iPad Air and Retina iPad mini: Should you upgrade?

iPad Air and Retina iPad mini: Should you upgrade?

2013 iPad buyers guide: How to decide if you should upgrade to Apple's latest large or small sized iPad!

When a new iPad hits the market - or two iPads, as is the case right now - one of the hardest decisions we face is whether or not to upgrade from and original iPad, iPad 2, iPad 3, iPad mini, or iPad 4 to the latest and greatest. If you have unlimited funds, you can just buy everything, all the time. Most of us don't, however, so we need to check out the new features of the iPad Air or Retina iPad mini, see how they compare to what we already have, and decide if the difference is worth the price of an entirely new device, a price that starts at $399 and $499 and goes well up from there. So, is there enough value to justify the cost? Let's take a look!

iPad evolution

Since Steve Jobs first unveiled it at a special event in 2010, the iPad has improved steadily in one way or another. The iPad 2 was thinner, lighter, and faster. The iPad 3 got a Retina display and LTE. The iPad 4 went Lightning. The iPad mini dropped back to iPad 2 tech, but in a much smaller form factor. The above chart shows the evolution of the iPad from the original to the latest Retina iPad mini and iPad Air, including pricing and capacity at launch. While what you paid for it when you got it might vary, you can check your current model and see how it compares to the ones available now.

iOS 7 compatibility

The ability to run iOS 7, and to be compatible with iOS 7 apps, is a major consideration. The original iPad can't run iOS 7 (it couldn't run iOS 6 either, mind you, but it's only going to get worse from here.) The iPad 2 and original iPad mini can run iOS 7, and are still being sold by Apple, which means that, even though they're outdated, they should still enjoy support for a while. The iPad 3 was graphically underpowered from launch, and while it can run iOS 7, graphically intensive apps will still put a hurt on it. The iPad 4 can run iOS 7 just fine.

If you're on an original iPad, you'll seriously want to consider upgrading. If you're on an iPad 3, you'll want to consider it as well.

Retina displays

The iPad 2 and original iPad mini both have standard density 1024x768 pixel screens. So, while both are similarly powered, and both can run iOS 7 apps, neither look as good as their Retina counterparts. This is most noticeable with small text in ebooks and web pages, or the thin lines in iOS 7 glyphs and other interface elements. Even photos won't look as crisp and clear on standard displays as they will on Retina.

Apple A7 processors

Everything you need to know about Apple's all-new 64-bit A7 system-on-a-chip, and the next generation Cyclone processor

The original iPad debuted with Apple's first branded chipset, the A4. The iPad 2 introduced the A5, which was also used in the iPad mini. The iPad 3 launched with the A5X, which, thanks to the high-density Retina display, struggled under heavy graphical loads. The iPad 4 had the Apple A6X, based on Apple's first custom CPU, the Swift, and had plenty of power. Both the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini have the Apple A7, the same chip found in the iPhone 5s, and the 64-bit Cyclone monster inside it. Desktop-class, it has power unseen in mobile before. It also has the Apple M7 motion coprocessor, which provides energy efficiency and sensor fusion advantages. Then there's the Series 6 (Rogue) graphics processor that supports OpenGL ES 3.0. Basically, the A7 is badass.

LTE 4G networking

The original iPad and iPad 2 don't offer LTE 4G networking. The iPad 3 does, but very limited bands that didn't offer much support outside North America. The iPad 4 and original iPad mini both had good support for international LTE bands. The iPad Air and Retina iPad mini offer even more bands, for even more places.

If you live in an area of the world where the iPad previously hasn't worked on LTE, the new models are worth looking at.

FaceTime HD and iSight Camera

The original iPad had no cameras at all. The iPad 2 added them for the first time, but they weren't great. The iPad 3, iPad 4, and original iPad mini both had better cameras, at least as far as tablet cameras go. The iPad Air and Retina iPad mini both have improved FaceTime HD cameras with back illuminated sensors and larger sensors. The iSight cameras are the same as last year, but the Apple A7 chipset's image signal processor (ISP) should allow for slightly better results overall.

