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Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018) review: The iPad for everyone

There isn't much new about Apple’s newest entry-level iPad. But it’s a better value than ever.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
9 min read

Editors' note, March 18, 2019: Apple has announced two new iPads. Starting at $499 (£479, AU$779) for the 64GB model, the new iPad Air features a 10.5-inch Retina display, an A12 Bionic processor and support for the Apple Pencil. It replaces the 10.5-inch iPad Pro from 2017, which is no longer sold. The new iPad Mini, starting at $399 (£399, AU$599) for the 64GB version, also has the A12 chip and Pencil support, but is otherwise nearly identical to the iPad Mini 4 it replaces. The original review of the 2018 iPad, first published March 27, 2018 and last updated on April 12, 2018, follows. 


Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018)

The Good

The 2018 entry-level iPad supports the Apple Pencil for art work and annotation, and adds a faster A10 processor. iOS continues to offer the best overall selection of free and paid apps on affordable tablets.

The Bad

Lacks the bigger, better screen, quad speakers and Smart Connector found on pricier iPad Pros. The Pencil, case and keyboard add-ons will bring the price up to laptop level.

The Bottom Line

The 2018 entry-level iPad doesn't add much, but it makes an already excellent tablet a better buy than ever.

Apple's newest 2018 iPad is basically the 2017 model with a faster processor and support for the Apple Pencil , a pricey stylus that lets you draw on the screen with remarkable accuracy. It's the same price as last year's model, too, starting at $329, £319 or AU$469 for the 32GB model. 128GB and LTE cellular options cost more, as you can see in the chart below. Don't expect something new here: This is a familiar iPad, with a couple of nice upgrades.

For schools, it's unclear how useful the new iPad is. Apple unveiled the new iPad at a March event in Chicago touting its commitment to education. And insofar as the new iPad's pricing goes, it still feels like a miss compared to its primary Chromebook competitors. Students and educators in the US get a modest $30 break, and another $10 off the price of the $99 Pencil. I'm guessing school boards and taxpayers will grade that pricing plan with a C+ -- maybe a B- at best.

Apple iPad prices (2018)

32GB Wi-Fi128GB Wi-Fi32GB LTE128GB LTEPencil
US $329$429$459$559$99
UK £319£409£449£539£89
Australia AU$469AU$599AU$669AU$799AU$145

But for average consumers, this updated iPad feels like a solid A, with the iPad Pro remaining the A+. Yes, you're still paying a premium for the iPad versus, say, ultrabudget Amazon Fire tablets . But the addition of Pencil support -- here if you want it, but not required -- is the icing on the cake of what was already a top-notch consumer tablet. The world of iOS apps is chock-full of everything you need, and even without the fancy screen upgrades of the iPad Pro, the Retina screen remains gorgeous and responsive. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Yes, buying the Pencil and a good keyboard or case gets you back up into the pricing territory of a midrange Windows laptop. But the baseline iPad is delivering the bulk of the features of its step-up Pro siblings at almost half the price. And it runs circles around that old 16GB iPad you own, which you probably paid $500 for -- before adding those same accessories to your shopping cart.

So, yeah, this iPad isn't terribly exciting. But, it's also pretty great.

Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018)

Price as reviewed $559
CPU 2.3GHz A10 processor
Memory 2GB
Storage 128GB
Networking Wi-Fi + Cellular
Operating system Apple iOS 11.3

What's different from the 2017 iPad? Speed and Pencil

Last year's $329 model was pretty great at being a basic tablet with solid performance. Yes, it was essentially newer processors stuck into the body of an older iPad Air , but it did its job well, and iPads haven't changed much in design over the years, so it's hard to even tell the difference.

The 2018 9.7-inch model has the same build, but improves all its internals significantly. A newer A10 processor is significantly faster, beating out every iPhone and iPad in benchmarks, except last year's iPad Pros and the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X. (See the performance comparison chart at the end of this article.) For a $329 Apple device, that's pretty great.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As I said above, this iPad now works with the Pencil stylus, too, which is great news for anyone thinking of doing creative work. Much like Microsoft 's Surface Pen, the Pencil stylus is pressure-sensitive and is helpful in art apps. Apple has also knitted Pencil support into its iWork suite of apps, including Pages, as well as the built-in Notes app. Instant annotations of PDFs and photos are easy, and its responsiveness is great. But you don't need the Pencil: Your finger will work just fine for basic mark-up. Most everyday iPad owners can skip the expense, or opt to add it later.

