My hunt for the right iPad model: Too small, too big, and just right

From the iPad Mini 5 to the iPad Pro 12.9, Apple’s current tablet lineup offers 68 options to meet your specific needs. Here’s how Matt Miller chose which one to buy.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

Nine years ago it was easy to pick out an iPad as there was just one model to choose from with your only option being how much storage you desired. You had a total of three choices.

Today, there are five current models, finish options, storage capacity options, and LTE (carrier options here too) or Wi-FI options so it's a bit overwhelming trying to figure out the right one for you. This leaves you with 68 possible models to choose from in 2019. So you can understand why it took me three purchases to get to the right model for me.

Also: iPhone, iPad, and Mac buyer's guide: August 2019 edition 

The current lineup that makes up these 68 options includes the iPad, iPad Air, iPad Mini, iPad Pro 11, and iPad Pro 12.8. There are perfectly capable older models still available too so if you want to save some money you can look at sites like Swappa for some good options.

While I use a Microsoft Surface Pro 6 as my daily work computer for my consulting engineering business, I do not find it to be the best tablet option even though it is perfectly capable of serving in that capacity. Tablets haven't been a necessity for me, but I do find that the iPad helps me work more efficiently by taking away the redundancy of handwritten notes, adding search capability to my notes, and providing me fast and easily readable access to data.

Too small: iPad Mini 5

I bought the iPad Pro 10.5 in 2017, but then sold it to my oldest daughter as I found the Google Pixelbook to meet my home computing and ZDNet writing needs better at the time. The Pixelbook is indeed a great computing platform, but Android apps are still pretty terrible and it's just not a very good tablet for portable use. The Pixel Slate is a nice piece of hardware, but suffers from the same terrible Android apps.

The iPad Mini was one of my favorite iPads so when I saw the new iPad Mini 5 released in March I ordered a Wi-Fi 64GB model in the hope that it would be a more portable note taking and iOS app device. I used it for some note taking, but it wasn't very convenient to carry around the Pencil and I couldn't comfortably take many notes on the 7.9 inch display.

I have a Galaxy Note 9 with an S Pen and find that to offer nearly the same experience as the iPad Mini with a stylus that is always ready and available in the phone. I eventually just ended up using the iPad Mini 5 to watch some video content on my commute and business travel and even those experiences were compromised by the small size of this iPad.

Too big: 2017 iPad Pro 12.9

A long-time Twitter follower and MoTR podcast listener offered Kevin and me a chance to buy his mint condition iPad Pro 12.9 before he put it up for sale to the public on Swappa. I've never used a 12.9 iPad and his offer of one with LTE and a whopping 512GB of internal storage was just too much for me to pass up, especially after feeling cramped on the iPad Mini 5.

The iPad Pro 12.9 arrived and when I opened the box I almost fell off my chair laughing at how ridiculously large the tablet was, particularly when held in my hands. Kevin mentioned that was his reaction to his older large iPad at first too, but with use he said he came to love it and used it as his main computing device for more than a year. Thus, I figured I would give it a shot because it certainly was a very nice piece of hardware.

The first thing I did after charging up this large iPad was install the iOS 13/iPad OS beta that adds a ton of capability to the iPad, particularly to the larger sized Pro version of the iPad. I wanted to test out the split view, side view, desktop Safari experience, and more to see if this large iPad Pro could replace the Chromebook as my primary home/writing computer.

iOS 13 works very well on this large iPad and I loved the ability to quickly swipe in and out of open apps on the large screen. I was also able to easily work in two apps at the same time, side-by-side. This is something I definitely could not do on the smaller iPad Mini.

I bought a Logitech case and keyboard for this big iPad Pro and it worked well in a desktop setup, but was way too big and chunky for carrying around the office to use on a frequent basis. It was almost too big to fit into my bike backpack pocket for commuting and took up nearly the entire small train table in front of me so that the person across from me had no table space.

After two weeks, I just could not use a device as big as the iPad Pro 12.9 in any other environment than set up as a laptop/desktop computer in my office. I didn't get the chance to test it out on a flight, but can't imagine it fitting very well on my coach tray so off to Swappa went the iPad Pro 12.9.

Just right: 2018 iPad Pro 11

While I understand that the 2018 iPad Pro 12.9 is a tiny bit smaller than the 2017 model, it's still too big. My search then came down to the iPad Air or the iPad Pro 11 and for this decision I created a spreadsheet with different storage options and purchase options from the Apple Store and Swappa. I ruled out a LTE model since I already pay for service on two SIMs and don't need another monthly service charge for wireless service.

My next decision was in regards to storage capacity. I think all Pro level iPads should start at 128GB, but Apple likes to only provide minimal storage and then charge excessively for increasing internal capacity. I watch movies and TV shows while commuting and traveling, but also don't mind moving this content on and off the tablet. I don't install many apps, I do not play games, and I never use the camera on a tablet except for video calling. Thus, I quickly decided to go with the minimal 64GB option on whatever iPad I decided upon.

The final choice was whether I wanted an iPad Air or Pro 11. The iPad Air is hundreds less than the iPad Pro 11 and I could also use my existing first generation Apple Pencil with it. While the iPad Air is the reasonable choice, it still has the old school look and feel with bigger bezels and a physical home button and I wanted a more modern tablet. I also have some issues with the skin on my thumbs so prefer the Face ID solution.

The iPad Pro offers Face ID, minimal bezels (for a tablet), standard USB-C port for charging, and a better Apple Pencil solution with wireless charging and magnetic attachment to the tablet itself. Thus, I decided to go with the iPad Pro 11.

I also bought a brand new sealed one on Swappa since Washington State charges nearly 10% for sales tax and the one on Swappa was already priced $50 less than the Apple Store. So, with tax, I ended up saving more than $100 buying it this way. I did buy the Apple Pencil 2 and a Smart Cover from Apple directly.

The iPad Pro 11 has now been in my hands for a week and I am loving it. It is the perfect size for commuting, use around the office, flying on planes, carrying around my house, and using as my home computer. The Google Pixel Slate review device died on me the day before the iPad Pro 11 arrived so it truly has been serving as my home computer. I wrote this article on the iPad with a connection to an old Microsoft Wedge keyboard I had lying around. My next search is to find the perfect external keyboard to increase its utility.

iPad OS, iOS 13 beta, is running well on the iPad Pro 11 and I am not feeling the squeeze when compared to the much larger iPad Pro 12.9. Apple offers a plethora of options for tablet buyers today and I hope you are able to find your perfect match in less time than I did.

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