Which iPads should I get for ARIS at my school/research program/community center?

Recently a colleague was setting up a new research program to do ARIS and other mobile stuff. She wanted to know what iPads (and other stuff) to get. Logistics like these frequently change and it can be tough to keep up.

Here’s my advice, current in February, 2017, for iDevices to get to use ARIS or other mobile software with students, museum patrons, or other similar populations.

  • iPad Mini 4, T-mobile cellular, 16GB, refurbished

Why is this the best choice?

It can be hard to anticipate what features matter without knowing exactly what you’re getting into. There’s a lot to save or lose depending on how well you anticipate your needs. Though the specifics may change over time, I’ll try to walk through them in a way that exposes my general criteria for what devices to get and why.

Why mini?

One of my hopes with both mobile technology in general and ARIS as a platform connects to the idea of using them while you’re out in the world. The new and interesting things we can try, the things that we haven’t had good ways to do before, are largely tied up with taking these technical resources and capabilities with us into the outside world. Clearly, for most people a phone is how we do this. They are always with us, in our pockets and at the ready. They are essentially a part of us now.

Alex playlists Another Awesomenauts v1.0

Small = Useful in the outside world. I wouldn’t want these kids running with an iPad, but I’ll trust him with a phone in a good case. Alex and Will are playtesting our game, Another Awesomenauts.

But not every student will have a phone, and phones come with service contracts which are prohibitively expensive for people like me and the teachers and researchers I find myself working with. In previous years, I used iPod touches, the iPhone without the phone, but their development has failed too far behind to make them worth buying to run current software. The 9.7″ iPads are more mobile than laptops, and still have the important hardware coordination for rich mobile work (GPS, cameras, etc.), but they are really too big to carry around naturally, especially for young people. Minis are the “just right” answer here.

Your specific circumstances might make 9.7″ iPads more desirable for other reasons, or maybe the ones your institution is willing to buy, often because at that size they seem like a good replacement for books and laptops. They will do if it’s what you have, but given the choice I’d buy mini. Minis are also cheaper, so there’s that.

Why not the mini 2?

When buying mobile technology for others to use, it is important to consider how useful those devices will be to you in 3 or more years. A little extra cost is usually worth the time you will get out of a device that is not already 2 or more years old. In this case, at this moment, the mini 2 is actually still quite good. There are not a huge set of differences with the mini 4, but those two years still matter enough. When your mini 4 still gets software updates after 7 years, you’ll thank me.

Cellular, T-Mobile

Having internet out in the world is no longer an absolute necessity for all ARIS games. Still most mobile tech development operates with connectivity as an assumption. Choosing devices with only WiFi is just asking to be limited in how you use these devices to bring young people or your own work into the mobile age. One other point of difference is that the cellular models have GPS chips while the Wifi only ones do not. Accurate location sensitivity matters a lot for many ARIS uses.

T-Mobile—if you get decent T-mobile data service where you are—is the best choice because you can register your iPads to get 200MB/month for free. I have actually done this and it works great. This free data is enough for a lot of ARIS work. You might run up against limits if you’re uploading a lot of videos and photos or if you are using these devices to do things like watch Netflix.


Students and Gianna May test her game Quest for the Cities of Gold at the Albuquerque museum in 2013 using iPod touches she borrowed from the lab. Ready and flexible availability of devices really helps novice designers get going.


16GB – Base Storage

If these devices are not going to be used long-term by single users for multiple purposes, if someone does not need to try and fit their life inside this device, 16GB is plenty. If you have something more intensive in mind, another reason to get the mini 4 is that the next bump up is 64GB. The mini 2 bump is to 32GB.


The Apple Store has a refurbished section. Devices bought there are backed by the same warranty as any other Apple sale, but usually come with a sizable discount. Personally I have bought many many devices this way and they have all turned out just as good as the new ones.


