Pros: The least expensive full-sized iPad that Apple has ever sold. Great entry-level option with modern capabilities. Best battery life we’ve ever seen on an iPad. Modest performance boost puts it closer to the 9.7” iPad Pro. Adds support for taking Live Photos. Should appeal to users with simple tablet needs that are new to the iPad or those looking to upgrade from the iPad Air or older models. Price makes it well suited for educational and business markets.
Cons: Essentially a hybrid of the 2013 iPad Air and 2014 iPad Air 2, offering little new beyond the upgraded CPU. A return to the size and weight of the original 2013 iPad Air. No camera or audio improvements. No anti-reflective screen coating. Available only in 32GB and 128GB capacities.
Apple’s naming convention for its 9.7” tablets has been far less consistent than with its other iOS-powered devices; the iPhone fell into a fairly standard routine when the second-generation iPhone 3G was released in 2008, and the iPad mini has been even more consistent, simply numbering its four models one after the other. On the other hand, following the 2011 debut of the “iPad 2” — a model that remained on sale for longer than any other iPad to date — Apple decided to dub the very short-lived third-generation version simply “The new iPad,” only to follow it up with another “new iPad” only six months later. By the following year, it looked like Apple had moved away from the simple name “iPad” with the introduction of the iPad Air, followed by the iPad Air 2 and then the iPad Pro.
So it’s understandably a bit confusing to see Apple return back to its original five-year-old naming convention with the release of a new 9.7” entry-level iPad that the company is once again simply dubbing “iPad” for marketing purposes and perhaps even more interesting that Apple is calling it the “iPad (5th generation)” in its support documents, despite the fact that it’s actually the seventh iPad model of its design and form factor. On the other hand, it may not be entirely inappropriate, considering how much of a hybrid this new iPad is. It has the size and weight of the original 2013 iPad Air which came right after the fourth-generation iPad, while the specs put it much closer to a slightly upgraded version of the 2014 iPad Air 2. It’s almost as if Apple wants us to pretend that this is what would have come next had neither of the iPad Air models ever existed.
Perhaps most significantly, the new iPad comes in at a price unheard of for a full-sized iPad. At $329 for the 32GB Wi-Fi version, the new iPad is $70 less than the price at which Apple has previously sold near-discontinued two and three year old iPad models — at twice the capacity as well. It’s clear by this price that Apple is trying to bring back a mainstream iPad model, although it’s anybody’s guess whether this is simply a result of the natural evolution of the product line, or something that’s resulted from flagging sales of more expensive iPad Pro models.
Body and Design
The 9.7” iPad has become an iconic design, so there aren’t a lot of surprises here in the basic form factor — it pretty much still looks and feels like an iPad, measuring the same 9.4” x 6.6” in height and width as every iPad that’s come before it. However, what’s notable is that the fifth-generation iPad form takes a step back into 2013, coming in at the same 0.29” thickness and approximately 1 pound weight as the original iPad Air (the Wi-Fi iPad is 0.03 pounds heavier than the Wi-Fi iPad Air, however the cellular model comes in at the same 1.05 pound weight).
The weight difference isn’t noticeable compared to the iPad Air 2 or 9.7” iPad Pro, but the thickness definitely is, and more importantly it’s enough that most iPad cases made in the last 2-3 years will not be compatible. Users coming from an original iPad Air should be able to use their existing cases. Regardless, the shift back to the 2013 size is an interesting — and arguably refreshing — departure from Apple’s usual obsession with thinness.
While the fifth-generation iPad gets the thickness and weight of the original iPad Air, the other design features are clearly drawn from the iPad Air 2, including the omission of the mute switch, a Touch ID sensor, and the single row of speaker holes on the bottom — down from 14 per side on the iPad Air 2 to 13 per side on the fifth-generation iPad. It’s pretty clear that this isn’t just new hardware thrown into an old iPad Air chassis.
Not surprisingly, the fifth-generation iPad gains none of the physical features of its “Pro” siblings. The stereo speakers, Smart Connector, and camera flash still remain the exclusive domain of the considerably more expensive iPad Pro. Essentially, the fifth-generation iPad retains the standard iPad design that we’ve all come to know and love, basically blending the iPad Air and iPad Air 2 designs together.
