You want the world's best tablet. Great! But which one of the world's best tablets is actually the best?
The decision was easy when the iPad Mini was a cut-down version of the real deal: you paid more, you got more. But now, the iPad Mini with Retina Display squares up to the bigger iPad Air with a dangerously similar spec sheet. And the iPad with Retina Display - henceforth referred to as the iPad 4 - has risen from the dead, at a cheaper price to make things even more complicated. This is going to be a close call.
The Mini Retina is the cheapest of the three, as you'd expect, with the 16GB Wi-Fi version going for a mere £320. But with the same model iPad 4 now selling for £330, that's just £10 extra for a whole lot more screen space. The iPad Air, meanwhile, will set you back a fair whack more: £400 for the equivalent model.
The iPad 4 is only available in the 16GB variety, but spec up the Mini Retina and Air and the percentage difference between them decreases. So while a 128GB cellular Mini is yours for £660, the same spec Air costs £740.
Bearing in mind depreciation, the regular refreshment of the iPad range and the vulnerability of mobile hardware, it might be wise to think twice before you splash out more than £600 on a tablet. For our money, the 32GB and 64GB Wi-Fi variants offer comfortable levels of storage without excessive financial investment, but if you can manage with just 16GB, the iPad 4 is undoubtedly the best value iPad now available.
Winner: iPad 4
DESIGN AND BUILD
The Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display and iPad Air share the same external design DNA, inherited from the original iPad Mini. Now, the only apparent difference between the small and big iPads is the surface area. The Mini Retina has a 7.9in display while the Air's screen is 9.7in across the diagonal. Both are just 7.5mm thick.
The poor old iPad 4 sticks with its relatively retro-looking and hefty build in comparison - it's 652g compared to the Air's svelte 469g. This is a tablet you might leave at home but it's still sturdy and perfectly finished.
The wide black frame of the iPad 4 has been reduced substantially on the longer sides of the Air. Because it's much thinner than big iPads of yore, the Air no longer has to do the tapered edge trick, instead sporting a more squared-off edge, identical to the Mini Retina.
Both the Air and Mini Retina are available in either 'Space Grey' (with a black frame) or 'Silver' (with a white frame), shrouded in a single-part aluminium case. The iPad 4 has to make do with the less exciting 'black' or 'white', which is apt considering its similarly prosaic design.
There's really nothing between the two newer tablets on this score. The iPad Mini is slightly more of a take-anywhere tablet due to its dinky size, but ultimately we'll call this one a tie.
Winner: draw - iPad Mini with Retina and iPad Air
Three Retina display tablets but they're not identical. Between the iPad 4 and iPad Air, it's the same resolution and 9.7in size but there are small differences in colour and contrast. The Air's colours are very vivid - check out iOS 7 icons - and it's a slightly brighter, crisper screen.
The Mini doesn't lag behind on pixel specs, sharing its 2048x1536 resolution with the two full-sized iPads. That's dense enough to make pixel edges invisible to most eyes on the iPad Air and iPad 4, but the Mini Retina beats that (for what it's worth) with an even greater pixel density due to its smaller screen size.
The Mini's screen is excellent, but the Air has more accurate colour reproduction, with the Mini struggling with some hues, reds in particular. Even though that's not something you're likely to notice unless you have a trained eye, together with the increased display area it means the Air should be the first choice for anyone heavily into graphics or video work. Indoors it's quite practical and comfortable on any of the three to reduce the brightness slider by as much as 50%, which will help stretch out the already impressive battery life.
Winner: iPad Air
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The iPad 4 has to find room for a pretty fat battery in order to drive its screen for ten hours, but somehow the Air has just as much stamina despite its slimmer chassis. Not only that, but it charges in less time too. In real terms that means it doesn't need a full night plugged into the mains to get back to 100%.
In our real-life tests, the Air is averaging between one and two days before it needs rejuicing. The Mini Retina makes the same 10-hour battery life claims, which are realistic, but in our experience it doesn't quite match the two bigger models for real-world stamina.
Winner: iPad Air
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POWER AND SPECS
It's another close fight here between the Mini and Air.
Both have a 64-bit A7 processor, but the Air's is very slightly faster, running at 1.4GHz compared to the Mini's 1.3GHz. Both are powerful enough to keep apps and the OS running very smoothly most of the time. Elsewhere they're neck-and-neck with dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, the same cameras front and back (720p, 1.2MP and 1080p 5MP respectively), gyroscope, accelerometer and ambient light sensors in common.
On paper, the iPad 4 trails both on account of its A6X chip, but don't let that put you off too much. Yes, it misses out on some 64-bit optimisation in apps, but it's otherwise just as fluid in use and frankly, we're yet to meet an unreliable iPad of any kind.
Winner: draw - iPad Mini Retina and iPad Air
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All three iPads have something to offer you, depending on your priorities.
On price alone, it's a straight choice between the £320 Mini Retina and £330 iPad 4. If you don't intend to store much in the way of video and music, the 16GB of storage you'll get on either is just about enough to allow you to enjoy the world of iOS on a budget, and both have lovely Retina screens and plenty of power. Deciding between them is pretty much a simple case of do you need to travel light, or do you want the extra screen real estate you'd get from the iPad 4.
If you want the absolute best iPad you can get, however, with money no object, the iPad Air has to be the winner.
The additional screen space it offers over the Mini Retina gives you the freedom to get the most out of the best apps, which is surely one of the main reasons you're looking at an iPad at all, while its added whiff of luxury will permeate your existence for a long time to come.
Winner: iPad Air
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