The legendary iPad is entering its ninth generation in 2021! Visually, you will be able to see more visual differences as Apple's basic iPad comes with Touch ID, in addition to fat bezels that do not belong in this day and age, and a metal back. While the iPad 2021 does not offer much in terms of new technical matters, it still holds its place as the best tablet for less than $350 a pop.
- Great software
- Fast speed
- Front camera with Center Stage
- Good build quality
- Gets expensive quickly with more storage and LTE connectivity
- Lightning port
- Stereo speaker located only at the bottom
- Design is no longer groundbreaking
Apple iPad 2021 in a nutshell
Apple knows exactly what are the strengths of the basic iPad! An affordable price, a neat design with uncomplicated Touch ID, and a terrific operating system. If that's exactly what you're looking for, you can definitely grab the 9th generation iPad without having to read on further. And you're welcome to do so with great gusto, because Apple's build quality once again comes up tops!
While it remains affordable to most people with the $329 model, it does become outrageously expensive when you take into account higher capacity storage space or the inclusion of the LTE module. This is because with a maximum price of $879, Apple's technical legacy is slowly but surely becoming more unforgivable.
Unfortunately, this is spearheaded by the useless camera at the back, the underperforming display despite the inclusion of True Tone, and the Lightning connector that is located at the bottom. This is where the iPad Air becomes a much more interesting proposition.
Design & Display: Tried and Tested
The front of the iPad continues to remain adorned with a 10.2-inch LED display in a 4:3 format. In terms of numbers, the Retina resolution is 2,160 x 1,620 pixels with a maximum brightness of 500 nits. Apple technologies like True Tone and support for the 1st generation Apple Pencil are also included.
What I liked:
- Good viewing angles with True Tone included (at last!).
- 4:3 ratio for tablets still works great.
- Secure grip thanks to wide bezels.
What I disliked:
- Lags behind other iPad displays (60 Hertz, LED, 264 ppi).
- Design looks really outdated now.
- Lightning connector.
- Stereo speaker is located at the bottom.
Even though it was launched in 2021: The 9th generation iPad belongs to a dying breed. That's because its bezels are rather large for a modern tablet with just enough space to accommodate Apple's Touch ID and Home button. This creates a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, the iPad 2021 looks somewhat old-fashioned, but on the other hand, it's very comfortable to hold and easy to use.
I know a lot of people like tablets with enough holding space. However, the most affordable iPad lags behind its tall and slim brethren in other aspects. Instead of OLED technology, there's an LED display that manages an average brightness of just 500 nits. The resolution is not outstanding, with a pixel density of 264 pixels per inch, not to mention an archaic refresh rate of 60 Hertz. In this department, its Android competition offers far more value for the same price.
- Little brother: Apple iPad Mini (2021) in the test on NextPit
- Big brother: Apple iPad Pro (2021) in the test on NextPit
In everyday use, however, such shortcomings did not bother me. The 9th generation iPad's display was bright enough to make me blush in shame during a surprise nude scene on Netflix on the train the other day. At the same time, the 4:3 format that Apple continues to adhere to is perfect for business tasks. Touch ID still works flawlessly in these days of "Please wear a face mask for the entire train ride".
However, Apple is still also holding on to some of its old relics that are really annoying in practice. To my chagrin, there's the Lightning port, which is now the most incompatible among all iPad ports. The iPhone manufacturer already relies on USB-C for the iPad Air, mini, and Pro, just like everyone else in 2021.
While this iPad offers stereo sound which is quite good, but both speakers only fire to the left and right of the Lightning port at the bottom. Basically, some cases might cover the speaker openings, and that would mean the end of your stereo sound!
Speaking of the aluminum case: The workmanship of this iPad still remains first-class. Nothing creaks, nothing rattles, and I carried the iPad in a thin sleeve without any hesitation. That is a really premium feel for $329!
Software: What makes the iPad tick
The iPad runs on iPadOS 15 in 2021 and thus has the best tablet operating system on the market. The connectivity to macOS and iOS is also second to none.
What I liked:
- Intuitive and powerful operating system.
- Seamless connectivity to iPhones and MacBooks.
What I disliked:
- Makes you want to buy an iPhone.
We already have plenty written about Apple's latest mobile operating system. You'll find them all tied up nicely in our big iOS 15 guide. What I want to highlight about the iPad, though, are two particular issues. The additional effort that Apple has put into its tablets and its connectivity to other Apple software.
Android, meanwhile, is working on a tablet version of Android 12 that will be known as "Android 12L". Whether the "L" will later stand for Loser or Large, we'll find out soon enough. With Apple, we already know everything, as there are many adjustments that make iPadOS pleasant to use on large screens.
Be it optimized multitasking, of which you can access via a button at the top of the bar, or the (de)activate scaling of iPhone apps, both simply work, and work well. Apple recognizes the value of its own tablets and makes more effort in this matter. Herein lies the big advantage of Apple's tablets, which come with significantly fewer display, performance, and input bugs than most other Android tablets.
Its integration with the Apple ecosystem is top. Apple has thought of numerous scenarios which make work fun and easy. If you use a PC or a notebook with macOS, the tablet can be used as a secondary display, a so-called "SideCar", with just a few clicks. You can also snap photos using the iPad camera as if by magic by right-clicking on the macOS desktop.
Communication always takes place via the devices' respective WLAN connection and is seamless behind-the-scenes. All of these are nothing new, but they still remain a plus point. A plus point that can certainly be applied to iPhones as well. Feel free to post it in the comments and I'll read it on my Pixel 6 - and that's all there is to it, Tim Cook!
