Apple’s powerful new ‘basic’ iPad is a real budget laptop replacement

Apple’s new 2020 iPad has the same size, shape, look and feel as last year’s model. But it’s considerably more powerful. After a week using it, the significant engine improvements in the new model serve as a reminder of something that has only recently happened: the basic iPad is now […]

Apple’s new 2020 iPad has the same size, shape, look and feel as last year’s model.

But it’s considerably more powerful. After a week using it, the significant engine improvements in the new model serve as a reminder of something that has only recently happened: the basic iPad is now a capable laptop replacement for a lot of people.

Here’s what what I mean: I’m writing, fact-checking and filing this review fully on the new iPad. It’s not really a second-rate experience, either. The keyboard I’m using is Apple’s Smart Keyboard, the one that only iPad Pro users were able to use up until last year. (So it’s good.) The basic iPad now has the physical connectors for that.

As I’m typing away, I need to check some details and specifications. But I’m not doing that on some other device or laptop, or replacing one app on the screen with another — I have the screen split in two with Microsoft Word on one side and Safari on the other. As iPad Pro users have known for years, this isn’t ‘just as good’ as using a laptop, it’s actually faster.

I also have an Apple Pencil (the early version) on the side, which I occasionally use for brainstorming or storyboarding, but more often for signing online documents. I’m a casual stylus user, but for those who are curious about what it can do, Apple’s new iPadOS 14 now lets you write in almost any text field and the words will turn into text. (You can also do things like highlight, cut and paste handwritten text with the Pencil.)

True, the 10.2-inch display isn’t as roomy as either of my iPad Pros (11 inches and 13 inches), or that of the new 10.9-inch iPad Air (which seems to be the new everyman’s iPad Pro, but I’ll return to that in my iPad Air review).

But it’s big enough to work on somewhat comfortably. Crucially, and to come back to the engine issue, it’s also powerful enough.

Measuring an iPad’s actual muscle-power is a little harder than a laptop’s. Unless you’re gaming or editing videos, there can sometimes appear to be little difference in speed and performance between contemporary models. Most of us know someone who still has a very old iPad that generally works okay.

But you do start to notice when you’re trying to get something done quickly or on a deadline, especially flipping between apps or exporting files.

I ran a few tests to see what the difference is between this year’s iPad and last year’s (7th Generation). It’s actually quite considerable. Apple’s claims of this being up to twice as fast has so far been borne out by diagnostics I’ve run using Geekbench and other tools, which show between 38pc and 92pc increases in performance in the new model. This is almost entirely down to the new powerful chip Apple has under the iPad hood, the A12 Bionic. Again, this is the kind of processor that Apple would have reserved for an iPad Pro just two or three years ago.

For anyone who really wants to get into the weeds of engine metrics, you get around 3GB of Ram on this iPad, which sounds like nothing when you consider that flagship phones now typically get 6GB or 8GB of Ram. But Ram has never been a reliable indicator for performance with iOS devices, because of the way they put the machines together (and their control of all the components).

Bringing this back to how I’ve been using the new iPad, it means that I don’t really notice much difference in performance in day-to-day casual working tasks between this and the iPad Pro I’m used to depending on. For clarity, this largely means Microsoft and Google productivity apps, social media, browsing and movie streaming apps.

‘Hold on’, you may be asking at this point. ‘If this is the case, why do you need an iPad Pro at all?’

In brief, for me, it would mainly be for photo and video editing, which I do a lot of. Not only is that quicker and more responsive with the iPad Pro’s faster-still engine, but it’s a bigger, better display. A lesser reason is that I have Apple’s Magic Keyboard which is indisputably the best tablet keyboard out there and is only available for iPad Pro and iPad Air devices. A further reason is that I sometimes have to connect into the office’s virtualised system, which is sluggish enough as it is without substituting a top-end machine like an iPad Pro for a more casual one.

But back to the iPad 8’s features.

