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Quietly, and without the fanfare of a press event, Apple has launched its latest iPad, branded in most cases simply ‘iPad’; the Air branding is no more. Slightly complicating matters, Apple frequently calls it the “iPad (5th generation)” in official documents, while pundits have been squabbling over whether to call it that, or “7th generation”, or “iPad (2017 edition)”. To make things easier we’ll be referring to it as the iPad 2017 throughout this article.
The iPad 2017, which appears to replace the iPad Air 2 in Apple’s line-up (the iPad mini 2 has also disappeared
from the store, although both the Air 2 and mini 2 are still available for education buyers), represents an affordable option for those who don’t need the flashier, more expensive but better equipped iPad Pro.
The iPad 2017 has the same chassis design as the 9.7in iPad Pro, with the same elegantly chamfered edges curving gently to the back of the device. In fact the chamfered edge itself now has a slightly brushed matt finish, as opposed to the mirror shine on previous iPads of this design, but it’s otherwise essentially the same.
That’s not – or at least not straightforwardly – a bad thing, since it’s an attractive and classic design. But as with the iPhone 7 we have to point out that even great designs do age eventually; tablet buyers are reluctant to upgrade their devices at the best of times, without Apple refusing to refresh its iPad template from time to time. We look forward eagerly, therefore, to something a little different for the iPad Pro 2.
The new iPad is backward-looking in other ways, too. It’s thicker and heavier than the Pro and Air 2 alike – which each measure 6.1mm and 437g/444g for the Wi-Fi and cellular models – but the same length and width. You have to go back to 2013’s iPad Air 1, in fact, to find a model with the same dimensions (see its specifications on page 26). In fact, it’s fascinating (to an iPad nerd like me) to look at the four most recent 9.7in models and see which elements of the various layouts Apple has cherry-picked for the iPad 2017.
The new model comes with two speakers, like the Air 1 and 2, not the four you get on the iPad Pro 9.7in. The bottom
speaker grills are the same as on the Air 2: they’re arranged in two single rows (unlike the double rows of the Air 1), and they’re not as far apart as on the Pro.
It comes in the same colours as the Air 2 (gold but not pink); it has Touch ID, and there’s no mute/portrait orientation switch, both like the Air 2 and Pro; but the SIM tray is low down on the right-hand side, like on the Air 1.
In most exterior respects, then, this is a retread of 2014’s iPad Air 2, with two main exceptions: it’s as heavy and as thick as the iPad Air 1, and it has that device’s unlaminated, air-gapped screen (of which more to come). Last year’s 9.7in iPad Pro featured a number of small but significant design changes and so far as we can tell this tablet doesn’t get any of them. There’s only two speakers. It doesn’t get the True Tone display. There’s no Smart Connector down the left-hand edge (which means you can’t connect the Smart Keyboard; it’s also not compatible with the Apple Pencil). There’s no camera flash. The antenna section at the top of the cellular model is white, instead of matching the rest of the chassis.
Other than the brushedmetal chamfers, we’ve found only one other point of difference from the
previous iPads in terms of physical design: the volume buttons are further apart.
The new iPad comes in three colours: silver, gold and Space Grey. There’s no Rose Gold, sadly.
Let’s take a trip back to our review of the iPad Air 1, which we updated following the launch of the Air 2. Here’s what we had to say about the screen:
“Thismaysimplybedowntohavinglessheftbehindit, butwhenyoutaporpressthescreen,itdefinitelyseemsto ‘flex’morethanthescreensontheiPad3andiPad4.The resultisthatthescreenfeelslightandplasticky,ratherthan thesolidglassfeelingontheolderdevices...It’snotamajor problem,butitunderminestheoverallfeelingofphysical qualitythatoneexpectsfromaniPad.Andafterusingthe iPadAir1formorethanayear,it’snotsomethingwe’vegot used to, or stopped finding mildly annoying.
“We were keen, when the Air2 came out, to see if thisissuehadbeentackled.Andsureenough,themore compresseddesignoftheAir2–inwhichtheelements ofthedisplayhavebeenbynecessitysqueezedcloser together,andairpocketsremoved–resultsinascreenthat is firmer to the touch.”
Well, that step forward made by the Air 2 in 2014, we are sorry to report, has now been reversed. The iPad 2017, for reasons known only to Apple, has an unlaminated screen with an air gap under the display. You’ll find that it yields the tiniest fraction when you press down: not much by any means, but enough to notice.