Under the Hood
The most significant change in the fifth-generation iPad over its two-year-old predecessor is the step up to the A9 CPU, from the A8X found in the iPad Air 2. Further, although it retains the same 2GB of RAM as the prior model, it’s been bumped up to using LPDDR4 RAM. Basically, the same CPU and RAM specs of the 2015 iPhone 6s.
Geekbench scores showed a 40 percent increase in single-core performance over the iPad Air 2, and a less significant 10 percent boost in multi-core performance. While the 9.7” iPad Pro still comes in at about 15 percent faster in single-core performance with its A9X CPU, it’s not as significant of a difference. Compared to the original iPad Air, however, the fifth-generation iPad clocks in at about twice the speed.
How much this matters in practical terms is going to depend on what you’re doing with your iPad, of course, but we think most typical users won’t notice any performance difference between the iPad Air 2, 9.7” iPad Pro, and fifth-generation iPad. There’s certainly no discernible difference during normal UI use, but the bump over the iPad Air 2 will be more apparent with larger graphically intense games or video/photo processing apps. On the other hand, users of the original iPad Air will find that the fifth-generation iPad noticeably ups the performance game.
The screen on the new iPad remains largely unchanged other than the omission of the anti-reflective coating that was added on the iPad Air 2. While Apple promises a slightly brighter screen, the differences we could see were negligible — it’s perhaps a bit brighter than the iPad Air 2 and more on par with the iPad Air, but we suspect that’s a combination of the loss of the coating along with Apple’s choice to return to the separate digitizer and LCD construction of the original iPad Air, rather than the fused design of the iPad Air 2. While some users appreciated the anti-reflective coating on the iPad Air 2, there was little doubt that it retained fingerprint smudges far more than the other iPad screens, and unless you’re regularly using your iPad outdoors or in other bright direct light, we don’t think it will be missed.
Not surprisingly, the new iPad also doesn’t support the Apple Pencil — as we’d expected, that remains the exclusive domain of the Pro lineup. Another interesting observation is that the untethered Hey Siri feature that came to the 9.7” iPad Pro is also conspicuously absent here — Hey Siri is still available, but like the 12.9” iPad Pro and iPhone 6 series, you’ll need to have the iPad plugged in to take advantage of it. While it’s a small omission, it was still somewhat surprising considering that it was the same A9/M9 processor combination that brought untethered Hey Siri to the iPhone 6s models, but it’s probably more surprising that that 12.9” iPad Pro doesn’t support the feature either.
Cameras + Audio
The fifth-generation iPad doesn’t get any kind of camera upgrades over its two-year-old predecessor, sporting the same 8 megapixel rear and 1.2 megapixel front cameras as the iPad Air 2. All of the other camera specs remain the same, and we couldn’t find any discernible difference in image or video capture quality between the iPad Air 2 and fifth-generation iPad. For all intents and purposes, it’s the same camera hardware found in the iPad Air 2.
Similarly, video recording remains capped at 1080p at 30fps, rather than the 4K support offered by the 12MP camera found on the 9.7” iPad Pro. There’s also no rear flash, although the Retina Flash feature is available for photos taken with the front-facing camera. The camera hardware will be more than fine for casual use, but there’s no doubt that if you’re into taking photos with your iPad, it’s still a couple of years behind the curve.
That said, it’s worth noting that the fifth-generation iPad does gain support for Live Photos, a feature otherwise found only in the iPad Pro models. Since Live Photos were introduced with the iPhone 6s in 2015, it’s obviously not surprising that the 2014 iPad Air 2 didn’t include it, although it was also omitted on the 2015 iPad mini 4. It’s a small thing, but iPad photography enthusiasts will appreciate having it.
Audio quality on the fifth-generation iPad also remains on par with the iPad Air 2. The new iPad doesn’t have the four stereo speakers of its Pro brethren, so you won’t get the same higher quality audio that they’ve become known for, but the fifth-generation iPad does produce the same acceptably loud and full sound as the iPad Air 2.
