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Apple iPad (2021) review: Bare minimum update still beats the competition
What we like
What we don't like
Apple gave its entry-level iPad a modest update this year. The changes clearly reflect the increased time we’ve spent with our devices while dealing with the global pandemic. With a better screen, better camera, and better processor, the basic iPad is a better device for social media, video chats, and passing the time. Is it the best low-cost slate for your and your family? Find out in the Android Authority Apple iPad (2021) review.
What you need to know about the Apple iPad (2021)
- Apple iPad (64GB): $329 / £319 / €379
- Apple iPad (256GB): $479 / £439 / €549
- Apple iPad w/LTE 4G (64GB): $459 / £459 / €519
- Apple iPad w/LTE 4G (256GB): $609 / £579 / €689
Apple has once again warmed-over its least expensive tablet. The Apple iPad (2021) gains limited improvements in a few key areas, though it is mostly carried over from older generations. This simpler slate sticks to the basics as far as the feature list is concerned. It’s got a sizable display, all-day battery life, and an improved user-facing camera system that goes a long way toward boosting the quality of those FaceTime or Zoom calls.
Competing low-cost Android tablets from the likes of Lenovo, Amazon, and Samsung vary in size, shape, and capabilities, and there are plenty available within $100 or so of the iPad’s starting price. Opting for an Android tablet over the iPad may boil down to a few clutch functionalities or preferences being met for potential buyers.
This year, the Apple iPad comes in two colors, Silver and Space Gray, and just two storage options, 64GB or 256GB. Those storage numbers are twice that of last year’s iPad, which is a welcome upgrade. LTE 4G cellular models are also available for an additional cost of $130. Like Apple’s iPhones, the iPad is widely available for sale. You can pick one up from Apple’s website or brick-and-mortar stores, as well as retail chains including Amazon, Best Buy, BHPhoto, Target, Walmart, and many more. The cellular models can be snagged from your local wireless carrier, such as AT&T or Verizon in the US.
Let’s find out what’s new and what’s not.
Is anything about the design new?
Outwardly, this year’s Apple iPad looks identical to last year’s model. I held the two side by side and there are no obvious differences with respect to materials, size, shape, weight, or components. Even the rear camera modules are reflections of one another. You cannot tell the two tablets apart based on appearances alone.
The tablet has a large piece of display glass fitted into an aluminum chassis. Apple hasn’t said what the glass is made from. Apple cut an angled chamfer into the frame of the chassis where it joins the glass. The side edges and rear panel are made from a single piece of metal and there are smooth curves where the back surface transitions into the sides. The iPad measures 250.6 x 174.1 x 7.5mm, which makes it medium-sized as far as tablets go. It feels delicate due to the thin profile and 487g weight. If you intend to give this to a younger child, I strongly suggest some type of case.
Related: The best Android tablets for kids
The design is decidedly iPad-y. No other tablet looks quite like the iPad, and this particular design has been around for a while now. What stands out visually, unfortunately, are the large bezels. You’ve got deep black edging on two sides of the display and thinner edging in between. The bezels give your thumbs something to grab hold of, but given the all-screen designs of today’s devices, the thick black border is beginning to look outdated. Apple’s newer iPad Pro, Air, and Mini designs have a fresher, more modern look to them — and much slimmer bezels.
The home button doubles as the Touch ID fingerprint reader.
Controls and buttons are standard fair. Because the Apple iPad (2021) uses the older design, it still includes the physical home button. The home button doubles as the Touch ID fingerprint reader. Touch ID takes just a moment to train and it works consistently and quickly. There are times when Touch ID is better than Apple’s Face ID and vice versa. Sadly, Face ID (or any facial recognition) is not available to the entry-level iPad.
This iPad is the last tablet from Apple to rely on the proprietary Lightning port. Apple’s costlier tablets have all moved on to USB-C. Most competing Android and Windows tablets also use USB-C. At least the cable that ships with the iPad matches the one that ships with the iPhone. Unlike the iPhone, however, the iPad does include a charger in the box.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Apple iPad’s simple design, but it no longer turns heads like it used to.
How is the new screen?
Apple made one small change to the iPad’s display. It is not a groundbreaking feature in any way and yet it does improve the experience of using an iPad — particularly if you use the iPad in different settings.
The size, shape, resolution, and brightness are all the same as last year’s iPad. That means a 10.2-inch IPS LED with 2,160 x 1,620 resolution at 264ppi and 500 nits of light output. It includes a fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating but not the anti-reflective coating of the iPad Air and iPad Pro. It’s a really good screen with plenty of color and light, and everything is sharp and clean looking.
So what’s different? Apple updated the screen with its True Tone technology. True Tone has been around a while, though this is the first time we’re seeing it on the low-cost iPad. True Tone uses the ambient light to set the white balance on the screen so it looks more natural as you move from environment to environment, say between a room lit with an incandescent bulb to one lit by the sun through a window. This automatic shift in white balance is subtle and yet it makes enough of a difference to matter.