Performance: A13 Bionic and a missing storage tier
Apple has armed its cheapest iPad with the "A13 Bionic" processor, which was introduced in 2019 along with the iPhone 11 . While RAM specifications have not been revealed, you have a choice between 64 GB or 256 GB of internal storage.
What I liked:
- Snappy working speed.
- Multitasking runs smoothly.
What I disliked:
- No 5G support in the Cellular model.
- Few storage options.
As part of any SoC baseline, Apple's own processors come with a massive power surplus. So in day-to-day use, it's not much of an issue that the 9th-gen iPad is powered by a two-year-old SoC. Despite a refresh rate of just 60 Hertz, iPadOS feels smooth, and you will have to use really processor-intensive apps to be able to begin to experience the shortcomings of the chipset. These include the most demanding mobile games in the App Store.
So while there is enough firepower underneath the hood to deliver sufficient performance most of the time, one shortcoming of this old technology might bother you: The cellular version of the iPad 2021 only works on the LTE network. So if you're on a 5G contract, you'll have to go for a more expensive model. That is a shame, despite the still miserable coverage of the 5G network in most places. Apple should make a move here next year at the latest!
The price of the iPad 2021 will also be a hit if the 64 GB storage model isn't enough for you. This is because the basic iPad is only available with either 64 GB or 256 GB of storage space, and the additional surcharge is rather steep. Having the larger capacity model will set you back by an additional $150.
Generally, only the basic version can count on Apple's version of a value-for-money proposition. Even upgrading from Wi-Fi to Cellular is so expensive that you have to wonder what kind of high-tech technology that Apple is including underneath the hood. For instance, the LTE modem costs you $130 more, with the price rising to $459 for the 64 GB model. The model with 256 GB of storage space will set you back by $609. Alternatively, you can get the iPad Air with Wi-Fi and 64 GB of storage ($599).
Camera: Center Stage rocks!
Two cameras and two sets: The camera at the back is an 8-megapixel shooter and should only be used sparingly. The selfie camera has a 12-megapixel resolution and is really fun with Skype, Zoom, and Face-Time thanks to Center Stage and a 122-degree field of view!
What I liked:
- Center Stage and ultra-wide-angle selfie cam work really well.
What I disliked:
- "Main" camera is barely usable except for in-app applications and Apple's awesome AR tape measure.
Basically, the previous words above sum up my impression of the iPad camera really well! The camera at the back is simply out of date with its 8-megapixel resolution and Full HD video recording capability.
It is clearly meant to not look stupid as an Apple developer in conversations with developers: "Yes we have a camera on the back, don't ask any more questions!" While it is purely functional, it does its job sufficiently enough in AR applications or mobile games.
The front-facing camera is the secret star of iPad 2021, as it comes with an ultra-wide angle lens and Center Stage. The feature debuted in the iPad Pro 2020 and tracks you and those around you in video calls all by itself. This allows you to move more freely in front of the camera, and you will always remain in focus. It's a cool feature that, unfortunately, Apple is still fully in tune with the "new normal" in 2021.
There's nothing more to say, except for one thing: Apple calls the lighting up of the display during selfies "Retina Flash" - isn't that just marketing gobbledygook?
Battery: Up to 10 hours, binge all you want!
The battery in the iPad 2021 measures 32.4 watt-hours, which is the equivalent of about 6,480 mAh. This results in carefree battery runtimes of up to 10 hours of video playback in the Wi-Fi version and 9 hours of surfing time using a mobile data network. When in standby, the iPad is hard to fully drain itself.
What I liked:
- Worry-free battery life.
- Compact charger.
- Compatible with a 30-watt charger.
What I disliked:
- No Quick Charging.
- I repeat: Lightning port!
Actually, I wanted to make a joke here with a line from "Ride the Lightning" by Metallica, but did you know that James Hetfield didn't even mention the word "Lightning" in the classic metal tune?
Apple should really take a cue from that and bid adieu to this charging port weirdness. I know there are advocates of the first mobile phone port, where the plug-in direction didn't matter, but USB-C is simply far more common now, not only for charging plugs but for accessories as well!
The iPad comes with a USB-C to Lightning cable that charges over 20 watts with the included charger. Charging times are correspondingly long, around 1.5 to 2 hours. It's faster if you have a MacBook with a 30-watt charger. Fortunately, the 9th generation iPad is compatible with this as well.
Once it is fully charged, the battery will last for several days. Apple's specifications of 9 to 10 hours of use depending on the iPad model are realistic. So you can either binge on Netflix for more than a full workday, or go for two to three days without charging in a mixed-use scenario. That's a really strong performance, and if you only use the iPad on rare occasions (like when you're on the toilet), you'll benefit from almost infinite standby time. If you do not use the iPad, the battery indicator hardly drops at all.
Overall, Apple's entry-level iPad carries a lot of baggage that the other models have already left behind. The camera is only a means to an end, the Lightning port is not "USB-C" enough, and the display also falls far behind in terms of technical terms. You also have to make do without 5G. Apple mixes that up with a fast processor, high-quality build, and an operating system that finally optimizes tablets for their primary purpose.
This makes Apple's most affordable tablet an almost perfect tool for schools or universities, sporting an affordable always-on device with a large display, and an eReader with mobile gaming power. But that praise is reserved more for the Wi-Fi version with 64 GB of internal storage, because the more expensive variants basically sport outrageous prices!
When it is decked out and fully equipped, the iPad 2021 costs you a proud $879. And at this price, I find this iPad to be priced out of range for most people. At this price point, you can pick up the cheapest iPad Air and even a MacBook Air with M1 chip with a realistic surcharge. iPadOS can still hypnotize me with cool animations and the connection to my MacBook will still remain seamless:
The iPad has to become more modern for its 10th anniversary next year, otherwise even the cheapest model won't be able to compete with its own product lineup.