Updated: June 2021

There are so many different models of iPads these days that it can be really hard to decide which model to get. In this post, I’ll help you figure out which model to pick to use use with the amazing art app Procreate.

Table of Contents

Here are the steps and sections we’ll go over in this tutorial:

1. The Quick & Easy (But Expensive) Answer …OK, Not Anymore

The first sentence in this section used to read “If you can afford it, then the answer to this is pretty easy. Get the newest maxed out 2021 iPad Pro with 1 or 2 Terabytes of memory (If you don’t need 1TB of memory, there are also 512GB, 256GB, and 128GB versions of this model).

As of June 2021, I no longer believe that statement to be true. After buying and testing a new 1TB M1 iPad Pro myself, I can’t recommend that you buy one yet.

So, for now at least, I’ll forgo the quick and easy (but expensive) answer and share my recommendations in the Conclusion.

2. Procreate Compatibility

The first thing to confirm is which iPad models Procreate is compatible with.

Straight from the source, the latest version of Procreate (Version 5) is compatible with the following models (links to currently available models are provided):

 

3. Which Specs are Important?

Now that we know which iPad models will run the latest version of Procreate, let’s consider which device specs are important for our evaluation:

  • Chip (Processor): The processor (or “Chip” as Apple refers to them on their spec pages) will generally influence how fast and responsive the device is. Have you ever used an older iPad or iPhone and noticed delays when tapping, typing, and launching applications? This is generally due to an older, slower processor.
  • RAM: As it relates to Procreate, more RAM will allow you to use more layers for any given canvas size (more on this later)
  • Capacity: A device with larger capacity will allow you to install more applications and, within Procreate, will allow you to create and save more artwork on the device.
  • Display: More advanced (higher priced) models will generally have an improved display supporting a larger color spectrum and deeper, more accurate colors.

Understanding Chip (Processor) Model Numbers

On models released before 2021, Apple specified its Chip model numbers using the following naming convention:

A#n

  • The Chip model starts with the letter “A
  • The “#” is just a sequential number (the larger the number the better)
  • The “n” letter designation is not always used but can indicate a variation/improvement on the “#” value. The later in the alphabet the “n” letter is, the better.

Here are some examples showing how to interpret these Chip model numbers:

  • An A10 chip is better than an A9 chip
  • An A10X chip is better than an A10 chip
  • An A12Z chip is better than an A12X chip

In 2021, the new iPad models are the first to include the M1 processor, which is the same chip used in some of the newest laptop models. The M1 chip offers better performance than any of the previously released models.

 

Understanding RAM

Without getting into the technical nuts and bolts about what RAM (Random Access Memory) is, the bottom line here is the more is better. So, the higher the number the better (i.e. 4GB of RAM is better than 3GB).

The interesting thing about iPads and RAM is that Apple technically doesn’t publish this spec for older models. Luckily, I’ve done the research for you 😊.

With Procreate specifically, the importance of RAM is that, for any given canvas size (like a 2,000px x 2,000px square canvas), the more RAM you have, the more layers that you can use.

Understanding Capacity

Like RAM, this one is actually pretty easy. The more you have the better, BUT (and this is an important but) Capacity does not influence the performance of your device* (one exception noted at the end of this section), it influences how much “stuff” you can have on your device.

With a higher Capacity, you can install more apps, store more photos, videos, Procreate drawings, books, etc. on the device without running out of space.

How much Capacity do you need? This will honestly depend on your individual usage.

If you mostly use your iPad to surf the internet, check email. and don’t store much on it, you may be ok using a lower Capacity like 64GB (I personally wouldn’t recommend going as low as 32GB, if you can avoid it).

To give you an idea of how much extra space you get at the various capacity sizes, I created the comparison below. Each block represents 32 GB of memory capacity. Each row represents capacity sizes offered in various iPad models. 

If you’re like me and use your iPad for business and like to have access to as much stuff as possible without worrying about space, I think the sweet spot tends to be in the 128GB / 256GB / 512GB range. The iPad Pro that I currently own has 512GB of space.

If you want the absolutely maximum capacity possible, 1TB or 2TB offers lots of storage space but comes at a high cost premium.

