Best iPad for students 2021: which iPad to buy for school, college and uni

Your guide to the best student iPad and the accessories you’ll need

Best iPad for students 2021
(Image credit: Apple)

Finding the best iPad for students can be a bit of a quest. Is the most expensive iPad always the best one? Do you need all of the accessories too? And, most importantly, do you need all the official Apple add-ons or will cheaper third-party accessories do just as well? 

The truth is that the best student iPad is the one that meets your specific needs for the term ahead. The flexibility of an iPad is truly where its benefits lie. Sliding an iPad in and out of a rucksack is significantly easier than lugging around a heavy laptop, it’s an instant-on affair instead of waiting for things to load up, and you can handwrite notes just as easily as type them. There's a reason they're so popular in back to school season.

All of the iPads below come in both Wi-Fi only and Wi-Fi and 4G cellular models, so it’s vital to weigh up whether you need to go for the cellular option too. The latest iPad Pro model even comes with 5G if you want ultra-fast internet on the go. This will mean an additional charge for a SIM card on a monthly basis with your chosen provider. If you can use your phone as a hotspot or always make sure you’re on Wi-Fi in lecture theatres or in the library, then there’s no need to pay extra for the cellular-enabled option, so you can perhaps go for larger storage, extra accessories or even a more expensive model instead.

We'll take you through the current iPad options to tell you which are the best bets for students. You'll find the lowest prices for all of our recommendations right on this page, but don't forget we also have our dedicated best iPad deals guide too.

We've also got a larger guide to the best student tablets – not just limited to iPads, but also Android and PC tablets – if you want to cast a wider net.

If you're looking for a laptop instead, check out our guide to the best student laptops and if you know it's Apple your after, we've got the best MacBooks for students too.  

Best iPads for students: The add-ons you need

For an iPad to truly be a valid laptop alternative, you’re going to need to invest in a keyboard – typing out your essays with the on-screen keyboard just isn't a real option, and it makes it quicker and easier to type notes in class. Apple’s official keyboards aren’t cheap, but they have really evolved over the past few years. The Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro and iPad Air incorporates a case, keyboard, stand, and a trackpad, transforming your iPad into an instant laptop alternative. Using what Apple calls a ‘floating cantilever design,’ this means you can adjust the iPad screen to a perfect viewing angle. The Magic Keyboard RRPs for £279 in the UK and $299 in the US in its smaller size – very steep, but it's a quality product.

Alternatively, Apple also has the Smart Keyboard Folio and the Smart Keyboard. The Smart Keyboard Folio is suitable for iPad Pro and iPad Air and includes a folding cover and keyboard, but doesn’t have the floating design of the Magic Keyboard or trackpad. It merely props up the iPad in a regular stand set up and protects the front and back so you don’t need to worry about sliding it into a bag. The Smart Keyboard Folio is £179 in the UK and $179 in the US. The Smart Keyboard which is for the 10-inch iPad only includes the front cover as well as the keyboard and not the back, and costs £159 in the UK and $159 in the US. 

The good thing though is that you aren’t restricted to using these specific cases and keyboards. iPads work with all Bluetooth keyboards, meaning that you can easily buy a standard case for protection and a Bluetooth keyboard to carry around when you really need it. You could always opt for one of Apple’s regular Magic Keyboards, a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard, or opt for an in case offering from a different brand such as Brydge. In any case, if the iPad is to be your primary work machine, you need to budget in a keyboard too.

Then there’s the Apple Pencil. If note-taking is high on your list of necessary jobs for your student iPad, then the Apple Pencil in both of its generations delivers an essential paper-like experience. Instead of the laboriousness of typing, the Apple Pencil means digital notes where all you need to worry about is the state of your handwriting. One of the iPad's best features now is that you can handwrite notes, then copy the text and paste it into word documents just like regular text on a computer – you can even copy and insert any diagrams you draw too. It's really great for turning notes into something shareable, or for adding them into wider research documents.

There are two generations of Apple Pencil available and we’ve highlighted which iPad works with which below. The biggest difference is that the 2nd Generation Apple Pencil charges wirelessly when you magnetically attach it to the side of your iPad, which is a much better and more useful setup. The 2nd Generation also comes with a handy double tap to change tools ability which means you can quickly switch between a pen and an eraser as you’re writing. Otherwise, both have pressure sensitivity and impressively little lag.

Is there a student offer for iPads? 

