Apple Breathes New Life Into iPads

The new thin bezeled 11″ and 12.9″ iPads with an older 9.7″ iPad on the right.

Apple’s iPad has always been a strange product.  Its original launch was accompanied by a level of hype perhaps never seen before or since, and the product appeared with outstanding specifications in terms of battery life, capabilities, screen size, weight, and even price.

Overnight, a totally new category of computing device was created, causing some commentators to predict the end of laptops entirely.

It took competitors a long time to catch up to Apple’s combination of sleek product design and long battery life.  But catch up they did, and not only catch up, but then overtake and streak ahead.  Apple came out with a smaller screen tablet, which gave the product range a new lease of life, but that was quickly eclipsed by products, most recently from Amazon, priced at way less than half the price of comparable iPads.

Meanwhile, Microsoft came out with a “cross-over” product range, its Surface family, that truly did blend more elements of laptops and tablets.  Apple largely ignored this concept, although it went through the motions of releasing a larger screened iPad, which it then promptly forgot about and never upgraded.

As is the case with pretty much every product Apple releases, their decision to keep a high price point saw their market share plunge, and for the last few years, the iPad has seemed to be very much unloved in Apple’s product range.

But now, at a release event curiously located in New York, and scheduled too early for the west coast, Apple is back with a major enhancement to their iPad product range – a new design that massively slims down the bezel around the screen, a bezel that was always thick since the first iPad came out, and which has seemed increasingly out of step with more modern designs from other manufacturers.

There are two new iPad Pro models.  One has an 11″ diagonal screen, and sort of supersedes the earlier 10.5″ screen model (which remains available), while being almost the same size, the other has a lovely large 12.9″ screen, the same as the model it replaces, but in a much smaller size that ends up filling 25% less volume than its predecessor (all three dimensions are reduced – length, breadth and thickness).

The 11″ screen is interesting because it has a different aspect ratio to the other iPads.  All other iPads have consistently been with a 1:1.33 ratio, but the 11″ screen now has a slightly stretched 1:1.43 ratio.  The 1.33 ratio mirrored the traditional aspect ratio of a television set, but with most video content these days having an aspect ratio of 1:1.67 or even greater (the HD spec countenances a standard ratio of 1080 x 1920 ie 1:1.78), the shift to a 1.43 ratio brings Apple’s increasingly old-fashioned screen ratio more in line with the video content that would often be played on it.

The new devices of course have more powerful processors, and better screens.  Surprisingly, Apple has abandoned its proprietary “Lightning” connector and now equips these iPads with industry-standard USB-C connectors.  But its iPhones still use Apple’s unique (and “unique” is not a good concept in this context) Lightning connector, meaning that chargers and other accessories can not be shared between iPhones and iPads.  Here’s a commentary on the connector mess Apple is creating.  Sadly, Apple has also gratuitously removed the headphone connector.

The new products also remove the familiar button, requiring you to learn new gestures on the screen to replace the concept of pressing the button.  This also means that the fingerprint reader on the button has gone, replaced instead by the facial ID reader like on the latest iPhone models.  Happily, though, this has not required cutting a notch out of the top of the screen display.

The entry-level units have 64GB of memory.  That should be enough for most of us, but if you want more (presumably to store a library of videos) it is a big jump from there to 256GB, then to 512GB, and now, there is also a fourth option, 1TB.

The 11″ version starts at $799, the 12.9″ version starts at $999.  They are now available.

As has always been the case, if you wish to add GPS functionality and/or cellular wireless data, you need to pay an extra cost for this.  Whereas formerly this has always been $130, the new price will be $150.

The total iPad line up now comprises five different screen size families (the distant echo of Steve Jobs and his claim that there was one only perfect size and therefore, the products would only be available in that one perfect size seems to have completely faded).