(*Note: The 1TB and 2TB 2021 iPad Pro models include 8GB of additional RAM that the lower capacity models. The 2018 iPad Pro included 2GB of additiona RAM in the 1TB Capacity models.)

Understanding Display Differences

This discussion could get extremely technical and confusing very fast so I’m going to do my best to boil this down to a few relevant points.

Put very simply, the displays on all of the devices described in this post are great.

There are differences, but I believe you really only notice them if you closely compared the screens on 2 different devices side by side. Unless you’re a professional photographer or artist who shares their work and needs very reliable color reproduction, the differences aren’t important as the marketing may make it seem.

If you’d like to understand the differences more comprehensively, let me know and I can post an update, but, for simplicity’s sake I’ve ranked the display descriptions below.

Display Type (ranked from best (#1) to worst):

  1. Liquid Retina XDR
  2. Liquid Retina (P3)
  3. Retina (P3)
  4. Retina (Full sRGB)
  5. Retina

 

4. iPad Comparison Table

The table below summarizes the key specs for the iPad models mentioned in Section 1 of this article.

Remember, as we discussed in the last section, the key specifications to compare are:

  • Chip
  • RAM
  • Capacity
  • Display

iPad Comparison Table

MODELSCREENGENYEARCHIPRAM (GB)CAPACITYDISPLAY
iPad Pro12.9"4th2020A12Z6128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TBLiquid Retina (P3)
iPad Pro12.9"3rd2018A12X4 (64GB, 256GB, 512GB)
6 (1TB)
64GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TBLiquid Retina (P3)
iPad Pro12.9"2nd2017A10X464GB, 256GB, 512GBRetina (P3)
iPad Pro12.9"1st2015A9X432GB, 128GB, 256GBRetina (Full sRGB)
iPad Pro11"2nd2020A12Z6128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TBLiquid Retina (P3)
iPad Pro11"1st2018A12X4 (64GB, 256GB, 512GB)
6 (1TB)
64GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TBLiquid Retina (P3)
iPad Pro10.5"2017A10X464GB, 256GB, 512GBRetina (P3)
iPad Pro9.7"2016A9X232GB, 128GB, 256GBRetina (P3)
iPad10.2"7th2019A10332GB, 128GBRetina
iPad9.7"6th2018A10232GB, 128GBRetina
iPad9.7"5th2017A9232GB, 128GBRetina (Full sRGB)
iPad Mini7.9"5th2019A12364GB, 256GBRetina (P3)
iPad Mini7.9"4th2015A8216GB, 64GB, 128GBRetina (Full sRGB)
iPad Air10.5"3rd2019A12364GB, 256GBRetina (P3)
iPad Air9.7"2nd2014A8X216GB, 64GB, 128GBRetina (Full sRGB)
iPad10.2"8th2020A12332GB, 128GBRetina
iPad Air10.9"4th2020A14464GB, 256GBLiquid Retina (P3)
iPad Pro11"3rd2021M18128GB, 256GB, 512GBLiquid Retina (P3)
iPad Pro11"3rd2021M1161TB, 2TBLiquid Retina (P3)
iPad Pro12.9"5th2021M18128GB, 256GB, 512GBLiquid Retina XDR
iPad Pro12.9"5th2021M1161TB, 2TBLiquid Retina XDR

 

5. How Much of a Difference Does RAM Actually Make?

When I confirmed that RAM was the primary spec that impacted how many canases you could use in a Procreate drawing, I was curious to identify what difference the amount of RAM would actually make.

From an official moderator in the Procreate forums:

“…it’s RAM that determines the maximum layer count for a given canvas size. Meaning that getting the same iPad model with a higher storage capacity won’t make a difference.”

Since I have access to a few different iPad models that I’ve owned over the years, I thought I run a few comparison tests (is it wrong that I was actually excited to collect data and make some graphs?)

For all of the iPads that I had access to, I created canvases of increasingly large size (resolution) in Procreate until the program returned an error that that canvas was too large.

For each canvas resolution (i.e. 1000px x 1000px, 2000px x 2000px, 3000px x 3000px, etc) I noted how many layers were possible on each device.

