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The best iPads for college students: iPad, iPad Pro, and iPad Mini compared

From taking notes and Zoom calls to completing a graphic design project, these are the best iPads college students can buy, according to ZDNET's testing.
Written by Josh Slate, Contributor and  Lena Borrelli, Contributing Writer
Reviewed by Christina Darby

Every year, it seems student rely more heavily on technology to accomplish anything from writing an essay, collaborating on a group project, or participating in remote classes over Zoom or Teams. While a laptop is a powerful option, an iPad with the appropriate accessories and keyboard case can even transform the tablet into a capable touch-screen laptop. And if you're not necessarily looking for a laptop alternative, iPad's Stage Manager feature, note taking apps, and graphic design capabilities make it the perfect tool to work in tandem with the rest of your tech. 

Also: The best iPad models

After ZDNET's hands-on testing along with considering functionality, performance, and battery life, the 5th generation iPad Air wins our pick for the best iPad for college students overall. However, other models and generations are still well worth considering. Read on for our top selections. 

The best iPads for college students in 2023

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Apple M1 Chip
  • Affordable option for amazing quality
  • Fast USB-C connectivity
Cons
  • 64 GB isn't enough
  • No SD card slot
More Details

iPad Air (5th generation) specs: Screen size: 10.9-inch | Chip: M1 Chip | Weight: 1.02 pounds | Front camera: 12MP Ultrawide | Wi-Fi version: WiFi 6

There are many options on the market when looking for a tablet that can fulfill your needs as a student, but very few that have the specs that this iPad Air has. While being powered by an Apple M1 chip, this iPad features performance that is 60% faster than the fourth generation of this product. In addition to the speed upgrade with the M1 chip, you can also run multiple apps at once, much like a MacBook.

"If you're in the market for an iPad, and the base model and iPad Mini aren't enough for you, the iPad Air is where your search should begin, and most likely, end," said ZDNET's Jason Cipriani in the bottom line of his review. 

While schoolwork has drastically changed over the last few years in part to the pandemic, having a quick computer with a clear camera is essential. This iPad Air contains a 12MP ultrawide front camera equipped with Center Stage so you are always in the center of the frame when recording a video or on a Zoom meeting. Additionally, with its 10.9" Liquid Retina display, you will see everything on your screen with exceptional clarity and color.

Review: iPad Air (2022) review: So good I almost regret buying my iPad Pro

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Affordable
  • USB-C replaces lightning port
  • Lots of colors to choose from
Cons
  • Isn't compatible with Smart Keyboard Folio
  • Doesn't work with 2nd generation Apple Pencil
  • Only available in 64GB and 256GB
More Details

iPad (10th generation) specs: Screen Size: 10.9-inch | Chip: A14 Bionic Chip | Weight: 1.05 pounds | Front Camera: 12MP ultrawide | Wi-Fi Version: Wi-Fi 6

Sometimes it's just as important how your tablet looks as how it performs. Luckily enough, this 10th generation iPad performs just as incredible as it looks. With four color options to choose from, students from all around can get a sleek-designed tablet to complete their daily tasks wherever. To add to the exquisite external design, the screen and hardware within this iPad are perfect for about anything. 

This iPad features a lot of features including compatibility with both the Magic Keyboard Folio as well as the first generation Apple Pencil. While being compatible with the Magic Keyboard Folio, you can get work done in your dorm, library, or campus center with ease.

 With the 10.9" Liquid Retina display, you can edit all the videos and pictures you take with the built-in 12MP camera with ease. Along with editing content, you can also relax and play graphics-intensive games on this iPad with a smooth frame rate in part to the A14 Bionic Chip and True Tone technology.

Review: iPad 2022 (10th Gen) review: A confusingly good iPad

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Battery life is impressive
  • Sleek design
  • Small size makes it east to fit in a backpack
Cons
  • Not compatible with Magic Keyboard or Smart Keyboard Folio
  • No UltraWide camera
More Details

iPad Mini (6th generation) specs: Screen size: 8.3-inch | Chip: A15 Bionic Chip | Weight: .65 pounds | Front camera: 12MP wide | Wi-Fi version: Wi-Fi 6

Nothing screams portable like an iPad Mini. But, don't let its small size fool you; this .65-pound tablet can do more than what its size may entail. With an edge-to-edge screen, Apple left the excess material out to create a near-borderless design. While the name states it is "mini," the screen produces a "mega" color with a Liquid Retina display featuring True Tone, a P3 wide color, and an anti-reflective coating to make the picture that much clearer. 

The pictures shown on the screen mean nothing without powerful sound to immerse yourself in the content. This iPad Mini has four landscape speakers, on both the top and bottom of the tablet. With that, when you have it propped up in landscape mode, you can hear it all without needing to cup your hand around the speakers.

To loyal Apple users, you know the pain of searching everywhere for a lightning cable whenever you need to charge your device. But, this iPad Mini uses USB-C charging for 2x faster transfer speeds and fast charging -- finally. In addition to fast charging, the 6-core CPU in this iPad model delivers 40% faster CPU performance so you can game, finish school work, and capture content in a blink of an eye.

Review: Apple iPad Mini (6th Gen.) review: Unmatched portability and power

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Available with 12.9" display
  • Compatibility with external displays
  • Multitasking feature
Cons
  • Almost does too much for a student
  • Expensive choice for students
More Details

iPad Pro (5th generation) specs: Screen size: 11-inch | Chip: M2 Chip | Weight: 1.03 pounds | Front camera: 12MP and 10MP UltraWide | Wi-Fi version: Wi-Fi 6E

As many Apple fans know, the company has yet to release a touchscreen laptop -- well, this iPad Pro almost changes that thanks to powerful performance and accessory compatibility. While it isn't technically a laptop, the M2 chip within this iPad can make it a replacement for your current computer. This chip offers 15% faster CPU speeds, 35% faster GPU speeds, and a 40% faster Neural Engine allowing for 50% more memory bandwidth. Phew, that's a lot.

