (first-generation)
For those looking to spend a bit less, the best budget iPad is the ninth-gen iPad model. The cheapest iPad Apple currently sells, the ninth-gen iPad starts at $329, though it can be frequently found on sale for about $250. Thanks to its lower price and a few other features, this model is also an ideal iPad for kids.
I will let you in on a little secret: a kid will be happy with literally any iPad you hand them. And since kids tend to not be the most delicate with things, the cheapest option (plus a rugged case) is always the best bet. You, as a parent, will still want it to be updated to current software and security patches, so it’s important to avoid something that isn’t supported anymore. The ninth-gen iPad should still receive updates from Apple for years to come.
The ninth-gen model has the traditional iPad look, with larger bezels around the screen and a home button (with Touch ID biometric authentication). Though it looks a bit dated at this point, it’s still a very capable device and can run the same software and games as the more expensive models. The A13 processor inside is still very fast, despite having first been released in 2019, and the ninth-gen offers the same 64 and 256GB storage options as the Air.
The 10.2-inch screen is a little smaller than the 10.9-inch display on the Air or 10th-gen iPad, but it’s still spacious enough for split-screening apps and is sharp and bright. There is an air gap between the glass and the display, and it lacks the antireflective coating found on pricier models. Pickier buyers will notice these things, but at this price, it’s hard to complain about. The screen is still just as responsive to taps and swipes as any other iPad display.
The ninth-gen iPad excels at all of the classic iPad use cases: watching videos, playing games, reading books or articles, and entertaining kids. It can, of course, run productivity apps, and it supports Apple’s split-screen and multitasking features (except for the new Stage Manager windowing option), but it’s not the iPad I’d choose if I were planning to use it every day for work due to its smaller, less featured screen and weaker accessory options.
It is not compatible with Apple’s trackpad-equipped Magic Keyboard (though you can pair a separate trackpad to it just fine) but instead works with the older fabric-covered Smart Keyboard that folds. The Smart Keyboard is fine for occasional use, but it’s very expensive relative to the cost of the iPad itself ($159), and if you’re planning to do a lot of typing and productivity work, it’s probably worth stepping up to one of the higher-end iPad models that has better accessory options.
Similarly, the ninth-gen iPad works with Apple’s older first-generation Pencil instead of the second-generation one that was released in 2018. It works fine as a stylus for writing and drawing on the screen, but there’s nowhere to store it when you’re not using it unless you buy a third-party case, and charging it requires plugging it into the iPad’s Lightning port, which is awkward and clumsy.
This is the only current iPad that still has a 3.5mm headphone jack, which makes it easy for kids to plug in wired headphones. It’s also the only iPad that still uses a Lightning port for charging instead of the newer USB-C type port.
Despite its older design and accessories, the ninth-gen iPad offers a shockingly nice experience for its price. In my testing, it never lagged or slowed down when I was using it, the screen is sharp and colorful, and it’s comfortable to hold for long stretches of time.
The best iPad for work
Also the best iPad for creating digital art
Screen: 12.9-inch, 2732 x 2048 resolution 120Hz Mini LED / Processor: Apple M2 with up to 16GB RAM / Storage: up to 2TB / Port: USB-C Thunderbolt 4 / Cellular: 5G mmWave (optional) / Speakers: quad / Compatible accessories: Apple Magic Keyboard, Apple Smart Keyboard Folio, Apple Pencil (second-generation)
If you are a capital-S Serious iPad User and want the best iPad for getting work done or even to replace a laptop, then you should just buy the top-of-the-line iPad Pro 12.9. This is also the best iPad for digital artists, as it has the largest canvas to draw on and supports Apple’s newest Pencil with extra features not found on other iPads.
The biggest iPad Apple sells, the 12.9-inch model is also the most expensive, starting at $1,099 new. Combine it with the Magic Keyboard ($349) — a must if you plan to be productive on it — upgrade the storage to something roomier than the base 128GB (I like at least 256GB), and perhaps add cellular connectivity, and you’re at $1,748, well above the cost of a MacBook Air with the same amount of storage. Buying the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a commitment to getting more from an iPad than the average user.
Buying the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a commitment to getting more from an iPad than the average user
The 12.9-inch Pro rewards you with a more expansive display for juggling multiple apps, especially if you use the new Stage Manager windowing feature. It also has the best screen on any iPad, with its Mini LED technology, providing searing brightness, deep blacks, and rich colors. As a result, it’s the best iPad for watching movies on, though I wouldn’t buy it just for that.
