Person hält iPad in der Hand

An iPad buying guide for 2021

One of the most important questions that arises for paperless studies is that of note-taking. Tablets are generally a good solution for this. This article takes a specific look at Apple’s offering. An iPad buying guide for 2021.

I first wrote this article in May 2018. And then again pretty much exactly a year ago. In both previous versions (the most recent of which is included linked here), I tried to be as comprehensive as possible in mapping out the various options, and in particular to include the Microsoft Surface line.

This time I’ve decided differently. I will only write about iPads in the next section. I simply don’t have the experience for Windows and Android devices and I don’t want to judge anything I haven’t used myself. Therefore, this article is about which iPad makes sense for university. But if you’re on the lookout, you should also take a look at Microsoft’s Surface line or Samsung’s tablets. In the past, Android tablets were usually not that great because the app offering was not good, especially in the productivity area. I can’t say whether that has changed in the meantime.

So if any manufacturer reads this and wants to send me a test model of a Microsoft or Android tablet, I’d love to try a tablet that isn’t made by Apple 😉

The obvious solution: laptops

But first, let’s take a brief look at the obvious solution: the laptop. If you look into any lecture hall, you will see many, many MacBooks (usually MacBook Airs), supplemented by one or two Samsung devices, rarely Lenovos or others.

That makes sense, since most people still prefer laptops, since tablets are not “real” computers. When it comes to taking notes, however, it’s the other way round. With the right practice, you can take notes very quickly, but when it comes to annotating slides, it becomes problematic. If you want to add a sketch or a diagram, you are quickly at a loss. Before you have copied such elements with mouse and keyboard, the professor has long since moved on to the next topic. It is therefore worthwhile to think more carefully about whether the laptop is still the most suitable solution for lectures or whether a tablet or convertible would make more sense.

However, I would like to say one thing: if the decision is laptop or tablet, I would still go for the laptop. There are certainly cases where you could get by with just a tablet. As a rule, however, a classic laptop is still the more universal solution and those who have to choose one should probably prefer the solution with which everything is at least feasible. The following sections are therefore aimed at all those who either still have a computer at home anyway, or at least somehow still have access to a classic computer when they need one.

It would go too far to do an extensive laptop comparison here, so I’ll leave it at pointing out my own current laptop: The M1 MacBook Air* from last year. Ever since Apple started building its own processor, the MacBook has had an almost ridiculously long battery life, is really fast, and since Apple’s hardware usually ages very well, you can definitely do an entire degree with it (yes, Bachelor and Master). And at currently 1400€ for the model with 512GB SSD, you can definitely consider this investment. In any case, I’m extremely satisfied.

The better solution: tablet with keyboard and pen

When it comes to diagrams/sketches/drawings, it turns out that not everything was worse in the past. With a little practice, almost anyone can get a usable diagram on paper in no time.

To be effective in this respect even without paper, I therefore recommend a combination of tablet, keyboard and corresponding stylus. This trio combines all the advantages: With a (Bluetooth) keyboard, you can take notes just as quickly as with a laptop keyboard. The pen allows you to draw or take notes directly by hand, and everything is directly digital, as it should be.

Of course, you can also use GoodNotes, for example, to annotate the lecture slides directly. I have described the best way to do this here.

Which iPad would you like to use?

So this is explicitly about which iPad I would recommend for university. However, years of experience have shown me that you can do a lot right with Apple’s tablets. They’re fast as hell, come with a host of great apps out of the box, are top-notch in terms of build quality and thus maintain their value – partly because they get software updates for many years. Moreover, high-quality apps like GoodNotes or LumaFusion are usually developed for iPadOS first and only secondarily for Android or Windows – and sometimes not at all. This is not meant to be an advertising block for Apple, but in my eyes they have simply been leading the tablet market for years.

