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.
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.