ModelScreenSize/WeightMemoryPrice
iPad mini 47.9″ 326 ppi
1536 x 2048
5.3″ x 8.0″ x 0.24″
135 x 203 x 6.1 mm
0.65/0.67 lb  300/304 gm
128GB$399
+ $130 for cellular & GPS
iPad9.7″ 264 ppi
1536 x 2048
6.6″ x 9.4″ x 0.29″
240 x 170 x 7.5 mm
1.03/1.05 lb  469/478 gm
32GB 128GB$329 or $429
+ $130 for cellular & GPS
iPad Pro10.5″ 264 ppi
1668 x 2224
6.8″ x 9.8″ x 0.24″
174 x 251 x 6.1 mm
1.03/1.05 lb  469/477 gm
64GB 256GB 512GB$649 $799 $999
+ $130 for cellular & GPS
iPad Pro11.0″ 264 ppi
1668 x 2388
7.0″ x 9.7″ x 0.23″
179 x 248 x 5.9 mm
1.03 lb 468 gm
64GB 256GB 512GB 1TB$799 $949 $1149 $1549
+ $150 for cellular & GPS
iPad Pro12.9″ 264 ppi
2048 x 2732
8.5″ x 11.0″ x 0.23″
215 x 281 x 5.9 mm
1.39/1.40 lb 631/633 gm
64GB 256GB 512GB 1TB$999 $1149 $1349 $1749
+ $150 for cellular & GPS

Accessories

In addition to the inevitable range of protective covers (and we recommend you buy one – either an Apple official cover, or a third-party after-market cover that will cost very much less and work just as well), plus chargers, cables, and adapters, there are two distinctive accessories being offered.

The first is a keyboard, and the second is a stylus.  Both are expensive.  The keyboard, for the three Pro models, costs $159/179/199 depending on whether it is for a 10.5″, 11″ or 12.9″ Pro.  The stylus is $129.

We suggest you buy neither.  If you want to type a lot of text, perhaps you should have a laptop instead.  If you do want a keyboard, get a third-party one such as shown here.  You’ll spend massively less money for something that is close to identical in functionality.

The stylus is an interesting idea, but unless you are a graphic artist, the chances are you’ll end up losing it somewhere and not even realizing it has been lost for many months (that’s what happened to our daughter, who went from desperately “needing” a stylus to losing it, all within a few weeks).

Which (If Any) Model Should You Buy?

Although there are almost too many choices here (in total, 28 different combinations of screen, memory, and GPS/data), it is easy to slim your choices down to three primary choices, and a few secondary choices.

Also considered in this section is whether you should choose an iPad at all, or possibly instead choose a much more affordable Android tablet from companies such as Amazon.

Note that the balance of this section is offered to our kind and generous Travel Insider Supporters.  If you’d like to access this, and understand whether you should be paying as little as $329 or as much as $1899 for an Apple iPad (or potentially a quarter or even less for an Android tablet), and why, please consider joining us as a Supporter too.  Instant access to this and other premium content is granted as soon as you’ve joined.

But, as a quick “sneak peek” into the detailed 2750 word discussion and explanation that follows, many/most people might find the $80 bargain priced Amazon Fire HD 8 or the $150 bargain priced Amazon Fire HD 10 tablet to be an extreme good value and a better choice than any of the Apple iPad choices.

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Special Supporter Only Content

Thank you for your kind and generous support.  We hope you find this extra section helpful.

There are several factors to consider when choosing a tablet.

Size

The first factor is the most obvious one – size.  In some cases, some screen sizes will be either too big or too small.  The light weight and convenient portability of the 7.9″ screen size is great; on the other hand, we’re totally in love with the huge screen on the 12.9″ iPad, it is big (2″ wide and 1.6″ longer than the regular 9.7″ screen iPads).

But if we were to get it, we would be forced to get a different “personal carry-on item” in which to carry it when flying anywhere.

The three mid-size screened tablets are all similar in overall size (see the table above) but have impactful differences in screen size (please see the supporter-only table below).

What size screen do you need, and what size screen would you like?  (Yes, two different questions!)  We would suggest that most of the time, and even though it is lovely, there’s little need for the largest 12.9″ screen.

If you are a salesman and want to use a tablet for client presentations, then definitely you should get the 12.9″ screen version.  If you know you’ll want to regularly watch movies with a friend/companion, maybe again consider the 12.9″ screen.  If you want to use the tablet for speech notes, you’ll find the larger size screen easier to read.  Some musicians now use a tablet to display sheet music, and in that case, again you should get the 12.9″ screen.

But for most other and ordinary personal applications, while the biggest screen would be nice, remember that it is going to be bigger, bulkier, and harder to carry around, as well as, ahem, several hundreds of dollars more expensive.  But if you’re not intending to travel with it much, and see it primarily as a unit to have at home, maybe this isn’t such a concern.  (Can you tell we’re desperately trying to rationalize our own desire to buy one?  But see, also, the discussion on the cost of this huge screened monster of a tablet, which we’ve left discreetly to the last part of this section.)