As wonderful as that 12.9-inch screen is, it holds this model back when you want to just use it as a tablet for laid-back reading or browsing. It’s much clumsier to hold in one hand than the smaller iPad models, and its 1.5-pound weight gets tiring after a while. As a result, many iPad Pro 12.9 owners find they don’t end up taking it out of the Magic Keyboard case very often.
The M2 processor inside the iPad Pro is the same one you’d get in a MacBook Air, and it’s extremely capable. Models with 128 to 512GB of storage come with 8GB of RAM; the 1TB and 2TB models are equipped with 16GB of RAM. If you’re a photographer or video editor looking for something lightweight to do on-the-go editing with, the iPad Pro certainly has the hardware chops for it. But you’ll want to make sure the software you want to use is available — most desktop editing software is not available for the iPad or lacks features compared to its desktop counterparts.
For general productivity, such as writing, email, spreadsheets, browsing the web, and more, the iPad Pro is very good. But again, you’ll want to make sure it supports the apps you want to use and that the iPad versions of the apps have the features you want. It’s not always guaranteed that they will have the same features as their desktop counterparts. iPadOS also requires doing things differently than you might be used to on a desktop operating system, especially when it comes to managing and sharing files.
Digital artists will appreciate the 12.9-inch model’s larger display. A new feature introduced with the 2022 model allows you to preview line strokes or selections with the Apple Pencil before you put them onto the screen. (Apple calls this “hover.”) There are a wide variety of drawing and painting apps for the iPad as well.
Lastly, there are some quality-of-life things that Apple reserves for the Pro models. The most significant one is Face ID. You don’t need to scan your fingerprint or type in a PIN to unlock the iPad Pro; you just have to look at it. As with the iPhone, it works extremely well, and it’s hard to give up once you’ve gotten used to it. Another is the iPad Pro’s quad-speaker system. It’s louder, fuller, and just overall better-sounding than the dual-speaker systems on other iPads.
Most people do not need all of the features of the latest iPad Pro, which makes buying an older version a compelling option. The 2021 model is almost identical to the 2022 version, save for its processor (the M1 instead of the M2) and lack of hover feature with the Apple Pencil. There’s also an 11-inch version of the iPad Pro, which has most of the same features but lacks the Mini LED display. (It has a more standard LCD panel.) At full prices, the iPad Air is a better option than the 11-inch Pro, but if you’re able to find a prior-year model refurbished or on sale, then it might be the one to go with.
Read my review of the iPad Pro.
The best iPad for reading
Screen: 8.3-inch, 2266 x 1488 resolution 60Hz LCD, fully laminated / Processor: Apple A15 / Storage: 64 or 256GB / Port: USB-C / Cellular: 5G (optional) / Speakers: stereo / Compatible accessories: Apple Pencil (second-generation)
If you want to buy the best iPad for reading, whether that’s ebooks, comics, or articles, then you should buy the iPad Mini. The smallest iPad Apple sells, the $499 Mini is effectively an iPad Air with a smaller screen that’s easier to hold in one hand.
Really, “it’s a smaller iPad Air” sums up most everything about the iPad Mini. It has the same general look and design, the same compatibility with the second-generation Apple Pencil, and the same cameras. It just has a smaller display and weighs about 36 percent less.
That makes the iPad Mini way more comfortable to use as a personal reading device. It’s also easier to slip into a jacket pocket or bag for some reading on the go. The Mini provides access to many more reading sources than a Kindle, though it can’t match the battery life of Amazon’s e-reader. You might be tempted to get a Mini for a kid due to its smaller size, but I’d still recommend the ninth-gen iPad instead because it’s so much less expensive, and kids will have more fun with the larger screen anyway.
The iPad Mini is a shrunken-down version of the iPad Air
You can, of course, run all of the same apps and use the iPad Mini for watching video, but its smaller size is better suited for watching TikTok or YouTube videos than feature-length movies. This is the only iPad that Apple doesn’t make a keyboard accessory for, and it’s obvious why: it’s just too small to really be comfortable to type anything of length on.
But it is compatible with the second-generation Apple Pencil, and its size is good for digital note-taking. Pair it with a paper-type screen protector, and the iPad Mini might just replace a pen and paper notebook for you.
Apple released the current iPad Mini in late 2021, and it often goes a long time between updates on this model. That does make it harder to buy an older version of the Mini than other iPads, but since this has been out for well over a year already, there are often sales and discounts to be found.