1. DISPLAY

I mentioned the 10.2-inch ‘Retina’ display. With a 2160-by-1620 resolution and 500 nits of brightness, it’s clear, bright and does a generally fine job. Unlike Apple’s higher-end iPads, it’s not laminated and you can see a tiny gap underneath the glass. While this actually makes it a little cheaper to repair if it gets cracked, it’s starting to look a little dated.

2. CAMERAS

Before the lockdown, an iPad’s cameras weren’t something that most people would have thought too much about. But with Zoom, Teams and all the rest, it’s definitely now a consideration. The good news is that the new iPad’s FaceTime camera is very decent for video facing you, which is all you really need. It’s a very light high definition version (720p) and has only 1.2 megapixels, but assuming your face is within a metre or so, it’s totally fine. For still selfie photos, it’s not so good. I actually got better quality videoing myself through the FaceTime selfie camera, pausing the video and then grabbing a still frame. The rear 8-megapixel camera is much better for stills and gives you 1080p ‘full HD’ video, stabilisiation (with a substantial crop) and slow motion at 120 frames per second. I’m not quite sure how much people use iPads for photography or videography, but this will give you similar quality to a good iPhone a couple of years ago.

3. BATTERY

The battery life is largely unchanged and will depend entirely on what you’re using it for. It’s very efficient (around seven or eight hours) for things like Netflix, but goes fairly quickly (around four hours) when you’re using it intensively, swapping between apps, multitasking and using the connected keyboard (which uses the iPad for power). For example, it took me between two and three hours to write the bulk of this review. I used about 40pc of the battery in that time.

4. SMART KEYBOARD

The Smart Keyboard (€179) I’m using with this is satisfying, although I do miss that it doesn’t have anything to cover the rear of the iPad. I know from experience that, over time, this leads to the back of the device getting a little scratched or scuffed.

Also, you should know that there are decent alternatives that either offer a little more or are cheaper. Logitech, in particular, has one called the Combo Touch Keyboard (€147) that offers quite a lot for the money — including a backlit keyboard, a trackpad to take advantage of the iPad’s new cursor and mouse functionality, a rear protective cover and additional angles to use the iPad’s display.

5. OTHER THINGS

It has a traditional 3.5mm headphone jack — it may also be one of the last Apple products Apple to include this. It’s also still recharged using the ‘Lightning’ cable connection that Apple still uses for iPhones, meaning you’re very likely to already have some around. The only long term downside to Lightning is that Apple looks likely to migrate away from it to USB-C (like the iPad Pro and iPad Air) in the coming years, meaning that accessories such as USB keys or dongles or adapters might change with that.

As with all modern iPads, you can now use a mouse or a trackpad with it, because iPadOS 14 supports cursor control. I do use a trackpad sometimes.

I started this review by pointing out that there isn’t any major physical difference between this year’s iPad and last year’s. If you own that model, there isn’t much reason to upgrade. This iPad is instead aimed as an upgrade for 6th generation (or older) models — which will typically be over three years old by now.

6. COMPARED TO OTHER iPADS

In case you were wondering where this sits in Apple’s general iPad hierarchy, or whether it might be good enough to substitute for an iPad Air or an iPad Pro, there’s quite a big jump between this and the new iPad Air model. I’ll have a separate review of the iPad Air when I’ve had a proper chance to go through it. But even from the specifications listed, it has notably higher-spec features including a considerably bigger, more advanced screen (including thinner bezels and no home button), more power and compatibility with more advanced Apple accessories, such as the (superb) Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil 2. Is it worth an extra €300 or so for these features? To some people, absolutely. For others, not at all.

7. VERDICT

If you’re a casual user, a student or someone who’s looking for something to do a bit of everything — work, browsing, social media, movie streaming — this is a very solid investment. It beats almost every similarly-priced Android tablet for functionality, hands down. It’s also more powerful, quicker and easier to use than most basic laptops. The main limitation of the iPad for someone who’s thinking of a laptop will be the screen size, which is just shy of what most people look for. But for everyone else, this is a proper computer.

The iPad 10.2 comes in two basic configurations: 32GB (€392) and 128GB (€491). Add €140 to each price if you want cellular functionality with it.

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