If you want to use your device primarily to watch video, then again you’re probably in a situation where size is important, in the sense of bigger being better.  There’s also a subtle added advantage of the 11″ screen unit when it comes to watching video that is a result of its different aspect ratio.  For the new video standard (1080 x 1920 ie 1:1.78 ratio) you’ll use more of the 11″ unit’s screen with less wasted space in the form of blank bars above and below the picture than on the otherwise almost identically sized 10.5″ unit’s screen.

The size of a standard video picture on the 11″ screen would be 3.2 MP (ie 46 sq in) compared to 2.78 MP (40 sq in) on the 10.5″ screen.  You’re getting 15% more picture size on a unit that, due to its thinner bezel and different screen dimensions, has a physical size only 2% larger.  But you’re also paying $150 more for that benefit.

If you just wish to read books and listen to music, the 7.9″ unit would be plenty large enough.  But, with video, you would have only 22.2 sq in of viewing area, less than half that of the 11″ unit.  (In case you are wondering how it is that going from 7.9″ to 11″ of screen diagonal has such a large impact on-screen size, remember that these are diagonal measurements.  In simplistic terms, the screen area varies in line with the square of the diagonal, so small increases in screen diagonal make for large increases in actual screen size.)

Weight

While it is true the larger sized units weigh more than the smaller sized units, we don’t think this is very relevant.  Even the largest 12.9″ unit weighs less than an original iPad (which was 1.5lb/680gm), and people were delighted at how “light” that was at the time.

Battery Life

Apple seems to have a target battery run-time of about 10 hours for all its iPads.  We surmise that when the battery starts to offer more than 10 hours life, they simply reduce the battery size to save on space and weight (and cost).

There’s not a lot of battery life variation in these units, and if you absolutely must have the longest possible life, the easiest way to do this is to buy an external battery pack to supplement the built-in battery.

GPS and Wireless Data

One of Apple’s annoying quirks is that they always charge extra for a bundled combination of both GPS and wireless data capabilities to be added to their iPads.  If you want either, you used to always pay another $130 to get both capabilities added to your unit; and with this release of the two new Pro units, Apple has increased this cost to $150, for no apparent reason other than simply because they can.

Don’t automatically add this.  Do you actually need GPS or wireless data?  It depends on what you plan to use the tablet for.  If you want to use it as a large screen map display/navigator, then you definitely must have GPS and probably wireless data, too.  If you want to be able to access websites, email, and other online services everywhere, then you definitely will want wireless data.  The base units of course have regular Wi-Fi.

But if you take the point of view that, in reality, you’re never going to place such a huge device on your car dashboard for navigation, and that you have a phone with you that you can either use to directly access email and internet services, or which you can use to create a personal hotspot and share the phone’s internet access with your tablet, then you can do without this extra cost.

Note also that if you add wireless data to your iPad, you’ll also have to pay your wireless service provider a monthly fee for a new line of service.  This could be $10 – $20 or more a month, possibly even more than that, depending on how much data you use.

The best way to get data on your iPad is through Google Fi.  This wonderful service makes no monthly charge for tablet connectivity, and only charges for the data you use on it.  For us, that means that many months, we incur no charges at all.  We review Google Fi here.

Storage Capacity

This is a big issue.  How much capacity should your unit have?  The answer to that depends on what you wish to use your tablet for, and so as to have the most open-ended use of the unit into the future, it is always best to choose more storage than you think you’ll need.

Many Android tablets allow you to add micro-SD cards to greatly expand the total storage of the tablet, making this a less important issue, but Apple doesn’t do that.  They prefer to charge way over the odds for extra built-in storage and, if you estimate your needs incorrectly, to either benefit from having sold you a larger unit than you need, or forcing you to buy a new unit with more storage.

The really big consumer of space is video.  Streaming video from the internet requires no space, but if you want to download and store video to watch offline, subsequently you’ll find that each hour of video uses anywhere from half a GB to 2 GB of storage.  Ten two-hour movies could end up requiring 30GB or more.

Note that these days both Amazon and Netflix allow you to download video and store it on a tablet, and then to watch it, off-line, later.  This is a great feature, and we recommend you take advantage of it.  We find it very helpful when on flights or when in a hotel room with slow internet meaning we can’t stream movies directly.

