Review: Apple’s $329 iPad is for people who have never upgraded their tablet

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last year, but none of the iPads Apple has put out since 2014 has halted the product’s downward slide.

This unassuming iPad has a lot of roles to fill. The good news is that it does fill them all, and it does so pretty well. The bad news is that it doesn’t speak very well about any of the extra stuff the iPad Pro brings to the table, particularly the 9.7-inch model.

iPad Air 1.5

Specs at a glance: Apple iPad (fifth generation)
Screen 2048×1536 9.7-inch (264 PPI) touchscreen
OS iOS 10.3.1
CPU ~1.8GHz dual-core Apple A9
RAM 2GB
GPU Apple A9 GPU
Storage 32GB or 128GB
Networking 867Mbps 802.11a/b/g/ac, Bluetooth 4.2, UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/​DC‑HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1900 MHz)
LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 28, 29, 38, 39, 40, 41)
Camera 8MP rear camera, 5MP front camera
Ports Lightning connector, headphone jack
Size 9.4″ x 6.6″ x 0.29″ (240 x 169.5 x 7.5mm)
Weight 1.03 pounds (469g) Wi-Fi, 1.05 pounds (478g) cellular
Battery 32.9WHr
Starting price $329 for Wi-Fi, $459 for cellular
Price as reviewed $559
Other perks Charger, Lightning cable

If you’re trying to explain the new iPad (officially dubbed the fifth-generation iPad, picking up the baton that the fourth-generation iPad dropped years ago) to someone already familiar with the lineup, it’s fair to say that its design sits somewhere in between 2013’s iPad Air and 2014’s iPad Air 2. It feels less like a new tablet and more like a second, more conservative crack at updating the first Air.

That’s partly because its design is nearly identical to the original iPad Air. Its size, weight, and general look and feel are all essentially the same with a handful of small tweaks: the mute switch is gone, the chamfer around the edges is now matte instead of shiny, and there’s a Touch ID button on the front now. The two tablets are so similar that Smart Covers and many accessories designed for the first Air are going to work just fine with the iPad 5, depending on how the cases accommodate the small differences in buttons and switches. Covers made for the Air 2 also work with the iPad 5; the 9.7-inch iPad Pro moved the internal magnets around enough that Apple had to change the Smart Cover design for that tablet, but the iPad 5 works perfectly fine with older covers (and new covers will work perfectly fine with your older tablets).

The screen is a mix of new and old. On the one hand, it’s brighter—Apple says it has a maximum brightness of 500 nits, 25 percent brighter than the iPad Air 2. Using a Spyder colorimeter, I measured the brightness of the iPad 5’s screen at around 420 nits with the auto brightness sensor disabled and the brightness cranked to maximum (in many gadgets, the maximum brightness with the auto brightness sensor enabled is higher than the brightness with the sensor turned off, so this shouldn’t be taken as evidence that Apple’s figures are wrong). According to my measurement, the iPad 5 is 16.7 percent brighter than the iPad Air 2 (360 nits), 9.7 percent dimmer than the 9.7-inch iPad Pro (465 nits), and 26.1 percent brighter than the original iPad Air (333 nits).

Brightness aside, the displays on the original iPad Air and the iPad 5 are physically interchangeable. If your iPad Air screen breaks, iFixit says you can even pop an iPad 5 screen into the older tablet and benefit from the brighter panel. We saw the same thing with the iPhone SE’s screen, which is fully compatible with the iPhone 5S and vice versa.

But brightness isn’t everything, and the screen is a step down from the Air 2’s and the Pro’s in a couple of ways. For one, it lacks an anti-reflective coating—the brighter screen helps when you’re using it outdoors or in harsh office lighting, but the difference is noticeable. And the LCD panel and the tablet’s front glass aren’t fused together, meaning that there’s a small air gap between the glass and the display itself. This means that colors pop a little less and contrast is a little lower.

The air gap also contributes to a kind of hollow sound and feeling when you tap on the screen, something that makes the tablet feel cheaper than the Air 2 or Pro. That’s not to say that the iPad 5 (and the iPad Air before it) isn’t well-built, just that it feels less solid than either the Air 2 that it replaces or the high-end iPad Pro or most other devices with laminated screens.

Finally, it’s worth noting a few of the other lines Apple draws between the iPad Pro and the iPad 5:

  • Performance is a big one, and we’ll explore that in more detail later on.
  • Aside from not being laminated, the display doesn’t support the DCI-P3 color gamut (or “wide color,” as Apple calls it), though it can still display close to 100 percent of the sRGB color space.
  • The camera uses the same 8MP sensor as the iPad Air 2, doesn’t include an LED flash, and can’t take wide color pictures.
  • The Apple Pencil and Smart Connector (and, by extension, the Smart Keyboard) aren’t supported.
  • The antenna cutout on the LTE models is larger and clumsier looking by comparison.
  • The Pro has improved speakers on each corner, where the iPad 5 just has them on the bottom.
  • The iPad 5 has to be plugged in for always-on Hey Siri support to work, which is odd since the A9 ought to have the low-power hardware necessary to make the feature work on battery power (it’s supported in the iPhone 6S). My best guess is that the older iPad Air design’s microphones are somehow insufficient and that Apple didn’t update them in the iPad 5, but Apple wouldn’t fill me in on the details when I asked.

That’s not an insubstantial list, though it’s up to you to decide whether those features are worth an extra $270 to you (the math will get a little easier when the year-old iPad Pro is refreshed, which we’d expect before the end of the year). It’s also worth noting what the iPad 5 can do:

  • Touch ID and Apple Pay are fully supported.
  • It’s got 2GB of memory, same as the Pro, which means that all of iOS’ current multitasking features (and, at a minimum, any new ones introduced in iOS 11) are fully supported.
  • Same screen size, same resolution.
  • Similar, if not identical, size and weight. It’s a little larger and heavier but there’s nowhere a Pro can go that an iPad 5 can’t go.
  • Its battery life is really great, which we’ll get to soon.
  • Its Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and LTE capabilities appear to be broadly identical to the Pro’s.

As of right now, the iPad Pro supports a few extra peripherals and offers a little more speed, but there’s very little it can do that the iPad 5 absolutely can’t. That is simultaneously a great thing for iPad 5 buyers and a sign that the iPad Pro needs to do more to differentiate itself.

Listing image by Andrew Cunningham

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