More reading: How to record your screen on any device
Like I said, not groundbreaking. Even so, the display of the 2021 iPad is easier on the eyes than the 2020 iPad. When you spend all day staring at a screen, every little bit of help is appreciated.
Is the battery life better?
Nope. It’s the same. You’ll get 10 hours of streaming video or surfing the web via Wi-Fi. Was ever thus with the iPad, and ever thus it shall be.
Nearly all Apple iPads meet this 10-hour benchmark for battery life and the new iPad is no different. In my tests, the new iPad reached a maximum of 10 hours 12 minutes of battery life. You’ll get closer to nine hours of battery life if you’re using the LTE 4G model for surfing the web, according to Apple. While 10 hours is plenty of uptime when you’re just goofing about, it might be a bit short for those who put in longer work days. Some competing Android tablets can reach 12 hours of battery life.
I’m happy to report that the included charging brick is a 20W plug. This helps a great deal when it comes time to recharge the iPad. Topping it up from dead took about 2.5 hours. Apple used to ship the iPad with the old 5W plug, which would take closer to four hours to top up.
The Apple iPad (2021) certainly provides enough battery life, though it can always be better.
Is it faster?
Yes. Apple boosted the 2021 iPad’s processor by one generation from the A12 Bionic to the A13 Bionic. The A13, announced in September 2019, may be a two-year-old processor but it still delivers plenty of performance for the iPad.
When it comes to everyday tasks, the iPad simply flies. Under casual observation, the tablet is as smooth and quick to do things as the more powerful Pro models. I didn’t experience any lagging or slow-downs when installing and running applications, including big ones such as GarageBand and iMovie. Games also run perfectly on the iPad. I was more than pleased with the experience of running Asphalt 9 and other action games.
The A13 Bionic and the iPad wreck competing Android tablets.
As far as benchmarks are concerned, the A13 Bionic does indeed put up better numbers than the A12 Bionic. Across tests such as AnTuTu, GeekBench, and 3DMark, the A13 generated scores that were, on average, about 20% higher than the older A12. That’s to be expected given the chip’s updated architecture. The A13 and the iPad wreck competing Android tablets, which typically have mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon processors on board.
What you need to know is this: the Apple iPad (2021) is faster than anything else in the price category and it runs even the most challenging apps and games available in the iTunes App Store without breaking a sweat.
- iPad OS 15: This tablet runs the latest operating system from Apple, which means iPadOS 15. Changes in iPadOS 15 specific to the iPad include wider system support for widgets on the home screens. This is a welcome change, as widgets were quite limited in iPadOS 14. Other new features include revised tab browsing in Safari (which I don’t like), revised full-app multitasking controls, easy access to the App Library, video and audio enhancements to FaceTime, and much more. It’s a solid platform that also gets more complicated every year.
- Camera: Most tablets come with basic cameras that do little more than serve as stop-gap measures if your phone isn’t around. Apple carried over the iPad’s 8MP rear camera. It’s middling at best. No change there. But the company made an enormous upgrade to the user-facing camera, which jumps from 1.2MP to 12MP. Moreover, it’s an ultra-wide shooter that handles 2x digital zoom and is compatible with Apple’s Center Stage video tech, which can automatically follow and center on subjects in the frame (within reason). The result is a tablet that’s dramatically better at video calls, particularly within Apple’s own FaceTime. It improves extended dynamic range for video up to 30fps and also leaps from 720p to 1080p video capture at 25fps, 30fps, or 60fps. The results are truly better than those of the 2020 iPad and many other budget tablets.
- Multi-user support: This is a big one. iPadOS 15 and the iPad do not include support for multiple users on a single device. This is in direct contrast to Android, Chrome, and Windows, all of which provide for multi-user access. The lack of multi-user support on tablets is a serious limitation and one that Apple should have rectified years ago. There’s simply no excuse any more. What it means is that any adult wishing to share their iPad with kids will place their own apps, settings, and content at risk. For families that cannot afford more than a single shared device, this may be a dealbreaker.
- Apple Pencil: The Apple iPad (2021) supports the original Apple Pencil. This $99 accessory opens up a wide number of use cases for the iPad, such as drawing and editing apps. It’s a shame the Pencil costs so much extra. Samsung ships an S Pen stylus with many of its mid-range and high-end tablets at no additional charge.
- Wireless: The base model iPad includes Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 4.2. We would prefer to see Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.0 for the latest in connection options. That said, the Wi-Fi performance was excellent. As for cellular, the entry-level iPad is limited to LTE 4G as an option rather than 5G. That makes sense given the pricing for this device category.
