The best tablet: 7th-generation Apple iPad
Photo: Sarah Kobos
Apple iPad (7th generation, 32 GB)
With a large screen, a fast-enough processor, and Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard support, the 7th-gen iPad offers the features most tablet users need.
The 7th-generation Apple iPad—the standard, 10.2-inch model that Apple officially calls the “iPad (7th generation)”—is the best all-around tablet for most people. Its combination of performance, features, hardware quality, app selection, and accessories makes it superior to any other company’s tablets, and at its price it offers a better value than almost anything Apple sells. The iPad Air sports a slightly larger and nicer screen, the iPad mini is smaller and easier to hold, and all of Apple’s other iPads run a bit faster, but the regular iPad is good enough for most people.
We think 32 GB of storage is enough for most people, too, especially considering that Apple’s ecosystem encourages you to store your photos and other media in the cloud and to stream your music and videos. But if you plan to use a lot of apps or to store a lot of photos, music, or videos on the iPad itself, it’s worthwhile to spend more (typically $100 more) on the 128 GB version.
The 7th-generation iPad looks and feels almost exactly the same as the 10.5-inch iPad Pro from 2017 or the 3rd-generation iPad Air, but it’s just the slightest bit thicker (0.02 inch). Like both of those models, it supports the first-generation Apple Pencil and the Apple Smart Keyboard. The Smart Keyboard uses Apple’s Smart Connector (the three dots on the left edge of the tablet) to communicate with the iPad, which means the keyboard doesn’t need its own battery and you don’t need to fiddle with Bluetooth to get it working. This is the first time Apple’s cheapest iPad has had the Smart Connector.
Available in space gray with a black bezel, silver with a white bezel, or gold with a white bezel, the tablet has a 10.2-inch 2160×1620 IPS screen. As on previous iPads, the screen has an oleophobic coating that resists fingerprints and makes wiping off skin oil and other grime easy, and the tablet is light enough for an adult to hold comfortably in one hand.
The iPad is the tiniest bit thicker than the iPad Air, but it now has a Smart Connector. Photo: Sarah Kobos
The 7th-generation iPad still uses Apple’s A10 processor, which makes it feel noticeably snappier than older iPads at everyday tasks, but the A10 is now a few years old (it’s the same processor the iPhone 7 uses). The difference is probably not enough to induce you to upgrade from a 2017 5th-gen model or even 2014’s iPad Air 2, but if you currently have an older iPad such as the 2013 iPad Air or iPad Mini 2, the performance improvements will feel more dramatic. The A12 processor in the 10.5-inch iPad Air is even faster (and it will feel faster for longer than the 7th-generation iPad’s A10), but most people wouldn’t notice a difference right now if they were to compare the two.
With 3 GB of RAM—up from 2 GB in the previous generation—everyday interactions such as switching between apps or Safari tabs feel much more responsive than on older iPads because apps and tabs don’t have to reload every time you switch away from them and then back.
Even though the iPad’s cameras are not as good as those of the iPad Pro models, they’re otherwise the best you’ll find in a tablet—even the more expensive iPad Air and iPad mini both use essentially the same camera. The 8-megapixel back camera lets you shoot panoramas, snap multiple photos in burst mode, and record slow-motion and time-lapse videos. You also get software video stabilization, though you don’t get the iPad Pro’s camera flash, wide-color photo capture, or ultra-wide lens. If you need a smartphone-class camera in a tablet, check out the iPad Pro, but this basic iPad is fine for taking occasional photos or scanning documents in good lighting.
The iPad supports both the Apple Pencil and the Smart Keyboard, which you can purchase separately. Photo: Sarah Kobos
The iPad has Bluetooth, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and (on Wi-Fi + Cellular models) the option to use LTE networks for a data connection anywhere (see Do you need cellular capability? for more details). The Touch ID sensor lets you use your fingerprint to unlock the tablet, authenticate your account, or make purchases. Touch ID works well on tablets, but we still wish this iPad had Face ID like the 2018 iPad Pro models do.
Apple advertises the iPad as having the same battery life as the rest of its tablet family: up to 10 hours of use on Wi-Fi or up to nine hours of use on cellular data. When we ran the battery test in the Geekbench 4 benchmarking app, the battery lasted 10 hours, 23 minutes, almost identical to the result from the 2019 5th-gen iPad mini, but about two hours less than what we saw from the 10.5-inch iPad Air.
If you currently have an iPad older than the Air 2, the performance improvements of the 7th-generation iPad will feel more dramatic.
One of the biggest benefits of the Apple ecosystem is the constantly improving software, which appears even on older hardware. The 7th-gen iPad will get new features via iPadOS (formerly iOS) updates for many years, and it includes iPadOS multitasking features that make new iPads more capable than older ones. Like the iPad Pro, iPad Air, and iPad mini, the 10.2-inch iPad can open three applications on the screen at once; the 6th-gen model could handle only two.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Unlike the most recent iPad Air, iPad mini, and iPad Pro models, the 7th-generation iPad lacks an antireflective screen coating, and there’s a gap between the screen’s LCD panel and the front glass. As a result, reading text under bright lights or in sunlight can be a bit more difficult on the 7th-generation iPad’s screen than on the displays of other current models, and there’s the slightest bit more delay with the Apple Pencil. The screen is still very good, but we wish you didn’t have to splurge for an Air or a Pro to get antireflective glass. The 7th-gen iPad also lacks the True Tone display found on every other iPad, which automatically adjusts the screen’s color balance to match the light in the room.