Again, the original iPad fares poorly here, since cameras are a good thing to have. There's not enough difference between the other iPads, when it comes to cameras, to make them a substantial upgrade consideration.

Lightning connector

The original iPad, iPad 2, and iPad 3 all have the old 30-pin Dock connectors. While there remain an enormous amount of accessories for that connector, all new iOS devices will be using the all-new Lightning connector going forward. That means those models won't have access to the latest and greatest.

Siri

Neither the original iPad nor the iPad 2 have Siri, Apple's virtual digital assistant. The iPad 3, iPad 4, and original iPad mini all do. Although it's a secondary, natural language-based interface layer, Siri does provide all sorts of benefits, including hands-free control, and faster workflows for many built-in apps.

Should you upgrade from the original iPad?

The original iPad, released in 2010, was an amazing product. For its time. And that time is now over. It hasn't gotten a software update since iOS 5 in 2011, and won't be getting one ever again. It has no LTE, no cameras, no Lightning connector, and no Retina display. Fewer apps will support it in the future, and fewer accessories.

The iPad 2 and original iPad mini are cheaper options (starting at $399 or $299), but they'll run into the same problem as the original iPad and sooner rather than later. An iPad Air (starting at $499) will give you the same screen size but at a much smaller size and lighter weight. The Retina iPad mini (starting at $399) will give you an even more portable form factor, if that's important to you. Both will give you a fantastic screen, all the latest hardware features, and the ability to use all the latest apps and accessories.

If the original iPad still works for you, that's great. Ride it into the sunset. If you want to keep moving forward, however, and you can afford it, upgrade soon.

Should you upgrade from the iPad 2?

Apple still sells the iPad 2, and people still buy them, so it's not a completely outdated tablet. At least not yet. However, it doesn't have a Lightning connector, it doesn't have an LTE networking option, it doesn't have a Retina display, it doesn't have an Apple A7 and M7 chipset, and while it can run iOS 7, it can't run Siri.

The original iPad mini, cheap as it is now, isn't really an upgrade. It does have Lightning and Siri, but it's otherwise the same hardware as the iPad 2. An iPad Air (starting at $499) will give you the same screen size but at a much smaller size and lighter weight. The Retina iPad mini (starting at $399) will give you all the new features but in a more portable form factor, if that's important to you. Both will give you a fantastic screen, all the latest hardware, and a significant performance boost to boot.

If none of those things appeal to you, the iPad 2 remains a viable tablet. If, however, you want any of those things, and you want to future-proof yourself so that, when next year's updates come around, you're ready for them, you can look at the upgrades.

Should you upgrade from the iPad 3?

The iPad 3 has a Retina display and limited support for LTE, primarily for North America. However, it's Apple A5X processor is maxed out simply trying to run that huge display, and that makes it less than ideal for hardcore gaming or any other graphically intensive operations. It also lacks a Lightning connector, and is slightly thicker and heavier than an iPad 2. It runs iOS 7, though not incredibly well, and it does have Siri.

Released in the spring of 2012, the iPad 3 is by no means old, even if it is already outdated. It's a perfectly fine tablet for most people, but because of its strained GPU, it's not great for everyone.

Both the iPad 2 and original iPad mini, cheap as they are, would be downgrades in most ways (graphical performance is slightly better, but only because they have far fewer pixels to push around.) An iPad Air (starting at $499) will give you the same screen size but at a much smaller size and lighter weight. Much. The Retina iPad mini (starting at $399) will give you all the new features but in a more portable form factor, if that's important to you. The screen is the same, or thereabouts, but the Lightning connector, and Apple A7 and M7 chipsets, are improvements. And both run iOS 7 like a dream.

You can absolutely get another year or more out of it, but if you have the money, and you are frustrated by graphical performance (especially in high end games), you may want to upgrade.

Should you upgrade from the original iPad mini?

