iPad 9.7in (2017) review
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 - including the editors of the product's Wikipedia page - 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 lineup (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. Read our iPad 9.7in (2018) review for thoughts on the follow-up model, and our comparison of the 2018 and 2017 models.
Price and availability
The iPad 2017 was announced in a press release on 21 March 2017, and pre-orders began on Friday 24 March. It's now available in all good stores, as they say; you can buy direct from Apple, or from John Lewis or Argos.
Here is how much each model of the iPad 2017 costs in the UK:
- iPad 2017 (32GB, Wi-Fi only): £339
- iPad 2017 (128GB, Wi-Fi only): £429
- iPad 2017 (32GB, Wi-Fi + cellular): £469
- iPad 2017 (128GB, Wi-Fi + cellular): £559
The iPad 2017 is also a bit (about £40) cheaper than the iPad Air 2 which it replaces: the Air 2 started at £379 for 32GB and Wi-Fi.
We discussed the new iPad on our podcast here:
Design & build quality
The iPad 2017 has the same chassis design as the old 9.7-inch 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.
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.
- Vital statistics: 240mm x 169.5mm x 7.5mm; 469g/478g
iPad Pro 9.7in (left) and iPad 2017 (right)
In fact, it's fascinating (to an iPad nerd like me) to look at the four most recent 9.7-inch models and see which elements of the various layouts Apple has cherry-picked for the iPad 2017.
From bottom to top: iPad Air 1; iPad Air 2; iPad Pro 9.7in; 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 - see below); 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 righthand 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 iPad Pro 9.7in 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 lefthand 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 or black, instead of matching the rest of the chassis.
Other than the brushed-metal 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:
"This may simply be down to having less heft behind it, but when you tap or press the screen, it definitely seems to 'flex' more than the screens on the iPad 3 and iPad 4. The result is that the screen feels light and plasticky, rather than the solid glass feeling on the older devices... It's not a major problem, but it undermines the overall feeling of physical quality that one expects from an iPad. And after using the iPad Air 1 for more than a year, it's not something we've got used to, or stopped finding mildly annoying.
"We were keen, when the Air 2 came out, to see if this issue had been tackled. And sure enough, the more compressed design of the Air 2 - in which the elements of the display have been by necessity squeezed closer together, and air pockets removed - results in a screen that 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 2048 x 1536 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.
iPad 9.7in (2017) review: Features
The new iPad comes with many but by no means all of the features you used to get with the 9.7-inch 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.
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 Pro models (although the 12.9-inch 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, let 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.
The Pro comes top, as expected, but there's clear water between the iPad 2017 in second place and 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.
Now a graphics benchmark:
Averages taken from multiple tests. Overall the iPad 2017 outperformed the Air 2 by a clear margin, although in one component of the test (Manhattan, a less demanding test than Manhattan 3.1) the Air 2 edged ahead.
The Pro was way out in front throughout, while the Air 1 was left for dead.
This is the iPad 2017's best performance, and its clearest win over the Air 2.
Apple claims the new iPad has a 10-hour battery life when using Wi-Fi and 9 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 8,827 mAh. That compares to 7,340 mAh on the Air 2 and 7,306 mAh on the 9.7-inch Pro, and may explain the device being (comparatively!) thick and heavy.
Here's how things turned out in practice - or in the GeekBench 3 battery test, at any rate.
Please 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.
Higher scores are better. As you can see, the iPad 2017's battery performance is good but not exceptional; it's a lot better in this respect than the Air and mini models but, despite having a larger-capacity battery, it still lags behind the Pros.
Here are the full tech specs of the new iPad 2017, with comments regarding how they compare to the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and/or iPad Air 2. Read next: Inside the new iPad 2017 - component teardown.
- A9 64bit processor with M9 co-processor (faster - Apple reckons 1.6x faster for general processing - than the iPad Air 2's A8X, but slower than the iPad Pro's A9X. See our speed test results above)
- 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 (264ppi) touchscreen display (same specs as iPad Pro 2 but missed out on that device's True Tone display and anti-reflective coating)
- 32GB or 128GB of storage (the iPad Pro offers both of these, plus a very expensive 256GB option at the top end)
- 2GB RAM
- 8Mp rear-facing camera and 1.2Mp front-facing camera (compares to 12Mp and 5Mp respectively on iPad Pro. The new iPad also misses out on the Pro's Live Photos and Retina Flash features, and the rear-facing flash)
- 1080p HD video recording (the Pro offers 4K)
- Two-speaker audio (the Pro has four speakers)
- 240mm x 169.5mm x 7.5mm; 469g/478g (it's heavier and thicker than the 9.7in iPad Pro - which measures 6.1mm and 437g/444g for the Wi-Fi and cellular models - but is the same length and width)
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 generally low-specced 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. And that 8,827 mAh unit gave it impressive scores in our battery tests: a little behind the Pro models, but well ahead of the Airs.
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 miniaturisation, although we doubt everyone would agree.
So forget the thickness - it's the unlaminated screen that really bothers us, and feels like an economy (if that's the reasoning) 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 personally, 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. And in the aftermath of the Brexit price hike, £339 feels like a bit of a bargain.