The ninth-generation iPad for 2021 doesn't deliver any surprises, but it doesn't need to. Starting at $329, it’s Apple’s most affordable tablet, yet it easily outpaces Android models that cost twice as much. And while it may look the same as last year's iPad, there are some major changes under the hood, including a more powerful processor, double the storage, and improved cameras. It's just the right size and price for most people, earning our Editors' Choice award and making it the tablet we recommend most out of Apple's lineup.
The Differences Are Inside
The iPad is the '80s Volvo of the tablet market. It's gone years without a makeover, and its familiar design would never be referred to as sleek nor sexy. But it gets the job done, and we can’t help but think some of Apple’s reticence to give it a makeover is due to its use in educational and institutional settings. Replace the Lightning port with USB-C and all those institutional charging stations will need to be replaced, or at least retrofitted. Likewise, the iPad still supports the original Apple Pencil and Logitech Crayon, not the newer second-gen Apple Pencil—adding support for it would orphan those older accessories. I’d bet on Apple rethinking the iPad's form at some point, but this release means it's at least a year away.
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So if you've picked up a recent iPad, this year's model won't feel much different. It measures 9.8 by 6.8 by 0.3 inches (HWD), weighs 1.1 pounds, and frames its 10.2-inch screen with a visible bezel, big enough to include the Touch ID button that's missing from the iPad Pro. The enclosure is made from recycled aluminum, in your choice of gray or silver. The rose gold color that was available for the past few years is no longer an option.
The base model comes with 64GB of storage, plenty if you primarily use cloud storage and applications. Gamers, creatives, and people who love having lots of apps and local media will want to shell out an extra $150 for the 256GB model. If you want or need LTE connectivity, it’s going to set you back another $130 (there's no 5G option). You can skip it if you're happy tethering to your phone's data plan, or primarily use your tablet on your home Wi-Fi network.
Apple iPad Air (2020)
Read Our Apple iPad Air (2020) Review
Apple iPad Pro (12.9-Inch, 2021)
Read Our Apple iPad Pro (12.9-Inch, 2021) Review
Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 FE
Read Our Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 FE Review
Amazon Fire HD 10 (2021)
Read Our Amazon Fire HD 10 (2021) Review
Lenovo Yoga Smart Tab
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The front of the iPad is dominated by a 10.2 inch, 2,160-by-1,620 LCD. The display is bright, crisp, and perfect for use indoors. True Tone, a feature that adjusts brightness and color temperature, makes its debut on the entry-level iPad this year, which is also great for indoor use.
The 2021 iPad sports a very familiar design(Photo: Steven Winkelman )
For the price, it’s hard to expect too much more. I can’t think of any $300 tablets with high refresh rates, OLED panels, or laminated displays. And while there are some inexpensive options with less pronounced bezels, Apple’s Touch ID sensor is pretty hard to beat.
You Want the Headphone Jack
Audio is another area where little has changed. The latest iPad has the same bottom-firing speakers as its predecessor, and they’re not great. With a maximum volume of 84db, they’re just loud enough to fill a room. The sound quality is best described as tinny, without a hint of bass. Fortunately, there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack and Bluetooth 4.2 for wireless alternatives.
Between the speakers is a Lightning port for charging. The entry-level iPad is Apple’s only tablet that hasn’t been upgraded to USB-C. That said, Apple doesn't make you buy extra accessories to charge it—you get a 20W adapter and a USB-C-to-Lightning cable in the box.
There's no USB-C charging port here(Photo: Steven Winkelman)
Although there’s no Wi-Fi 6 on board, the iPad supports dual-band Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). I tested it on a gigabit fiber network and recorded average speeds of 421.8Mbps down and 41.2Mbps up.
If you opt for the cellular model, you can pop in a SIM from any carrier or use an eSIM for service. I tested the slate on Verizon’s network in downtown Chicago and recorded average speeds of 78.4Mbps down and 56.6Mbps up. Granted, those aren't the same super-fast 5G speeds you can get on the iPad Pro, but it’s more than enough power for working on the go or streaming Netflix.
Less Need to Lug Your Laptop
Not too long ago, a tablet was just a tablet. It wasn't meant to do double duty as a pseudo-laptop. Instead, they were used to stream movies, read news, or simply surf the web on something larger than a smartphone. If you're one of the few old-school tablet stalwarts, the iPad is still among the most affordable options we recommend, but it's not the smallest. The recently redesigned 8.3-inch iPad mini ($499) takes the award for the Apple's most portable slate.
Today's tablets are much more capable—they can do more than shovel media into your brain. The basic iPad isn't the same mobile video editing powerhouse as the iPad Pro, but it can handle basic work tasks, especially with a keyboard attached. I'd recommend the Apple Smart Keyboard for easier emails and Slack messaging—even with it, the iPad is about half the weight of a decent laptop. The Smart Keyboard is expensive—at $159 it's half the cost of the tablet. It's worth it for on-the-go productivity, though. There’s no trackpad, but you can pair a Magic Mouse ($79) if you don’t want to deal with tapping the screen.
Adding a Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil makes the iPad a capable laptop replacement for simple tasks(Photo: Steven Winkelman)
As mentioned, the iPad is Apple's only current tablet to support its first-gen Pencil. Awkward cylindrical design aside, the original Pencil is a good stylus—though despite Apple’s claims, it feels nothing like writing on paper, with no drag whatsoever. That said, you get used to it after a few weeks, and it's pleasing enough to use once you do.
The entry-level iPad has a gap between its touch screen and display glass, making it less precise than other iPad models with laminated displays. Artists and creative professionals will probably want to pony up for at least a $599 iPad Air. In addition to its larger 10.9-inch display, it works with the more intuitive and less slippery second-gen Apple Pencil, and has a more powerful A14 processor.
