Apple iPad 9.7in (2018) full review

Industry experts will tell you that tablets are a stagnant market, but Apple confounded those experts by releasing a cut-price iPad with outdated screen tech that sold like unlaminated hot cakes. This particular reviewer gave the iPad 9.7in (2017) a begrudging 3/5, cavilling about the underwhelming specs, heavier chassis and slight but noticeable screen flex, but praising the bargain price tag - and it turns out that customers only really cared about the last bit.

The sales figures were so triumphant that a follow-up was almost inevitable, and the 2018 version of the 9.7in iPad arrived to a rapturous reception. It's a mid-size, budget iPad aimed primarily at school buyers, but the low price tag (it starts at £319/$329) and new Apple Pencil compatibility are sure to appeal to bargain hunters of all ages.

But is it still a good deal more than a year on from launch? And what does the screen feel like with the Apple Pencil? Read on to find out. More general advice can be found in our iPad buying guide.

Price and availability

The 2018 iPad launched in April 2018 and remains on sale. (It's hard to be sure if the iPad Air 2019 'counts' as a successor to this device, but our suspicion is that we shouldn't expect the next mid-size, mid-price iPad until spring of 2020. When that comes out, this iPad is likely to be discontinued.)

The 2017 model was a bargain, so it's pleasing to find that the 2018 one - despite upgrading the processor and adding Apple Pencil compatibility - is the same price (in the US) and actually slightly cheaper (in the UK). Here's the price list:

As we'll explain in the review, these prices are a good deal for what you get. But on the surface they're less impressive now than when this iPad first came out, because Apple didn't announce an official price cut to coincide with the launch of the (faster and generally better) 2019 models.

Fortunately, there are discounts out there if you know where to look. Try Amazon, for starters, and check our roundup of the best iPad deals. There are savings for school buyers and students too: here's how to get Apple's education discount.

Design & build quality

The iPad is a slim, lightweight and portable device, easy to hold with one hand when reading an ebook or pop into a rucksack for working and watching films on the go. It also looks good, with clean lines and a pleasing contrast between the polished top surface and the matt back and chamfered edges.

iPad 9.7in (2018) review: Design

It is not, however, an especially modern design - in fact, other than a Touch ID Home button and slightly different speaker grill it's identical to the iPad Air 1 from 2013. There's only so much you can do with a tablet, it seems. (Unless you're an iPad Pro.)

Bezels in the industry at large are shrinking, but on this device they remain broad: about 1cm wide on left and right, and 2cm at top and bottom. This doesn't looks as good when compared to devices like the iPhone X but makes it easier to hold without interfering with the display.

While we find the tablet perfectly portable, it's heavier than 2014's Air 2 and virtually the same weight as the larger-screened 11in Pro at 469g. And, perhaps most importantly, the screen is not laminated.

The unlaminated screen

Like 2017's iPad and the 2013 Air (but unlike the Air 2, mini 4 and all the Pro models), this device has an unlaminated display. This means there is a small gap between the screen glass and the display elements underneath, and when you press down on it there is a tiny but noticeable 'flex' - it bends inwards fractionally.

iPad 9.7in (2018) review: Unlaminated screen

Now, this bothered us when we reviewed the 2017 iPad and it still bothers us now, because it makes the screen feel plasticky and cheap, and the gap between finger and screen element takes away from the illusion that you are directly controlling objects onscreen. (There is an extra issue now that the device is compatible with the Apple Pencil, because it makes a horrible hollow 'clunk' noise instead of the discreet 'tap' on the Pro models. We discuss this more in the features section.)

The funny thing, however, is that if this is your first iPad, or if you've never used a laminated screen, you probably won't notice: it isn't a huge deal by any means. You should just be aware that other iPads feel a bit nicer to use, and that in going for this lower-priced product you are making some (probably justifiable) compromises.

Colour options

In name at least you get the same colour choices for the 2018 iPad as you did for the 2017 model: silver, gold and Space Grey. However, as we saw with the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, what is officially the gold option has now veered into rosy territory and has a distinct pink blush to it.

iPad 9.7in (2018) review: Gold colour option

From left: old gold, Rose Gold, new gold, old gold

It's about halfway between the old gold and Rose Gold colour finishes. If you have a collection of older devices in gold and/or Rose Gold you may find this new hybrid finish clashes with them, and we certainly find it odd that the colour palettes are not consistent, but it looks pleasant enough on its own.

