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9.7-inch iPad (2018) review: Apple’s tablet is ‘pro’ enough for many of us

Pull it off the shelf at the Apple Store, and you’d be hard-pressed by sight alone to distinguish the new sixth-generation 9.7-inch iPad from last year’s model. And under the hood, it’s not much different, where there’s simply a speedier A10 processor. The new iPad is, well, an iPad.

What’s truly new is support for Apple Pencil, the sleek stylus that formerly only played nice with the iPad Pro. But never doubt that the Pencil support marks a bold move on Apple’s part. Combined with the new chip, the formerly capable iPad is transformed into something that’s now a serviceable substitute for an iPad Pro—for a mere $329 ($299 if you’re shopping for a school, $309 if you’re a student, teacher, or faculty shopping on Apple’s Education Store).

Some will find Apple Pencil support a transformative experience, and if you’ve been looking to upgrade from an iPad that predates the iPad Air 2, this is a device that will make you glad you waited.

New iPad: The more things change

In light of Apple’s marketing of the new iPad to schools, the design feels like an exhortation not to judge a book (or a tablet) by its cover. It reminds us that some things can change for the better despite outward appearances. In some regards, much of what we said about last year’s iPad applies here as well, whether it’s the way the buttons ranging from the volume controls to Touch ID sit in the same spots or the way it offers much the same Wi-Fi and LTE connectivity.

2017 and 2018 9.7-inch iPadsDaniel Masaoka/IDG

Can you tell which is this year’s model and which is last year’s?

The new iPad weighs about the same as its predecessor, and the same protective cases will fit. It still only has two speakers, compared to the four you get on the iPad Pro. It even sports the same serviceable 8 megapixel 1080p rear camera and the puny 1.2 megapixel 720p front camera, the latter of which seemingly exists only for occasional Skype and FaceTime chats. Were the new iPad judged solely on specs, it’d hardly warrant much attention over last year’s model at all.

New iPad: Pencil pusher

But you shouldn’t judge the new iPad based on its specs. Tim Cook and friends decided to let this scrappy device support the Apple Pencil, although you’ll have to buy it separately. (That also means an extra $100 to the total cost, bringing the 2018’s iPad’s “true” price up to $429.) It may seem like a simple thing, but the magic of the Apple Pencil is that it lets you share much the same experience of using a pricey iPad Pro, but on a lower-priced tablet.

Never mind for a moment that the new iPad doesn’t have some of the best technical goodies found on the iPad Pro, whether it’s the TrueTone technology that adjusts the display to match the light in the room or the iPad Pro’s 4GB of memory. (The 2018 iPad makes do with 2GB.) It even lacks the iPad Pro’s ProMotion tech, which boosts the display refresh rate up from the roughly 60Hz found on a device like this to an impressive 120Hz. That’s important, as it means the newer iPad Pros can better catch the slightest movements of your hands, which makes them more ideal for professional artists.

However, you’re likely not going to notice the difference in everyday use. I’ve been using an Apple Pencil as a writing tool since 2016 on my first-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro (which also lacked ProMotion), and I almost never felt the Pencil was doing anything but laying down precisely the lines I wanted to see. Thanks to the pressure sensitivity, the way it interprets tilts and angles, and, yes, the overall low latency, the Apple Pencil is the closest you get on a tablet to mimicking the experience of writing with a pencil or pen on a spiral notebook, which is part of the reason Apple wants to see it catch on in schools.

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