Which iPad should I buy?

There are lot of options and there's probably no perfect answer - but we'll try to help

For a product not yet out of toddlerhood, the iPad sure comes in an awful lot of variations. With the new iPad mini and the fourth-generation iPad each unveiled this week, and with the iPad 2 still on sale, potential customers are faced with more iPad questions than ever: Should you get an iPad? If so, which model? And after you decide on a model, which size? And should you buy one with cellular connectivity?

That's a lot of questions. We'll address them - and a few others - one by one. Before we dive in too deep, here's a quick spoiler: Which iPad is right for you depends on what you need, and there's no one perfect answer. But we can at least run down the right points to consider before you decide whether to lighten your wallet, and if so, by how much.

Do I need a new iPad?

I love my iPad. And I'm not alone, either: Apple CEO Tim Cook reported earlier this week that customers keep buying iPads because existing iPad owners love the tablets so much.

That said, I'm not convinced anyone out there truly needs an iPad. More than a computer, the iPad still feels like a luxury device: You can derive great joy from one, but need is a strong bar. The exception: If you have to replace an older Mac, and your computing requirements are simple--email, Web browsing, word processing, games, and the like--you can probably eschew a replacement Mac and rely on a new iPad instead.

Should I buy an iPad?

This is an easier question to answer, in theory. If you want an iPad, and if you can find an iPad that fits your budget, then sure, you should buy an iPad.

If you already own an iPad, the issue gets more complicated. If you own an original, first-generation iPad, the sorry truth is that your tablet from April 2010 is getting a little long in the tooth. Yes, it's still a fine iPad; despite its lack of a Retina display, it works well, runs apps, and can multitouch with the best of them.

The problem, however, is that your original iPad can't run iOS 6. Already, some popular apps require iOS 6 as their base operating system, and that trend won't abate. If you're not already encountering apps that you can't update or install on your iPad, then you can probably squeeze more time out of the device. But if you're frustrated by your inability to install certain apps--or to avail yourself of the many new features built into iOS 6--with your original iPad, now is as good a time as any to upgrade.

Many existing iPad owners may lust after the new iPad mini. Apple would certainly love for them to buy that new, 7.9-inch tablet. But Apple's key aim with the iPad mini is to attract buyers who don't yet have an iPad. Unless you're constantly bemoaning your current 10-inch iPad's size or weight, the case for existing iPad owners to buy an iPad mini is tough to make. And unless your family could benefit from an additional iPad--or you're a gadget hound for whom money is no object--you may want to sit this release out.

I have the third-generation iPad. Should I buy the fourth-generation version now?

Probably not. Your third-generation iPad is the same powerful, Retina-display-sporting iPad it was a week ago. Sure, the fourth-generation iPad boasts a faster processor and further improved Wi-Fi speeds. Remember, though, your third-generation iPad is no slouch--in fact, it's downright speedy.

Predicting Apple's plans and being right 100 percent of the time is impossible, but this week's fourth-generation iPad release is most likely an indicator that Apple is shifting the tablet's release cycle from March to October. It can't hurt that an October release pushes the new product out in time for the holiday season. In other words, you probably needn't fear that yet another new iPad will show up in March of next year; we'll probably have to wait until October 2013 for the fifth-generation iPad to appear.

I have an iPod touch or an iPhone. Isn't the iPad mini redundant?

Nope! Your iPhone and iPod touch run iPhone apps. The iPad mini runs iPad apps. Yes, when Apple first unveiled the iPad, people called it a big iPod touch, and the iPad mini is a smaller big iPod touch. But they're different devices, geared toward different uses.

I'm buying a new iPad. Should I pick the fourth-gen, the iPad mini, or the iPad 2?

Frankly, I think it's increasingly difficult to make a compelling argument for buying the iPad 2. The iPad 2 starts at $399; the iPad mini starts at $329. Internally, every spec on the iPad mini matches or surpasses what the iPad 2 offers, and it costs less money. You sacrifice a couple inches of screen real estate, but the iPad mini released in 2012 will surely support more iOS releases than the iPad 2 first released in 2011. The forward-thinking purchase is the more powerful iPad mini--if cost is a key concern for you.

The fourth-generation iPad starts at $499. If you don't mind spending the $170 difference between the iPad mini and the fourth-generation iPad, this model is certainly worth considering: It's the fastest, most powerful iPad that Apple has made to date. Just as the iPad mini will surely outlive the iPad 2, the fourth-generation iPad's beefier internals suggest that it could outlive the iPad mini.

If instead you prefer the smaller size, easier portability, and one-handed use of the iPad mini, it may well be the better option, so long as you won't begrudge its lack of a Retina display.

I know which iPad I want. Which size should I buy? Do I need the cellular option?

You can't upgrade your iPad's storage; you buy what you buy, and you don't get to cry. My advice is consistent: Buy as much storage as you can afford. The base model of each iPad comes with 16GB; the 32GB model is available for $100 more, and the 64GB model costs $200 more. In the case of the fourth-generation iPad, the costs are $499, $599, and $699 for 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB respectively. The iPad mini versions are $329, $429, and $529.

Apps are getting bigger and bigger. If you don't use iTunes Match, your music library can take up a lot of space, too. And if you sync your photos and movies to the iPad, now we're talking serious gigabytes. Quite simply, in my case 16GB is too confining on an iOS device these days. With iTunes Match and aggressive photo deletion (after syncing those photos to my Mac), I find that 32GB works fine for me right now. I only hope that Apple increases the iPad's base storage before even 32GB gets too tight.

Adding cellular data options to your iPad also adds $130 to its cost. A $499 16GB fourth-generation iPad costs $629 with a cellular option added on--and that's before you start paying for the data itself. Whether you want a cellular-equipped iPad will depend on how you intend to use it. I do just fine with my laptop and its Wi-Fi-only access to the Internet, so I've never been let down by a Wi-Fi-only iPad. My third-generation iPad has cellular connectivity, and I've never used the feature in the half-year I've owned the device.

But you might not be like me. If you want your iPad online wherever you are, remember that--as with storage--built-in cellular connectivity is a now-or-never option. If you'll ever want it, you need to buy an iPad that supports it.

Wrap it up for me, Lex: What's the final word?

In short, if you want an iPad and can afford an iPad, buy one. If you crave portability and don't sweat Retina displays--or if budget is a key concern--the iPad mini is your best option. Don't choose the iPad 2.

Purchase as much storage as you can afford, and get cellular connectivity only if you intend to use your device regularly while away from reliable Wi-Fi.

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