Apple says the base iPad is its most popular tablet. And why not? Back in 2017, the company introduced its cheapest iPad ever as a budget option for schools or people who do not need top specifications. This device has always used hardware that was several years old – but Apple’s chips are so powerful that it wasn’t a problem. Now, in its ninth generation, the form factor is beginning to feel outdated; it has hardly changed from the iPad Air that Apple released in 2013. So again, at this price who cares?
It’s not a tablet for early adopters like me. It is intended for those who want a fast, light tablet with a beautiful screen and a multitude of applications, without having to spend too much or wondering if a device like the iPad Pro is the future of computing. As such, there are only a few basic questions I want to answer in this review. If you have an old iPad, what’s new and better about this one? And if you don’t have an iPad, will this be bought?
- It’s cheap!
- Much better front camera for video calls
- More storage space than last year
- Improved performance
- Excellent battery life
- iPadOS 15 is a solid update
- Stopped design compared to other Apple iPads
- The screen is not the best
To evaluate this, let’s summarize what’s new in the ninth-generation iPad. The processor that powers it is Apple’s A13 Bionic chip, which first appeared in the iPhone 11 from 2019. It is one year newer than the A12, which powered last year’s iPad, and is faster and more efficient than its predecessor. Sure, it’s slower than the newer chips that power the iPad Air and the just-updated iPad mini, but it still delivers more than enough horsepower for the $ 330 tablet.
Gallery: iPad (2021) review photos | 11 Photos
Gallery: iPad (2021) review photos | 11 Photos
I didn’t notice any noticeable slowdowns, whether I was doing multiple tasks between Slack, writing a review in Google Docs, juggling various cards in Safari, or playing Apple Arcade games. Since this iPad has less RAM than the iPad Pro I use as a daily driver, I’ve noticed that apps need to refresh their content more often while I’ve been on multiple tasks. But everything loaded quickly and I quickly got back on the road.
For most people, the “standard iPad” use cases – browsing the web, editing photos, playing games, watching movies, exchanging messages, drawing or taking notes with an Apple pen, writing e-mail or working on documents using a Smart Keyboard – A13 Bionic is more than powerful enough. In fact, in our review of last year’s iPad, we discovered a device capable of easily transcoding and exporting 4K video into 1080p clips. It wasn’t as fast as the iPad Pro, but it was still faster than we expected. The A13 will only help you if you are a person who likes to push their hardware.
Another new thing with the iPad 2021 is that you will get twice as much space for the same amount of money. That means the $ 329 iPad this year has 64GB of storage, while the $ 479 comes with a healthy 256GB. As usual, you can add LTE connectivity to these devices for an additional $ 130. (I reviewed the 256GB model with LTE, which costs $ 609.) This change is easy to appreciate: more storage space is better, and it’s desperately needed, especially on the base model. For most people, 64 GB should be enough, but if you want to charge iPad games and save a lot of movies and photos to local storage, use the 256 GB model.
The iPad’s screen doesn’t essentially change from the previous two models. It is a 10.2-inch touch screen with a resolution of 2,160 x 1,620 pixels. Still, there’s one change on the screen: for the first time, it has Apple’s True Tone technology that automatically adjusts the color temperature based on the ambient light in the room around you. Apple has been offering this feature on more expensive iPads and all of its iPhones for years, so it’s nice to see how it’s finally used at the bottom.
The screen normally looks good whether you’re watching videos, playing games, or browsing the web. Still, it’s not nearly as good as the screens on other iPads that Apple sells. I’m used to my iPad Pro screen, which is laminated directly to the windshield and has a refresh rate of 120Hz with support for a wide range of P3 colors. But after I sat down and used the new iPad, I mostly didn’t think about those things. For a $ 330 device, it’s perfectly used; pleasant, even. I’ve noticed an “air vent” on the new iPad coming in because its screen isn’t attached to the glass, but I can accept that as a cost-cutting measure.
Finally, Apple has put a new front camera on the new iPad. A slightly surprising move, the same is the one used on the iPad Pro (minus all the depth sensors and additional hardware required for Face ID). It is also identical to the one in the new iPad mini. It is a 12 megapixel shooter with an extremely wide field of view. That wide angle allows for a feature that Apple calls “Center Stage”. When you’re on a FaceTime call, the camera automatically appears around you, instead of displaying the entire 122-degree field of view. But since the camera has all that work space, it can track you as you move around the frame. This is an interesting feature, although I am usually motionless during a video call. Still, it does a decent job of making up for the fact that the iPad’s front camera is off-center when you use the iPad in landscape mode.
