Price is a feature. The latest Apple iPad is thicker and heavier than the iPad Air 2 it replaces, but its compelling feature is that, at $329 (for the 32GB model), it's much less expensive. While there's little reason for existing iPad owners to upgrade, the new iPad's price stabs a stake into the heart of many competing Android tablets.
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Yes, Apple has sold "discount" iPads before. But they've always been either older models or the smaller Mini version, which doesn't work as well for reading comics and watching videos as the full-size tablet does. This is the first time Apple has put a relatively current processor in a tablet it's selling for under $350. It's a cheaper iPad with fewer compromises. And it's a fantastic deal for prospective new tablet owners, as well as our Editors' Choice.
What's New Here?
Yes, this 2017 model is bigger and heavier than the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Pro 9.7. At 6.6 by 9.4 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and 1 pound, it's even heavier than the original iPad Air. You can feel the difference if you pay attention, but it's...just not a big deal. These are thin and light tablets no matter what, and the slight difference in weight (basically an ounce) isn't terribly meaningful.
The screen, which is the same 9.7-inch, 2,048-by-1,536 panel as on the Air 2, is slightly brighter but a little more washed out than its predecessor. That's because Apple has removed the lamination layer (to keep the cost down), which should also make the screen a little more reflective, although I couldn't see a measurable difference. Like with the size and weight, it's a nominal degradation in quality that doesn't really matter in everyday use.
The new iPad has an A9 processor, which is faster than the iPad Air 2's A8 but not as powerful as the A9X in the iPad Pro or the A10 in the iPhone 7. On the AnTuTu processor benchmark, we saw a nice 20 percent bump from the iPad Air 2. On-screen graphics performance measured by the 3DMark Ice Storm and Sling Shot tests increased by 10 to 20 percent as well. Scores were considerably lower than the iPad Pro or iPhone 7, of course. But you're not going to see much of a performance difference unless you're trying to juggle heavy-duty activities like complex Excel spreadsheets with graphs, or editing and exporting video and multi-track audio.
The difference in Wi-Fi performance, on the other hand, is quite impressive. Apple has upgraded the dual-band Wi-Fi chipset from the Air 2. On several tests in middling 5GHz conditions, I often got double the Wi-Fi speeds on the new iPad than I did on the Air 2. In very poor Wi-Fi conditions, I got much shorter connection latency times: 10ms compared with more than 200ms. The single, global LTE model now supports Band 12, which means it will have better coverage on T-Mobile than the Air 2.
The heavier weight allows for a bigger battery than the iPad Air 2, at 32.9 watt-hours compared with the Air 2's 27.6. That said, we managed 5 hours, 15 minutes of Wi-Fi video streaming at maximum screen brightness, similar to previous iPads. Apple measures its battery times at about half brightness, at which you should see the 10 hours the company promises.
The Bigger Context
If you aren't familiar with iPads, they're easy-to-use tablets with thousands of dedicated apps and plenty of accessories. Their primary upside is the same as their primary downside: Apple's quality-controlled, access-limited OS and app store, which delivers terrific experiences for average users while irritating more technical types who want to be able to get into file systems and such.
Most other features of this iPad are very similar to the iPad Air 2. The physical home button doubles as a Touch ID fingerprint scanner. There's a Lightning jack on the bottom panel, along with dual speakers. There's a headphone jack on the top. The tablet comes in black, gray, or silver.
Like all iPads, the new tablet runs iOS 10.3. Apple's OS upgrade compatibility is based on processor generations, so this iPad should get an extra year's worth of updates than the iPad Air 2 will, although the Air 2 still probably has two years' worth of upgrades left on it. It's worth noting Apple has not confirmed any of this, but it's safe to assume based on history.
The 8-megapixel main camera, capable of 1080p video, and the 1-megapixel, 720p front camera appear identical to the previous model's. Both are fine, not great. The speakers deliver the same maximum volume, to the decibel, as the iPad Air 2's speakers. They lack the richness of the iPad Pro's or the treble-bass spacing trick of the Galaxy Tab S3's. They're fine for watching videos, but you'll want an external speaker or headphones to draw out any depth in music.
The tablet comes in 32GB ($329) and 128GB ($429) Wi-Fi-only models, and you can't add additional storage, so choose wisely. The 32GB model, which we tested, has 28.58GB available out of the box. That's fine for light use, streaming, and cloud-based applications (even Office work is cloud-based nowadays), but remember that higher-end games often clock in at 1GB each, and if you download (rather than stream) movies, they are typically 1 to 2GB each. LTE modem-equipped models are available for $459 (32GB) and $559 (128GB).
Comparisons and Conclusions
What is an iPad for? We think it's for web browsing, second-screen video watching, gaming, and reading. And for all of those uses, the 2017 iPad is excellent. Its A9 processor is even capable of video conferencing and low-key Microsoft Office work without a problem.
At $599 and up, the iPad Pro and the Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 just cost too much for what you get from their inherently limited tablet operating systems; you can get a real Mac, a PC, or a well-equipped Windows tablet for the same price. The primary reason you should step up to those tablets is if you're in the creative niche that requires a stylus.
There's no need for iPad Air, Air 2, mini 3, or mini 4 owners to upgrade here. Yes, the processor is faster and the Wi-Fi is better, but your tablet works just fine. Second- and third-generation iPads are probably really starting to grind, though, and you'll get a much smoother experience with this model.
If you don't own a tablet at all, the 2017 iPad offers better value than the iPad mini 4. It also outpaces its best Android competitor, the Asus ZenPad 3s 10, which gives you more storage and better speaker quality, but inferior cameras, battery life, and gaming performance. That makes the new iPad the best all-around tablet for the most people, and our Editors' Choice.