These are hard to keep track of because they change so much, but there are some basic criteria you can think of when looking for cases to match your use case:

Protect as much, but not more than you need. Hugs cases impact the usability of the device. Things like always-on screen covers and giant bumpers are overkill. Yet a naked device is just asking for damage. I like a case that covers the back and front, but doesn’t obscure the ports. Enough to protect against a small drop and everyday handling. A bit grippier than the bare metal but not actually sticky.

Consider local needs. Depending on your specific circumstances, there might be features in a case you really need. Museums sometimes want to cover the home button on a device to keep students in their ARIS game, but they need to access the home button for diagnostic purposes. Believe it or not, there are cases that cover the home button but have a small opening for a paperclip to fit in. Clear cases which make it possible to see institutional ID stickers are commonly sought too.

Apple’s cases are always way overpriced. Cost and durability of cases do not seem to be well correlated generally either. Once you have some idea what you want, start looking on Amazon. Play around, using the “customers also looked at” features and reviews to find something that looks capable and cheap. Buy one, try it out, and then quickly buy the rest since this stuff changes so often.

This is the case I would buy today:

Khomo iPad Mini 4 Case

It costs about $15.


Steve Thorne tests a sample game at our first PIKDL (Partnership for Indigenous Knowledge and Digital Literacies) Symposium, hosted by Jon Reinhardt and Susan Penfield at the University of Arizona. Having devices and games ready to play is a key hands-on activity to introduce newcomers to AR, which can often be a bit abstract and strange.


If you’re getting a set of iDevices, there are a few odds and ends you’ll need too. Schools seem to get fleeced by companies selling iPad carts whose functionality can be easily met by off-the shelf gear these days.


A good, high wattage multi-port USB charger can make your work of keeping devices charged way easier. How many chargers and how many ports depends on how many iPads you’re getting, but good chargers are plentiful and cheap. Expect to pay $20 for a 50 Watt, 5 port charger. Just make sure it is marketed as a charger, not just a plain old hub. Most hubs don’t have the power to simultaneously charge multiple devices. High watts means being able to charge multiple devices simultaneously. Once you’re in the territory though, for most people there isn’t much point in seeking out the highest possible wattage.

Here’s a good USB charger I have at home:

Aukey 5 Port USB Charger

Charging iPods

Charging iPod Touches for a project back in 2013, before charging hubs were cheap and plentiful

Extra Charging Cables

Every iPad comes with a cable to charge and sync it, but these always dwindle in number as time goes on. Official cables are expensive ($19). You can find really cheap cables at places like eBay (as low as $1), but their compatibility may vary, even for those claiming to be MFI. MFI (Made for iPhone/Pad/Pod) is Apple’s official licensing for cables that are authorized and should work. Amazon Basics ($8) seem like a good way to get cables that should have a high probability of working and official MFI licensing, and I’ve also had decent luck looking for highly-rated cables on Amazon.

I’m not positive, but what I think happens with the super cheap knock-offs is that they find some way of fooling iOS into thinking they are genuine, but they tend to break as iOS is updated and new protections are put in place.

There are a lot of options to play around with: length, color, etc. Get what you want. The only other option that’s important is the physical size of the end of the cable that attaches to the lightning port on the iDevice. Sometimes these are so large that you cannot plug them in without removing the case on the device first. Look for narrow plug ends.

Extra Batteries?

If you’re counting on people showing up to an event with a charged device, you will be frequently disappointed. Cover your bases with some cheap, simple external batteries/chargers. The smallest ones are a big bigger than chapstick and are enough to keep a device going for at least an hour. My advice is to buy cheap but within reason. Lithium ion and Lithium Polymer batteries like these can fail disastrously. Look for a reputable enough source that fire risk isn’t something you need to consider at length. I’ve never had or seen one fail personally, but even the big boys sometimes mess this up, as we saw with the Samsung Galaxy Note last year.

You don’t need high capacity batteries though. In most cases, you’ll just be using these to help out those who forgot to charge before that day. Something around 2000mAH should do fine.

For an event, I would make sure to have enough extra batteries for 1/3 of the participants.

What Else?

What’s your experience buying devices? What else do you need to know about setting up a deployment of your own?

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