The original iPad mini has a Lightning connector but lacks a Retina display. It has LTE but it's Apple A5 processor is two generations old now. It can run iOS 7, but not as well as the latest hardware. Still, it's a great tablet, and one Apple is still selling.

If the standard resolution screen scratches your sensitive eyes, then upgrading to the Retina iPad mini (starting at $399) not only gets you that, but the 64-bit Apple A7 processor. If you want both a Retina display, and a bigger display, the iPad Air (starting at $499) will give you everything the new iPad mini will, but take you from 7.9- to 9.7-inches.

Again, the original iPad mini is still a good tablet, and you can get years of use out of it, but it's an aging platform and if you have the money and want the latest and the greatest, both the iPad Air and the Retina iPad mini are worth considering.

Should you upgrade from the iPad 4?

The iPad 4 is great tablet. It has not only a Retina display, but its Apple A6X chipset has more than enough horsepower to drive it. It has more LTE bands to support LTE in more places, and it has a Lightning connector. It has almost everything, in fact, that the new iPad Air has.

Obviously, the iPad 2 and original iPad mini are steps backwards here, unless you have to have a more portable tablet and can't spend more than the iPad mini's $299 starting price to get it. Then it's a step diagonally sideways. You'd be better off going to the new Retina iPad mini (starting at $399) to keep the same great display, but in a more portable, much lighter package. Otherwise, if you want to keep the big screen, but absolutely need something lighter than you can hold up longer, the iPad Air (starting at $499) is the only real "upgrade" available.

Unless you do want that lighter form factor, however, or need one of the new LTE bands it supports, or simply want to get in on the 64-bit Apple A7 platform from the start, there's no compelling reason to upgrade from the iPad 4.

Special note: Gamers, media consumers, and travelers

It's important to not only consider the devices, but to consider how you use them. For some people, an upgrade may be absolutely necessary where for others, it's not necessary at all. Here are the three types of activities that most benefit from the new iPad Air and Retina iPad mini:

  • Gaming: The Apple A7 processor in the new iPads is insanely powerful, and you'll get to play OpenGL ES 3.0 games no other iPad can play. If you're a hardcore gamer, the new iPads are a dream.
  • Media consumers: The new screen on the Retina iPad mini will make reading much more pleasant on the eyes, and the new lighter weight on the iPad Air will make holding a tablet for long periods of time much, much easier. If you read a lot and watch a lot of video, the new iPads are much better.
  • Travelers: The iPad mini has always been great for travelers, but now the new iPad Air is also much thinner, smaller, and lighter. If you want a full-sized iPad, and the bigger virtual keyboard that comes with it, the new iPad Air is tough to beat.

Remember: Sell your old iPad!

Though a new iPad might come with a big sticker price, remember that you can sell your current iPad to take a little bit of the sting off the top. In fact, if you plan on upgrading to an iPad Air or Retina iPad mini, selling your old iPad is a no brainer. Apple products hold their resale value very well. If you've taken good care of your iPad, you should have no problem finding it a new home and putting some cash in your pocket while doing it. Selling the old really does help you afford the new. If you're not sure how to sell, or if you just want to make sure you get the most money, or save yourself the most time and effort, possible, here's everything you need to know!

Still undecided?

If you're still not sure about about upgrading to an iPad Air or Retina iPad mini, jump into our iPad discussion forums and the best community in mobile will happily help you out.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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iPad Air and Retina iPad mini: Should you upgrade?

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My question to myself is more: Ipad Air or Retina Ipad Mini... all about the screen size... I know... but which one ... what could help me decide about the screen size?

I'm still using iPad 3, and the performance is still great. I turned on the reduced motion though and turned off the Do Not Disturb.

I haven't noticed any performance issues at all with my iPad 3 and iOS 7. My issue is that I cheaped out when I bought it and went for the 16gb model, which is woefully inadequate. So I will be upgrading this year, but I am absolutely torn between the Air and Mini. Damn you Apple for giving us two equally attractive options!

