Remember the iPad? In the afterglow of its splashy 2010 debut, Apple’s tablet became the post-smartphone “it” gadget of the decade. In recent years, however, sales have dipped — both for iPads and tablets in general. But not for lack of trying: Near-annual improvements have pushed the iPad family forward, with higher-resolution Retina screens, ever thinner bodies, and — with the more expensive iPad Pro — towards productivity and creativity features such as stylus support and a high-end keyboard.
Ironically, the iPad line’s biggest problem was that the older models were so good that there wasn’t a huge incentive to replace them. And it didn’t help that phone screens have gotten ever larger in the past few years, too: Why lug out a tablet, even a slim one like an iPad, when a 5.5-inch phone offers a reasonably close experience? Those newer iPad Pro models, meanwhile, were perfectly lustworthy, but priced at laptop pricing tiers of $600 and up. For watching videos, reading the web and playing Super Mario Run, older iPads — or those big-screen phones — remained good enough for a lot of users.
That’s why I’m surprised that I’m as excited as I am about this new 2017 model, a 9.7-inch tablet simply called iPad. Like the super-thin 12-inch MacBook, it drops all the honorifics — no Air, Pro or Mini here — and instead positions itself as the most purely distilled example of the concept. Not the bells-and-whistles flagship, but the one that delivers the iPad basics at a very competitive cost.
The price, in fact, is the most exciting thing about this otherwise very familiar iPad. It starts at $329 (£339 or AU$469) for the 32GB Wi-Fi only model and $459 (£469 or AU$669) for the 32GB Wi-Fi/LTE version,. It also comes in a 128GB version starting at $429 (£429 or AU$599) with Wi-Fi and $559 (£559 or AU$799) with Wi-Fi/LTE, which is the model tested here; there is no 64GB option. That starting price of $329 is $70 less than the $399 starting price of the iPad Air 2 it replaces. That’s $60 more than the previous budget champ, the smaller iPad Mini 2 (now discontinued), but it still makes this new model the most affordable full-size iPad ever.
Thanks to its lower starting price, this is a great first iPad for someone new to the brand, or an opportunity to update from an older model that doesn’t support iOS 10, such as the third-gen Retina iPad or the original iPad Mini. It’s close enough to impulse buy territory for a lot of people, and it’s also a near-perfect gift for anyone.
Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2017)
|Price as reviewed||$559|
|Display size/resolution||9.7-inch 2,048×1,536 touchscreen|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.2, LTE|
|Operating system||iOS 10.3|
Let’s call it the iPad SE
So how did Apple cut the price on a full-size iPad without cutting into their legendary profit margins? Well, let’s just say that this new iPad may not actually be as new as it seems. It follows the half-step-forward, half-step-back model used in the Apple Watch Series 1 and the iPhone SE, essentially putting updated components in a bit of a throwback physical package, while keeping more expensive, more feature-filled models on sale right next to it.
This new iPad replaces the iPad Air 2 in Apple’s tablet lineup, but it’s actually closer to the original iPad Air in some ways. In fact, it has the exact same 7.5mm thickness and 469 gram weight as the 2013 iPad Air 1. By comparison, the Wi-Fi version of the iPad Air 2 is 6.1mm thick and weighs 437 grams (as does the 9.7-inch iPad Pro). Note that the LTE versions of these tablets weigh 7 to 9 grams more.
Even though this new model is slightly thicker and heavier, you’d probably have to put them side by side to notice. It’s minor, but in person, there’s a definite difference. It’s a small step backwards in design, and it’s probably also at least one reason this new tablet reverts back to the classic iPad name rather than the iPad Air.
Apple says new smart covers and related accessories for the iPad are backwards compatible with the original iPad Air line, but the reverse may not be true because of some shifting in where the magnets that control the sleep/wake feature are located.
A shinier screen
While the new iPad, the 9.7-inch Pro and the late iPad Air 2 all have the same 2,048×1,536 resolution, the screen is still where you’re apt to notice the biggest differences between them.
The iPad Air 2 has an antireflective coating that’s missing here, while the new iPad screen is 25-percent (according to Apple) brighter. The result is an image that looks brighter and bolder, but also has stronger on-screen reflections (frankly, the anti-reflective coating on the Air 2 was still pretty reflective, and not as good for off-axis viewing). The 9.7-inch iPad Pro, which costs nearly twice as much, has the same screen resolution, but adds a wide-color display which supports the P3 color gamut, and is especially of interest to professional visual artists, video editors and other creative types. The iPad Pro screen looks awesome, and viewed side by side with his model, you can really tell the difference. But, that’s a $600 and up iPad, while this one starts at just $329. For that price, it’s a great display.