I guess Center Stage is something that will come in handy when you start using it regularly, and I’m generally glad to see that Apple has recognized that the iPad needs a better front-facing camera. The 1.2 megapixel FaceTime camera on older iPads just doesn’t cut it at this point where we’re all constantly in video calls.
Everything else about the new iPad remains unchanged. It is the same size and weight as the last two models and has a screen of the same size. It has the same significant frames, an 8-megapixel rear camera, a Lightning charging port (not USB-C) and a home button with a built-in Touch ID. It works with the first generation Apple pen (sold separately for $ 99), which Apple has offered since the end of 2015, along with the Smart Keyboard image ($ 159) that Apple made for the 10.5-inch iPad Pro back in 2017. More there are always two speakers at the bottom while you hold it in portrait orientation, which means the sound still comes to you from one place off center while watching the video. But there is a headphone jack!
That means it’s not the most exciting device for someone like me, but otherwise Apple has many benefits of keeping things the same. First, someone who replaces an iPad they bought a few years ago will be able to use the same chargers and accessories as before – something that is especially important for educational programs and other institutions that have bought an iPad in bulk.
As always, Apple says the iPad’s battery lasts 10 hours of browsing the web or watching videos over WiFi. I got a little less than that when I used the iPad and its keyboard for all-day work, but the iPad far exceeded that estimate while watching videos. I approached 14 hours before the battery finally cracked it. Of course, you’ll enjoy it less while doing more intense tasks like games.
Living with iPadOS 15
Despite the ho-hum design, the user experience has been fresh, mostly thanks to the iPadOS 15. I’ve been using updated software in beta since the summer, and I’m glad to say the final release is solid. Apple has addressed the biggest issues I’ve had with the iPadOS 15 (some illogical design changes in Safari), and many of the changes significantly improve the iPad experience.
Quick Notes is a great feature for Apple pen users and makes the iPad a much better recording device. It’s obviously handy to be able to quickly call up new writing space, but the fact that Notes recognizes when you’re on a website or a particular map location and allows you to save them in a note.
Now that Safari has restored the traditional tab display instead of the cramped compact display from the iPadOS 15 beta, I can appreciate some other changes this year in the browser. Tab groups are a convenient way to organize things when you want to sort out what you’re browsing by category; I often use it to keep story research in one place. It’s also handy to be able to find links that have been shared with me through the Messages app.
It took some time to get used to the various new gestures for multiple tasks, but they make it easier to set up different spaces with the right combination of applications for what you are trying to do. The 10.2-inch iPad screen is almost too small to work much in multi-task mode, but it’s still useful to have a bunch of my most commonly used apps by swiping to Slide Over. And the new “shelf” that appears when you launch the app to show you other spaces where the app works is another smart add-on that I’ve used often.
Other new changes take me more time to set up the way I would like. The notification summary feature, which allows you to set the time to deliver notifications from specific applications, is a smart idea in theory. But I still haven’t figured out which apps I want to remove from the summary, and which I’d rather show right away. Similarly, the new Focus features allow you to set up multiple interference-free scenarios, each of which can have its own schedule, allowed or blocked apps or people, and hidden or active home screens. It’s extremely flexible, but I haven’t figured out how to make the best use of it yet.
If we ignore the learning curve, the iPadOS 15 is a solid release, and works great on the new iPad. If you buy this tablet now, it should receive similar updates for years to come, which will greatly help preserve freshness even though it has never been a premium device.
Coming from the iPad Pro, I was pleasantly surprised at how capable the new iPad is. I’m used to using the Magic Keyboard and its trackpad for work, so I discovered that the smart keyboard foil of the new $ 159 iPad is missing. Between that and the smaller screen, it’s not my first choice for tasks that require me to look after multiple things at once.
But it was a great device for compiling this review plus all the “iPad stuff” I want to do when I’m not working. I found myself using the iPad out of hand, with the keyboard removed, more often than I expected. The ability to quickly rotate the keyboard and use the iPad with two hands, and then switch to typing when I wanted to eject an email or reply to a message has become a fairly common workflow on the couch.
All in all, I could do everything I can with my iPad Pro on the new iPad. There are a few small changes and trade-offs here – but for the consumers Apple is targeting, those things can be controversial. The iPad remains a very good tablet at a fair price. If you want something more modern, I don’t blame you, but I would point you to the iPad Air, which has achieved sweet performance, features and price.
If you’ve bought an iPad in the last two years, there’s no need to upgrade – but people with iPads older than fall 2019 will find significant improvements here. If you’ve never bought it before, the new iPad brings a surprisingly deep experience, despite the old design.
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