I'm also on an iPad 3rd generation and the iOS 7 performance is absolutely fine. I only notice some lag when I enter Spotlight, but otherwise, it works. I don't use it for gaming though, so maybe that is why I have no issues. The iPad 3 is a great device and should really be the one sold at $399 instead of the laughable iPad 2.

32GB iPad 3. I got it for the display. It runs great. Have not had problems. I will keep it until it's no longer supported software wise. I am not a gamer, but run Auria DAW on it, and no problems with CPU, or memory. I would love an iPad mini 2.

Sent from the iMore App

While my iPad 3 ran iOS 7 just fine, its inability to use AirDrop was the determining factor in my decision to cash it in for the iPad Air. Looking forward to using the lighter and slimmer iPad.

No worries for me. My iPad mini works just fine. In fact I think it runs ios7 quite well, in contrast to what it seems your feelings are Rene.

I totally agree. We have two iPad mini's in the house, both on iOS7. I can't see any reason to upgrade them. Awesome device.

I also have the iPad 3. I've never felt that it lacked performance graphically, or otherwise, on either ios 6 or 7. I'd even argue that it runs ios 7 better than my iPhone 5 which regularly crashes safari and other apps, where my iPad doesn't.

Graphically, I couldn't tell a difference between iPad 3 and my iPhone 5 playing infinity blade 2 and Asphalt 8. I'm not saying there's not a difference, just nothing I've noticed during game play switching between the 2.

Interesting write up. I think you have it wrong on the iPad 3. I have a iPad 2 (wife's) , iPad 3 (sons), and a iPad 4 (mine). I can tell you for certain that the iPad 3 runs ios7 much better than the iPad 2 does. In fact I notice no difference between it and my ipad4 in my use case.

I don't understand the belief that the iPad 3 is somehow lacking in performance. We have an iPhone 5, my iPhone 5C, an iPad 2, iPad mini, and my iPad 3 in the house and the iPad 3 runs far and away better and faster on iOS 7 than the other iPad devices, PLUS, I do a lot of gaming and I don't have any issues with the performance of it at all. I don't experience slowdown, stuttering, or anything that would lead me to believe that it is struggling with anything.

I'm so confused by all the glowing praise for the iPad 3. I've owned one since launch day and it's the most frustrating apple product I've ever purchased. I'm probably not upgrading any time soon because I still feel so burned by the iPad 4 release 7 months after the 3. Also ios 7 isn't remotely fast on the 3 and Safari's constant page refreshing is beginning to remind me of the original iPad after the ios 5 update.

Agree to disagree I guess, but it's because the iPad 3 is so good that I don't feel the need to upgrade it.

It depends entirely on your use case. The Apple A5X GPU inside the iPad 3 is maxed out handling the Retina display, and that leaves much less horsepower available for anything else.

If you never do anything that hits the GPU hard, you won't even notice. If you do, you'll be frustrated.

Game developers have to jump through hoops to make stuff work on an iPad 3. It's much less performant for graphically intensive games than either an iPad 2 (far fewer pixels to push) or and iPad 4 (much more power to push them).

Subjectively, you can love an iPad 3 (I love mine!). Objectively, for graphics, it's the worst iPad produced in years, and the only one they've replaced after only 6-months on the market.

I also had a terrible experience with the iPad3, chronic sound problems and overheating while gaming. Fabled Apple service refused to replace the unit because of a 6mm dent on the corner I hadn't even noticed.

WTF is it with Apple? They keep harping on about better bluetooth etc yet I still can't send a picture from my phone to my iPad !!!!!!!!!

Reading this really made my ipad 3 feel old. After the initial update to IOS 7 I was frustrated with it's performance. However, after 7.03, I've been much happier. I don't play many games on the ipad so that may be why I haven't really noticed many problems yet. I do feel like apple rushed my device into the senior citizens home by releasing the ipad 4 so quick. Although reading about the graphics issue now makes it clear on why they did. Still frustrates me however.