In addition, the 7th-generation iPad lacks a few features we really like in the iPad Pro line, such as a camera flash, ProMotion display (Apple’s term for a 120 Hz refresh rate), and second-generation Pencil support. However, those features are part of what makes the Pro models, well, pro—and why you have to pay at least $450 more for an iPad Pro.
Should you upgrade from an older iPad?
If you don’t use your iPad for more than an hour or two a day (or if you’ve never been bothered by its performance), you probably don’t need the latest and greatest—the earlier iPad Air 2, the 5th-gen iPad, and the iPad mini 4 are still great tablets that can serve many people well unless they want Apple Pencil stylus support or the ability to use an iPad as a second monitor for a Mac running macOS Catalina or later. In that case, the 7th-generation iPad’s Pencil support means you don’t have to splurge for an iPad Air or Pro (the discontinued 6th-gen iPad also works with the Pencil).
On the other hand, if you have an older iPad and you use it frequently throughout the day—for example, as a tablet computer running lots of apps, as a way to stay in constant contact via email, text, audio, video, and social media, or as a media and gaming device—and it’s feeling out of date and sluggish, you may benefit by upgrading to the latest model. The 7th-generation iPad is noticeably faster than the original Air, the iPad mini 2, and the iPad mini 3, especially for graphics-intensive apps. Those models also won’t be receiving an update to iPadOS 13, so upgrading your hardware will ensure that you keep getting new features and security updates.
If you don’t use your iPad for more than an hour or two a day (or if you’ve never been bothered by its performance), you probably don’t need the latest and greatest.
If you’re contemplating upgrading, the fact that Apple continues to support older models means you can likely sell your current iPad for a reasonable price (selling back to Apple directly is easy but generally gets less money than you could receive elsewhere). Alternatively, you can pass it down to a child or other family member, and they’ll have a tablet that’s still good for basic use and most kids apps and learning apps.
Do you need cellular capability?
All iPad models include Wi-Fi connectivity, but for $130 to $150 more, you can add support for LTE, which means you can get an Internet connection anywhere your cellular carrier has service. And you don’t have to use the same carrier you have for your phone: The cellular versions of the iPad include an Apple SIM or a digital eSIM that you can activate on any carrier from the tablet itself.
If you’ll frequently need Internet access away from Wi-Fi and you can’t (or don’t want to) tether to your phone, a Wi-Fi + Cellular iPad is worth considering. It’s also useful as a way to increase the chances that you’ll have data coverage anywhere you go: By choosing a different mobile-data carrier than the one you have for your phone, you may find that in places where your phone doesn’t get data coverage, your iPad does, and vice versa. But because you can’t add cellular capability in the future—you need to buy a Wi-Fi + Cellular model at the start—now is the time to consider it.
Buying a refurbished iPad
When the entry-level iPad’s screen was only 9.7 inches, the 10.5-inch iPad Air (3rd generation) made sense as an upgrade option for anyone who wanted a tablet with a larger screen but didn’t want to splurge on an iPad Pro. Although it’s still more powerful and nicer overall than the 7th-generation iPad, it’s not worth the higher price in almost any situation. The two iPads are almost identically sized (the 10.2-inch model is 0.02 inch thicker), and the difference between the screen dimensions is minimal.
For most people, the iPad Air doesn’t offer better performance than the 10.2-inch iPad. Photo: Sarah Kobos
Although it’s a good thing to have a faster processor, the A12 in the iPad Air doesn’t dramatically change most people’s experiences. The A12 is snappier than the A10 in the 7th-gen iPad, sure (we measured it as being about 50 percent faster for single-core tasks and 90 percent faster for multi-core), but the A10 still runs modern iPad games and other apps well. The A12, at least, should hold up better over time as apps continue to become more resource intensive. Then there’s the iPad Air’s screen, which is not only slightly larger but also supports True Tone, comes fully laminated, and is anti-glare. Again, nice, but not worth the money. What you might appreciate more are the storage options: The iPad Air starts at 64 GB and goes up to 256 GB, double what the 7th-generation iPad offers, although even the base model of the iPad Air costs $70 more than the 128 GB 10.2-inch version.
The iPad Pro in both its sizes offers more power than most people need, for a higher price than most people should pay. It has definite benefits, including an edge-to-edge display, Face ID instead of Touch ID, and support for the second-generation Apple Pencil. But unless you plan on using your iPad as a replacement for your main laptop or insist on a bigger screen, stick with the 7th-gen iPad. If you’re sure you want an iPad Pro, consider a refurbished model of the 2018 version. The prices are good, and you get almost everything the 2020 editions offer, save for a more advanced camera.