Apple now only sells one tablet with a physical Home button, thick borders around the screen, and the Lightning port: the new ninth-generation iPad. It’s also the only one in the lineup that supports the aging first-gen Apple Pencil.
You might be wondering why you’d want these dated features. Having the USB-C port on the new iPad Mini, for example, lets you recharge the tablet with the same cable you use for your MacBook. The Mini’s support for the second-gen Apple Pencil also means there’s an effortless way to store and recharge it. But the answer is simple: price. With the new iPad Mini’s price jump to $499, this $329 machine is now markedly the cheapest iPad.
The upgrades this year are minor—there’s a better processor and an improved front-facing camera. But unless you’re looking for an iPad to easily power you through editing 4K video footage and batches of photos, or you’re relying on it as your ultimate sketchbook, this model remains the best option for most people. It manages all the normal tasks perfectly well. You know, like word processing, streaming TV shows and movies, reading ebooks and textbooks, and note-taking. It’s not flashy nor enticing, but your wallet will thank you immensely.
Function Over Form
The ninth-generation iPad didn’t get the same makeover as this year’s iPad Mini. Apple recycled the age-old design, keeping the headphone jack and the Home button (with Touch ID). It’s still relatively lightweight, so it’s easy to carry around, and because of its thicker bezels around the screen, it felt a little more secure in my hands when I was using it.
Apple finally brought its True Tone technology news to the 10.2-inch screen. Just like on the iPhone, the screen’s brightness and color temperature automatically adjust depending on the ambient lighting conditions around you. It’s a nice touch. You also get more storage in the base model than ever before, but 64 GB still feels a bit lacking.
More important, the 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera has been upgraded to a 12-megapixel ultrawide sensor. The quality is noticeably better, but the camera’s placement is still awkward. During video calls in landscape orientation, you’re forced to look to the side, which feels unnatural.
To try to combat this, Apple includes Center Stage support just like you’ll find on the new iPad Mini and iPad Pro. This feature forces the camera to keep you in the frame as you move around a room, and it’ll zoom out when it recognizes more than one person. It’s still not a solution for that awkward side camera placement, but it’s handy when pulling double duty video calling with your parents and cooking at the same time. You never have to worry about leaving the frame.
That said, it’s not perfect. I was on a video call on the iPad with my editor, but when my roommate entered the living room and sat on a couch in the background, the camera kept zooming out to include them in the frame—precisely the opposite of what I wanted.
Equally annoying is the fact that this iPad still doesn’t have a fully laminated display, which means there’s a gap between the glass and the screen. It doesn’t feel as precise to write with, so if you plan on using an Apple Pencil a lot, you’re probably better off upgrading to another model.
Speaking of, this iPad supports only the first-generation Apple Pencil. Unlike the second-gen Pencil, which offers automatic pairing, wireless charging, touch controls to switch between modes, and a way to store the darn thing, the first-gen version is frustrating to use. It still has the dumb cap that’s easy to lose (read: I already lost it), a Lightning connector you stick into the iPad’s port for awkward charging, and no way to store it. If you must get the Apple Pencil, I recommend buying a case that has a storage solution.
A few generations ago, Apple added support for its Smart Keyboard Folio, which transforms this machine into a laptop, of sorts. It’s a pricey addition ($159), but it allowed me to ditch my MacBook Pro on less hectic workdays. (I’m writing this review on the iPad!)
I can’t say I would willingly switch to using it as a permanent work machine though. My brain doesn’t mesh well with multitasking in iPadOS 15. Yes, it‘s nice to have two apps open at once in split-screen mode, but I typically have five or six simultaneously sprawled across my MacBook Pro. Muscle memory and free-flowing apps on MacOS just help me work a lot quicker.
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That’s not to say this isn’t a capable machine. It had zero trouble with my day-to-day tasks, such as browsing on Safari, messaging on Slack and iMessage, video calling on Zoom, and listening to music on Spotify. Apple bumped the chip to the A13 Bionic this year, which is the same as the one in the iPhone 11. It might be two years old, but I barely noticed a difference alongside the new A15 Bionic in the iPad Mini.
Battery life can be iffy at times. Apple claims up to 10 hours of battery of browsing the web or watching videos (on Wi-Fi). When using it as my sole machine for the above tasks, I got through seven hours before having to plug the iPad into a charger (at 90 percent brightness). It’s worth noting I used Safari as my primary web browser. If you use Google Chrome, expect it to drain your battery life quicker.
I also squeezed out seven hours when streaming a show on Netflix (while occasionally using iMessage and scrolling through Twitter). However, on a day with long Zoom calls and using the iPad as a second screen for my MacBook with SideCar, the battery died after three hours. Ouch. It should manage a work or school day just fine, but it’ll naturally vary (a lot) based on what exactly you’re doing.
The ninth-gen iPad isn’t all that exciting, but it can pretty much handle most of the same tasks you’d run on its pricier siblings. It’s just about the most powerful tablet in its price range, and it has the most tablet-optimized apps that make it nicer to use than the competition. You might feel some FOMO seeing others with their shiny iPad Pro or cute iPad Mini, but you can put the money you save into buying some killer apps because, ultimately, that’s what matters the most.
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