Rene, you're the man.

Thanks so much for well detailed info.

As for me and my iPad 4 128GB .... I think I'll wait for the next one. ;)

I'm still rocking my old 64GB iPad 2 which does run iOS 7 decently but I can see the differences that my old iPad 2 can't reproduce vs. my iPhone 5.

Still with many games, it does a reasonable job keeping up with a bit of a hiccup once in a while due to the limited memory. I also use it as my digital photo album and it really looks awful without the retina display. So I've been trying to find a large capacity iPad 4.

The largest frustration is while there are plenty for sale, a vast majority are the entry level 16GB models. I really wish Apple would get with the times and make 32GB models as the base line as apps get much larger even for the simplest games. The average quality non freemium game easily can reach over 2GB of storage and with a 16GB model you're only allowed 13GB of precious limited storage.

When I bought my iPad 2 years ago I had this issue on my mind and decided the largest capacity was the best move. Selling it to upgrade though has proven quite the challenge as many offers I get are the same for those trying to unload a 16 Gig iPad 2 or even the first gen.

I may be stuck with it I fear as the prices offered by recycling companies are laughable. I'd rather trade it for a Nexus 7 than be robbed like that knowing well that I can get more if only I can find the right buyer.

Still have my original box, charger and 30 pin cable, black leather Smart Cover (with its original box), and it's been very well cared for. Is asking $425 firm for all that far too much? Or do I have my hopes too high for my 64GB in black.

I have an iPad 3 and while I know the Air is better in nearly every way, my uses don't really justify upgrading just yet. It runs iOS 7 just fine with the tiniest of lag, and I really only use it to browse the web, watch videos, use iWork apps and light gaming. So far with all those things I don't think I really need to spend the $5-600 dollars for the performance upgrade. I will definitely be looking forward to the iPad Air 2 or whatever they call it as my iPad 3 will almost definitely be running like a car stalling out on the freeway with iOS 8. My iPhone is a completely different story as it is my daily runner for everything and I want it to be the latest and greatest with everything I do. I kept my iPhone 5 in a case in pristine condition and sold it for about $475 and used that money to upgrade early to the iPhone 5S without spending a penny.

I love my Mini but it has gotten sort of sluggish since updating to iOS7. I'm really looking forward to that blazing fast A7! Plus, I read quite a bit on my Mini so the Retina display will be the icing on the cake.

Wow, I just don't get it. Just writing this comment is the most painful of experiences now that my iPad3 is running iOS7. I am not a gamer, but read email, browse the web, watch some videos, use Flipboard, and some various apps. EVERYTHING is soooo much slower. Apps crash all the time. Makes me wonder what universe you other iPad 3 users are in? For the first time, even items like podcasts, Netflix, Hulu, etc are pausing all the time or crashing. IOS 7 turned my 3 into a paperweight. I actually started looking at a Fire HDX I am so upset with Apple. My iPhone 5s runs iOS7 just fine.

Maybe you're the one in another universe because the consensus seems to be that the performance on the ipad 3 is fine.

Jumping from the iPad 3 to the mini with retina. I held out a year for the retina mini and Apple even threw in the same A7 chip found in the Air. My only gripe is that they raised the price $70 but I believe they know a retina mini with all the same internals as the Air at $329 was a recipe for severe cannibalization of the $499 Air. I'm even gonna grab the $69 smart case...damn you Apple...for making products I like! I did give the Surface 2 a look but it's just not there yet imo. Would love to see Microsoft's take on a Surface mini.

I have an iPad 3, nothing wrong with it, but giving it to my mum for a small fee (she insisted, would not do it otherwise)
And pre-ordered the iPad Mini with Retina. Always liked the iPad mini original, but now its got a retina display & the same hardware as the iPad Air, how can you say no :-)
Its going to be interesting reading comixology on it.

I have an iPad mini and quite satisfied with it , but cant help but tempt for the newer models.. Can you please help Me decide between the ipad air and the ipad mini with retina display .