Apple prides itself on simplicity, and the current iPad lineup has that in some ways: Choose small, cheaper or fast, respectively. Figuring out the particulars of what works remains tricky, though, because every model has a trade-off in price, size, weight, or capability.
It doesn’t help that Apple called the third-generation iPad released last spring the “new iPad,” nor that the fall fourth-generation model is now the “iPad with Retina display.”
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll call the current full-sized model the “iPad 4,” even if Apple won’t. (Those who bought the “iPad 3” feel cheated, as a substantial refresh was released so quickly and at the same price. It’s rough to feel you didn’t get a bargain, especially if you bought one just a few weeks ago.)
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Let’s start with the old. The iPad 2 may have first shipped 18 months ago but it holds up well. It’s the model I own, and I didn’t feel compelled to replace it with the briefly lived third-generation, nor am I lusting after the iPad 4. The iPad 2 has the original 30-pin dock connector, and a 1024-by-768-pixel screen.
You may recall that the iPad 2 had (and still has) terrible cameras, one of the worst compromises Apple ever made to ship a product with marketing bullet points that matched competing tablets available at the time.
I’ve rarely felt compelled to use the cameras, even for FaceTime or Skype video chats, so I haven’t felt the loss. The base model with 16 GB of storage is $399.
(Apple, unlike some other firms, never slipstreams updates to older hardware, such as bumping camera quality in the iPad 2; instead, it releases new models.)
The iPad mini shares this in common with the iPad 2: It has the same processor and same video resolution. Its 7.9-inch screen, compared with 9.7 inches for the iPad 2 and fourth-generation iPad, provides a denser display.
The pitch (number of pixels per inch) is 163 ppi instead of 132 ppi, which makes edges appears smoother, but not nearly as much as the 264 ppi of the newest full-sized iPad nor the 326 ppi of the retina iPhones.
But the mini improves on the iPad 2 in four ways. First, it’s smaller. For many people, that’s key.
Second, the iPad mini has better cameras: a 5 megapixel rear-facing camera and a 1.2 MP front-facing one for chats. That’s still not as good as the iPhone 5, but it’s sufficient in an easier-to-position device for taking photos or video chat.
Third, it features Siri for voice dictation and tasks, which can be useful.
Finally, it includes support for the fastest cellular-network flavors in the models that include a mobile broadband radio. (More on that in a moment.) The iPad mini’s base price is $329 for a 16 GB model.
The differences between the iPad mini and iPad 4 (which starts at $499) are relatively slight, except for the display. The iPad 4 has much faster central and graphics processors, partly needed to handle the 2048-by-1536-pixel display.
That explains its weight, too, which is about 8 percent heavier than the iPad 2, as it carries more battery cells.
The mini and iPad 4 use the new Lightning connector, which should have less negative for users than with an iPhone or iPod touch. Many people have dock-style audio and other equipment, but such gear was never designed to work directly with iPads.
The iPad mini and iPad 4 have slightly improved Wi-Fi, too, compared with all other iOS devices. In some cases, specifically on networks that use the higher-frequency 5 gigahertz unlicensed networking band for Wi-Fi, it’s possible to see about 50 percent faster data transfer at times.
The three variations in iPad all come in black and white. The iPad 2 is only available in a 16 GB capacity, while you can bump an iPad mini or iPad 4 to 32 GB (add $100) or 64 GB (add $200).
Apple overcharges for these memory increases compared both with other devices in the field and the raw cost of such memory. Apple should have $50, not $100, bumps, or offered 16, 64, and 128 GB models at plus $100 and plus $200 levels.
Another choice to be made is over cellular. Each model costs $130 above its base price or price with additional memory to include a mobile broadband modem. AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless all have month-at-a-time subscription options that you turn on and off as desired.
The iPad 2 works at 3G rates, up to a couple of megabits per second (Mbps). The iPad mini and iPad 4 add so-called 4G service on AT&T’s network, which can top 4 to 6 Mbps downstream.
They both also work on LTE networks, which both AT&T and Verizon Wireless have turned on in Seattle. LTE carriers claim about 5 to 12 Mbps for downstream rates, but it’s common to see far higher speeds, too.
But there’s one more variable here. You must purchase an iPad for a particular network or network standard. The Verizon (all iPads) and Sprint (iPad 4 and iPad mini) models work only on their respective networks, but can be used with an AT&T network card (a SIM of the right size), too.
All mobile models also work with GSM providers worldwide with the appropriate SIM and service plan.
Apple’s vaunted simplicity takes a hit when there are so many options. But figure out first what kind of networking you need for yourself or as a gift, and then take the time to determine what size and density of display fits the bill.
Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to email@example.com.