5 Reasons to Buy the iPad Air, 5 for the Retina iPad Mini and 5 to Buy Neither

Time to buy one? Upgrade your existing model? Wait for better? Let's talk tablets.

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Words to which you can append the letters “er”: light, thin, fast, cheap. Apple checked those boxes and more at its prosaically dubbed “Special Event” Tuesday afternoon, trotting out retooled laptops, souped up tablets and a new hard-to-top price for OS X along with several key apps, as in “nada.”

While the new iPads don’t cost nada, the starting price for an iPad is the cheapest it’s ever been — as little as $300 for a 16GB iPad Mini. An extra $100 fetches a new 16GB iPad Mini with a 7.9-inch Retina display and internal specs every bit the equal of the svelte new 9.7-inch A7-powered iPad Air.

Time to buy one? Upgrade your existing model? Wait for better? Let’s talk tablets.

Herewith, the arguments for the iPad Air:

You don’t have an iPad, you’ve been thinking about buying an iPad and you want a hunka hunka burnin’ iPad.

The iPad Air represents Apple’s best and brightest slate: a monster future-proof 64-bit processor, a beautiful 2048-by-1536 Retina display, an aluminum shell that’s 20% thinner than its predecessor with a 43% narrower bezel when held in portrait mode. It’s lost roughly 33% of the prior model’s weight, dropping from 1.4 pounds to just 1 pound, and it’s loaded with a slew of newly gratis productivity apps, from Apple’s Pages to Numbers to Keynote — the entire iWork suite — as well as iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand.

It’s more than a little better than the iPad 2.

See that 16GB iPad 2 still inexplicably listed on the Apple Store for $400? Don’t buy it. I mean it — steer clear at all costs. Maybe Apple made too many and needs to burn through its overstock. Maybe the company’s nuts, who knows. If Apple’s now two-and-a-half year old second-gen iPad were $100, or $200 at most, there’d be an argument. But the differences here, from size to weight and screen resolution to internal specs are stark — worth a lot more than the relatively trivial $100 delta Apple’s charging for the 16GB iPad Air.

$100 is a pittance for two extra inches of sweet, sweet diagonal.

The price difference between the iPad Air and iPad Mini with Retina display is $100, whatever price tier you’re eyeballing storage- or cellular-wise. The Air and Retina Mini are identical in all other aspects save one: diagonal screen size — the iPad Air is nearly 10 inches, the iPad Mini nearly eight. The weight difference is inconsequential: an all but indiscernible quarter of a pound. Because the Retina Mini squeezes the same number of pixels into a smaller glass-top area, it wins for overall pixel density, but riddle me this: Would you rather play games like XCOM: Enemy UnknownInfinity Blade III or Battle of the Bulge on an 8- or 10-inch diagonal fondleslab?

You’re planning to use it as your primary workstation.

This dovetails with the last point: you’ll really, really appreciate that extra screen real estate if you’re planning to use this as a laptop or desktop replacement. Your eyes will thank you if you’re planning to sit for five, six, seven or eight hours on end, tapping a 10-inch screen (instead of an 8-inch one) or typing away on a keyboard staring at the screen in a stand. If the Mini’s really more your speed size-wise, fair enough, but don’t overlook the ergonomic advantages of that 23% screen real estate increase.

You have to have the coolest new toy. Because? Because.

You know who you are. You have to have one of everything, sometimes two. The iPad Air is Apple’s fastest, sleekest iPad yet, thinner and lighter than its predecessor and sporting Apple’s insanely fast A7 processor as well as M7 co-processor, bringing it in line with the iPhone 5s. You want headroom. You want geek status. You have money to burn, and your bank account answers to no one but you.

And now, the Retina iPad Mini:

The screen is much better than before.

The difference between the fourth-gen iPad and iPad Mini were clear, most visible in the ginormous gulf between screen resolutions: the fourth-gen iPad’s was 2048-by-1536, the iPad Mini’s was a comparably anemic 1024-by-768. It’s now been bumped up to 2048-by-1536 and, as noted earlier, your pixel density’s technically highest on the Retina Mini.

