Review: The new $329 iPad is an incredible value for anyone who wants a good mobile computer

I’ve been using Apple’s “pro” iPads since the first one was introduced. It was an obvious play for someone like me who used the iPad in a professional context before it was cool to do so. Apple’s also given the iPad Pro cool new features exclusively over the past six years, leaving the regular iPad in the dust. But recently, Apple has started to show a willingness to share its best new features with the iPad, iPad Air, and iPad mini. Over the past several days I’ve been rocking Apple’s new 9th generation iPad and I’m stunned to say, it’s fantastic and it’s the first one that has everything I need.

The new iPad as I am going to call it throughout the rest of this post is on the surface, just another spec bump for the aging iPad home button design. But it’s much more than that and features so many improvements across the board that it’s the only iPad I’d recommend to anyone right now.

I love the iPad Pro, it’s got a gorgeous ProMotion edge to edge display and an M1 chip inside. But I’ve learned quickly that neither of those things are even remotely necessary for a great iPad experience. iPad Air packs similar performance to the new iPad but with an edge to edge Liquid Retina display. It’s also compatible with Apple Pencil 2 and the Magic Keyboard but those are simply “nice-to-haves.” The new iPad mini isn’t a product I’d recommend to someone explicitly looking for an iPad, especially if the goal is to get work done. It’s for a very niche audience of people who want a tiny computer that fits in a jacket pocket and feels like a 21st century moleskin journal.

Black + silver = chef’s kiss

So with that out of the way, why do I love the new iPad? Let’s start with the design. It looks mostly like every other iPad since the iPad Air 2 from 2014. But if you opt for the silver model, you get an all-new two tone look that Apple hasn’t offered since the fourth generation iPad. It’s got a black front bezel and a silver back chassis. It looks really nice and frankly it looks better than any iPad with a home button ever made. The space gray model looks exactly the same as any other space gray iPad so I’d recommend staying away from it if you care about your device feeling and looking “new.”

A13 screams

The new iPad has a really fast chip, in fact it’s the first and only iPad to have an A13 Bionic processor. Apple only ever shipped the A13 in the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone SE, opting to give the iPad Pro an A12Z processor instead. I’ve noticed instantly that the A13 makes the new iPad feel just as fast as an iPad Air or even an iPad mini. I know there are lots of nuances to consider, but in day-to-day standard use I don’t feel any sort of difference.

I don’t play a lot of intense games on my iPads, instead I stick to simple games. I love puzzles and simulators and both categories play no differently here than they do on the more expensive iPads. I’ve been playing a ton of Townscaper on my iPad and it runs spectacularly well. The neural engine in the A13 makes the new iPad scream, it’s the best thing about this particular chip upgrade. It’s blazing fast and makes multitasking feel as fluid as it does on iPad Air. It’s a great experience and anyone, even the most intense iPad users would be happy with it. I had previously spent some time with the 7th generation iPad and I consistently found it dropping frames and slowing down in places other iPads wouldn’t. That’s no longer an issue with the $329 iPad.

If you have last year’s 8th generation iPad with the A12 chip you’re still in good shape. But the evolution from A12 to A13 was huge and you can feel the improvements in performance across the board. This was especially the case when Apple introduced the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro.

Center stage

If you want an iPad for video calls, don’t buy an iPad Air. Buy the new iPad. It’s got one of Apple’s best new features: Center Stage. Center stage uses a new wide angle front facing camera and adjusts the field of view to properly show you and anyone else on your end of the call. The camera is also significantly better, being now 12 megapixels rather than a 1.2 megapixel camera. It’s one of the best front facing cameras Apple has ever shipped in a product.

A much improved display

The display on the new iPad continues to be 10.2-inches on the diagonal. It’s a great size and is just enough screen to get work done efficiently without feeling cramped. It’s also not that much smaller than the 10.9-inch and 11-inch iPad Air and iPad Pro respectively. Apple hasn’t changed the display resolution at all but has introduced one of its best display features: True Tone.

With True Tone on the new iPad, the display adjusts its color temperature based on ambient lighting. When you’re in a warmer space, the display turns more yellow. When you’re in a bright white space, the display turns more blue. Apple’s tech here is miraculous and anyone who has used True Tone knows its something you can’t live without once you’ve used it.

Apple has also added sRGB color to the new iPad, improving color reproduction. But it’s not such a big improvement year over year that you’ll notice.

Way more storage, same great price

One of the best aspects of the new iPad is storage configurations. Apple has doubled the storage configurations on the new iPad but kept the price points the same. The new iPad starts with 64GB of storage at the same $329 price. That base model is a great value, but the new 256GB option is an incredible value. Apple previously only offered 128GB maximum on the iPad, but 256GB is computer level good.