- Speakers: The iPad provides “two-speaker audio” but I wouldn’t call it stereo. Both speakers are located on the same edge of the tablet. It doesn’t matter much when you hold the iPad vertically in the portrait orientation, but you’ll notice the lopsided sound coming from one side of the tablet when watching video in horizontal landscape orientation. Younger users probably won’t care, but if you’re serious about balanced audio when watching movies or listening to music you’ll want to opt for wired or wireless headphones. Concerning the latter, remember that the iPad is limited to AAC as far as Bluetooth codecs are concerned.
- Smart Connector: Astute observers will note three metallic dots along one of the iPad’s side edges. This is the Smart Connector, which allows the iPad to interact directly with select accessories, such as the Apple Smart Keyboard. The biggest benefit to using Smart Connector accessories is that it negates the need to tie up the Bluetooth radio.
Apple iPad (2021) specs
|Apple iPad (2021)|
10.2-inch IPS LED
2,160 x 1,620 pixels
Apple A13 Bionic
1080p at 25/30fps
1080p at 25, 30, 60fps
Up to 10 hours browsing via Wi-Fi
Up to 9 hours browsing via LTE 4G
Touch ID fingerprint reader
250.6 x 174.1 x 7.5mm
Silver, Space Gray
Value and competition
The Apple iPad (2021) probably provides more value than any other tablet in its class. A number of things factor into its appeal and its standing among its peers.
To start, the hardware quality is outstanding. Apple knows how to assemble solid devices. The screen is large, sharp, and bright enough to handle all the content you can throw at it. Battery life may just be average, but it’s consistent and still pushes through more than a full work day. Apple’s silicon is simply speedier than everything else in the class, which pushes this entry-level tablet’s performance to the top. iPadOS may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t knock the platform’s smooth experience and wide app compatibility. Toss in extras such as the headphone jack, Smart Connector, Apple Pencil compatibility, multiple storage options, and potential for LTE 4G connectivity and you have a well-rounded device that should make most anyone happy short of power users. With a starting price of $329, the Apple iPad is a bargain.
With a starting price of $329, the Apple iPad is a bargain.
If you’re dead set against iPadOS or need vital features such as multi-user support, Android, Chrome, and Windows have you covered.
Lenovo has a slew of potential products for you. First, there’s the Lenovo M10 HD Smart Tab ($129.99). It’s an FHD, 10-inch tablet that covers the basics, though it’s a bit on the slow side. Want to upgrade? There’s also the Lenovo Yoga Tab 13 ($679.99), which delivers big on performance and productivity. Lenovo also offers a range of new tablets, including the P11 Plus, that are closer to the iPad’s starting price. Last, Lenovo also offers a killer slate-style Chromebook in the 2021 Chromebook Duet ($299.99) that has an improved screen and processor if you want to give Chrome a go.
Samsung doesn’t have a direct competitor to the iPad. Its Tab A series tablets, such as the Galaxy Tab A7 ($179.99) are typically priced in the $200 range and are best used as simple content consumption devices. If you want to overshoot the iPad a bit, you could opt for the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 FE ($479.99), which offers plenty to like, including a boxed S Pen stylus. We found the 5G model to be a bit on the slow side.
If price is a factor, you can always look to Amazon's tablets.
If price is a factor, you can always look to Amazon’s tablets. The best potential iPad competitor is the Amazon Fire 10 HD Plus ($179.99), which has a 10-inch screen and access to Amazon’s Prime content (for a subscription fee.) The Fire HD 10 Plus uses Fire OS, which is a fork of Android. Performance is not the Amazon tablet’s strong suit.
Last, if you’re more of a Windows user, there’s the brand new Microsoft Surface Go 3 ($399.99), which runs Windows 11. This tablet-first, PC-second device doesn’t ship with extras, such as a keyboard, but it has a palatable price tag and a full operating system.
Apple iPad (2021) review: The verdict
Apple didn’t do a whole lot to improve its baseline tablet year over year, but then it didn’t really have to. The entry-level iPad was already ahead of the competition by a significant margin in terms of value and performance. Apple made some meaningful tweaks anyway.
The refreshed display is easier on the eyes. The upgraded processor gives the iPad even more of a performance edge. And the overhauled user-facing camera makes the iPad a much more enjoyable personal and professional video chat platform. Consider the vast existing app library, wide range of compatible accessories, and software update commitment from Apple, and this all adds up to a more complete package than ever for this $329 slate.
The reality here is that Apple's low-cost slate doesn't have any real competition.
That’s not to say there aren’t things holding the iPad back. One of the biggest detractors is its lock-in to a single user, not to mention its lack of a dedicated kids mode. This simply doesn’t work for families that need multi-user support. I’d prefer to see real stereo speakers on a tablet like this, and it would be nice to see Apple make strides with battery life.
The reality here is that Apple’s low-cost slate doesn’t have any real competition. No other $300 tablet delivers the same level of performance as the iPad. There are plenty of other tablets in the market, many available for less than $300, but they simply can’t match the power and potential of the iPad.