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Wednesday, Oct 21, 2020

The 2019 iPad races to the bottom (price-wise), but it’s not so bad down there

The 2019 iPad races to the bottom (price-wise), but it’s not so bad down there

Apple's new entry-level tablet delivers the basics, and that will be enough for some.

The past year has seen Apple blazing a new trail for its iPad line of products, further distinguishing the tablets from their iPhone roots and seeking to establish them as real productivity and creativity devices.

iPadOS and the features and performance found in the latest iPad Air, iPad, and iPad Pro models have made the best case yet for the iPad as a device for content creating-not just consumption. But the base iPad, priced at under $400, was until recently very much stuck in the old mode.

This year, Apple has updated that iPad to bring it closer to the rest of the lineup in terms of available features. In many ways, this is a minor update to last year's iPad, though. Most of the internals, including the cameras and the A10 chip, are the same. Performance is identical. Photo quality is identical. Battery life is close to identical. The main changes are in the design of the chassis, including the addition of Smart Keyboard support.

For that reason, this is a mini-review; we're just going to focus on what's new in a quick overview of the new iPad baseline. The price is clearly tempting, but that paragraph above may give some pause. Is the 2019 iPad worth buying when compared to other iPad models, Chromebooks, and tablet or hybrid options elsewhere?


Specifications

The 2019 iPad comes in 32GB and 128GB configurations at $329 or $429.

The internals in this model are very similar to last year's iPad. Apple has included the same A10 chip for CPU, GPU, image processing, and more. As we'll see in the performance section of the review, this is plenty for most use cases but is significantly outperformed by Apple's latest iPad Pro and iPhone models with the A12X and A13, respectively.

Camera specs are the same, too. The rear-facing, 8-megapixel camera has an ƒ/2.4 aperture and the capability to capture 1080p video at 30fps or slow-motion 120fps video at 720p. On the front, we have a 1.2-megapixel, ƒ/2.2 aperture selfie camera that can record video at 720p. The camera is nothing special, but it doesn't really need to be in an iPad, as long as you're not treating it as a one-stop content-creation device.

But there are some differences from the old model, too. We've gone from 2GB to 3GB of RAM, for one thing. LTE speeds in the cellular models have been upgraded, too; Apple says they're "Gigabit-class" and up to three times faster than what we saw in the sixth generation.

And Apple has increased the screen size from 9.7 inches (24.6cm) to 10.2 (25.9cm) here by reducing the bezels, while the pixel density is the same at 264ppi. The resolution is 2,160×1,620 pixels compared to 2018's 2,048×1,536. This display peaks at 500 nits of brightness.

In terms of ports, we have Apple's proprietary Lightning connector and a 3.5mm headphone jack. While I'm happy to see it still has a headphone jack (asking users to pay nearly $200 on AirPods for such an otherwise low-priced device wouldn't be reasonable), I believe it's time to move to the industry standard USB-C, and we haven't seen that yet here.


Design

The most significant change is the design. The new iPad strikes a curious balance between the 2019 iPad Air (which itself shares a chassis with pre-2018 iPad Pro models) and last year's sixth-generation iPad. It has smaller bezels than the 2018 iPad but is markedly thicker than the new iPad Air.

Dimensions in this case are 9.8×6.8×0.29 inches (24.9×17.3×0.7cm). The Air comes in with the same height and width, but it's 0.05 inches (0.13cm) thinner. It's the bezels that make for the real distinction, though. Not everyone cares about bezels or how "modern" the design looks, but some people do, and there's enough of a difference compared to the Air or Pro in the lineup here to give them pause.

At 1.07 pounds (0.485kg) for the Wi-Fi model and 1.09 (0.494kg) for its cellular counterpart, the iPad feels much heavier than the iPad Air at 1 and 1.02 pounds (0.453kg and 0.463kg), too. Holding the device with one hand while reading books, magazines, or longform Web articles (or watching movies for that matter) is maybe the #1 use case for a device like this, and it's just heavy enough that this becomes uncomfortable after a short time. You'd think 0.07 pounds (32 grams) wouldn't be that big a difference, but I was surprised to find that, somehow, it really does feel like one. For me, it feels like that small difference crosses a critical threshold of reading comfort, but I'm sure that varies from person to person.

Unlike the iPad Pro models (and unsurprisingly), the iPad has a home button with Touch ID instead of the TrueDepth camera array that powers Face ID. It still supports all the swipe gestures that Apple has developed for home-button-free devices, though, and I don't think most people will see this as a major tradeoff.

All this comes together to form the impression that this is basically just a cheaper, less-good iPad Air. Given that the iPad Air is an outstanding tablet, that doesn't seem so much like a bad thing. It's definitely an improvement over last year's iPad, which really did feel long in the tooth.

The real weakness of this device's value proposition is that the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil are key to many of the features that make the iPad attractive-especially the keyboard-and buying both of those will set you back around $260. That's a lot to spend on peripherals for a device that is all about accessible pricing. Fortunately, the inclusion of a headphone jack means you don't have to think about spending $160 on AirPods as well.