The specs of the screen are largely iPad-standard: a resolution of 2048x1536 and a pixel density of 264ppi. But
it misses out on the True Tone colour adjustment feature and anti-reflective coating of the Pro.
It’s still a decent screen – bright, sharp and colourful – but a small step down from the Pro offering.
The new iPad comes with many but by no means all of the features you get with the 9.7in iPad Pro; there are no new features here that we are aware of. It has Touch ID and Apple Pay, and 4G internet connectivity; the usual stuff.
The new iPad 2017 is not compatible with either the Apple Pencil or the Smart Keyboard that iPad Pro users get to use – in fact it hasn’t got a Smart Connector. It also doesn’t get the Retina Flash and True Tone camera features of the iPad Pro, something which will turn up again in the specs section.
We’ve already established that the iPad 2017 has a higher battery capacity than its predecessors; the only other noteworthy area in which it surpasses even the iPad Air 2 is processor choice. It comes with an A9 chip, which on paper ought to be only slightly slower than the A9X in the two Pro models (although the 12.9in model’s extra RAM should increase its advantage here) and significantly faster than the A8 in the mini 4 and the A8X in the Air 2, left alone the A7 in the iPad Air 1.
This is all getting a bit woolly so let’s look at some benchmark scores. All devices tested were given a complete reset and updated to iOS 10.3.1 for the tests. First up, Geekbench 4’s CPU test – higher scores are better. The Pro comes top, as expected, but there’s clear water between
the iPad 2017 in second place the Airs behind, at least in single-core mode; it’s pretty much a dead heat between the iPad and the Air 2 in multi-core mode.
Apple claims the new iPad has a 10-hour battery life when using Wi-Fi and nine hours when browsing over a cellular connection. These are standard figures that the company gives for all of its current tablets, but we were hopeful
that it might prove a conservative estimate; after all, the device’s battery has an impressive (for Apple) capacity of 8827mAh. That compares to 7340mAh on the Air 2 and 7306mAh on the 9.7in Pro, and may explain the device being (comparatively) thick and heavy.
You can see the results of our tests on page 23. Note that the iPad 2017 was tested using iOS 10.3.1; all the older models were tested a year ago, running iOS 9.3.1 (battery performance declines markedly over time so retesting them now with the latest OS would be unfair). Battery tests are not an exact science and your mileage may vary.
We’ve heard this described as the iPad: Education Edition; you might also think of it as the iPhone 5c of Apple’s tablet range. However you put it, this is an unexpectedly cheap offering, but one that is also frequently low-specified and has a design that’s mostly lifted from a product that’s two and a half years old, and in some cases from one that’s three and a half years old. It’s all rather odd.
There are chinks of light. While much of the technology here feels out of date, one key spec, the processor, does not, and the A9 chip helped the iPad to produce consistently decent results in our benchmarking tests – not Pro-fast, but solid. We also like the sound of that 8827mAh battery unit.
That lovely big battery, of course, is the most likely reason for the iPad’s weight gain, and we’re inclined to forgive this betrayal of the immutable law that says every tablet must be thinner and faster than the one that came before. iPads have been quite thin enough for a long time, and this is no exception. In fact we wish smartphone designs would follow a similar path and prioritise battery
life over ever more absurd feats of miniaturization, although we doubt everyone would agree.
So forget the thickness – it’s the unlaminated screen that really bothers us, and feels like an economy too far. An iPad lives and dies by its screen, which should look and feel great. This one looks great but feels a bit cheap.
Still, while this isn’t the iPad we’d go for, the iPad 2017 and its low-end price tag and mostly low-end spec list might be a good fit for schools and casual users; and the reported success of the iPhone SE suggests there is a market for Apple products that are behind the times in terms of spec but come in at a more appealing price point. David Price
9.7in (2048x1536, 264ppi) LED-backlit Multi-Touch IPS display, fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating iOS 10
32- or 128GB storage A9 chip with 64-bit architecture Embedded M9 coprocessor 8Mp rear-facing camera 1080p HD video recording 1.2Mp FaceTime camera Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac); dual band (2.4- and 5GHz) Bluetooth 4.2 Built-in 32.4Wh rechargeable lithium-polymer battery 240x169.5x7.5mm 469g (Wi-Fi), 478g (Wi-Fi and Cellular)