I used 2 different iPads, each with 1GB of ram (the orange line (and blue line which overlaps exactly with the orange), an iPad Air 2 with 3GB of Ram (the grey line), and an iPad Pro with 4GB of ram (the yellow line).

I multiplied the width and height of each canvas to get an overall resolution and converted to megapixels (MP) for easier to read numbers (i.e. 2000px x 2000px = 4,000,000px = 4MP).

The chart below shows the results for canvases up to around 70MP.

The charge below is zoomed in for canvases up to 25MP.

The charge below is zoomed in for canvases up to 15MP.

I Don’t Like Graphs, What Does This Mean?

The best way to explain this is with a few examples.

The table below shows a comparison of how many layers can be used for 3 different canvas resolution on devices with 3 different RAM configurations.

The three canvas sizes compared are:

  • 1,000 pixel x 1,000 pixel canvas
  • 2,000 pixel x 2,000 pixel canvas
  • 3,000 pixel x 3,000 pixel canvas

The three RAM amounts compared are from the charts in the last section:

  • 1GB (an older iPad and iPad Mini)
  • 3GB (iPad Air 2)
  • 4GB (iPad Pro)
RAM1000px x 1000px
(1MP) Canvas
2000px x 2000px
(4MP) Canvas
3000px x 3000px
(9MP) Canvas
1 GB96 Layers21 Layers7 Layers
3 GB250 Layers63 Layers25 Layers
4 GB250 Layers130 Layers55 Layers

Summarizing one of the examples above, if I wanted to draw on a 3,000 pixel by 3,000 pixel square canvas (a fairly high resolution, but not unreasonable) in Procreate, I have a maximum of:

  • 7 layers if I use an iPad with 1 GB of RAM: I would consider this to be very restrictive because I always use more than 7 layers.
  • 25 layers if I use an IPad with 3 GB of RAM: This isn’t bad, but I would prefer to have more layers to work with for more elaborate compositions.
  • 55 layers if I use an iPad with 4 GB of RAM: This is far more comfortable – so far I haven’t exceeded this layer count in any of my creations (see the next section).

How Many Layers Do I Actually Need?

How many layers can you expect to actually use? That depends on your individual process and how much flexibility you want to modify and make changes to your art.

The more you separate your work into different layers, the more easily you can alter individual parts.

Although I don’t honestly go back and modify my art often, I do tend to like to preserve more layers in case I do want to make changes later or in another application (like Photoshop).

As a reference, I went through many of my Procreate artworks and, of all of them, the highest layer count I’ve used so far is 52 layers.

Animation in Procreate

One factor that could significantly increase the number of layers you need is whether you use Procreate’s animation features.

Recent versions of Procreate have included support for creating animations in the app. Each layer becomes and animation cells so if you have an interest in usign this functionaly, you should consider an iPad with as much RAM as possible.

A Complication…

The general rule of “the more RAM, the better” when selecting an iPad recently got more complicated.

The latest iPads have up 16GB of RAM, but not all of that capacity is made available to applications by the operating system. In fact, only ~5GB is available for each app, even if the device has more.

What does this mean? When using Procreate, you won’t get any more layers with the new 16GB model than you will with the 8GB model.

Here’s the news directly from Procreate (via Twitter):

“As of now, all M1 iPads have the same amount of RAM available. If more becomes available in the future, we’ll make that available to you too” 

6. Conclusion 

After owning my current iPad Pro for around 5 years, I have been interested in upgrading. This is one of the reasons I initially wrote this post – to help you make an informed decision, just as I wanted to.

When Apple announced the newest iPad models in April, based on the specs alone – new M1 processor (the same chip that’s in the latest Apple laptops) and up to 16GB RAM – I thought, “This is it – it’s time!”

In fact, because I use my device professionally I ordered the new 1TB model and was excited for it to arrive. After my initial testing, though, I was quite disappointed.

At first, the M1 iPad was not recognized by Procreate and the app treated t as though it had only 2GB of RAM. This meant that initially, I was able to use significantly fewer layers than I could with my 5-year-old iPad Pro with 1/4th of the RAM.

Luckily, this issue was quickly resolved with a recent patch, but we then learned that the Apple operating system was capping the RAM usage available for individual apps at 5GB.

This means that, with Procreate, no additional benefit is gained from a device that has 16GB of RAM instead of 8GB.