There is one other thing to commend Apple for here, though: the enclosure is entirely made out of recycled aluminum. I often criticize Apple (and most other mobile device manufacturers) for making devices that end up sending a lot of components to landfills or that are made via wasteful processes, so I'm happy to see any forward movement at all on sustainability for these products, no matter how small.


Software

The new iPad runs iPadOS, Apple's first iPad-specific, specially branded branch of iOS. While not much has changed under the hood in iPadOS compared to previous years when the iPad ran iOS, it's a symbolic move by Apple to indicate that the company would like to further differentiate the iPad from the iPhone now and in the future.

iPadOS has all the features that iOS 13 has-and they are many and, generally, quite positive-as well as some iPad-specific enhancements like greatly expanded multitasking via a window system that allows you to run multiple windows of the same app across your spaces, among other things. Those other things include the ability to place widgets on the home screen, greatly expanded file system access including external drive support, and a Web browser that defaults to the desktop versions of websites.

We published an extensive review of iOS 13, as well as a detailed addendum on iPadOS, in recent weeks. iOS, and by extension iPadOS, remains an attractive mobile operating system with a strong focus on privacy and a powerful lineup of accessibility features. iPadOS makes the iPad more useful for power users, albeit at some cost to simplicity and ease of use.

Read our full reviews for all the details, but here it suffices to say that iPadOS is arguably the best operating system for a pure tablet. The story becomes a bit more nuanced and use-case-dependent when you include two-in-ones running Windows 10 in the comparison, though.


Performance

The internals in the seventh-generation iPad are largely the same as those in the sixth-generation model that we reviewed last year. It still has the A10 system-on-a-chip, which is adequate for today's iOS features and most games but quite a bit slower than the newer A13 chips in the latest iPhones or the A12X in the current iPad Pro models. The A10 is the same chip that shipped inside the iPhone 7 back in 2016.

As such, we didn't expect any surprises on this front, and we didn't come across any. Here's what we found:

This is enough for viewing media, Web browsing, and basic productivity. Some games are going to look or perform a bit subpar on this chip, and it may not be enough for the most powerful content creation apps. But if that's what you're all about, Apple knows you're going to spring for the iPad Air or iPad Pro.

There's no question that performance is the primary sacrifice compared to the rest of the iPad lineup, but this is still solid enough performance. Apple's goal here was getting up-front cost as low as possible for entry-level and education customers while still providing the baseline of what iPadOS is all about, and by that measure this iPad is a success.

My only concern as a potential buyer would be long-term software support. iOS 13 and iPadOS support as far back as the A9-only one annual update behind what's included here. Granted, the iPad has 3GB of RAM, and Apple's dropped devices this year were more about RAM than CPU or GPU power. But if you buy an iPad Air or mini, you'll get an A12-two generations newer, which could mean at least one, possibly two additional years of software updates.

In terms of battery life, Apple has claimed exactly the same performance as we saw last year. Anecdotally, we found results close to what we found with last year's model. We are still running tests and will update when we have results, but we expect no significant difference.


It's a race to the bottom, but it's not so bad down there

The new iPad is one of Apple's most un-Apple products-it's the only one that sees Apple racing to the bottom on price. There are compromises here in both design and performance compared to the rest of the lineup, though it is an indisputable step up on both fronts compared to last year's base iPad.

On the other hand, it's impressive that the company has managed to offer so much of what modern iPads are about for much less money than the other models. If you're just looking for a device to watch some movies on and maybe browse the Web a bit, the seventh-generation iPad is a strong option. It's also likely a good buy if you're a parent who wants to save money while still giving your kids access to apps and games like those in Apple Arcade.

However, if you're seeking to get a lot of work done, create content, enjoy experimental new AR applications, or play the latest games without potential slowdown or graphical downgrades, consider instead springing for the iPad Air, which remains the best overall deal in the iPad lineup today. (Only a few people really need the pricey extra features and performance of the iPad Pro.) And if you're less about the AR, art, and games than you are about just getting work done, Chromebooks remain a more efficient option at this price point, provided you don't mind the way Google handles your personal data.

Apple's goal here was clearly to make all the iPad essentials available at as low a price as possible, primarily to compete with Chromebooks in the education market. It's also an ideal option for point of sale and other business uses where having a touchscreen with strong software support is desirable, but bells and whistles and top-notch performance are optional.

I still believe the iPad Air is the best choice for most people who can afford it, but for kids or for organizations or individuals who have to pinch those pennies and only need the basics, the seventh-generation iPad is still worth considering. It gives you the majority of what's good about the iPad at a significantly lower price point. Just be ready to spend a lot more on that Smart Keyboard if you plan to try to get work done.

The good

Affordable pricing for a tablet of this quality
iPadOS is a powerful mobile operating system, and this tablet supports all its features
Still has a headphone jack
Smart Keyboard support joins iPadOS to make this a viable light productivity machine

The bad

Notably slower performance for games and creative applications than the rest of Apple's 2019 mobile and tablet lineup
Still feels a bit heavy for one-handed uses like reading ebooks
The design still looks just a little dated, but that might be subjective
We're still on Lightning instead of USB-C, significantly limiting connectivity options without adapters

The ugly

Buying a Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil to get the most out of it nearly doubles the price

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