After a couple of weeks with the iPad, it's proven to be an easy to-go option. Games run great, apps load fast, and battery life has been surprisingly good, even by iPad standards. It's extremely functional. This iPad has the first-generation Touch ID button -- not the second-gen one found in newer iPhones and the iPad Pro -- but it worked just fine. On an iPad, however, I always seem to forget where the home button is as I spin it around to different orientations. 

LTE speeds on the iPad are also improved, to 300Mbps. I don't use LTE on iPads (I tether with my phone), but you might. 

Apple claims the same 10 hours of life for all current iPads when streaming and browsing the web. We found it to be even better than that: it lasted an average of 12 hours, 44 minutes in three video streaming playback tests, the same as last year's 9.7-inch 2017 iPad. The 10.5-inch iPad Pro does even better. But it's significantly better than the 2017 Microsoft Surface Pro and Samsung Chromebook Pro.

"But wait," you're saying. "That's it? Just a better processor and the option to use the Pencil? Those are the only changes from last year's model?" That's correct, and that's why I wouldn't recommend anybody with the otherwise excellent 2017 iPad run out and upgrade to this model unless you're really in love the idea of a stylus. But here's the thing: Most of you don't have that nearly identical 2017 iPad. You have a comparatively ancient iPad 2 or iPad Air that's just chugging along.

Enlarge Image

Four generations of iPads, left to right: The 10.5-inch iPad Pro (2017); the new 9.7-inch iPad with Pencil support (2018); the original 9.7-inch iPad Pro (2016); and the older 9.7-inch iPad (2017).

Sarah Tew/CNET

So think of it this way: If you have any non-Pro iPad besides the 2017 model, the Air 2 or a Mini, the 2018 model will be slimmer and lighter. And it's faster than all previous iPads except the 2017 iPad Pros, which cost about twice as much to start.  

Pencil: The good and bad

Apple's Pencil is probably the iPad's most exciting feature of the last few years. Its ability to draw on angles and also be pressure-sensitive results in excellent digital sketching. Apple is slowly working in support in its core apps, too. The Pencil's also fast to recharge via Lightning. It's expensive, though: At $99, £89 or AU$145, it's nearly a third of the cost of the iPad. (Students and educators get a mere $10 discount in the US.)

And nothing has changed about the Pencil's design, which is hardly kid-friendly: the rear cap covering the Lightning plug is way too easy to lose. The stylus tip can detach and get lost, too. And the Pencil still rolls across tables and has no way to clip onto the iPad. Unless you have a special case with a Pencil holder, you'll have to stick it in your ear.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Logitech  is making a more affordable stylus, called the Crayon, for $49. It's made to be easier to hold for kids and not roll off tables, but it's not the same as the Pencil. It has no pressure sensitivity, which is the Pencil's biggest advantage. I haven't reviewed or tried the Crayon yet, but since it's only available in the education market, it's not really an option for the masses.

Despite how good the Pencil is, it's the iPad accessory I use least. For me, the iPad's still best at being a finger-touch device. I thought I'd put the Pencil to use on a family vacation with the new iPad, and we ended up barely using it. That's not because the Pencil isn't great -- it's because, for most family use cases, you're probably going to end up using your finger instead. And the Pencil's slightly delicate build made me less likely to let my littler kid use it. 

But for anyone who marks up documents or just likes to sketch, the Pencil is an awesome add-on. I have one colleague whose daughter is a budding artist, thanks to her iPad Pro and Pencil. And now the entry point for that sort of combo is half price. I'd suggest taking the Pencil for a spin in the Apple Store before plunking down the hundred bucks, though.

What you're still missing by not going Pro

In many ways, this iPad seems like the return of my favorite model, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro from 2016. But it's not exactly the same: there are some small but key differences. First, there's no side Smart Connector. iPad Pros benefit from that side port, which works with keyboards and a few docks. The big advantage is that Smart Connector accessories don't need connect via Bluetooth . It's not a huge problem to lose it, since Apple never did much with it, and more affordable, good Bluetooth keyboard cases are everywhere.

