16GB vs. 32GB vs. 64GB vs. 128GB: Which iPad Air or Retina iPad mini storage capacity should you get?

2013 iPad buyers guide: How to choose the perfect 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, or 128GB iPad Air or Retina iPad mini for you!

Apple offers four different storage sized options for the new iPad Air and Retina iPad mini, ranging from a paltry 16GB to an enormous 128GB - literally 8 times the capacity! Every step up in capacity, however, comes with a matching $100 step up in price. That might seem like a pretty straightforward bit of math, but it really isn't! Figuring out how much storage you really need, and how much you can afford is really important. It's the difference between a great experience and a lot of frustration. So, here's the deal!

iPad price per gigabyte breakdowns

iPad price points, like all of Apple's iOS device price points, are based on storage size. While it may seem like the price per gigabyte gets cheaper once you start going up, that's not always the case. You can see the U.S. prices above.

At first glance it might look like the 128GB iPad Air and 128GB Retina iPad mini offer eight times (8x) the storage of the 16GB models for less than twice the price - $499 vs. $799 for the iPad Air, $399 vs. $699 for the Retina iPad mini. Typically, however, the 16GB model has the lowest margins for Apple, and as you step up in storage, they step up in profitability. Think of it this way, going from 16GB to 32GB costs you $100. Go look at the cost of a 16GB SD card and you'll see how much more you're paying for that bump. Now, the $300 premium for an additional 112GB of i storage is more interesting, but is it $300 more interesting? (Hey, that's why Apple has over $100 billion in the bank!) Here's how the cost per gigabyte breaks down for both the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini, Wi-Fi versions.

  • 16GB: $31.19/$24.94
  • 32GB: $18.72/$15.59
  • 64GB: $10.92/$9.36
  • 128GB: $6.24/$5.46

So, while the higher-end iPads make Apple the most money, they also cost you the least per gigabyte of storage. But how much do you really need, and where do you need it?

Local vs. Cloud storage

Everything you need to know about Apple's iCloud -- PC-free, iTunes in the Cloud, iTunes Match, Photo Stream, Documents in the Cloud, Find my iPhone, Find my Friends, and more!

Apple's iCloud gives you free, unlimited storage for all your iTunes stuff. That includes iBooks, music, movies, TV shows, and apps, as well as 30 days or 1000 Photo Stream photos. You also get 5GB of additional storage for backups, data, etc. In many countries, you can use iTunes in the Cloud to download your media only when, and as needed. You can even purchase more iCloud storage for the following yearly fees:

  • 10GB: $20/year
  • 20GB: $40/year
  • 50GB: $100/year

Beyond iCloud, there are also other options like Dropbox, Box.net, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, and more. All of these cloud storage services might make the 16GB iPad all the more tempting. You might think iCloud can let you keep most of your apps and media nearline, and re-download them only when you need to, so they don't take up precious storage on your device. You might also think Dropbox can let you keep documents and photos similarly available just-in-time rather than all-the-time.

It's not a crazy idea but it's important to remember that online/nearline storage isn't always as available, fast, or convenient as onboard storage. For starters, you can't really play a movie from iCloud, you have to download it before hand watch it, which means it takes a lot of time and you have to have enough space available on your iPhone to handle the download. If you want to watch a lot of movies, you may have to watch, delete, watch, delete, over and over again. Annoying. The same goes for any large download - like 1GB+ games! - or many small downloads, like podcasts and music.

So cloud storage means you can get away with managing more content on your device than you could otherwise, but it also means you still want to have enough local storage for what you need, when you need it.

Photos and videos

Photoristic HD for iPad is a great canvas for basic to semi-advanced photo editing

The iPad Air and Retina iPad mini can both take 5 megapixel photos and shoot 1080p video at 30fps. Those can be some big files. About an hour of 1080p video can take up roughly 10GB of storage. 16GB doesn't seem so roomy now, does it?

