Apple iPad (2021) review: The best entry-level iPad

Although pointing more to the past than the future, this iPad succeeds where it matters

Price
£266 exc VAT (64GB Wi-Fi model)
  • Still feels premium
  • Powerful and good value
  • Great new front camera
  • Extensive app ecosystem
  • Unlaminated display
  • Some dated design/tech
  • Uses first-gen Apple Pencil
  • Mediocre speaker system

When the iPad made its debut, grumpy pundits griped that no-one needed a giant iPhone, while detractors claimed you’d never be able to do real work on one. Many still do. But Apple’s focus on quality hardware and ambitious apps have long flown in the face of lofty opinions, to the point we now have this ninth generation of the hardware.

These days, the vanilla iPad is Apple’s take on entry level. It’s not cheap – this device isn’t in a scrap with low-end Android fare. Instead, it aims to offer broadly compromise-free performance in a relatively affordable package.

Apple iPad (2021) review: Design

To say the new iPad looks like a classic iPad might sound obvious, but this is now the only tablet in Apple’s line-up that echoes the original. The rest of the line has shifted to the iPad Pro’s modern all-screen design. By contrast, this 9th-gen model sticks with a Home button and chunky bezels.

Depending on how charitable you’re feeling, you can either think of this as familiar or dated. Regardless, it feels premium – not to the level of an iPad Pro nor even an iPad Air, but still some ways beyond other tablets at this price point. 

The 7.5mm thickness feels great in the hand – a good thing too, since tablets are intended as handheld devices – and at a shade under 500g, it won’t make your arms hurt after extended use.

Apple iPad (2021) review: Display

Apple’s screens are a regular highlight of its devices, and the iPad’s 10.2in display offers a 2,160×1,620 pixel resolution at 264 ppi. It’s responsive and bright, and although it lacks P3 wide colour, everything from web pages to video footage looks great. The addition of True Tone is welcome, improving colours under varied lighting.

Brightness ramps up to 483cd/m2, which borders on eye-searing under normal conditions. But it’s necessary outside, because this iPad lacks a laminated display and anti-reflective coating. If the sun’s out, you might need to ramp up the brightness to see what’s on the screen.

Inside, it’s better, if more mirror-like than other iPads. Size-wise, the display’s big enough for productive work – if you’re armed with the right apps and hardware. That said, Apple’s stubborn refusal to allow full external display support limits you if you fancy working on a larger screen.

On the other hand, the quality is good enough that you may not need to. We measured an average Delta-E of 1 in our tests, as well as a contrast ratio of 1,105:1 and an sRGB colour gamut coverage of 91.4%. That’s not quite as flawless as the newer iPad Pros, but it’s certainly good enough to undertake professional-grade visual design and graphics work with zero qualms.

Apple iPad (2021) review: Specs and performance

The A13 chip that powers this iPad was cutting edge in 2019 when it debuted as part of the iPhone 11 line. Since then, we’ve had an A14 in the iPad Air, an A15 in the iPad mini, and desktop/laptop-grade M1 chips inside the iPad Pro.

But the A13 is no slouch. In our Geekbench tests, it scored 1,330 for single core operations and 3,336 for multi-core. On GFXBench, it scored 4,374 in the Car Chase (offscreen) graphics test. Pretty good for an entry-level iPad. And in real-world tests, this tablet handled every app we threw at it, including music and video editors. On that basis, it should be fine for any typical work use; and even though this iPad packs only 3GB RAM, iPadOS’s efficient RAM use ensures you can deftly run apps two-up in Split View.

Be mindful, though, that storage can’t be upgraded later. Although the base level of 64GB is double what you got with the 8th-gen iPad, that might be limiting if you work with a lot of images or video and don’t rely on cloud storage.

Apple iPad (2021) review: Battery life

Apple reckons you’ll get up to ten hours of web surfing on Wi-Fi before the iPad will need recharging – or nine hours on cellular. Real-world numbers will vary and depend on the apps you’re using.

In our standardised battery test that plays a looping video in airplane mode, the 9th-gen lasted 13hrs 11mins, making it the longest-lasting iPad we’ve tested, and beating its predecessor by almost half an hour. In broader use cases, it fared well during days of office-oriented tasks, with music playing in the background, and rarely needed plugging in. However, be aware the battery can take a noticeable hit when using Zoom or procrastinating with a graphics-intense game.

Apple iPad (2021) review: Features

There’s a lot of tech packed into the 9th-gen iPad, but some is showing its age. You get a Lightning port, when other iPads have moved to faster USB-C; and this also leaves you with the original Apple Pencil – still impressive, but less so than its successor and absurdly charged by having it stick out of the iPad’s port.

Authorisation is by Touch ID, which is fine. The “twin-speaker audio” is less so, blasting sound from one side when using the tablet in landscape. There’s no Wi-Fi 6 (you get 802.11a/b/g/n/ac dual band) and Bluetooth is 4.2 rather than 5, although that’s unlikely to impact your day-to-day.

The 8MP rear camera is also serviceable, but you won’t use it for anything important. The new front camera is impressive, though – a 12MP ultra wide with a 122° field of view that supports Center Stage, a new iPadOS feature that keeps you in-frame during video chats. It’s a big upgrade and great to see.

As with the last generation, this device support’s Apple’s Smart Connector pins for attaching keyboard covers and the like. This is absolutely essential for anyone looking to use the device for work; the iPad’s virtual keyboard is fine for occasional text input, but in landscape mode covers half of the display and is no good for extended typing sessions.

Sadly, using Apple’s Smart Keyboard for iPad (£159) is a miserable experience akin to typing on a rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum. Fortunately, there are alternatives, such as the Logitech Combo Touch (£119.95), with its Smart Connector support and built-in trackpad, or a standard external Bluetooth keyboard and trackpad/mouse if you prop your iPad up on a stand. Factor in these additional costs if you intend to regularly use the iPad for a lot of work that involves typing.

Apple iPad (2021) review: Verdict

Parts of this review might read like a laundry list of gripes, but that’s to be expected when faced with an iPad that’s now an outlier in terms of technology. But it must be considered in context as well.

If you’re keen on an iPad for work (and play) and are on a budget, this 9th-gen model will last you for years. It’s powerful, the screen is great, and the unit feels robust and premium. For £319, it’s solid value.

It’s often said that the standard iPad remains the best option for most people, and we’d agree. Even so, if you want to go all-in with the platform and you have the funds, instead consider the more powerful iPad Air or iPad Pro, which have superior displays, speakers, performance and better external keyboard options.

Apple iPad (2021) specifications

Processor

Apple A13 Bionic chip

RAM

3GB

Screen 

10.2in 2,160× 1,620 LED display

Front camera

12MP ultra wide, ƒ/2.4 aperture

Rear camera

8MP wide, ƒ/2.4 aperture

Dust and water resistance

N/A

3.5mm headphone jack

Yes

Connection type

Lightning

Storage options

64GB/256GB

Memory card slot (supplied)

N/A

Wi-Fi

802.11a/b/g/n/ac dual band

Bluetooth

4.2

NFC

N/A

Cellular data

Optional 4G

Dimensions (WDH)

174.1×250.6×7.5mm

Weight

487g (498g cellular)

Operating system

Apple iPadOS 15

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