Apple Inc. has just released a new iPad with a bump up in specs over its previous generation, but those few changes are significant enough to make quite a difference in its day-to-day activities.
While this sounds like a familiar tune, it rings true once again this year with Apple’s new 9.7-inch iPad, which released this week.
Starting at $429 — $20 cheaper than the previous generation and now priced $399 for schools — the new iPad mainly has two new features: its screen supports the Apple Pencil accessory and its processor has been bumped up to the A10 chip from the A9.
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Ultimately, if you own the previous generation iPad and it is working just fine, there isn’t much reason to upgrade at the moment. However, if you are in need of an upgrade or want to dive into the world of tablets, these upgrades make the cheapest iPad that much more compelling.
Hardware: new Pencil support and snappier device
If there is one takeaway from the new 9.7-inch iPad, it’s that it has support for Apple’s Pencil. Previously only available on the iPad Pro, this new feature is what Apple really, really wants you to know it added to its entry model when looking at its marketing materials.
Support for the Pencil — a separate $129 accessory, or $115 for schools — has turned the cheapest iPad from what was more of a consumption device for many users to a creative device. The accessory has force, tilt and low latency, which makes it feel quite natural for handwriting or illustrating.
Apps like Pixelmator can now be used with the Pencil for quick photo editing to erase or repair unwanted items in your photos, sketching can be done with Linea Sketch or you can jot down notes in apps such as GoodNotes. Previously you needed an iPad Pro for this, so to be able to do these sort of things on Apple’s cheapest iPad is a worthwhile boost.
Apple has finally updated its iWorks suite for Pencil support, too, which means you can handwrite and annotate in Pages, Numbers and Keynote. While this isn’t exclusive to the new iPad, this again would have only worked on an iPad Pro so it is nice to have an inexpensive option.
Meanwhile, the new A10 processor definitely gives a snappier feel to the overall device when using it compared to last year’s model. Apple says this processor is up to 40 per cent faster than the old A9 with 50 per cent faster graphics performance.
This speed bump is great for new games or multitasking, for example. It’s also noticeable for creators working with high resolution images or 4K video on the iPad. Unfortunately, if you add in a third app in multitasking, it still freezes the two background apps — something that doesn’t happen on the iPad Pro, likely due to its higher amount of RAM.
Otherwise, this is another iPad with all of the other hardware features you’d expect such as a retina screen, Touch ID, and front and back cameras. Probably the biggest disappointment was the lack of a smart connector on the side to attach Apple accessories such as keyboards, but I suppose the company still wanted to give the Pro crowd that one while keeping costs low.
In terms of hard drive space, the new 9.7-inch iPad comes in 32GB ($429, or $599 with cellular) and 128GB ($549, or $719 with cellular).
Augmented reality and education
While the number of new features in the 9.7-inch iPad may be few, they are needed additions to help Apple achieve some of its bigger goals and strategies.
Apple is trying to push back hard in the education space, which is evident by the fact the new tablet was announced in a Chicago high school. Google has crept into classrooms with its Chromebook laptops and taken significant marketshare from Apple, so Cupertino wants it back.
It’s hard to do that with a device that doesn’t have some kind of stylus support now so, as previously mentioned, Pencil support was added to the cheapest iPad. But Apple also thinks augmented reality is going to be crucial for classrooms and consumers alike, so it added a new processor and more accurate movement sensors to better support it.
For example, an app such as Froggipedia lets students study the anatomy of a “living” frog or even dissect it on the table in front of them thanks to AR. Another app called Boulevard AR allows students to study paintings up close and in incredibly high resolution through augmented reality.
Perhaps my favourite educational AR app that works incredibly well on the new iPad is called WWF Free Rivers. The free app puts a model of a river landscape on a table in front of students or the user and allows them to add things such as a major dam to see the environmental impact of the decision.
Of course, all of these things can be done on the more expensive iPad Pro as well as through a non-educational lens, but bringing these features to the entry-level iPad does indicate a shift in classroom strategy for the tech giant. It wanted to bring these capabilities to the cheapest iPad in hopes that schools will be impressed and buy the devices.
While there is no denying that Apple’s education software for the iPad, including its new Everyone Can Create school curriculum, is compelling, it’ll be interesting to see if school districts will take the plunge or simply stick with the cheapest option on the market (Chromebooks) to save the cash.
Competitors and final thoughts
The problem with comparing the 9.7-inch iPad is that there really aren’t similar tablets competing against it at the same price point.
Yes, there are some cheaper Android tablets, but they aren’t the greatest build quality and they have nowhere near the app ecosystem as the iPad.
Then there are the 2-in-1 convertible laptops, but they are much more expensive and not a tablet, so it isn’t really a fair comparison.
In reality, the 9.7-inch iPad’s biggest competitor is its more powerful iPad Pro sibling at twice the price, leaving the cheapest iPad sitting alone at the moment in its price and spec range. It’s still the cheapest iPad on the market and it’s still the best option for an entry-level tablet.
Again, if you have an existing iPad that’s working just fine and you don’t need Pencil support, then you don’t need the upgrade yet. However, if you’re in the market for a new tablet and don’t need the power of the iPad Pro, then the cheapest model’s latest additions make for a persuasive argument as Pencil support alone adds a lot of functionality.