By Tim Brookes
Last month Apple quietly dropped the word “Air” from its iPad line, leaving just a regular iPad, the iPad Mini 4, and two iPad Pro models left to choose from.
If you’ve seen Apple’s recent iPad Pro adverts, the change should come as no surprise. The company is pushing the Pro models as full-fledged laptop replacements, while sales of the plain old iPad continue to wane.
So what does this mean if you’re looking at buying an iPad in 2017? Let’s run through the changes and answer the questions that matter.
Air No More
A recent Guardian article sums up Apple’s changing marketing philosophy using Andy Warhol’s famous Coca-Cola analogy: “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”
The company is known for creating high-end premium devices, rarely appealing to the cheaper end of the market. But things have been changing for a while: the iPhone SE is technically a cheaper iPhone, the ceramic Apple Watch is horribly overpriced, and the iPad line has been divided between “pro” and “fun” since early 2016.
Author Alex Hern goes on to suppose that Apple is no longer content with making Coca Cola, and wants to make Champagne instead: “For the first time, the Coca-Cola you drink and the Coca-Cola the president drinks might be different.”
The recent change brings the family of tablet computers in-line with the MacBook naming convention, where the regular MacBook and MacBook Pro represent two clear tiers of user. Meanwhile the MacBook Air languishes in the background as one of the company’s most successful devices, but it hasn’t seen an update since 2015.
From a hardware perspective, the change doesn’t really mean anything. The new vanilla iPad is the same as the old iPad Air 2, packing the same A9 processor introduced with the iPhone 6S in late 2015. It features the same display, the same chassis, and the same battery life.
The only small tablet option is the iPad Mini 4, after the ageing Mini 2 was dropped amid the recent changes. This model uses even older hardware in the form of the A8 chip that powered the iPhone 6 way back in 2014. We’d recommend you avoid this model for that reason.
But there’s some good news too. As a result of the aging hardware, the entire lower end of the iPad spectrum is now cheaper than ever before. A 9.7-inch iPad with 32 GB of storage starts at $329 for a Wi-Fi-only model. The inferior iPad Mini 4 starts at $399 thanks to a non-negotiable 128 GB of internal memory.
What the iPad Pro Represents to Apple
It might just be marketing, but the change clearly demonstrates Apple’s perceived division between two different types of users. A recent advertising campaign has seen the company position both models of iPad Pro as fully-fledged laptop replacements.
A quick glance at Apple’s website tells me that the regular iPad is “flat-out fun” while the iPad Pro enjoys one of the most painfully Apple strap lines you’ve ever seen: “Super. Computer. In two sizes.” This is before you consider the price differences ($799 and $599 for the larger and smaller models) or the Pro-only keyboard and stylus accessories.
The A9X chip found in the pro models provides best-in-class tablet performance, which ArsTechnica says is “roughly on the same level as a Core i5 from 2013.” The 12.9-inch iPad Pro even includes a MacBook-worthy 4 GB of RAM. All 256 GB storage options are also limited to the iPad Pro range.
The 9.7-inch model also has its unique selling points, mainly an improved camera. This is currently the only model of iPad that offers a True Tone display for balancing white tones, and a wider color gamut for a 25 percent improvement over the other models in the range.
Conversely, the opposite could be true. You don’t need to spend iPad Pro money if you only want to replace your laptop with something that can send email, browse the web, and stay in touch with friends via social media. There’s nothing stopping you from buying a Bluetooth keyboard and getting “real” work done on a cheap iPad either.
So Which iPad Should You Buy?
If you’re considering buying an iPad, the first question you might want to ask yourself is: do you even need an iPad any more? The tablet has seen declining sales culminating in a five-year low last year, and you probably already have a smartphone that can do everything the tablet can (and more).
That means you need real purpose to buy an iPad in 2017, which pushes many potential customers into iPad Pro territory. Maybe you need a big screen for drawing or multi-tasking, a full-sized keyboard for word processing, or perhaps you don’t need a chunky laptop and can opt for something smaller.
Nothing quite compares to the iPad Pro if you’re comfortable with its software limitations. iOS lacks the flexibility of macOS and Windows, but its hardware is still a force to be reckoned with. These models also enjoy a 10-hour battery life, ultra-slim form factor, high-quality first-party accessories, and a price tag that compares favorably to a decent laptop.
Going forward expect Apple to introduce more of these tiers throughout its existing product range. There have been rumors of an iPhone Pro for several years now, and the company all but confirmed a pro-tier version of the iMac is coming as part of a refresh that targets professional users.