Is the iPad going to be your primary camera? If so, running out of space all the time can be very annoying, and it's a huge pain in the butt to have to go through and figure out which memories and special moments you have to delete in order to capture more. So if you're really into the camera, 16GB might not work.

Apps, games, and media

Apps and especially games can also take up a lot of space on your iPad. It's not uncommon for some console-quality games to be well over 1GB in size these days. Even basic apps might include interface assets for iPhone and iPad, standard and Retina, (and now call up frameworks that might be 32- and 64-bits!). Those are some super-fat binaries!

iTunes movies can be 1-3GB in size for SD depending on the length. If you prefer watching HD, they can be 3-6GB. iTunes TV shows can be a quarter to half the size of movies, but more than make up for it by the number of episodes typically available. If you get your movies and TV shows from somewhere other than iTunes, you're still looking at about 400MB an hour for SD and over 1GB (sometimes way over) an hour for HD. Music files are generally quite small but can add up as well, especially if you have lots and lots of albums you want to keep with you everywhere. Even with something like iTunes Match or a similar music locker service, or a streaming service, you need local storage for offline playback. Again, it all adds up.

Who should get 16GB?

If you don't use a lot of apps, if you don't want to have a lot of movies and TV shows, or a huge amount of music, if you don't intend to shoot and keep very much 8mp photos or 1080p video on your iPad, you'll probably be okay with 16GB.

Some people like to keep their iPads light and do all their gaming and media on their traditional computers, and some people just don't do a lot with their iPads period. If that's you, you can save yourself some cash and get a 16GB iPad Air or Retina iPad mini.

But we don't recommend it.

Who should get 32GB?

If the iPad is your primary computing device, if you play games on it and watch movies and TV shows on it, if you have a decent-sized music collection you want to keep with you, and if you shoot an average amount of photos and videos, 32GB is your sweet spot.

Some people like to have one device that, while it doesn't do everything all the time, it's capable enough to do most things most of the time. If you do a fair but not overwhelming amount of stuff on your iPad Air or Retina iPad mini, you're better off going for 32GB.

Who should get 64GB?

If you're a power user who wants to keep as much as possible for as long as possible, if you have a large amount of apps and games, TV shows and movies, and a huge music collection you simply have to have with you all the time, or you shoot photos and video almost non stop and don't want to have to bother transferring it all the time 64GB is a reasonable option.

Some people really do want their iPad to do everything, all of the time, and never (or rarely) have to worry about running out of space. For most people, 64GB will do that, and more.

Who should get 128GB?

Who're we kidding? If you want 128GB, you already know it. You're an audiophile who wants to keep absolutely everything, you're a video collector who wants to travel with enough entertainment to last around the world and back, you're a gamer who wants every single game all in one place - you're an alpha geek. And for you, 128GB is already on order.

For the person who wants everything - and by everything I mean everything - only 128GB will do.

Still undecided?

Most places have return policies, so make sure, as soon as possible, you put your new iPad through realistic paces. Load up all the apps and games you want with you, load up your movies and TV shows, go out and take some photos and shoot some video. Give it a complete and thorough workout and see. If it feels like you got too much storage, say 64GB and you haven't even gone past 2GB, or if you got too little, say you're already at 63GB of 64GB, then take your iPad back and exchange it for one that better suits your needs.

If you come to this realization too late, after the exchange period is over, remember you can buy additional iCloud storage, or look at other options like Dropbox which will let you keep your stuff available online and potentially free up some much needed space on your iPad.

If you're still not sure about 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB, jump into our iPad discussion forums and the best community in mobile will happily help you out. Once you've decided, let me know - which iPhone, and which size, did you go with and why?


Senior Editor at iMore and a practicing therapist specializing in stress and anxiety. She speaks everywhere from conferences to corporations, co-host of Vector and Isometric podcasts, follow her on Twitter @Georgia_Dow and check out her series at anxiety-videos.com.