For $479, you can get a 256GB iPad with Wi-Fi. The iPad mini starts at $499 with 64GB of storage and the iPad Air starts at the same 64GB for $599. So you can get 256GB of storage for less than the price of the base iPad mini or iPad Air.

There are cellular options available, but I’d stay away from those for now. The cellular iPads only have LTE, while the iPad mini and iPad Pro both have 5G. if you’ve got a phone with LTE, just use the hotspot. If you’ve got a phone with 5G, you’re in an even better position. Apple will eventually bring 5G to the base iPad. It’s unclear if the technology will be affordable enough to put in the 10th generation iPad next year, but it’ll get here eventually. Apple’s put lots of eggs in the 5G basket.

iPadOS 15 feels the same

Using this new iPad feels virtually identical to using an iPad Air or iPad Pro. It’s running the same iPadOS 15 with improvements to multitasking, quick note, and widgets on the Home Screen. You can do just about anything you can do on the iPad Pro with this new iPad.

Multitasking feels great on the new iPad. Moving apps into split view is fluid. Slide over is quick and apps are pretty good at staying in the state I left them. The app switcher isn’t wonky at all and I haven’t noticed any dropped frames. Long story short, the new iPad works perfectly for multitasking.

What else is new

There are a handful of other changes in this new iPad. First off, Apple has actually removed one thing: GSM and Edge. Cellular models won’t be able to connect to networks that use those protocols. It’s not a big deal for most people since neither are really used anymore, but if you live in a country or area that does use them it’s important to know.

Apple has added a new feature to the video camera on the new iPad. Users can now film at 25fps if they want to in addition to 30fps.

The Wi-Fi model of the new iPad actually weighs slightly less than last year’s 8th generation iPad. It’s a very marginal difference and you probably won’t notice it. But it’s a nice little component of the new iPad’s story. Ironically, the cellular models of the new iPad are heavier this year than they were last year.

What’s the same

There’s a lot that’s still the same in the new iPad. The most obvious thing that’s still the same is the Touch ID sensor built-in to the home button on the front. It’s as fast and secure as ever and I love it. Using the the new iPad has confirmed my suspicion that the home button Touch ID sensor is more accurate and reliable than the side mounted one on iPad Air and iPad mini.

Apple has kept the lightning connector on the new iPad. They say it’s to maintain compatibility with accessories that organizations use with existing iPads, but I think it’s more than that. I’ve noticed that carrying the new iPad and an iPhone and having one lightning charger is infinitely better than having to lug a lightning charger and a USB-C charger everywhere I go. An average iPad user doesn’t need USB-C and they’ll more than likely be happy that they can use the same charger as their iPhone. Lightning also means you still can use the original Apple Pencil. Apple’s second generation pencil is better, but not so much better that this is a miss. The only real benefit of the second generation Apple Pencil is that it sticks to the side.

The speakers on the new iPad are still stereo and mounted on the bottom. These are the worst speakers you can get in an iPad right now, but they’re still really good. They’re not as loud or as full as the iPad Air or iPad Pro, but you’ll be happy with them.

The rear facing camera is still 8 megapixels and fairly mediocre. It’s fine for shooting a quick video or snapping a photo on the fly, but you do not want to use this as your primary camera. I don’t know why anyone would want to use an iPad as their primary camera, but if you plan to do so get an iPad Pro.

The new iPad still uses the original smart connector design, meaning you can still use the Smart Keyboard. It’s still floppy and goofy looking when closed but it continues to be a great on-the-go keyboard. I particularly love using it in coffee shops. And unlike the Smart Keyboard Folio and Magic Keyboards for the iPad Air and iPad Pro, you can adjust the Smart Keyboard to work as a standard Smart Cover stand for watching movies. You can nicely tuck the keyboard behind the iPad. I thought that I’d miss the trackpad on the Magic Keyboard, but I don’t. We went a decade without a trackpad on iPad and I’m still perfectly comfortable using one without it.

Lastly, yes there is a headphone jack. I will never use it, but it’s there and it’s good that people who want an iPad with a headphone jack can still buy one.

Verdict

This is the iPad to get. Unless you absolutely want USB-C or to use Apple’s newer Apple Pencil and keyboards, there’s no reason to spend the huge premium to upgrade to a higher end iPad. Apple has turned the base $329 iPad into something that works for everyone. The changes they’ve made are in all the right places this year. It’s way faster, it’s better for working remotely, it’s got a better display for entertainment, and yet it’s still as thin and light as ever. It’s hard to beat the value that Apple has here. It’s the best tablet for most people.

PS: If you’re a student you can can get the new iPad for just $309 and if you’re buying the new iPad in bulk for schools and universities you can get them for just $299.

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