Battery and Wi-Fi Performance
While the fifth-generation iPad is generally unremarkable in performance or features compared to other recent iPad models, one area which we found really surprising in testing the new model was in its battery performance. The fifth-generation iPad packs a 32.4 Wh battery — the same size as found in the original 2013 iPad Air, and a step up from the 27.3 Wh and 27.91 Wh batteries found in the iPad Air 2 and 9.7” iPad Pro, respectively. However, for reasons we can only chalk up to better power efficiency of iOS 10, the A9 CPU, and other internal components, the fifth-generation iPad produced the longest run times of any iPad model we’ve ever seen, and significantly outperformed Apple’s own conservative 10 hour estimates. Our tests were done using our standard methodology: 50 percent display brightness and 50 percent volume, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabled.
Our video test ran for almost 16 hours, while in our Wi-Fi browsing test the iPad clocked in at a little over 13 hours — run times that not only handily beat the iPad Air 2’s disappointing numbers, but are more impressive than the more expensive 9.7” iPad Pro.
Recharge times were more in line with our expectations, however, taking a little over 4 hours for a full charge. Apple includes the usual 10W 2.1A power adapter in the box, however recharge times with a 12W 2.4A adapter were the same, suggesting that the new iPad remains capped at the same 2.1A charging rate as its predecessors. On a lark, we also tried the Apple 29W USB-C power adapter, which unsurprisingly didn’t provide any faster charging — that’s still exclusive to the 12.9” iPad Pro.
Wi-Fi and cellular hardware on the fifth-generation iPad also remains the same as that found in the iPad Air 2. While we didn’t conduct LTE speed tests due to the wide variations in cellular carrier network performance, Wi-Fi testing showed that the new iPad supports high speeds over an 802.11ac Wi-Fi connection without any problems.
The iPad has always had an interesting lifecycle compared to Apple’s other mobile devices. The iPhone still gets annual upgrades that you can almost mark your calendar by, and Apple’s iPods were on the same track until they sort of fell off a few years ago. On the other hand, Apple’s iPad product line has been punctuated by continued long-term availability of older models, two new product releases six months apart, and naming conventions that have mixed things up even further. When Apple released the 9.7” iPad Pro last year, most of us didn’t expect to see a new “iPad” — if anything, perhaps there could be an iPad Air 3, but the shift in the “Pro” lineup definitely gave us the feeling that this was the new direction Apple was going in.
Of course, in terms of specs and features, Apple’s iPad Pro models are clearly at the leading edge of the company’s iPad lineup — the products to get for consumers who have the money and want or need those features — but much as it did with the iPhone SE, Apple has clearly conceded that there’s still a need for an entry-level iPad in the marketplace, and that simply continuing to sell a two-year-old model won’t suffice.
Ultimately, this is the lens through which the fifth-generation iPad needs to be viewed. It’s essentially a “modernized” replacement for the iPad Air 2 at an even lower price point — $329 now gets you a current model 32GB A9-based iPad with great battery life, whereas two weeks ago you would have paid $70 more for a two-year-old 16GB model with around half the runtime. In fact, the most expensive model of the new iPad comes in at $559 — still $40 less than the base 32GB Wi-Fi 9.7” iPad Pro. This new ipad is actually the most inexpensive full-sized iPad that Apple has ever sold — even the three-year-old 16GB iPad 2 sold for $399 in the days before it was discontinued.
Of course, if you’re already an iPad Air 2 user, there’s almost nothing here that will encourage you to upgrade unless you’re unhappy with your battery life. However, a number of recent market analyses suggest that most consumers don’t upgrade their tablets nearly as often as they do their phones, so there’s surely an untapped market of users on older iPad models. iPad Air users will find a significant performance boost in this new iPad without sacrificing battery life, as well as gaining the higher-quality cameras and of course if you’re still on an even older iPad model, this becomes an even more worthwhile upgrade.
In other words, Apple’s fifth-generation iPad is a good, solid product at a great price for those who want a full-sized iPad but have no desire to pay twice the price for “Pro” camera and audio features. The performance is more than fast enough, and it provides the longest battery life of any iPad we’ve ever tested. While some would suggest that this iPad is targeted primarily at the education and business markets, we feel there’s also a considerable group of iPad users who have eschewed the iPad Pro simply because of its higher price tag, and truly have no need for the higher-end features that the Pro models offer. While there’s little new here, a great many tablet users are simply looking for a device on which to surf the web, watch videos, read, and play games; for those folks, the new fifth-generation iPad will be more than capable, and it’s also impossible to ignore its considerably lower price tag.
Company and Price
Model: iPad (5th Generation)
Price: $329 – $559