Tuesday 22 May 2018

Adrian Weckler: Tablets are a funny breed...but the new iPad blows most other rivals away

iPad 6th Generation, €369 (32GB), €459 (128GB); €130 extra for wifi-plus-cellular models

iPad 6th Generation
iPad 6th Generation
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Tablets are a funny breed of computer. On one hand, they are the natural inheritors for casual use - web browsing, email and media consumption - because of their likeness to smartphones.

On the other hand, standalone tablet sales have stagnated or fallen, because the devices are caught between our increasingly huge smartphones - which many people now wholly rely on for casual computing - and laptops that have incorporated some tablet features, especially those with new touchscreens and detachable keyboards.

But when a tablet gets it right, it's irresistible.

Personally, I've been an avid iPad Pro user ever since it came out. For what I do - writing, web searching, photo editing, presentations and social media - it has the right mix of productivity and leisure uses without the hassle, updates and quirks of Windows (or MacOS).

Using the new entry-level iPad for the last two weeks, it's clear to me that some of the iPad Pro's features are starting to trickle down into the basic model.

The most obvious manifestation of this is the new model's compatibility with the Apple Pencil, the tall, white stylus that works quite beautifully for note-taking. I confess that I'm not a natural stylus user and never was. This is a pity for me, as there are some genuinely innovative and special ways that this tool can be used with photo and artistic apps from the likes of Adobe.

But some will find this new functionality to be an eye-opener, as the Pencil is a lot more sensitive and accurate than most third-party styluses you can buy for the iPad. It can also be used really nicely with Apple's own productivity apps, Keynote, Pages and Numbers, as well as Notes.

(Incidentally, one of the biggest criticisms of the Pencil is its recharging method, insertion into the iPad's Lightning port. But I have found that while inelegant, this is a very practical, useful facility to have when you're low on power for the Pencil.)

Naturally, the Pencil is purchased separately, for €99.

Physically, the 2018 iPad is exactly the same as the last generation model. Its 9.7-inch 'Retina' screen has the same dimensions and specifications as before. Overall, that's not a bad thing, as the screen is very bright, renders colour beautifully and has a much better refresh rate than virtually any other tablet in its price range.

Obviously, there are differences between this screen and that of the iPad Pro. For a start, the Pro is around 15pc bigger (10.5 inches compared to 9.7 inches) partly because its bezels (borders) are thinner.

One difference that few will notice is that the new iPad's display isn't laminated like the iPad Pro's screen. This gives the display a microscopically more sunken look into the tablet. It will also mean slightly more chance of glare in bright conditions.

Otherwise, there are only really three other differences of note between this iPad and the iPad Pro, which - remember - costs twice as much.

There's no smart connector at the side, meaning if you want to connect a keyboard, it has to be a third-party model such as one from Logitech. Most people will see no disadvantage here. (Having said that, I do use Apple's Smart Keyboard on the iPad Pro and would probably miss it, as it's a keyboard and cover all in one.)

Another difference is that when you're multitasking with different windows (which you've been able to do for some time on iPads and it was seriously enhanced with iOS 11), only your floating window will be usable on the iPad 6th generation model, whereas all can be used on the iPad Pro.

Finally, the new iPad only has two speakers, which aren't quite as good as the four stereo speakers on the iPad Pro. But they're more than adequate to watch a movie and a far cry above some of the tinny speakers you get on budget tablets.

But that's about it. In the time I've had with the new iPad, I've barely skipped a beat on productivity or leisure use - the only thing I miss is the clip-on keyboard of the 10.5-inch iPad Pro.

The muscle under the hood on the new iPad is easily enough to handle virtually every task I set it. For example, I do quite a lot of photo-editing, with the iPad taking over from my MacBook Pro about 18 months ago. The new iPad handles this work with ne'er a beat missed.

This is probably down to the excellent 2.3Ghz A10 processor that Apple has inside. It's not as fast as that in the iPhone X or the iPad Pro, but it's not far behind. That means it beats many laptops out there and is certainly enough to handle games such as Fortnite or photo and video editing on the apps I use (Enlight and Adobe).

It's also enough to handle many of the new augmented reality (AR) apps that Apple is now championing across its iOS devices. For these apps to work fluently and without any stalling, the device has to be powerful and fast. I found the iPad to be all of that so far.

Yes, putting both the iPad Pro and the new iPad side by side, the Pro model does scroll slightly faster and slightly more fluidly. But it's only something I'd really notice when doing such a comparison - there is no sense of any lag on its own.

I won't spend too much time on some of the other features, such as the new iPad's cameras. Suffice to say that they're not quite as powerful (8mp rear and 1.2mp front lenses) as the ipad Pro cameras (12mp rear and 7mp front lenses), but they still deliver some nice effects (120 frames per second slow motion compared to 240fps on the Pro model).

To be honest, I almost never use an iPad's camera, unless it's for short FaceTime calls, where high-resolution isn't really that important.

The iPad 6th generation's battery life is perfectly decent, lasting me between six and 10 hours, depending on what I was doing (photo and video-editing saps battery faster, I find).

The 32GB version costs €369 for wifi-only, or €499 for wifi and cellular. A 128GB version costs €459 for wifi-only, while a wifi-plus-cellular edition with 128GB costs €589.

Personally, I rank the €459 128GB version as the best option for those who can afford it.

People tend to keep iPads for a lot longer than their phones. So if you're going to hang onto it for three, four or five years, you may well need the extra storage space.

This is especially so as services such as Netflix and Sky Go are starting to let us download movies and box sets, which can take up many gigabytes of storage at a time. And that's not to mention using your iPad to store photos or home videos, either from iCloud or straight from your camera.

(I also think a wifi-only version suits most people better than wifi-plus-cellular models, because most of us now have enough data on our phone plans to simply use the 'mobile hotspot' feature between our phones and our tablets. This is obviously different for those with work phones, where data allowances are often much smaller.)

To be clear, this isn't a budget tablet. Despite a narrowing field, there are still quite a few 10-inch, 8-inch and 7-inch tablets you can get for under €250.

For example, Samsung's 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab A can still be purchased for €210 in Irish shops.

But you get what you pay for: that Samsung tablet has nothing like the power of the new iPad, nor does it have details such as a security fingerprint reader.

Also, and not to be underestimated, Android tablets are now falling badly behind when it comes to apps. Sure, they support YouTube, Netflix and Gmail. But when the hit game Fortnite launched on mobile devices some weeks ago, it was iOS only.

One might crib that bringing this 6th-generation iPad up to its productivity potential costs more than €369, given that the Apple Pencil costs €99 and a good keyboard case costs at least the same. However, the same is arguably true for any tablet.

In short, this is easily the best tablet you can buy for under €500. The only ones that come close in this budget range are Huawei's large MediaPads, but they're hard to find and don't have the kind of app support that the iPad has.

In Ireland, iPads are used quite extensively in education. Apple has deliberately positioned this new device to appeal to that market.

But I suspect that the bulk of those interested in this will be people upgrading from quite old iPads, going back to the iPad 2 (2011).

These machines are hardy and last a long time. If you're thinking of replacing your old iPad for a new machine that will last another five years, this is probably the best option.

Pros: Good power update, unusually competitive price

Cons: No smart keyboard connector

Verdict: 5/5

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