Review: The cheapest iPad is now my favorite way to FaceTime with anyone
This year the cheapest iPad takes center stage — literally.
When Apple announced the iPad (2021), I was expecting it to be pretty underwhelming. After all, the iPad (2020) just came out last year and is still a great entry-level tablet by anyone's standards. Not to mention the iPad mini 6 just burst onto the scene and was stealing all the headlines. Once again, the iPad (2021) was overlooked like that weird "cousin" at your family reunion that nobody can quite figure out who they're related to, and just like that proverbial cousin, the iPad (2021) tried its best to make a scene.
While it still is a relatively minor update to the iPad overall, the 9th-generation makes a splash by including a front-facing camera that is actually good, brings True Tone to its LCD, and increases its storage capacity.
Bottom line: The iPad (2021) upgrades Apple's cheapest tablet in a few minor ways, but the inclusion of a good-quality front-facing camera and the storage limit increase are the biggest boons to the 9th-generation iPad.
- 64GB and 256GB storage options
- 12MP front-facing camera with Center Stage
- True Tone display
- Same old design
- No increase in battery life
iPad (2021): Price and availability
The 9th-generation iPad is available to purchase now and starts at the same price as last year's model — $329. It's only available in two colors — space gray and sliver — and has either a 64GB or 256 GB storage capacity. You can also grab either model in Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi and Cellular.
You can likely get the new 10.2-inch iPad wherever you buy your Apple products usually, but don't be surprised if you have to wait a little bit. As of writing this review, some models (particularly the cheapest one) are shipping directly from Apple in about 4-6 weeks.
iPad (2021): The great new features
In my review of the iPad (2020) last year, I specifically mentioned how the 1.2MP front-facing camera was a complete joke — it's almost a crime even to call it a camera; however, this year, Apple changed all that. The biggest and baddest new feature included in the iPad this year was the inclusion of the 12MP ultra-wide camera as the front-facing camera, and boy, is it a massive upgrade from before.
Able to take full 1080p video, video calling is finally good on the cheapest iPad. I don't know about you, but my reliance on FaceTime and other video calling software has become much more significant over the past couple of years. Thanks to the upgraded camera, the 2021 iPad is my preferred method of taking video calls. It's so easy to sit on the couch in a comfortable position with an iPad for more extended periods than it is with my MacBook. Plus, the microphone (even though it didn't receive an upgrade) is pretty good for your standard video call or FaceTime with some family or friends. The whole experience is made even better by Center Stage.
Video calling is finally good on the iPad!
If you don't know, Center Stage is a feature that uses machine learning and the ultra-wide camera to focus continuously on one or multiple people that should be captured in the frame. When on a FaceTime call, your camera will intuitively stay focused on you, even if you happen to move around. So if you move to one side of the frame, it will "pan" over to you and do its best to keep you in the center of the frame. It will even zoom out to capture multiple people in the frame, so if you want your significant other to say hi to your mom, you can call them over to sit or stand beside you, and Center Stage should fit you both in the frame.
In practice, Center Stage works pretty well, albeit a little slowly. It can take a short second or two to adjust the camera to keep you in the center, but if you need to switch positions or you want someone else to join you on the call, it does a great job of doing most of the work for you. It's yet another reason the iPad (2021) has become my favorite device for video calls. It just takes a lot of the hassle out of the small stuff and lets you enjoy the conversation.
Another great feature Apple added to the newest iPad is the inclusion of a True Tone display, which means the display will adjust to being warmer or cooler in tone to match the light around you. It's a great feature that has inexplicably been missing from the cheapest iPad for years, and when I compared the iPad 9 vs. the iPad 8, you can notice a difference. Whether you're reading an article before bed with light from a small incandescent bulb on your bedside table, or you're outside in broad daylight, the screen always looks right. It helps with strain on the eyes and makes using the iPad for everyday tasks just a little easier.
True Tone is great for reading, less so for photo editing
If you're not used to a True Tone display, it can make coloring or photo editing a tad annoying because it can distort the colors you see on the screen a little bit. It's certainly not a deal-breaker, especially since you can turn it on and off as you wish, but it's worth noting if you do like editing photos on your iPad.