Specs and features

The 2018 iPad has a solid specs list for the money you're paying:

  • A10 Fusion chip with 64bit architecture; embedded M10 coprocessor
  • 2GB RAM
  • 32GB or 128GB storage (plus 200GB iCloud storage offer for schools)
  • 9.7in screen (2048 x 1536 at 264ppi)
  • 8Mp rear-facing camera, f/2.4, Live Photos, no flash, no OIS, Panorama mode up to 43Mp, 1080p HD video, slo-mo video at 720p and 120 fps
  • 1.2Mp front-facing camera, Live Photos, Retina Flash, 720p HD video
  • Battery life up to 10 hours (video, music or web browsing via Wi-Fi) or 9 hours (web browsing over cellular)
  • Stereo speakers
  • 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • Touch ID
  • Digital compass
  • Accelerometer
  • Barometer
  • Compatible with Apple Pencil
  • 240mm x 169.5mm x 7.5mm; 469g/478g

Let's discuss some of these elements in more detail.

Screen

There is something to be said for the cinematic experience of the 12.9in Pro, and the 7.9in mini is wonderfully portable, but we still love the 9.7in screen size. It's a great compromise: easily big enough to enjoy films, photos and games, but still suitable for commuter use.

The screen resolution is the now-standard 2048 x 1536 and looks great, sharp and colourful. But it's a more basic screen than you'd get on a Pro model in a number of ways.

Aside from the lack of lamination discussed above, it's not True Tone (so you don't get the subtle adjustments to colour tone to compensate in lighting changes), nor do you get an anti-reflective coating or the ProMotion feature which boosts display refresh rate to 120Hz (compared to the 60Hz found here).

Apple Pencil compatibility

The screen is compatible with the (first-gen) Apple Pencil, which was big news back in 2018: this feature had previously been exclusive to the iPad Pro models and it felt like a radical and pleasing move for Apple to open up this high-class (albeit costly) accessory to the market as a whole, rather than the well-heeled professionals able to afford the top-end models.

Things have moved on a little since then, however. Nowadays all five of the iPad models sold by Apple support a Pencil of one sort or another (we've got a separate article explaining which iPads work with which Apple Pencil). And the second-gen Pencil, which this device does not work with, is the really good one: it offers much more convenient pairing and charging than the original.

iPad 9.7in (2018) review: Apple Pencil

The Pencil is a tremendous stylus, easily one of the best available for the iPad, and it remains a pleasure to use here. Check out some rival options in our best stylus for iPad roundup.

It's worth noting, however, that it doesn't feel quite the same as on the Pros. Because this device doesn't feature ProMotion, it's slightly weaker at precisely catching your movements - something that could be critical for artists.

Furthermore, the unlaminated screen reduces the sense of immediacy. On an iPad Pro, you just feel like you're writing on its screen with a literal pencil, pen or marker; here, the tiny gap between the tip of the stylus and the mark on the screen undercuts that illusion. It's hard to show clearly, but this gives an idea of the difference between the experience on the new iPad and the (2015) iPad Pro:

iPad 9.7in (2018) review: Apple Pencil support

More irritatingly, the increased flex in the screen changes and amplifies the sound when the Pencil makes contact. On an iPad Pro it makes a discreet tap; here it's more of a clunk, and if you're making notes in a public lecture it's almost enough to make you feel self-conscious.

To be clear these are small things, but taken in sum they reduce the sense of a consummate high-end product; it all feels a bit cheaper, a bit less thought through than on the more expensive devices. That's to be expected, of course, given the fantastic price tag, but it's best to be forewarned.

Processor, memory and storage

Apple updated to a newer generation of processor chip: the A10 Fusion, an upgrade from the A9 in the 2017 iPad.

Note that this is not the newest Apple chip current available: all four other currently available iPads come with variants of the A12, which is a much faster processor on paper. In practice, the A10 is easily fast enough for email, browsing the web, making minor edits to photos and all other everyday tasks. But it's a little less slick when it comes to more demanding apps and games, as well as being considerably less future-proofed than the A12.

We put the device through a wide range of speed benchmarks. It's still holding up okay, although it's now clearly the slowest iPad on the market.

In Geekbench 4, the iPad scored an average of 3,544 in single-core and 6,056 in multicore. That pales into comparison (particular on multi) with 5,011/18,381 for the 11in Pro and 5,007/18,165 for the 12.9in.

We then tested the iPad's graphical chops in GFXBench Metal (which gives an idea of the real-world benefits you'll see from Apple Metal). The iPad recorded average framerates of 60fps in the T-Rex test, and 39fps in Manhattan. It scored 27fps in the very demanding Manhattan 3.1 test. In all the graphics tests, however, it was well behind the A12 and A12X iPads.

(For comparison with the previous generation, the 2017 iPad scored 56fps, 29fps and 19fps in those three tests.)