Especially with Zoom meetings becoming more of a norm, students can benefit from the 12MP UltraWide camera with Center Stage so that the picture is always in the center of the frame, rather then awkwardly being cast to the side because of the iPad camera's positioning. Plus, the two rear cameras feature one 12MP wide camera and a 10MP UltraWide camera. With cameras as powerful as this, its easier to piece together short films and class projects together all with a couple of taps on the Liquid Retina display.

Review: iPad Pro (2022) review: Stop me if you've heard this one before, but…

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Front camera features Center Stage technology
  • Can use multiple apps at once
  • Affordable price for a lot of storage
Cons
  • Back camera could use some work
  • Slightly heavier than the other options
More Details

iPad (9th generation) specs: Screen size: 10.2-inch | Chip: A13 Bionic Chip | Weight: 1.07 pounds| Front camera: 12MP ultrawide | Wi-Fi Version: Wi-Fi 5

As someone who just graduated from college, I know the importance of a college budget. This iPad 9th generation is perfect for those looking for a powerful Apple product with a budget of less than $500.

While this iPad doesn't feature the near-borderless design as some of the newer units included in this list, with a 10.2-inch display there is still plenty of room to draw or write with your Apple Pencil and connect the Smart Keyboard to transform your iPad experience. 

Lastly, if you need to take this iPad on the go, there's no need to fret. You have the ability to connect this iPad to your cellular carrier so you can get Gigabit-class LTE wherever you may be.

Review: Apple iPad (2021) review: If it's not broken, don't fix it

What is the best iPad for students?

Powered by the Apple M1 chip and a Liquid Retina display with True Tone, it's hard to argue that there is a better iPad for students than this iPad Air. From its slim, sleek design available in an array of colors to its powerful capabilities internally, this iPad gives you the "wow" factor with its usage and with its price.

Though the iPad Air is our top pick, there are still plenty of good options in Apple's fleet of tablets. The table below helps you compare the five iPads by a few of their key features.

Best iPads for college students

Cost

Screen size

Chip

iPad Air (5th generation)

$418

10.9 inches

M1

iPad (10th generation)

$399

10.9 inches

A14 Bionic

iPad Mini (6th generation)

$490

8.3 inches

A15 Bionic

iPad Pro (5th generation)

$799

11 inches or 12.9 inches

M2

iPad (9th generation)

$279

10.2 inches

A13 Bionic

Which iPad for students is right for you?

There is an abundance of factors that go into the decision when purchasing anything, especially high-quality tech. From surfing the web to editing high-quality videos and pictures, iPads can seemingly do it all. Consider this table when deciding which iPad will be the next addition to your backpack.

Choose this iPad for students

If you want…

iPad Air

The best iPad for students on the market. 

iPad (10th generation)

A reliable iPad with a sleek and fun design. 

iPad Mini

A smaller tablet that is still highly capable. 

iPad Pro

An iPad that can fuel your passion for content creation. 

iPad (9th generation)

To save a little money with an older, but still capable iPad. 

How did we choose these iPads for students?

Between the four different iPad model variations (iPad base model, the Pro, Air, and Mini), there are many capable features that makes decision making, especially for students, even tougher. But, through comparing the specs of each iPad and reading reviews from some of ZDNET's experts, I was able to rank them confidently.

These are some of the key factors I considered. 

  • Chip: Apple's signature processor comes in a few different forms. Its M2 chip is the latest and greatest, offering lightning-fast performance, but our team at ZDNET has also greatly appreciated the M1 chip in our testing. 

  • Screen size: iPads are available in a variety of screen sizes, running anywhere from less than 8.5 inches to 13 inches. As a college student, you may prefer a larger screen, but a smaller size lends better to portability. 

  • Storage: An iPad is more limited in its storage than a Mac, so be sure to consider the amount of storage that comes with your chosen iPad. College students generally deal with a lot of files, but if this is a device supplementary to your computer or laptop, then storage is not typically such a concern. 

  • Cost: Apple products are not the cheapest, but you will find a lower price tag with the iPad line. The cost of the best iPads for college students range from about $400 to $729, depending on the model you choose. 

Are iPads cheaper for students?

Apple rarely has sales on their powerful products, but you can sometimes find deals on their website. For example, you can get the newest MacBook Air for $100 off as a current or newly accepted college student -- this option also extends to their parents as well as faculty, staff, and homeschool teachers.

Do iPad covers fit all iPads?

No. Much like phone cases, the size and layout of these iPads change with every model that is released. But, you can find cases for any line of iPad at places like Best Buy, Amazon, and Target.

Are there stands for iPads?

There is an abundance of different stands you can purchase for your iPad, with some including keyboards as well. If you want to make the most out of your iPad a keyboard is highly recommended, especially when using them for work and academics.

Are there alternative iPads for students worth considering?

There are always alternatives when making decisions, but when it comes to high-quality technology like iPads, the number of alternatives is narrow. 

Still, Apple offers a number of devices that can help you have a successful college career. Consider these best Apple devices to supplement your iPad. 

4th gen iPad Air with a purple case and 2nd gen Apple Pencil at the top, displaying a To-Do list

Best iPad Air alternative

iPad Air (4th generation)

This refurbished 4th generation iPad Air is light, portable, and capable at a sub $500 price tag. 

View at Best Buy
amazon-fire-7-tablet

Best Amazon alternative

Amazon Fire 7

The Amazon Fire 7 is an affordable tablet that delivers reliable and powerful performance. 

View at Amazon
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