The plain old iPad gets a needed lift

Don't discount the cheapest iPad as basic, it's a great value for remote learning -- and it gets a big speed boost, too.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
3 min read

There is another... Besides the iPad Air updates announced today and the iPad Pro from earlier in 2020, there's also a lightly refreshed plain old iPad from the September Apple Event. This lower-end model, technically the closest direct descendant of the original decade-old iPad 1.0, continues to serve as an affordable, if not flashy, entry point into the Apple ecosystem. 

That's especially important for remote learning, where an iPad can be a reasonably priced, but highly capable, tool for taking part in online classes and doing homework.

The official price from Apple is $329 (£329, AU$499), but nearly every retailer sells it for $299 -- which is also Apple's education discount price -- and it often drops down to $250 for holidays and other sales events. That's a fraction of the $799 (£769, AU$1,329) iPad Pro starting price or $599 (£579, AU$899) iPad Air starting price, even though it runs nearly every iPadOS app reasonably well.

Watch this: Apple announces 8th-gen iPad

That's not to say there's been no daylight between the different flavors of iPad. The A10 processor has been a bit behind what other A-series products (like the iPhone or iPad Pro) offer. Some games and creative apps could benefit from a boost, and it could make app transitions smoother and eliminate menu lag. 

apple ipad 2020

New for the 2020 version of the not-so-basic iPad is the A12 Bionic processor. Could it go even further? Of course. The iPad Air now has a new A14 chip, the iPad Pro has an A12Z processor and the iPhone 11 Pro has an A13 chip. Expected new iPhones next month could go further, as will the promised Apple silicon Macs coming later this year, which will use iPad/iPhone-style processors to power the full Mac experience. But the jump to A12 adds machine learning capabilities (Apple calls it the neural engine) for the first time, which allows for better real-time analysis and processing. 

The price is the thing

For about $300, the basic iPad has always been one of my favorite gadget values. It's a perfect size for personal viewing of streaming video on a plane (remember those?) or in bed. I personally find a huge number of ambitious iOS games are just too dependent on small buttons or text to be playable on a phone screen. I had to borrow my spouse's 10.2-inch iPad to play Beyond a Steel Sky, Little Orpheus and other new Apple Arcade games (and hopefully eventually xCloud games). 

The lower cost might also leave more room in your budget for accessories. Especially for remote learning, a keyboard is important. Any Bluetooth keyboard should work, but the clip-on models made by both Apple and Logitech are a good match for the shape and size, and those start at around $100. 

Watch this: Apple announces 8th-gen iPad

The first-gen Apple Pencil stylus is still supported, but not the newer Version 2 Pencil. No change there, but Apple promises many new Pencil features for the basic iPad with new iPadOS updates, including better text and shape recognition. A new feature called Scribble lets you add handwritten text to any text field.

In the big scheme of updated Apple products, this is a pretty minor jump. It's the same entry-level iPad but with a decent processor upgrade and the promise of new capabilities through an OS update. That said, especially with the iPad Air jumping up in price by $100, this new no-frills iPad remains a fantastic value, especially if you wait until the holiday sales start and it drops to around $250. 

My biggest disappointment is that the iPad Air graduates to USB-C for its connection and charging port, but the iPad is still stuck with the proprietary Lightning jack. 

The new eighth-gen iPad is available to order now and will be in stores this Friday, Sept. 18.