Stored music doesn’t require as much space – even if you use high quality FLAC encoding, you can probably get about 2 hours of music per GB, and lower quality MP3 type music files give you many more hours per GB.  But if you like to have an extensive library of music with you, that can add up (we have over 100GB of music as our ‘core’ library that we like to keep on hand).

Books are much less demanding of space.  If it is just text, even a large book will rarely exceed 10 MB, and even with some illustrations, you’re probably still below 100MB.

Most apps and games are in the order of 10MB – 100MB each.  A notable exception would be GPS programs that keep downloaded map files with them – those can use up several GB of space for the map data.  You might think a better choice is to use GPS programs that download data from the internet as needed, but those can be heavy users of wireless data, and don’t work at all when out of range of a cellular data signal.

Email and internet browsing usually require very little storage space.

Happily, most of the units come with a minimum capacity of 64GB, but the 9.7″ screen version is either 32GB or 128GB.

We have 32GB tablets that we struggle with because of their limited capacity.  So, we suggest you don’t settle for 32GB unless you know for sure you won’t ever want to download movies and save them on your device, and have only a small music collection.

It is easy to fill 64GB too (we have over 60GB of movies alone on our Android tablets) and so you should probably consider the next step up from 64GB if you want to have lots of flexibility for the future.

Special Applications and Uses

Apple has rather ridiculously tried to sell its new 11″ and 12.9″ “Pro” units as being potential replacements for laptops.  This is a nonsensical claim, because they still run the same touch-screen based operating system, identical to all iPads and iPhones.  Many of the things we take for granted on a regular computer are totally impossible on an iPad.

This article skewers Apple soundly when it comes to the claim that an iPad can be used for any sort of business purpose.  This second article is more gentle, but ends up with the same conclusion.

Maybe you have some other special application or purpose that demands a higher end iPad.  But for most people, when you want to start using a computing device for “real” business type work where productivity is important, you are very much better advised to get a comparably priced (or even less expensive) and massively better laptop.

Other non-Apple Tablet Alternatives

If your main purpose in getting a tablet is for “media consumption” – watching video, listening to music, and reading books, perhaps with some game playing, internet browsing and email included, then any modern tablet will allow you to do all these things pretty much as well as an Apple iPad.

In particular, we want to point you to the two low-price leaders – the Amazon Fire tablets with either 8″ or 10.1″ screens.  We have both (and the earlier 7″ screen Fire too).  We like the units, we really like that we can add micro-SD cards to them, and we absolutely love their pricing.

The Fire HD 8 is usually $80, and the Fire HD 10 is usually $150 – those links will also reveal any specials or lower-priced refurbished units.  We suggest you add a 128GB Micro-SD card (priced around $20 – $25) or even a larger 200 – 256GB card ($40 – $60) to whichever unit you select.

The Fire HD 8 is arguably better than the 7.9″ screened iPad because its screen has a more efficient aspect ratio for watching video than the iPad.  The Fire HD 10 has 41.3″ of screen area for regular video, giving you a slightly larger video image than on Apple’s four-times more expensive 10.5″ screened unit.

The Fire HD 10 is only slightly larger than the HD 8, but has a much higher resolution screen, a more powerful processor, and twice the amount of built-in storage.  The video is distinctively larger and clearer.  As long as you’re happy with the slightly larger size (10.3″ x 6.3″ compared to 8.4″ x 5.0″) it is by far the better choice.

When we upgraded from the 7″ Fire 7 to the 8″ Fire HD 8, we were amazed at the improvement in viewing experience, and we were similarly amazed again at the jump in experience from the Fire HD 8 to the Fire HD 10.

Screen Issues

We’ve discussed various screen size considerations in the text and felt it would be helpful to lay out these differences in another table.

As can we seen, while the screen diagonal size changes seem small, the actual changes in screen area are much larger.

ModelScreen PixelsAspect RatioTotal AreaVideo Area
iPad mini 47.9″326 ppi
1536 x 2048
4:329.6 sq in22.2 sq in
iPad9.7″264 ppi
1536 x 2048
4:345.1 sq in33.9 sq in
iPad Pro10.5″264 ppi
1668 x 2224
4:353.2 sq in39.9 sq in
iPad Pro11.0″264 ppi
1668 x 2388
4.3:357.2 sq in46.0 sq in
iPad Pro12.9″264 ppi
2048 x 2732
4:380.3 sq in60.2 sq in

In case you missed the explanation in the text above, when we measure “video area” we are looking at how much of the screen would be used to play a movie in the 16:9 HD aspect ratio.  Because the screens have an aspect ratio more like 12:9 or 13:9, there will be “letter box” black bars above and below the narrower video image on the screen.  The 11″ screen with the 13:9 aspect ratio gets closer to filling their screen than the four other models with the classic 4:3 or 12:9 aspect ratio.