There is indeed! Apple offers lower prices on a whole range of its products for students, though the exact amount of discount differs depending on the price. But Apple also does special student offers on iPads that tend to appear before term time on Apple’s website. These are usually around free items and discounted Apple Care. Student iPad offers for 2021 include a free set of AirPods when buying an eligible Mac or iPad through Apple's specific Education Store Online. 

In the UK, you'll need to be verified using the UNiDays system before you can browse the discounts. 

• Visit the Apple Education Store UK

In the US, things are much more straightforward and you can browse and buy without having to show proof of student status. 

• Visit the Apple Education Store US

Again, in Australia, you can just browse the prices at the link below. 

• Visit the Apple Education Store Australia

Other than Apple’s website, though, other retailers are particularly competitive before term time with deals on iPads and accessories so it pays to shop around to see what you can get. As ever, we have gathered some of the best prices across the web for each item below.   

Best iPads for students: the list 

iPad Air 2020

(Image credit: Apple)

1. iPad Air (2020)

The best iPad for students overall

Specifications
Display size: 10.9 inches
Space: Up to 256GB
CPU: Apple A14
Apple Pencil compatibility: 2nd Generation
Keyboard compatibility: Bluetooth, Magic Keyboard, Smart Keyboard Folio
Reasons to buy
+Colourful sleek design+Fast and slick+Apple Pencil 2
Reasons to avoid
-Average cameras

With its slick square-edged design and ultra-fast processor, the 2020 iPad is still the tablet to beat. It works with the 2nd Generation of Apple Pencil, meaning that note taking is just a matter of clipping the pencil satisfyingly on and off when needed and it comes with easy to use Touch ID fingerprint login to keep your iPad secure. The screen is pleasantly bright, and while it doesn't include a 120Hz refresh rate (the iPad Pro has this) the LCD is exceptionally easy on the eyes, with a pro-level of colour reproduction. 

There’s also the fact that this is a performance powerhouse. As we said in our Apple iPad Air (2020) review “The Geekbench 5 multi-core score (for intensive, multi-part tasks) is also incredibly strong, coming in 8% behind the iPad Pro, which was designed around having bigger, beefier multi-core performance. And it's similarly only marginally behind the MacBook Pro 13-inch. Put simply, this is a small, thin beast when it comes to theoretical performance.” 

Battery wise too, it will depend how you’re using it, but we got up to 10 hours of browsing and general tasks. Of course, if you’re playing games then it'll run down faster. Not that you'll be doing that as a student, of course.

It has a USB-C port too, which means it can be connected to external storage when needed, or even useful peripherals, such a high-quality microphone.

And while the fact that it comes in a range of cool colours doesn't technically matter, it doesn't not matter. It's nice if you can enjoy the look of the computer you use all the time!

Apple iPad mini 6th Gen held in hand on white background

(Image credit: Apple)

2. iPad Mini (6th Gen)

Best iPad for note-taking and portable creative work

Specifications
Display size: 8.3 inches
Space: Up to 256GB
CPU: Apple A15
Apple Pencil compatibility: 2nd Generation
Keyboard compatibility: Bluetooth
Reasons to buy
+Very light and portable+Incredibly powerful+Apple Pencil 2nd Gen support
Reasons to avoid
-Limited screen size

If you don’t fancy the sprawling real estate of the rest of the iPad line up, the iPad Mini is a perfect alternative for those just looking for something small to slide into a bag, perhaps along with a laptop, or instead of one just for lectures. The Apple Pencil 2nd Gen attaches to the side magnetically, meaning it's always ready to go when you want to take notes, draw diagrams, knock up sketches, or anything else.

It’s actually the most powerful non-Pro iPad, thanks to Apple A15 chip, which means there's basically no work (or play) it can't handle. You probably won't want to do masses of multi-tasking work with side-by-side apps on the iPad Mini, due to its size… but you could.

We wouldn't recommend the iPad Mini as a laptop replacement, but as a way to read, highlight and take notes all on one device – and at the same time – it's an ideal student buy. But it's not just about notes – if you're taking a creative course and you want to be able to make music or create illustrations or anything else whenever inspiration strikes, it's fantastic. Bear in mind, it's smaller than an A5 notepad, so you need never be without it. And it's great for streaming and gaming fun, and all that good stuff, as our full iPad Mini (6th Gen) review attests.