So what is my current recommendation? The answer is somewhat differentiated. Apple currently has four models on offer: the iPad without a name suffix (8th generation, subsequently iPad 8) with a 10.2-inch display, the iPad Air (4th generation and 10.9 inches), the iPad Mini (5th generation, 7.9 inches) and the iPad Pro (5th generation, 11 or 12.9 inches). iPad 8 and iPad Mini only support the first generation Apple Pencil, Air and Pro also the new one. But even though the Pencil 2 does a lot better than its predecessor, both are great for digital note-taking and drawing, so the tablets don’t differ too much in this respect.

Display size as an important decision

The most important difference is display size. Here you have to know (or best try out in a shop) which display size you prefer. The normal iPad and the iPad Air are most likely to be the usual iPad size. If you want a large device that also allows you to easily display two documents at the same time, you have to go for the Pro. At the other end of the continuum is the Mini, which is more of a digital notepad, but may be interesting for that very reason.

In terms of performance, there is more than enough leeway with all versions. The Mini and the iPad 8 are the most likely to fall behind, as they “only” have the A12 chip, which is from 2018. However, if you don’t use the iPad for editing and exporting huge video files, this is not a problem at all.

The iPad Air, on the other hand, has the newer A14 Bionic chip and the Pro models even have the brand new M1 processor, which is also in the MacBook Air. So when it comes to processors, Apple doesn’t show any weaknesses; you’ll have fun with every model in this respect.

How much storage is necessary?

Once you have decided on a size, you should think carefully about how many gigabytes of internal storage you need. My rule of thumb here would be that 32 GB is too little, 64 GB can work and it becomes comfortable from 128 GB onwards. Just take a look at your smartphone and see how much internal memory you have, that should be a good indicator. If you want more than 128 GB, the iPad 8 is already out of the question, as you only have the choice between 32 GB (don’t buy it, far too little storage!!) for €379 and 128 GB (€479). With the Mini you can choose between 64 GB for €449 or 256 GB (€619) and with the Air the same (64 GB for €649 or 256 GB for €819). The two Pro models then have the widest choice. Here you can choose between 128 GB, 256 GB, 512 GB, 1 TB and even 2 TB.

Finally, you need to know whether you need LTE or whether Wifi is enough. For most people, Wifi will probably do, but only those who are really on the road a lot should think about LTE.

An external keyboard is really a necessity

Now that we have taken care of the inner values, let’s look at the accessories. The question of the stylus is quickly answered. For the Air and Pro, you take the second-generation Pencil, for the 8 or Mini, the first-generation Pencil. If you want to save a little and don’t need all the functions, you can also take a look at the Logitech Crayon. The only difference between the Apple Pencil and the Crayon is the pressure sensitivity. The Apple Pencil can recognise how much pressure you apply when writing or drawing, but the Crayon cannot. But it only costs €70 and not €99 (Gen. 1) or €135 (Gen. 2). You can also find both versions of the Pencil cheaper if you search for them on Amazon* or other online retailers.

It gets more confusing with a possible keyboard. In my experience, it is very helpful to have a keyboard for the iPad as well, because writing is much easier. The basic decision to be made here is whether you want a keyboard from Apple itself or one of the many variants from third-party manufacturers such as Logitech. It is impossible to make a recommendation because of the large number of products. Personally, I would stick to one of the big and established manufacturers like Microsoft, Brydge or Logitech and always choose a keyboard that is also a case/cover for the iPad, so that I have a ‘total package’ and not the iPad and another loose keyboard.

I’ve heard good things about the 1 BY ONE Bluetooth Keyboard*, for example, but I haven’t tested it myself yet (which would be just a keyboard and not a cover, oh well..). Logitech’s Slim Folio Keyboard*]8 might be interesting for those who want a keyboard and case in one.

Apple’s (expensive) solution

The second option is, of course, to use Apple’s own solution. What comes into question here again depends on the iPad chosen. Apple currently offers three models: the Smart Keyboard, the Smart Keyboard Folio and the Magic Keyboard.