Cost

Leaving this very relevant issue until last, how much money are you willing to spend on a new tablet?

The first consideration here is that unless there is a special need for an Apple iPad, you’re going to be saving a huge amount of money with no practical loss of functionality by getting an Amazon Fire tablet instead.

But it is true that it is nice and convenient – if you already have an iPhone and plan to stick with iPhones into the future – to have a familiar interface and even almost identical programs. in many cases, too.  (Of course, if you have an Android phone, a similar argument speaks against the concept of getting an iPad.)

We suggest the following considerations apply :

(a)  If you want a small unit, mainly for reading and listening to music, and where small size is a primary condition, get either a Fire HD 8 or the 7.9″ iPad Mini 4.

(b)  If you want a general purpose unit and don’t want to “break the bank”, get either the Fire HD 10 or the 9.7″ iPad with 128 GB of memory.  The “older generation” iPad with the 9.7″ screen is, by Apple standards, a great bargain (albeit nearly three times the cost of the Fire HD 10).

(c)  If you want a high-end unit with the modern interface rather than home button, get the 11″ iPad.  If you think you’ll want to store video on it, consider upgrading to 256GB, and if you see value in either the GPS and/or wireless data, add that too.  Congratulations – you’ve just spent $1100 on a tablet!

(d)  If you have a special need as identified above in the section on size that makes the large screen valuable to you, get the 12.9″ iPad.  You’ll almost certainly want to upgrade to 256GB of storage, and probably add the GPS/wireless data capabilities too, because, after all, what’s another $300 when you’ve already spent $1000 on the base model.  Try not to think that you’ve just spent more than a mid-range laptop for a mere tablet – a cost that may rise still further if you add a stylus or keyboard to the unit.

(e)  If you want the biggest screen possible, here’s an alternate approach.  Get an 11″ iPad, and add an external 15″ or larger screen to it.  You won’t have quite the same pixel density, nor quite the same convenience, but you’ll have an enormously larger screen.  Food for thought.

Summary of this Special Section

It is truly astonishing to now be greeted with five iPad models available in 28 different configuration options.  But we suggest this rich variety of what end up as basically very similar choices (do we really need three similar models with 9.7″, 10.5″ and 11″ screens) points more to Apple’s lack of core vision about this product range rather than a truly useful set of distinct options.

The good news is that the 9.7″ screened iPad has actually drifted down in price to where some people might find it an acceptable extra cost compared to an Amazon HD 10 (ie $429 compared to $150).

The new 11″ screen model, with its thin bezel, packs a lot of screen into its physical size, and the gorgeous 12.9″ screen model is something we’d love to own.  But Apple’s apparent prime use case for these two units, as reflected in their sky-high pricing, is as “cross-over” units that combine laptop and tablet functions in the one convenient unit.  Alas, they fail miserably at doing so, and end up merely as being very expensive tablets.

Sure, as always, iPads have a beautiful build quality and finish, and we’ve always loved the three iPads we own (including the very first ever model, now 8 1/2 years old, but still sometimes used).  But the thought of spending $1000 – $2000 for a new tablet – around ten times the cost of an Amazon Fire HD model – keeps us away from the Apple store.

We now return to the main part of this article.

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Summary

After several years of neglect, Apple have done a good job in releasing new iPads.  Unfortunately, their response to plunging market share is to maximize the price and profit they get on the units they expect to still sell, rather than to bring out some well featured and well priced units.

If you already have an iPad or Android tablet that you’re happy with, you’ll probably not feel any need to upgrade now.  If you’ve never felt the need for a tablet in the past, there’s nothing in these new iPads that will now cause you to rush to buy one.

But if you have an old iPad that is no longer receiving OS updates, and which doesn’t have a higher resolution screen, perhaps one of the new extensive lineup of iPads might tempt you at this point as a valid upgrade.

If you don’t have any tablet at all, you have to ask yourself how and why it makes sense to pay such a huge price premium for an Apple iPad tablet compared to Amazon’s astonishingly bargain priced Fire HD tablets, or any of the other generic Android tablets out there.

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