The M1 iPad Conundrum

Technically speaking, based purely on the specs, the new M1 iPads sound amazing. The new M1 chip improves performance (it’s the same chip that is in Macbooks and the new iMac!) and you may get a boost in the number of layers you can work because of the increase in RAM (depending on how much your existing device has).

With the available RAM capped at 5GB, however, you will not get any improvement with the largest capacity devices that have up to 16GB of RAM (the 1TB and 2TB models).

No updates to this limitation were mentioned at the 2021 WWDC Apple event in June so, at this time, I wouldn’t recommend the expensive higher capacity (1TB or 2TB) devices unless you absolutely need that amount of storage.

In fact, because of all of these considerations, I opted to return the 1TB model that I had purchased.

This was my reasoning…

With the new iPad Pros, Apple has created a device with extraordinary potential but has significantly hamstrung it via the limitations of iPad OS.  For $100 more than the price of the 12.9″ M1 1TB, 16GB RAM iPad Pro, I could purchase a far more useful 13″ Macbook Pro with identical specs. So, for professional use, I personally don’t understand the use case for the higher-spec iPad Pros.

For Procreate, there’s currently no advantage to the higher-spec models, either because of the 5GB cap on RAM.

The new M1 iPads feel as though they were designed with the future in mind. The problem is that, based on the cost and limitations of iPadOS, it’s hard to recommend buying one based on the idea of possible future capabilities. 

If and when the time comes when iPadOS can take advantage of the technical capabilities of the devices (since nothing noteworthy was announced at WWDC in June 2021, it can be expected that the earliest this could happen would now be 2022), there will likely be newer models available or just on the horizon, again making it hard to recommend the recent additions.

So, this year, rather than 1st and 2nd place, the recommendations below will be a bit more nuanced based on your situation and use case.

 

Additional thoughts…

I’ve provided recommendations below of the iPad models that I would personally recommend for anyone interested in working with Procreate.

These are the models that I didn’t recommend and why:

  • iPad Mini: Although the specs of the most recent iPad mini are essentially the same as the iPad Air that I recommended below, the major difference is the screen size. You will only have a 7.9″ screen to work on compared to 10.5″ on the iPad Air. If portability is of the utmost priority for you and you don’t mind the small screen size, however, this model could be a great option.
  • iPad (7th Generation): The primary reason I don’t recommend this device is because of the processor. The A10 Chip included in this device first made it’s debut in the iPhone 7 which was released in the Fall of 2016. Because of the dated technology, you will start to see a loss of performance sooner than with other devices.

Recommendations

Based on the currently available iPad models, if I did not own an iPad, these are the models that I would spend my money on if I was purchasing an iPad today.

Particularly for use with Procreate, if you already own a recent model, such as a 2018 iPad Pro, I would keep it and not upgrade at this time (this is what I am doing with my 2017 model). 

If cost is a primary concern…

The iPad Air is a top choice due to all of the upgraded specs including the new processor, RAM, and display.

PROS

  • Great Processor (A14)
  • Great Display (Retina P3)
  • Good capacity available (up to 256 GB)
  • 4GB RAM

CONS

  • Fewer Capacity options

If you can afford a price increase and want the latest and best performance…

The new iPad Pro models have great specs but are limited by iPadOS.

PROS

  • Best Performance (M1 Chip)
  • Great Display (Liquid Retina)
  • Highest available capacities
  • Modest improvement with higher RAM capacity (limited by iPadOS)

CONS

  • Expensive
  • Due to a limitation of iPadOS, Procreate can’t take full advantage of the increased RAM above 5GB 

If you can afford a price increase and want performance and a bigger screen…

The new iPad Pro models have great specs but are limited by iPad OS. The new 12.9″ model also has improved screen technology.

PROS

  • Best Performance (M1 Chip)
  • Best Display (Liquid Retina XDR)
  • Highest available capacities
  • Modest improvement with higher RAM capacity (limited by iPadOS)

CONS

  • Expensive
  • Due to a limitation of iPadOS, Procreate can’t take full advantage of the increased RAM above 5GB 

Note: This post and the photos within it may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through the link, I may receive a commission at no extra charge to you.