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Apple iPad (2021) review: Keeps on improving

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
319
inc VAT (tablet only)

The cheapest iPad keeps getting better, and this year’s model continues the progression

Pros 
Versatile
Top-quality webcam
Slim and lightweight
Cons 
No USB-C
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It must be said that the new iPad (2021) is hardly the most exciting of updates. It doesn’t have a mini LED display like the iPad Pro 12.9 (2021), it doesn’t have the latest M1 chip and it doesn’t even support the most up-to-date Apple Pencil, either.

The regular iPad, however, is the most popular Apple tablet for a very good reason. With each iteration it’s always hailed as the best-value tablet by a long way, and this year’s model does nothing to change that.

Apple iPad (2021) review: What you need to know

The good news for this year is that the latest version of the 10.2in iPad is that it’s actually cheaper than it was last year. The difference is only £10 but, in an era where prices seem to climb higher every year, it’s still very welcome.

That’s despite the fact that updates are thin on the ground this year. Indeed, the 2021 iPad, at first glance, looks pretty much identical to the 2020 edition. It’s the same size, shape and weight; it has the same 10.2in, 2,160 x 1,620 Retina display, and it has all the same buttons and connectivity options, including – more’s the pity – the ageing Lightning connector. Apple really needs to address this.

READ NEXT: The best iPads to buy

There are only three upgrades of note. The first is the processor, with the 10.2in iPad moving to the Apple A13 Bionic from the A12 Bionic of the previous model. That places it two generations behind the new iPad mini and iPhone 13 handsets, and one generation behind the iPad Air.

The second major new feature is the front-facing FaceTime HD camera, which goes from a lowly 1.2MP (720p) on the ninth-gen iPad to a 12MP, 122-degree (f/2.4) ultrawide camera – the same as featured on the iPad mini (2021).

As well as boosting camera quality and detail hugely over the previous generation, its wide field of view also allows Apple to introduce the Centre Stage feature, a clever piece of software that keeps your face (and any others on the call) in frame, even if you move around.

Finally, Apple is bringing its True Tone colour-matching technology to the regular iPad’s display.

Of course, the new iPad also comes equipped with iPadOS 15 and all its exciting new features, but that’s not exclusive to this generation. If you own one of the previous two 10.2in iPads, you’ll also be able to update to this latest version of iOS.

Apple iPad (2021) review: Price and competition

Although the price has fallen by £10 to £319, the amount of storage you get at this cheapest level has not; the iPad still starts at 64GB. The next model up gets you double the storage it did last year, moving from 128GB to 256GB for a modest price increase of £10 (£459). Lastly, 4G cellular connectivity adds £120 to the price of both models.

If you plan on using your iPad as a laptop alternative, don’t forget to add £159 for the Smart Keyboard, which brings the overall price to at least £478. The Apple Pencil is £89 on top of that but is, in my view, not the most essential accessory.

The competition around this price is familiar. If it’s productivity tools you’re interested in, then the forthcoming Micrsoft Surface Go 3 gets you a similar setup with 64GB of storage and a keyboard cover for a total of £469.

Meanwhile, if you’re only interested in buying a tablet, it’s worth considering saving a bit of cash and opting for the Samsung Tab S6 Lite. It doesn’t have the contacts for a keyboard (although you can add a Bluetooth one if you like), but it costs less than the iPad and comes with an active stylus in the box.

Apple iPad (2021) review: Design

I’m going to make this section short and sweet because hardly anything has changed here. Apple’s Tech Specs page has the iPad at 4g heavier this year for the Wi-Fi model and 5g heavier for the cellular variant, but those are the only fractional differences; the size of the chassis remains exactly the same at 174 x 7.5 x 251mm (WDH).

Looks-wise, the iPad still has those lopsided bezels, thicker at the forehead and chin of the iPad (assuming you’re looking at it while holding it in portrait orientation) and it still has a home button with Touch ID integrated below the display. Every other physical feature remains in precisely the same position. 

And my opinion from the last time I reviewed the iPad hasn’t changed, either. It looks dated, especially in the light of the iPad mini’s recent redesign.

Apple iPad (2021) review: FaceTime HD Camera

Still, from a practical perspective, you couldn’t want for much more, especially if you team the iPad with a keyboard of some description. It makes for a practical laptop replacement, and the improved quality of the front-facing camera is the icing on the cake.

Image quality from the 12.2MP (f/2.4) camera is, quite simply, a world away from the camera on the old iPad. It’s much crisper and cleaner than before, even when zoomed in on your face via Centre Stage. The HDR processing is superior, too, keeping bright and dark areas of the image in better balance.

The rear camera is the same as before: an 8MP unit with an f/2.4 aperture. Compared with a premium smartphone, or even a mid-range handset, it’s fairly unremarkable but it will take a decent shot in a pinch and also captures fairly competent 1080p video at up to 60fps. 

Apple iPad (2021) review: Performance and battery life

The step up from A12 Bionic to A13 Bionic isn’t quite such a big upgrade as the front camera – last year’s iPad didn’t exactly feel slow (and still doesn’t) – but it is another worthy improvement. In context, it’s the same processor as in the 2020 iPhone SE and the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max and, unsurprisingly, it performs on a similar level.

It’s perfectly powerful for anything you can possibly think of, from jotting down a few notes to editing RAW files in Lightroom Mobile or producing the occasional video with iMovie. It won’t keep up with an iPad Pro 12.9, but that tablet costs nearly three times as much.

As for battery life, the 2021 iPad lasted 13hrs 11mins in our video rundown test. That’s pretty good and works out at 26 minutes longer than the 2020 model, which in turn lasted around a quarter of an hour longer than its predecessor. It’s a steady progression, in other words; nothing spectacular, but nothing to complain about, either.

Apple iPad (2021) review: Display

And, yes, you guessed it, the display is as good here as last time as well, albeit with the addition of True Tone this time around. For the uninitiated, True Tone senses the tone of the ambient light in your surroundings and matches the white point of the iPad’s display to that colour temperature. The idea is that your eyes aren’t constantly readjusting when you look up from the screen. The downside is that it affects colour accuracy – you’ll need to disable it if you’re using the iPad for critical photo editing.

Even though this is a fairly cheap device, the display is certainly good enough for that. It isn’t a wide gamut screen like that on the iPad Pro 12.9 (2021), but it is wonderfully accurate in the sRGB colour space with an average Delta E of 1.09. It produces a peak brightness of 483cd/m², so it will be readable in all but the brightest conditions, and its contrast ratio of 1,104:1 ensures that onscreen imagery looks punchy and impactful.

READ NEXT: The best kids’ tablets

Apple iPad (2021) review: Verdict

People I know often ask me what laptop or tablet they should buy and, if the budget is low, I’ll invariably ask: “Have you considered buying an iPad?” That’s because the cheapest Apple tablet is a wonderfully flexible machine that I know will do the job for them and you can relegate it to use as a mere web browser or a Netflix viewer.

Add a keyboard, however, and you have something you can also use for work and email on the move, with a whole world of apps to choose from that turn it from what might look like a fairly basic machine into a device that you can do almost anything with. And the upgrades to the front-facing camera, display and overall performance only serve to strengthen its appeal on this front.

If you have around £300 to £500 to spend and you’re looking to get yourself something that can turn its hand to any job, the iPad (2021) remains the tablet to buy. It’s cheap, performs exceptionally well and is supremely versatile.

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