This iPad's display and speakers are the same as last year's entry-level iPad. That means it's not as good as the current iPad Pro, which has louder quad speakers and a larger 10.5-inch screen, with a faster 120Hz refresh rate TrueMotion display. This iPad also lacks TrueTone, the color tone-adjusting tech that's in iPad Pros and last year's iPhones, and doesn't have as wide a color gamut, if you're a display nut. 

The speakers ended up bothering me more than I thought: maybe I'm spoiled by the Pro's really good quad speakers for TV and movie viewing. The one-sided speakers on this iPad make it sound like one speaker's gone out. But guess what? You can always wear headphones. In vertical portrait mode, it's less noticeable.

Plus, the display is not as closely laminated to the glass as on newer iPad models. It's not terrible, but if you're using the Pencil to draw, the extra gap creates some distance and makes the writing feel slightly less immediate. But... to everyday eyes, this display still looks really good.

Also keep in mind that the step-up iPad Pros have better Pencil responsiveness, too. I think it's good enough on this iPad for just about anyone, but graphics pros should weigh that up. It didn't bother me, though.

The cameras are the same as the 2017 entry-level iPad, and while the 8-megapixel stills and 1080p video recording look far better than what most laptops and tablets can produce, it's several steps behind what the newest iPhones or iPad Pros can handle. And you can't shoot in 4K (but, oddly, you could edit 4K video if you somehow imported it, which I haven't tried). I still think this iPad's camera quality, for a tablet, ends up impressing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The case design is identical to last year's model. So while it needs to have the space for the Touch ID home button, the larger bezels on the top and bottom are starting to feel old. But you could use last year's iPad 9.7 cases and accessories with this, which is a plus.

Using it back and forth with a 10.5-inch iPad Pro, I prefer the Pro: its faster display, smoother scrolling, more tuned colors, better speakers, and better screen-to-body ratio is really nice, and I like using Smart Connector keyboard covers to type with. But is it spend-up-to-buy nice? I think, unless you're a professional who has a use case in mind, it's difficult to justify the spending what's effectively twice the price. 

A superior tablet at a great price

Apple is expecting this iPad to be the best-selling tablet for everyone. And it probably will be. If you've been waiting for a tablet, didn't want to spend too much and have been coveting an iPad, this is basically an iPad Pro at a junior price. It's a great buy.

But it's still not a true full computer replacement, for me. And I doubt whether it'll be the answer for cash-strapped schools that might be looking for something more affordable, or something that could be more like a standard laptop computer. Bargain hunters outside of a school environment should still check out the Amazon Fire HD 10, which delivers a good set of tablet basics -- web browser, video viewing and plenty of apps and games -- at half the price. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

That said, I can't imagine recommending any other iPad right now over this one. For its price, and its features, this is everything you want in a tablet. The Pros are better for creatives and designers, but I'd wait on those, too: We could see new iPad Pros that may even fold in iPhone X-style designs as soon as Apple's June WWDC event. And that's the only caveat I can issue here: this is one shoe dropping in Apple's yearly iPad deployment. You might want to wait to see what the entire lineup brings.

But for budget shoppers, your iPad journey stops here. 

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

Apple iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017) 9194Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) 8845Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018) 5974Samsung Chromebook Pro 4995Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2017) 4234
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) 108154Apple iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017) 53873Samsung Chromebook Pro 45762Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018) 37352Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2017) 29266
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

JetStream Javascript test

Apple iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017) 201.95Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018) 168.79Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) 154.01Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2017) 119.55Samsung Chromebook Pro 109.92
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

System configurations

Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018) Apple iOS 11.3; 2.3GHz A10; 2GB RAM; Wi-Fi/LTE; 128GB Storage
Apple iPad Pro (10.5-inch, 2017) Apple iOS 11.2.6; 2.3GHz A10X; 4GB RAM; Wi-Fi/LTE; 512GB Storage
Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2017) Apple iOS 10.3; 1.85GHz Apple A9; 2GB RAM; Wi-Fi/LTE; 128GB Storage
Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-7600U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640; 512GB SSD
Samsung Chromebook Pro Google Chrome OS; 900MHz Intel Core m3-6y30; 4GB RAM; Intel HD Graphics 515; 32GB storage

Apple iPad (9.7-inch, 2018)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9