Apple's 2021 iPads: All the upgrades to expect for the iPad Air, Mini and more this fall

We could see a refreshed iPad Air, a whole new iPad Mini and maybe some love for the entry-level iPad, too.

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.
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Scott Stein
4 min read

Last year's iPads included a new-design Air. This year it could be the Mini that gets the makeover. What about the entry-level iPad, though?

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Apple's iPad season usually comes in two waves: a few models in the spring, and the rest in the fall. Apple's big event today could be when the company finally unveils the iPad updates that back-to-school shoppers have been waiting for. Or those iPads might emerge along with new Macs at a second Apple event later in the fall. Either way, now is a good time to hold off on new iPad purchases if you can.

Read more: Apple unveils redesigned iPad Mini

Earlier this year, Apple upgraded iPad Pro models with new M1 chips. Those will remain the most high-powered, fully featured iPads of the bunch, but at a serious price -- expect to pay well over $1,000 after storage upgrades and accessories. 

But Apple could add a few more pro features to other iPad models this fall, as the company tends to let features trickle down to lower-priced models. For example, last year's iPad Air redesign adopted the iPad Pro's larger display and USB-C port. Apple Pencil support and Smart Connectors also made the move to entry iPads over the past few years.

The good news is that all of Apple's recent iPads have tended to run the latest iPadOS well, and are capable of the same multitasking, Pencil note-taking and trackpad/mouse-supported tricks. So what's next?

The new iPad Mini, if it arrives, is widely expected to be the most-changed Apple tablet this year. It may have the same larger-screen, smaller-bezel look of the 2020 iPad Air, along with USB-C support and a side power button with Touch ID support. But its price will likely be higher than most parents would prefer. And as for the iPad Air, it's likely it'll receive a processor bump-up and a few enhancements.

But for the ninth-gen entry-level iPad, there could be some useful changes worth waiting for, too.

Apple iPad Pro with M1 2021

Last year's eighth-gen iPad worked with smart keyboards and Pencil support, and had a new processor. But will it keep the same older design?

Scott Stein/CNET

A processor upgrade (of course)

The eighth-gen iPad got an A12 processor last year, which was an overdue upgrade from the previous model's aged A10. But a shift to an even newer processor seems likely, considering how quickly Apple seems to be upgrading its other devices to M1s and other fast chips. An A14 (the processor on the iPhone 12) would be welcome. Or, at least, an A13.

A similar price to last year? More storage?

Apple's kept its entry iPads affordable, even at the expense of new designs or features. So $329 seems like a likely holdover price, but who knows how much storage will be included. The $329 model from 2020 only had 32GB of storage, making an upgrade to the $429, 128GB version practically required for most. Would Apple at least boost the base storage to 64GB? Come on already, it's 2021.

Apple iPad Pro with M1 2021

The entry-level iPads have used Lightning chargers. Will that change this year?

Scott Stein/CNET

Could there be MagSafe? (Or USB-C?)

The entry-level iPad still has a Lightning port (so do iPhones). But the iPad Air and Pro have USB-C/Thunderbolt. While it makes sense for all iPads to have USB-C ports, Apple might hold off another year. I say if it keeps the price lower, don't change it. But would MagSafe make an appearance? If Apple's committed to expanding MagSafe into a common (and yet again, proprietary) device format, maybe support will arrive here, too (although skipping USB-C would feel tragic).

Side Touch ID button? Maybe not

The Air, Pro and Mini may all end up with reduced screen bezels, and the Mini and Air could both have side Touch ID buttons. But don't be surprised if the entry-level iPad keeps its old-school front-facing Touch ID home button. Again, if it means shaving features for a low-cost device, maybe it doesn't need replacing.

Apple iPad Pro with M1 2021

The 2020 iPad has a fine display, but there's a lot of bezel around the screen.

Scott Stein/CNET

A larger screen?

It's possible Apple could increase the screen size of the entry iPad, which last got a slight display increase from 9.7 to 10.2 inches in 2019. Last year's 2020 iPad only swapped out the internal processor, and kept every other 2019 design element the same. That seems to suggest Apple could change things up in 2021. Some reports from months ago said 10.5 inches is a possibility, but would that mean the new iPad wouldn't fit in older iPad cases and keyboards? A larger screen would at least mean better multitasking, of which iPadOS 15 makes a little more use. But don't expect 120Hz or Mini LED at the budget iPad's price.

Better cameras?

The eighth-gen iPad's cameras were... fine. But we're still Zooming a lot in our house, and while the new iPad Pro's face-tracking camera won't be making an appearance here, a higher-res and even wider-angle front-facing camera would be welcome. I don't care much about the rear camera (sorry).

We'll find out soon: Apple's product event is on Tuesday. If Apple doesn't announce iPads then, they could be announced in October. Even if they are announced this week, we may not see them become available until weeks later. My advice: Hold off on buying any iPad until then.

You can watch Apple's Sept. 14 Apple Event here.