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Parenting Tip: Back to School guide for buying an iPad

Summer is waning, and the days of sitting in a classroom are drawing near. If you are looking for an iPad to help you take notes, organize your workflow or teach your children their ABCs, then read on as we have a handy rundown of the latest iPad models and some tips on buying the right one for your student.

iPad 101

Apple currently sells two iPad models, the 7.9-inch iPad mini and the 9.7-inch iPad with Retina display (fourth generation). Apple still sells the older third generation iPad and the iPad 2, but only as refurbished units. Because they are still useful for some schoolwork and will run iOS 7, I will include these older models as well as the new ones in this guide. Each iPad model is available in a less expensive WiFi-only configuration or as a WiFi + Cellular version that includes a cellular radio for convenient on-the-go usage. For a quick cheat sheet, you can check out this handy chart from Apple that compares the features of the iPad mini, iPad 2 and the iPad with Retina display (fourth generation).

Please note that the cellular iPads require a data plan from your wireless carrier in order to use them on the carrier's network. For example, I have a shared data plan on Verizon that gives me 6 GB of data each month. I pay an extra US$10 a month for my iPad to connect to Verizon's network and use this data allotment.

iPad mini -- The iPad mini was introduced in October 2012 and is the first iPad to break from the 9.7-inch form factor. It has a smaller 7.9-inch display with a very comfortable, but non-Retina 1024 x 768 resolution (163ppi) display. It's powered by the Apple A5 processor (1 GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 GPU) with 512 MB of RAM. The iPad mini is available in 16, 32 or 64 GB capacities. Prices start at $329 for the 16 GB, WiFi-only model and $459 for the 16 GB WiFi + Cellular unit.

iPad with Retina Display (fourth generation) The iPad fourth generation was introduced alongside the iPad mini in October of 2012. It's the big daddy of the iPad line with a 9.7-inch Retina display (2048x1536 pixels at 264 ppi). It's powered by the Apple A6X processor, which has a 1.4 GHz dual-core Apple Swift processor and a quad-core PowerVR SGX554MP4 GPU. It has 1024 MB of RAM. The iPad 4 is available in 16, 32, 64 or 128 GB capacities. Prices start at $499 for the 16 GB, WiFi-only model and $629 for the 16 GB WiFi + Cellular unit.

iPad with Retina display (third generation) -- The third generation iPad had a very short life span. It was introduced in early 2012 and was replaced by the iPad 4 in October of the same year. It was the first iPad to feature a high-resolution Retina display (2,048 × 1,536 pixels at 264 ppi). The iPad 3 is powered by the Apple A5X processor, which has a 1 GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and a quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4 GPU. It has 1024 MB of RAM. The iPad 3 is available in 16, 32 or 64 GB capacities. This model is discontinued by Apple and available only as a refurbished unit. Prices typically start at $379 for the 16 GB, WiFi-only model and $409 for the 16 GB, WiFi + Cellular unit.

iPad 2 -- The iPad 2 hit the market in early 2011 and is the oldest model iPad to still support iOS 7. Though it will be updated, some features like Siri are not available on the device. The iPad 2 is powered by the Apple A5 processor, which has a 1 GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and a dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 GPU. It has 512 MB of RAM. The iPad 2 is available in 16, 32 or 64 GB capacities. This model is discontinued by Apple and available only as a refurbished unit. Prices typically start at $319 for the 16 GB, WiFi-only model and $349 for the 16 GB WiFi + Cellular unit.

Which iPad Should I Buy?

Buying an iPad is very similar to buying a Mac, so I am going to break down the specific buying advice into groups based on schooling level. In general, you should consider first how you primarily are going to use the iPad as this will determine whether you need a WiFi-only model or a cellular model. Once you've determined the connectivity options, you can decide whether you need a newer model or an older, but still capable iPad 2 or 3. Price comes into play when deciding which capacity to buy, but I will offer this advice -- don't want to skimp on storage space. I bought a 16 GB WiFi+Cellular iPad mini and regret it immensely. I am always running out of space for my apps and music. Going forward, I will always buy at least a 32 GB device.

Pre-schoolers -- Pre-schoolers may be the most demanding about using the iPad (if you've ever taken away an iPad from an engaged three-year-old, you'll know what I mean), but they are the least demanding when it comes to hardware specs. This group is also the one most likely to break an iPad, which is why I recommend buying an iPad 3 or an iPad 2 for the tikes. The iPad 2/3 will run almost all the educational games in the App Store, and you won't have to lay down a lot of cash to get your child started with independent, tablet-based learning. Make sure you buy the WiFi-only model as these little ones won't need cellular access to play most of the learning games appropriate for their age.