Smart Keyboard and Smart Keyboard Folio are more or less the same product, except that the former is compatible with the old iPad design, which the iPad 8 still has. The Folio is then the choice for all iPads with the new design (flat edges, narrower borders), i.e. the iPad Pro and the iPad Air. However, Apple’s keyboards are not cheap. The Smart Keyboard currently costs €179 in the Apple Store, the Folio even €199. For that, typing on it is really fun. But of course you can also get one for much less money.

If that’s not enough, you can buy the Magic Keyboard for a whopping €339. For that you get a pretty sophisticated “hover mechanism” to attach the iPad to the keyboard and – much more important – a trackpad. But since that will probably only be of interest to very few people at this price, I’ll leave it at that.

For many, the focus should probably go to third-party suppliers like Logitech or 1 BY ONE anyway.

Digital transcripts: the iPad as a convincing solution

This article was only about iPads, Android or Microsoft tablets or convertibles were not considered due to my lack of experience. That’s not ideal, but I can say in good conscience that you won’t go wrong with an iPad in any case. Without advertising unnecessarily: In the tablet market, Apple sells the most devices for a reason. They are simply very, very good, durable and not that expensive – at least compared to the competition.

But which iPad would I recommend? If it’s just a matter of having a companion device to annotate slides in a lecture, for example, or to read texts for a seminar, then probably the iPad 8 with 128 GB memory for currently €479. You get a superbly manufactured tablet with a still fast processor and the option of using it with a keyboard and pen.

If you want a bit more of everything, including a larger colour selection, larger display and faster processor, you can go up a notch to the iPad Air. But since the price for 256 GB of storage is already €819, I think the extra price is only justified if you really have the money to spare and can derive real added value from one of the features.

Mini and Pro as edge cases

That leaves the iPad Pro and the Mini. Let’s start with the second-named. I can’t really recommend the Mini to anyone unless you absolutely want a very expensive notepad. Don’t get me wrong, the Mini is exciting in its own way. But because it’s so damn small (7.9″), you can hardly edit slides or PDFs on it in any meaningful way, which rather disqualifies it for everyday university use. Since the 256 GB version also costs a whopping €619, it’s probably out of the question for most people.

That leaves the Pro. Who is it for? I think, on the one hand, for those who only want to work with the iPad and want the absolute best that Apple is currently producing. From the M1 chip to the LiDAR sensor, 12MP camera and 5G, this tablet really has everything on board. And then of course there are those who would like a really big iPad. You can’t get the 12.9″ of the big iPad on any other tablet. However, even the smallest memory version (128 GB) costs 1200 €. And that is probably not within the realm of possibility for most students.

To help you decide, here is an overview of the four current models. By the way, you should always check with providers like MacTrade to see if you can get a discount. These are often available to students, especially at the start of the semester.

ModellDisplaygröße (in Zoll)ProzessorStift / TastaturSpeicherPreis (in €)
iPad Mini7.9A12Pencil 1. Gen / Bluetooth Tastaturen64GB449
iPad Mini7.9A12Pencil 1. Gen / Bluetooth Tastaturen256GB619
iPad 810.2A12Pencil 1. Gen / Smart Keyboard32GB379
iPad 810.2A12Pencil 1. Gen / Smart Keyboard128GB479
iPad Air10.9A14Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio64GB649
iPad Air10.9A14Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio256GB819
iPad Pro11M1Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio128GB879
iPad Pro11M1Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio256GB989
iPad Pro11M1Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio512GB1209
iPad Pro11M1Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio1TB1649
iPad Pro11M1Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio2TB2089
iPad Pro12.9M1Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio128GB1199
iPad Pro12.9M1Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio256GB1309
iPad Pro12.9M1Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio512GB1529
iPad Pro12.9M1Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart Keyboard Folio1TB1969
iPad Pro12.9M1Pencil 2. Gen / Magic Keyboard o. Smart

All prices refer to the Wifi option, not the LTE model. As of: 27.04.21, Source:

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Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

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