It’s the iPad Air, two inches smaller.

The Retina iPad Mini is basically just a 23% smaller (screen-wise) iPad Air. You still get the same A7 processor, the same cameras and video recording options — the whole caboodle. Is $100 worth trading those two inches? See above, but the argument could just as well swing the other way if portability’s your watchword. And speaking of…

You want to haul it around in a small bag or purse.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it so you have the exact specs: a 7.87-by-5.3-inch device (the Retina iPad Mini) is going to fit a tick easier into smaller bags or purses than a 9.4-by-6.6-inch one (the iPad Air). True, we’re talking a slight 1.5-by-1.3-inch difference, but when you’re playing the cram-it-in game, every sub-inch counts.

If you’re already an iPad Mini owner, accessory box checked.

The iPad Air is different enough size-wise to require new accessories, especially covers. If you’re an accessory-flush iPad Mini owner and you’re eyeballing the Retina iPad Mini, on the other hand, since the physical dimensions are the same, you’re golden.

That $100 delta pays for peripherals.

The flip side of the “$100 is a pittance for two extra inches of sweet, sweet diagonal” point above: the $100 you save picking up a Retina iPad Mini could pay for a Smart Cover or Case, an Apple TV, a camera adapter, a wireless keyboard and so on.

And finally, the arguments for buying neither:

You’re waiting for a bigger tablet, bundled with some sort of keyboard.

You say MacBook Air, I say MacBook Pro. You say iPad Air, I say don’t be so conspicuous about what’s next, Apple. Maybe we’re crazy for thinking in terms of Boolean if-then logic, but everyone’s betting on an “iPad Pro” next go-round, given the iPad Air. Imagine a tablet with a bundled wireless keyboard (as part of a bundled cover or otherwise). Imagine a much bigger gorilla glass screen, say something in the 13-inch diagonal range. Imagine something that’s notably higher resolution (to keep the pixels per inch count in Retina territory). And imagine that finally being substantial enough to nudge laptop/tablet fence-riders.

Where’s the fingerprint sensor?

This really belongs in its own section, something like “reasons not to not buy an iPad.” But I can already hear the analysts and everyone else who mistook the iPhone 5s’ fingerprint sensor for innovative or consequential groaning out a “But…no fingerprint sensor!” If that includes you, then yes, the new iPads lack fingerprint readers, so if that’s a deal-breaker, nothing to see here, move along.

802.11a/b/g/n? My turtle’s faster!

No, it’s really not, but yes, 802.11a/b/g/n isn’t 802.11ac, which Apple did include with its new Retina MacBook Pros as well as its server-class Mac Pro. And yes, technically speaking 802.11ac is a whole lot faster than 802.11n — 1.3 Gbit/s versus 450 Mbit/s respectively if we’re playing the theoretical maximums game. Sure, maybe two or three people in the universe actually need that kind of speed, but if you’re one of them, these new iPads aren’t for you.

You don’t want to work in the cloud.

The iPad — like most thinner-client tablets — is increasingly a cloud device. Apple’s newly free apps now have cloud-based substructures. You can work around this in some cases, but iPad users are being not so much nudged as gently shoved into Apple’s cloud-space. I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing, just that it’s a caveat if you’re bound and determined to keep your data local.

You need to use apps that haven’t been tablet-fied.

Music editing DAWs like Logic Pro X, high-end photo and video editing suites, games like World of Warcraft or StarCraft II or anything that lives on Steam — these don’t exist in tablet-dom. Even if Apple rolled out a bigger tablet, they’d be M.I.A. The audience for traditional laptop/desktop apps may in some cases be willing to trade down for less elaborate or sophisticated tablet app analogues that get the job done, but if you won’t or can’t make those compromises, don’t worry: Apple CEO Tim Cook says Apple “still [believes] deeply in this category and we’re not slowing down on our innovation.”