Apple iPad 10.2

(Image credit: Apple)

3. iPad 10.2-inch (9th Gen)

The best cheap iPad for students

Specifications
Display size: 10.2 inches
Space: Up to 256GB
CPU: Apple A13
Apple Pencil compatibility: 1st Generation
Keyboard compatibility: Bluetooth, Smart Keyboard
Reasons to buy
+Fast software+Great all round value 
Reasons to avoid
-Starter storage is small-Apple Pencil 1st Gen is more awkward

Just because it doesn’t have square edges, doesn’t mean you should write off the 2020 iPad 10.2 inch model. When it comes to bang for your buck, this is an incredible package for the price. Starting at £319/$329/AU$499, this is a premium offering with great performance using Apple’s A13 chip. As a a work tool, it’s perfect for using Apple’s Pages software for documents or hooking up to your various Google Docs, though it can run music-making software, video editing and just about anything really – it's very fast and really quite capable.

This option has more of a classic iPad look with a home button and larger bezels than the latest offerings but the screen is attractive enough with brightness that makes visuals pop. Also useful is the compatibility with the 1st generation of Apple Pencil, so if you want to take notes or make the most of the gamut of excellent art apps, this is a great way to get creative. The original Apple Pencil has a more awkward plug-in charging system and doesn't attach to the iPad, so we much, much prefer the 2nd gen overall with the iPad Air – but in terms of actually drawing and writing, the 1st gen works perfectly.

While the cameras, like most iPad snappers, are nothing to write home about, the battery life here really is. 10 hours of light browsing and activity is a real boon so you won’t need to worry about constantly finding a plug point. It's a great machine for the price, as our full Apple iPad 10.2-inch (9th Gen) review explains.

Apple iPad Pro 2021 12.9 review

(Image credit: Apple)

4. iPad Pro-12.9 inch (2021)

Best elite iPad for students

Specifications
Display size: 12.9 inches
Space: Up to 2TB
CPU: Apple M1
Apple Pencil compatibility: 2nd Generation
Keyboard compatibility: Bluetooth, Magic Keyboard, Smart Keyboard Folio
Reasons to buy
+Incredible mini-LED screen+Absurdly powerful
Reasons to avoid
-Face ID can be awkward

If money is no object and you’re looking for the very best student iPad, then you’ll find it in the 2021 iPad Pro. This is the first of Apple’s iPad line up to use Apple’s new  M1 chip now being included across its laptop and desktop range and it is powerful. Probably so powerful that you’ll rarely, if ever, be able to push it to capacity, even if editing 4K footage. The 2021 iPad Pro starts at a not insignificant £969/$999/AU$1,649.  

For this investment you get a glorious 120Hz refresh rate mini-LED HDR screen, which as we said in our Apple iPad Pro 12.9 inch (2021) review “adds HDR image quality to rival what some of the best TVs are capable of.” This is a monster of a tablet and the reason it’s third on this list rather than top is because most term-time needs just won’t require a CPU this beefy. 

The new iPad Pro supports mouse and keyboard (as do all the other models), with an intuitive cursor option to explore iPadOS with the Apple Magic Keyboard. And, not that you’ll be using it for everyday photography, but there’s also a superior camera offering complete with LiDAR sensor for augmented reality. The iPad Pro also uses the 2nd Generation Apple Pencil for note taking, and that 10 hour battery life is a given for general use but hungrier apps will take more. Whether this is a student iPad or not is a good question but if you’re the kind of person who wants to drive to the shops in a Lamborghini, you’ve found the right tablet.  

iPad Pro 11 inch

(Image credit: Apple)

5. iPad Pro 11-inch (2021)

Best iPad for portable power

Specifications
Display size: 11 inches
Space: Up to 1TB
CPU: Apple M1
Apple Pencil compatibility: 2nd Generation
Keyboard compatibility: Bluetooth, Magic Keyboard, Smart Keyboard Folio
Reasons to buy
+Incredible 120Hz screen+Exceptionally powerful
Reasons to avoid
-Face ID can be awkward 

This is just like the 12.9-inch iPad Pro recommended further up, but the screen is smaller and doesn't have the mini-LED technology with HDR performance – it's just a great screen instead of an amazing next-gen one.

Otherwise, it's the same, including the ridiculously powerful M1 chip, impressive cameras, 120Hz refresh rate on the screen, Apple Pencil 2nd Gen compatibility, option for huge amounts of storage, and so on.

Well, nearly the same – it's cheaper too. So if you do think you need huge power but don't need the larger screen, it's a good option. But we think that makes it a bit niche for students – the iPad Air is the same size, offers most of the same features, and is plenty powerful anyway, while being cheaper again.