If you're looking for the closest thing to a laptop replacement, the 11-inch or 12.9-inch iPad Pro makes the most sense. There are a few differences between the two, but both support Apple's Magic Keyboard. They're also available in more storage/RAM variants, and have Face ID and a LiDAR scanner for advanced AR and photography.
The iPad is powered by the same two-year-old A13 Bionic core used in the iPhone 11 series, netting a 20% boost in processing power versus the A12 in the 2020 edition. While that may not seem like a ton of extra pep in the iPad’s step, it makes a significant difference in day-to-day use. It also means you’ll see at least three to four years of iPadOS updates
Unless you’re working in extremely processor-intensive tasks like 4K editing, the iPad has more than enough power to get the job done. In testing, it was powerful enough to chew through demanding games like Alto’s Odyssey and Genshin Impact with ease. We put the iPad through its paces for several days and didn’t experience a single stutter—an impressive feat for the price.
The Apple Pencil remains an essential companion accessory for taking notes(Photo: Steven Winkelman)
See How We Test Tablets
Benchmarks underscore our findings. The iPad scored 1,331 single-core (SC) and 3,516 multi-core on Geekbench 5. For comparison’s sake, the 2020 iPad scored 1,114 SC/2,474 MC, and the more expensive Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 FE scratched out 656 SC/1,959 MC on the same test.
On the Basemark Web 3.0 Safari benchmark, the new iPad earned 821.17, for another huge jump on the 592.82 score its predecessor earned.
The iPad has the same 32.4-watt-hour battery as its predecessor, and Apple claims it will last up to 10 hours between charges. In our battery drain test, which streams HD video over Wi-Fi at full brightness, the iPad lasted 5 hours and 18 minutes before shutting down. That’s a little less than we’ve seen in past years, but with more conservative use (and a lower screen brightness level), we believe the battery will last close to Apple's estimate.
Finally, a New Camera
Perhaps the most exciting update to the iPad is its front-facing camera. That’s right, Apple finally retired the dreadful 1.2MP selfie cam it's been using for years.
The 8MP rear sensor on the iPad is unchanged from last year, but the front-facing camera is now 12MP(Photo: Steven Winkelman)
The iPad's 12MP ultra-wide front-facing lens has a 122-degree field of view and performs well in just about any lighting scenario. This makes for dramatically improved selfies, and more importantly, video call quality. In an age when video calls matter more than ever, this change couldn't have come at a better time.
Center Stage, Apple’s once-limited feature that keeps you centered within the frame as you move about, also makes its debut on the entry-level iPad. For the most part it’s a solid addition, though I encountered a few hiccups. When my cat crept up the bookcase on a call, Center Stage couldn’t decide if it should keep its focus on me or the cat. And in a different call, the feature lopped off the top of my hat.
The rear 8MP camera sensor is unchanged. With enough light, you can easily grab reference shots or scan documents with it. In low light, noise starts to creep in, and photos are shallower. And with AR tasks, depth perception seems slightly skewed.
Better With iPadOS
Although iPadOS 15 is a significant improvement over its predecessors, it’s not going to replace your laptop operating system full time. But it can certainly sub in for short stretches.
iPadOS 15 is Apple’s fastest and most privacy-oriented operating system to date, with a robust library of apps that work seamlessly on any size display. That may not sound like a big deal, but if you’ve used an Android tablet, you’ve almost certainly experienced the frustration of encountering a wonky app that doesn’t scale or work properly.
iPadOS 15 is Apple's most robust tablet operating system to date(Photo: Steven Winkelman)
Among the dozens of new features, a few stand out. Multitasking is easier; there's now an icon to quickly resize apps for easier arrangement. Focus Mode lets you create specific profiles to limit app usage and other distractions.
App Library, a feature first introduced in iOS 14, organizes apps based on common categories. It not only allows you to quickly locate infrequently used apps, it also lets you remove them from the home screen.
Universal Control is one of my favorite additions to iPadOS. When placed next to your iMac or MacBook Air, your iPad becomes a second screen. You can drag and drop files between devices, and even use you Apple Keyboard and Magic Mouse without any additional setup.
Despite how much iPadOS has improved, there’s still a major weakness: It doesn’t allow multiple user accounts. It’s a major oversight that greatly limits the iPad’s utility. Just about anything you store on your iCloud account is available for everyone else using it to see or access.
Apple continues to lead the way when it comes to OS upgrades, and the iPad is assured at least three iPadOS updates. Apple rolls these out to all devices at once, so you don't have to worry about future devices skipping the line. And even though rival Samsung’s upgrade policy has improved exponentially over the past few years, it's not as consistent with delivering its Android tablet OS updates on time.
The Best iPad for Most People
Although Apple’s entry-level iPad hasn’t seen a design refresh in years, it also hasn't seen a price increase, and for $329, the ninth-generation iPad is a killer deal. It performs better than pricier Android competitors, has a nice display well-suited for work and play, and will receive OS updates for years to come. The 12MP front-facing camera and the addition of Center Stage are also welcome upgrades for people who are working (or just video chatting) from home. And while iPadOS 15 may not be a full-on replacement for macOS or Windows, it's Apple’s most capable tablet OS to date. That makes the base model iPad our Editors' Choice winner among Apple's current tablet lineup, as well as for sub-$500 tablets in general.
Apple iPad (9th Generation, 2021)
(Opens in a new window)See It$269.99 at Amazon(Opens in a new window)
Multi-year OS upgrades
Solid front-facing camera
The Bottom Line
Apple's 2021 base model iPad delivers strong performance and an excellent front-facing camera at a very palatable price, making it the best tablet for most people.
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