There's a simple reason why the 10.2-inch iPad — known simply as "iPad" — is Apple's most popular tablet: it's less expensive than all the rest. Apple sells it for just $329 but schools and students can buy it for even less.
Despite its popularity, however, it's not the entry-level iPad most people should buy. That honor falls on Apple's new iPad Mini, a tablet I've been testing since its launch in mid-September.
Credit where it's due, of course. Apple's starter iPad a perfectly good tablet for people who just want to stream movies and shows, check email and casually browse the web. But it looks, feels and works like an iPad from yesteryear.
Apple used the tried-and-true tactic of sticking updated guts (new processor, new front-facing camera and double the base storage) in an old design, meaning the iPad is bound by old technologies, like Lightning charging, a Home button and large bezels and compatibility with the first-generation Apple Pencil. None of that is very exciting.
The iPad Mini flips the script by adopting the new-age design of Apple's more expensive tablets — squared-off sides, flat edges, slimmer bezels, a display that takes up most of its front, and support for USB-C charging. Despite its size, it has basically the same look, feel and feature-set as the 2020 iPad Air. Now, that is exciting.
Every iPad model that Apple sells these days has support for an Apple Pencil. But if you desire to draw — and draw seriously — then the iPad mini is where you want to start. Not only does it support Apple's second-generation stylus (which is better in pretty much every way), but it works in tandem with the iPad mini's Liquid Retina display so that it feels like you're actually drawing on the surface. On the 10.2-inch iPad's regular (non-Liquid) Retina display, it shows a slight separation between the tip of your first-generation Apple Pencil and what you're drawing. It's subtle, but definitely noticeable.
If you watch a lot of videos or listen to music, then the iPad Mini remains a better bet. It has a true stereo speaker system with left and right channel speakers on either side of its display (but only in landscape mode), whereas the cheaper 10.2-inch iPad only has one speaker. This makes a big difference in sound quality, whether you're watching YouTube videos or playing a mobile game on Apple Arcade, if you're not listening to headphones.
Then there's the size of the iPad Mini, which isn't just adorable but feels really nice in your hands. Compared to previous generations of the iPad Mini, the screen of the new model is bigger (8.3-inches versus 7.9-inches), so you get a lot more screen in a small space. Think of it as a bigger, cheaper iPhone.
The main downside to the new iPad Mini (as it relates to the 2020 iPad Air) is that you're not going to use it like a computer. It's too small to be compatible with Apple's fancy Magic Keyboard ($329), which has the same great keyboard as the new MacBooks, and there just aren't very many great keyboards that work with it.
It also costs $499. That's not a significant leap from the iPad's $329 sticker price, but it's no small bump, either.
The new iPad Mini sits smack-dab in the middle of Apple's lineup. It's not as affordable or outdated as the 10.2-inch iPad. It's not as fancy or expensive as the most recent iPad Air and iPad Pros. And it's not as big any as any of them. But it packs a lot of punch in that small body, making it a great iPad for, well, just about everybody.
And because the Mini has a modern design and latest chipset, you know Apple will support it with software updates for years and years to come.