The iPad Air may be gone, but Apple has replaced it with a great all-round 9.7in tablet priced from just $469.
Sales of iPads are trending downwards, yet according to Apple analyst Neil Cybart, there are around 300 million iPads currently in use – approximately double the number of Macs – but around 100 million of them are either older 9.7in models or iPad minis. People like to keep hold of their iPads for a long time.
So Apple’s challenge is to entice those people to upgrade, as well as compete against low-cost Android tablets.
The company is betting that its latest low-cost iPad, which replaces the Air, will do both. It’s certainly priced to tempt, with the 32GB Wi-Fi-only model costing just $469.
Bumping up storage to 128GB will set you back only $599, while Apple also offers 4G cellular versions for $669 and $799 respectively.
Performance and features
Despite this low price, Apple hasn’t simply taken an existing model and made it cheaper. In fact, this is a significant upgrade over the model it replaces – the iPad Air 2 – in almost every way.
First of all, there’s the processor, which is an A9, as featured in the iPhone 6s. Note that this isn't an A9X, which powers the iPad Pro, something that’s reflected in our benchmark results for graphics performance. However, it is fast: in fact, other than the two iPad Pros, this is easily the fastest iPad Apple has ever made.
This use of the A9 rather than A9X is an example of the well-chosen compromises that Apple has made to drive down the price.
A second example is the screen. Now, this is in every way a gorgeous screen. The colours are vivid, and it’s sharp thanks to its 2,048 x 1,563-pixel resolution (which equates to pixel density of 264ppi).
But there’s a noticeable air gap between the surface of the screen and the LCD beneath it. We say “noticeable” – in all likelihood, you’ll only notice it if you’ve been a user of the even better screen on the iPad Pro series and iPad Air 2. The new iPad also lacks the Pro’s exceptionally good anti-reflective coating, but again you’ll probably only notice this if you have got used to a Pro. And, as you’d expect, there’s no True Tone automatic colour adjustment.
There’s also no support for the Apple Pencil, and no Smart Connector so you can’t use compatible keyboards (although you can, of course, use Bluetooth ones if you wish). An iPad Pro, this is not.
Better news comes with the storage configurations: there’s no 16GB model, thankfully, but instead two sensible 32GB and 128GB options.
The iPad is a little heavier and thicker than the iPad Air 2 it replaces. However, at under 480g and 7.5mm, it’s certainly not thick or heavy. It’s unlikely you’ll notice, even if you’re replacing an Air 2.
Touch ID and cameras
If you wanted to understand just how much importance Apple places on Touch ID, look no further than this iPad. It would have been easy for the company to drop Touch ID support. After all, you’re paying less than ever and fingerprint sensors aren’t free of charge. But it hasn’t and that’s a very good thing.
Cameras are effectively the same as on the iPad Air 2, with an 8-megapixel “iSight” camera with an aperture of f/2.4 on the back and a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera, which you’ll only ever want to use for FaceTime.
You can shoot 1080p video with the rear-facing camera at 30fps, which is reasonable enough, although if you’ve used the iPad Pro 9.7 camera, you’ll be disappointed: images produced by the new iPad are noticeably grainier and noisier. However, if you’re updating from something old – which is the market for this model – you’ll probably think it’s amazing.
One area where Apple has not compromised, though, is the battery. The new iPad has the best battery life we’ve seen on any recent Apple tablet, and even on Android you won’t find anything better.
Apple quotes the iPad as having ten-hour battery life, as it does with almost every model. However, our standard battery test delivered a fabulous 14 hours 47 minutes, which compares to 8 hours 56 minutes on the 9.7in iPad Pro, 9 hours 32 minutes on the iPad Air 2 and 12 hours 9 minutes on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2. This is more than “goes all day”; this is “take it away for a weekend and you might not have to charge it” territory.
We’ve focused a lot in this review on what the new Apple iPad (2017) doesn’t have and, although the existence of the iPad Pro series makes that inevitable, it isn’t a particularly fair way to view it.
What Apple has managed to do is make an exceptionally good tablet at a price that an extremely competitive price. Yes, you can find significantly cheaper Android tablets, but only if you make compromises such as dropping to 16GB of storage or 7in or 8in screen.
And you wouldn’t be getting an iPad, which means you wouldn’t be getting access to the biggest and best tablet software library there is. You wouldn’t be getting a camera, performance and battery life this good.
Sure, there are some obvious compromises, but you’re getting an iPad that's only bettered by the much more expensive Pro series, at a price Apple has never reached before.