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Apple iPad 9th gen review: The safest iPad bet makes more sense than ever

It's not exciting, but the basic iPad is versatile.

iPad Mini and 9th Gen iPad
The ninth-gen iPad with a keyboard case and Pencil (not included). Same look as last year.
Scott Stein/CNET

All of Apple's new iPads have relatively fresh designs… except for the basic iPad. While the new iPad Mini just got a total makeover, the ninth-gen non-Pro, non-Mini, non-Air iPad still has that big old circular home button. And it still has big bezels around the screen. There's no USB-C. No Magic Keyboard or newer Pencil support. But I'm OK with that, and you might be, too. 

I'm writing this review on the new ninth-gen iPad. I'm able to do this because the iPad allows connections to keyboard cases, like the Apple smart keyboard cover I'm using to write this. It's not as good as the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro and Air, but it's good enough (and costs less). And good enough is exactly what the ninth-gen iPad is: In fact, compared with all other iPads right now, it covers all the bases best. Let me explain.


Apple iPad (9th gen, 2021)

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  • Better A13 processor
  • More storage (64/256GB)
  • Center Stage camera zooms in video chats
  • Works with older keyboard cases
  • Headphone jack

Don't Like

  • Older design
  • No USB-C
  • Uses first-gen Pencil

iPads are secondary devices for most people. Maybe even tertiary devices. After phones and laptops, of course. But they're also pretty essential and useful for a lot of people. Families, kids. That's why budget factors heavily into iPad purchases. In that regard, the basic iPad (still called "iPad" on the box) should be your default pick. That's how I felt last year (see my eighth-gen iPad review), and it's how I feel now, too. It's inexpensive but versatile: This iPad works with the Apple Pencil for sketching (although it's the first-gen Pencil) and with keyboard cases (although not the Magic Keyboard), and has a big enough screen to feel laptoplike (unlike the Mini, which is lovely but expensive and for me, too small). And there's more storage, which helps.

The lowest-priced iPad has always been a trickle-down device, gradually getting upgrades other iPads got years ago. The same is true here: a new A13 processor, a zooming-in Center Stage camera that the iPad Pro got this spring and True Tone on the display for ambient color temperature adjustments. This iPad may get a redesign next year (or later), but for now it's the safest iPad purchase.

iPad Mini and 9th Gen iPad

Next to the new iPad Mini (right), the new iPad (left) may seem a throwback. But hey, from a distance, it looks pretty similar.

Scott Stein/CNET

Design: The same

It looks exactly the same as last year. It has that old circle Touch ID button. It still uses Lightning, not USB-C. And, you know what? It's fine. It works with last year's iPad cases. And it's the last iPad on Earth that has a real headphone jack. And its starting price is the same. But Apple's bumped the storage up, finally, with 64GB on the $329 (£319, AU$499) version -- you could survive with that, just about -- and 256GB on the $479 version, which I'd recommend without a doubt if you're planning to download any movies for travel, or any content-making apps.

If you didn't have any big emotions about last year's iPad, this year's basic model won't wow. It would be nice to have less bezel, switch away from Lightning and also, to have stereo speakers. (Sound only comes out of one side of the iPad in landscape mode, like always, but the fancier iPads fix that. Answer: Deal with it or use headphones.)

Pencil support is fine, but that older Pencil has nowhere to go unless you buy a case that has a loop to hold it (those do exist, like Logitech's keyboard folios). And the front-facing camera is still stuck on the side in landscape mode, which is how you'll have it set up for laptop-style use. 

iPad Mini and 9th Gen iPad

Yes, it still uses Lightning.

Scott Stein/CNET

Center Stage: Zooming-in FaceTime and Zoom calls

You'll notice that when you launch video chat on the new iPad, it'll start zooming in on your face. That's Center Stage, a feature that leans on the wider-angle iPad front-facing camera to zoom in during calls. 

In general, Center Stage is a useful tweak to the video chat experience, especially from a distance with families. Like a Facebook Portal and a few other devices, it'll follow you around. The autotracking works smoothly, almost like a panning camera. But on a few FaceTime calls, using a prerelease iPad, I found stutters. (Maybe a software update will fix that). It works with Zoom, and whatever video chat apps want to support it (it's openly available for any video chat app to incorporate).

Now playing: Watch this: iPad Mini 2021 vs. iPad 9th gen, reviewed: Which to buy

Center Stage can be turned off by swiping down from the Control Center and toggling it with the Video Effects button, and some video recording apps like Filmic Pro use it. But Apple's built-in Camera app doesn't take advantage of it, oddly.

One note: On my review iPad I found a few times that Center Stage made FaceTime calls seem to stutter. It might be something Apple needs to address in an iPadOS update.

iPad Mini and 9th Gen iPad

Center Stage is toggled in the Control Center when you're on FaceTime or in other apps: you might want to toggle off auto-zoom sometimes.

Scott Stein/CNET

Performance: More than good enough

The added A13 processor upgrade makes it fast enough for most needs and then some. On benchmark tests, it's about as fast an iPhone 11 (no surprise, since it has the same processor). It's fine for multitasking, gaming and video and doesn't seem to lag.

And its front camera is notably better: crisper for video calls, with a digital-zoom face-following Center Stage mode that works with Zoom, FaceTime and other apps, making it a better family video-chat screen from a distance. They're not amazing cameras, but they're suitable, and better than on most laptops. The front camera went from a 1.2 megapixels to a 122-degree wide-angle 12 megapixels, which makes a real difference, and also lets that camera zoom in using Center Stage without losing effective resolution.

Battery life feels largely the same in daily use so far: Apple keeps leaning on the "10 hours of battery" promise as always, and I find that iPads generally last a whole day of normal use.

iPad Mini and 9th Gen iPad

Typing outside. Multitasking. Yes there's glare, but the 10-inch iPad splits the difference between portability and laptop-type stuff.

Scott Stein/CNET

Boring, but recommended

Seriously: The iPad Mini costs more, lacks the same keyboard support and is probably too small. Last year's iPad Air is good but lacks Center Stage (but if it's on sale, it may be worth snapping up). And the iPad Pro is great but it's expensive. 

For 2021, I think the basic unexciting iPad wins out. Especially for the price, which usually hits $300 for holiday season sales. But other sales could change that metric fast. The iPad Air is better, and last year's eighth-gen iPad is perfectly fine still, too -- if that's on sale for a steep discount, it's worth considering. If you already have last year's iPad there's no need to upgrade. But if you've been waiting a few years and need one soon for the kids or family, here's your choice.