And that’s what I find myself spending most of my iPad time doing, using the big, bright display for video viewing through Netflix, YouTube and other iOS apps. That’s been a huge strength of the iPad since the very beginning, and it remains one of the best personal portable media players of all time. But, higher resolution aside, it’s also an experience that hasn’t changed radically over the years. For historical context, here’s a demo of Netflix on the original iPad from way back in 2010.
Note, however, that competitors are catching up, and the new Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 tablet offers an AMOLED display that’s arguably even better for movie viewing, especially once it gets access to promised HDR (high dynamic range) video content. But that Tab S3 starts at $599 in the US, the same as the iPad Pro, so it’s playing in a different ballpark than this iPad.
Upgraded under the hood
Inside, there’s an upgraded processor, going from the A8X chip to the newer A9 (the same chip that’s in the iPhone SE and the 2015-era iPhone 6S). There’s an even faster A9X in the iPad Pro, and there’s no telling what we’ll see in future iOS devices later this year (like the 10th anniversary iPhone).
Performance in our benchmark tests told exactly the story we expected. The new iPad and its A9 chip was a bit faster than the iPad Air 2 and a bit slower than the iPad Pro. The iPad remains a great mobile gaming machine, as long as the games you want to play are available as iOS apps. Throwing a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet into the mix, with an Intel Core i5 CPU, gave us the best results, but that’s a much more expensive product.
Battery life matched Apple’s 12-hour claims when we tested it running streaming video. The Air and Pro models we tested did not run as long, but note that both of those test systems were about a year old, so the batteries had a lot of wear on them when we ran this newer test.
A great tablet, but don’t expect the Pro features
Apple’s new iPad feels like a cheaper, but more advanced, take on the previous models (remember, the original iPad launched at $500 in 2010). That’s great for a lot of tablet tasks, but the category has shown some real evolution over the past few years. Comparing models, it’s tempting to upsell yourself into an iPad Pro or other high-end tablet, which would include features such as stylus support, an ultra-premium display and quad speakers.
There’s a minimum $270 “Pro” tax to get those features in the iPad Pro, plus $99 for the Pencil stylus and $149 for the iPad Pro clip-on keyboard. In our previous hands-on tests, the Pencil is amazing, as good or better than the stylus included with the Microsoft Surface Pro, and the iOS apps specifically upgraded for the iPad Pro (such as Adobe’s photo editing and illustration tools) are fantastic.
That’s some of what you miss out on by opting for the iPad versus the iPad Pro. If your tablet purchase is meant to be an all-day, every day computing and communications device, then by all means strongly consider dropping a more laptop-like chunk of cash on an iPad Pro and its accessories. (Just be advised the Pro models are past their first birthday, and replacements could be on deck soon). But, if you’re looking for an iPad that excels at traditional iPad-like things, such as video streaming, games, web surfing and ebooks, this is a fantastic value and should be the default first iPad you consider.
There’s one caveat to my advice. The still-excellent iPad Air 2 is, for now at least, still relatively easy to find. The closest base model, with 32GB of storage and a Wi-Fi-only connection, is selling at some big retailers for $299, less even than this new budget-minded iPad. If you don’t mind slightly slower performance, and want the thinner and lighter body of the late, great Air 2, a deal like that is a steal if you can find it. (Just make sure it’s the 32GB model, and not the older 16GB one.)
|Apple iPad (2017)||Apple iOS 10.3; 1.85GHz Apple A9; 2GB RAM; Wi-Fi/LTE; 128GB Storage|
|Apple iPad Pro||Apple iOS 10.2.3; 2.26GHz Apple A9X; 2GB RAM; Wi-Fi; 128GB Storage|
|Apple iPad Air 2||Apple iOS 10.2.1; 1.5GHz Apple A8X; 2GB RAM; Wi-Fi; 64GB Storage|
|Microsoft Surface Pro 4||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM; Wi-Fi; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab S3||Google Android 7.0; 2.15GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 Quad Core; 4GB RAM; Wi-Fi; 32GB Internal storage|