Speaking of photo editing and getting stuff done with your iPad, Apple's A13 Bionic chip is what powers the iPad (2021). A step up from the A12 Bionic that powered last year's release, but in practice, you're unlikely going to notice much of a performance upgrade from the iPad (2020). Still, the newest iPad is faster and performs better than ever before, letting you do all the day-to-day tasks you need to do, and for a lot of people (most even), this iPad has even juice to accomplish anything you can throw at it. Of course, it's not as powerful as the iPad Air 4 or the iPad Pro, so if you're trying to do anything advanced — like video editing, for example — the iPad (2021) won't be for you.
iPad (2021): The same old downsides
The good news is there's nothing wrong with the iPad (2021) that wasn't already present in previous models. The bad news is there are still some pain points that continue to plague the cheapest iPad.
The rear camera is still a bit of a mess, offering the same 8MP single-lens with a ƒ/2.4 aperture that has been in the base iPad for years. While I certainly understand that Apple has been trying more and more to push its cameras in front of the "pro" audience, you have to remember that the regular iPad is a highly successful product. It's many people's go-to tablet because they don't need all the other fancy features that the iPad Air and iPad Pro offer. But, denying those people a better camera in 2021 is a bit of a drag. Unfortunately, if you're a fan of tablet photography, I can't really recommend the iPad (2021) for you.
It's still only compatible with the first-generation Apple Pencil, which means if you're serious about getting the absolute best drawing experience in an iPad, this isn't the model for you. That being said, the Apple Pencil is still an excellent accessory for iPad, and I highly encourage anyone who has the money (artist or not) to get one for your iPad.
Lastly, the biggest drawback to the iPad is the same old design that it's had since the product launch over 10 years ago — save for bigger screen size. You still have to deal with those big bezels around the iPad's screen, you still have Touch ID instead of Face ID, and the battery life is about the same as it has been for the past couple of iterations. The iPad mini 6 upgraded to the newer form factor with thinner bezels this year and still managed to keep the price at a decent level. I'm hoping Apple eventually does the same with the original iPad if they can keep the price relatively the same because that's the entry-level iPad's biggest strength.
iPad (2021): Competition
There's a reason that the iPad continues to dominate the tablet market and that the cheapest iPad is still so popular — its lack of competition. Yes, there are other tablet manufacturers out there, but the fact remains, there's nothing quite like the iPad (2021) in terms of value. That means that the biggest competition for this tablet is its predecessor: the iPad (2020).
Although finding last year's iPad will be more challenging now that the new one is being sold, you may see a good deal on one out in the wild. If you do, you may have to ask yourself if it's worth just grabbing the older one since the upgrade this year is primarily minimal when it comes to performance.
iPad (2021): Should you buy it?
You should buy this if ...
- Want an inexpensive iPad.
- Like Touch ID on your tablet.
- Are upgrading from an iPad that's 2-3 years old.
You shouldn't buy this if...
- You need any "pro" features.
- You want a more modern tablet design.
- Already have an iPad (2020).
This is the new entry-level iPad, and it's the iPad that many people will, and should, buy. It's better, has a few cool new features, and will last you years barring any major accidents. As long as you aren't expecting any "pro" features and are okay with the old design, then the iPad (2021) is a near-perfect tablet for everyone. Of course, if you have the iPad (2020), I'm not sure it's worth upgrading — unless you really love the idea of Center Stage — but if you have the iPad 7 or older, this is a no-brainer.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again, the $329 starting price tag is a hell of a selling feature, and it does a lot to make me love the entry-level iPad so much. No, it doesn't offer you everything the iPad Pro does, and it's not as fast as the iPad Air 4. but none of that really matters once you hold the iPad (2021) in your hands. iPadOS 15 runs so smooth and well on the device that it really performs better than likely most would suspect.
Yes, it has most of the same shortcomings that the iPad has had for years, but if the outdated design, lack of a good-quality camera, and no Face ID bother you, this isn't the iPad for you. Plain and simple.
This iPad was made for two purposes. To bring new people to the iPad and to allow people who have an older iPad to upgrade to something better. It checks both those boxes, and if you're in the market for an iPad, you can't go wrong with this one.
Bottom line: While it may still have the same old design, the new iPad (2021) is better, got a considerable upgrade to its selfie camera, and still starts at an incredibly reasonable price. It's the best iPad for the masses, and it's dang good.