I wouldn't worry about these older models becoming obsolete -- just find and install a core set of apps that teach letters, numbers, or colors and don't worry about the latest and greatest apps or features. Kids at this age enjoy using the same games over again, so you can get a few year's worth of usage out of an older device and 10-15 quality apps.

Many parents may be tempted to buy the less expensive iPad mini for this group, but I would recommend you stay away from the smaller iPad. The full-sized iPad is ideal for kid's games, which feature big on-screen elements that are suitable for the limited dexterity of these tots. Buttons, sprites and other on-screen elements are smaller on the iPad mini, which can make it more difficult for pre-schoolers to use.

Elementary Children -- The elementary group is better at taking care of an iPad, and they may want to use the tablet for entertainment as much as schoolwork. Consequently, I would buy an iPad 3 if you are concerned about cash and an iPad 4 if you can afford it. The iPad 4 will have the longest life span and give you the biggest bang for your buck. Similar to the pre-schoolers, I would avoid the iPad mini because this age group really benefits from the larger screen of the 9.7-inch iPad. Once again, stick with the WiFi-only models and get as much storage space as you can afford.

Junior and High School Students -- Deciding what iPad model to buy for this group really depends on the child. Older, more responsible kids would do well with an iPad 4, while the younger ones can get by with the iPad 3. The iPad mini is also a possibility if you are looking to save some cash. Besides being easier on your wallet, the iPad mini will be easier for students to carry in their backpack. Once again, stick with the WiFi-only models as most apps don't need an always-on Internet connection. If they do, there is likely a WiFi connection on the school campus or a hotspot nearby.

College Students -- Of all the students, college students will get the most out of an iPad. They can use it to take lecture notes, keep track of their schedule, contact classmates, play games and more. As a result, I would recommend the iPad 4 for this group. It is the latest and greatest iPad and will do everything they need. The iPad mini is another excellent option for students who want portability over a big screen. I've use the iPad mini extensively over the past year and it has been great for 90% of my tasks. It handles everything except drawing and long-form writing, which benefit from increased screen real estate.

If you can afford it, I would purchase the cellular model for the college-aged group. You don't have to activate the iPad on a cellular plan and can use it as a WiFi-only device that is connected to the college's WiFi network. The cellular capability could prove to be useful in the future as you never know when your student may need it. They could pick up an internship or participate in a school activity that requires them to travel off campus. In these cases, you could activate the cellular feature when needed and allow them to do their work when they are away from school.

Where to buy an iPad?

Apple retail stores offer the iPad mini and the iPad fourth generation in every configuration available. Prices are usually full retail, but Apple does offer back to school promotions. Right now, you can get a $50 App Store gift card when you buy a new iPad with Retina display or iPad mini. Best of all, you can walk out of the Apple store with all the accessories and support you need.

Customers looking for a cellular model can visit their carrier's retail store or online storefront. Pricing will be full retail, but you will be able to activate the device on the cellular network and sign up for a data plan at the same time you buy your device. Other retailers like Target, Walmart, Amazon, Best Buy, Staples, Radio Shack and more carry select iPad models. Pricing is usually similar to Apple stores, but these retailers can discount the iPad during sales. Sales are few and far between, but they do happen -- you just have to watch for them and be ready to buy when prices fall. Dealnews is a great place to watch for savings as they have a dedicated category for the iPad.

If you are looking for a used iPad, you can visit Apple's refurbished and clearance store. Apple sells refurbished iPad 4, iPad 3, iPad 2 and iPad mini units. If the refurbished units at Apple are too pricey, you can also check out eBay. Prices on the auction site are less expensive than retailers and they fluctuate more. The best time to buy is right around an Apple product launch as customers are eager to sell their older device to get money to buy the new model. Apple hasn't formally announced any new iPad hardware for this year, so you may have to wait a while to catch one of these fire sales.

Craigslist is another place to shop for iPads, but be cautious when you buy from someone you don't know. Be on guard for robbery attempts and fraudulent sellers. There are reports of people getting mugged during a sale, and people receiving books and other items instead of an iPad. Meet in a public place during the day, go with a friend and always check the box before you hand over the cash.

Accessories, AppleCare+ and more

An iPad is an investment and needs to be properly protected. For the younger group, the biggest danger is breaking the device, while the older students face the threat of theft. Parents of younger kids should take this into consideration and purchase a durable case for the iPad. I recommend the OtterBox cases or the Griffin Survivor cases for the best protection. High School and college students can get away with a lighter case or bag matches their style. This latter group should make sure they connect to iCloud and turn on Find My iPad as this will make it easier to track the device in the unfortunate event it is stolen.

I would also recommend spending the extra $99 to purchase AppleCare+ for the device. Most importantly, this two-year extended warranty plan provides accidental damage protection. If you break your iPad, you can get a replacement device for just $50. Limit of two replacements.

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