The JetStream 1.1 benchmark evaluates a device's ability to process JavaScript tasks. The iPad recorded an average score of 176.3, well ahead of the 126.5 scored by the 2017 iPad but behind the other iPads currently on sale.

As a final aside, we were mildly disappointed to hear that Apple wouldn't be raising the storage cap from 128GB to 256GB for this model (the Pro iPads, after all, go all the way up to 1TB), but this was offset by news that school users will be offered 200GB of iCloud storage for free.

Connectivity and audio

The new iPad has a headphone port (phew!) and the usual array of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Lightning connectivity. Note that it's Bluetooth 4.2 rather than the newer Bluetooth 5 available on the latest iPhones.

iPad 9.7in (2018) review: Headphone port

It may perhaps be worth mentioning that, despite getting the Pencil support feature that was exclusive to the Pro models, the 2018 iPad does not get a Smart Connector, so you won't be able to hook up keyboard cover accessories via that.

You can use a third-party Bluetooth device, though, so check out the best keyboards for iPad to find a suitable option.

Another feature that remains exclusive to the costlier models is stereo audio. (Well, technically this model does have two speakers, but they are so close together at the bottom of the device that you don't get a stereo effect. The Pros get four speakers, with two at the top and two at the bottom.)

Cameras

You won't be buying this for the cameras, but they're decent enough, rated at 8Mp (rear) and 1.2Mp (front). Test shots in sunny weather showed sharp detail and good colour reproduction, but as you would expect they stood up less well to hard zoom than the 12Mp cameras on the Pro models.

Low-light shots were smudgier, and there's no flash (although the Retina Flash feature, which lights up the screen as a makeshift flash, is available on the front-facing camera). You get the Live Photos feature, too.

iPad 9.7in (2018) review: Camera

Battery life

Apple claims a battery life of 10 hours (when using Wi-Fi) or 9 hours (on mobile data) for all of its iPads across the board. As a general principle you can trust the company on these things: if anything, we've found its battery estimates to be on the low side for real-world usage.

In the GeekBench 4 battery test, our review sample managed 6 hours and 1 min, and a score of 3,610. But that's an unusually demanding test, and you should expect much more in practice.

Software and apps

If you buy now, the iPad will come with iOS 12.3.1 preinstalled. iOS is - for us at least - a powerful argument to go for an iPad rather an Android equivalent, with simple, user-friendly interfaces and an impressive range of apps.

iOS users are statistically more willing to spend money on software, so devs of high-end, paid-for apps tend to cater for iOS first. Your mileage may vary, of course, and those who are used to Android will have to get used to the things iOS does differently, and the features that it doesn't offer.

You'll be upgrade this device to iOS 13 when it comes out in the autumn of 2019. Or you could install the beta right now.

iWork

One particular set of apps worth mentioning is iWork: Pages, Numbers and Keynote. These are Apple's mobile word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation apps respectively, and they are free for anyone who buys this device (and most other reasonably recent iPads).

At the same time as the iPad launch, the company announced that these three apps have been updated to support the Apple Pencil, so you can now make notes directly on to your documents. This is a handy addition, and an extra step towards making the iPad a viable work device.

But further to this, Apple announced that Pages (and only Pages, at least for now) will offer a new feature called Smart Annotation. This simply means that when you make annotations to a Pages document (with a stylus or your finger) those marks will be anchored to a specific point, rather than just existing as a layer over the top, and thus move around when the document is edited. If you circle a word and then edit preceding copy, the word will remain circled as it moves forward or back, instead of the two elements drifting apart - and if this seems like an elementary feature to offer, we agree, but that didn't stop this being a fair-sized headache in the past.

Smart Annotation is one of the areas covered in our Pages for iOS tips feature.

Verdict

This is a tough review to sum up, because our verdict would vary wildly depending on who we're talking to.

If you're a schools buyer, or just fancy a cheap mid-size tablet that runs iOS and runs it well, this is a good deal. It's the cheapest iPad currently available, and you get Apple Pencil support, a respectably fast processor and - again, if you're in education - a tasty iCloud storage deal that makes up for the lack of a 256GB or higher option.

For pickier and richer buyers, however, we would not recommend this device, mainly because the budget still doesn't stretch to a laminated screen, which we were taking for granted back in 2014 when the Air 2 came out. We really don't like the way unlaminated screens feel!

The iPad Air and iPad mini models that came out in 2019 are now giving this device a real run for its money. The mini isn't much more expensive, and it's more portable; the Air has a larger screen. And both are faster, considerably more future-proofed and equipped with laminated screens.

Still, the unlaminated screen didn't put people off in 2017 and we don't suppose it will put people off now. And this remains a good deal that will appeal to iPad buyers on a tight budget.

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