Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The 2017 iPad

You know the story. Back in 1998, with the introduction of the first iMac, Steve Jobs presented a two-by-two grid that represented Apple’s product strategy: one consumer model and one professional model in each a portable and desktop format. That thinking has largely remained consistent, even to this day, and it has even spread into their non-Macintosh product lines with the introduction of the iPad Pro. Both sizes of iPad Pro represent Apple’s ideals of what tablet-based computing should look like: responsive, big, wide colour displays, very fast custom processors, lots of RAM, and Apple Pencil support.

So what is the rightful place for non-Pro iPads? What kind of users should they attract? What separates them from the iPads Pro?

I’ve been using a 2017 iPad — the no-suffix, 32 GB, WiFi-only base model that represents the cheapest entry point into the iPad line — since June 5. It is even less expensive than the iPad Mini, because you can’t get a Mini with anything other than 128 GB of storage. It’s the first new iPad that I’ve bought since the Mini 2 back in 2013 because I’ve been confused by the iPad line since. We’ll get to that in a bit.

The 2017 iPad — the fifth-generation product that is, somehow, not necessarily a successor to the iPad Air 2 — is, internally at least, a bit like the kind of one-pot meal you make from whatever leftovers you have in the fridge. It’s a blend of a couple of years’ worth of iOS devices: the A9 processor from the iPhone 6S, the display and chassis from the iPad Air — except with the handsome matte chamfer of the iPhone SE — the same amount of RAM as in the iPad Air 2, a camera similar to that in the iPhone 5S with a slightly different aperture, and the first-generation Touch ID module from pre-2017 iPads.

What that means, though, is that it is a bit of a downgrade from the Air 2. The display is the standard 9.7-inch size for an iPad, and has a full RGB colour gamut. But unlike the Air 2 — or, indeed, the iPad Mini 4 — it isn’t a laminated display, which means that there’s a slight air gap between the cover glass and the LCD. I’ve never owned an iPad with a laminated display, but I’ve used them for long enough that it is noticeable; but, for me, it isn’t a deal-breaker. It’s also a slightly thicker and heavier device than the Air 2, but only slightly.

The first-generation Touch ID module, though, is a very noticeable difference between my iPhone and iPad. I’ve become so used to the speed that my iPhone 6S reads my fingerprint that the module in my iPad feels really sluggish. I regularly fail to keep my finger on the home button for the right amount of time.

The rest of this iPad screams, though. It’s really fast. I rarely feel like I’m waiting for it — even in Safari, which has long been one of my biggest iPad pet peeves — and, as a result, I’ve been using it far more than I have any previous iPad. About a third of what I’ve posted on Pixel Envy in the last month has come from this iPad directly — and that’s a greater compliment than you might imagine, given how much I like MarsEdit on my Mac. This review was, of course, written on my iPad.1 I’m planning my iOS 11 review with Things on this iPad. It really has become an integrated part of my workflow.

None of that is revolutionary any longer, though. That people use their iPads for work is something that really only surprises people who, for whatever reason, are still attached to their computers. And there remain a lot of valid reasons for doing so: many development tools and professional applications are only available for traditional computers, the virtual keyboard and available accessory keyboards are still somewhat clunkier to use than a physical unit — and the virtual keyboard covers half the display area — the cursor gesture is imprecise, and it’s still not as elegant of a multitasking environment as is the Mac.

But despite the potential power of the Mac, it probably isn’t the device many of us use most frequently, or do the most stuff with — that honour would probably go to our smartphone. Even though there’s plenty of raw power inside our computer, we frequently choose our smartphone to send email, browse the web, shop, chat, and lots more. So, it’s only logical that we would gravitate towards a device that combines the user-friendliness of a smartphone with the bigger size and some of the greater power of a traditional computer. That’s a similar point to the one Apple made when they launched the first iPad in 2010, and we bought it.

But things are a little different now, because the iPad line is no longer as simple as the iPad, with the introduction of the iPad Pro:

It used to be that one of the most exciting things about a new iPad is the sense that this is the best that Apple could do in an iPad that year; now, I get the sense that they’re trying to create a division between iPad users and iPad Pro users. Will the standard iPad eventually support the Apple Pencil or sport a ProMotion display? I’m not sure; those features are, so far, reserved for iPad Pro users. I don’t think that’s wrong, but it is a relatively new line of thought for the iOS device lineup.

So what makes these devices different breeds? What delineates the difference between an iPad user and an iPad Pro user? My best short answer to both questions is that it’s similar to the difference between MacBook users and MacBook Pro users, but not the same.

Price is an obvious consideration: much as the MacBook is less expensive than the MacBook Pro, this iPad starts at just slightly more than half that of the least-expensive iPad Pro, which makes it pretty great value for the kind of user who just wants an iPad to be their big screen web-browsing-and-email-device.

Performance is another thing: the A10X SoC in the 2017 iPads Pro performs comparably in single core benchmarks to the 2013 Mac Pro and the 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro; for multi-core performance, it beats that same MacBook Pro model. Both sizes of iPad Pro also pack 4 GB of RAM.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference, though, is that the iPad Pro line is where Apple’s highest iPad technologies ship. They both have ProMotion display controllers, so they support contextual refresh rate adjustments. They both have wider-gamut laminated displays with antireflective coatings and True Tone, to match the display’s white balance to the environment, and, of course, both support the Apple Pencil. The Pro models also come with more speakers, newer Touch ID sensors, better cameras — at the expense of a bump — have Apple’s Smart Connector for accessories, and are available with greater storage options. Oh, and you can get the 10.5-inch model in Rose Gold.

This iPad — and the Mini, but I doubt that will hang around much longer — is presumably for people who don’t know why they would need those things, or aren’t convinced those high technologies will help their workflow. If they are using their iPad primarily for their favourite apps, browsing the web, listening to music, and reading books, they probably aren’t clamouring for MacBook Pro-equivalent power.

And, if I’m honest with myself, I am that user with my iPad. It may not have the processing power of a laptop, but it doesn’t need to have that for me to use it instead of my MacBook Air for many of the things I do daily. If you liked what you could do with an iPad a couple of years ago and you’d like to keep doing those things better and faster, you’ll like this iPad.

That, for me, raises the obvious question of where this type of iPad goes next. What, in that giant list of high technologies in the iPad Pro, fits the context of an iPad for lighter users? Aside from bumps in processing speed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a True Tone, laminated, less-reflective display in a future base level iPad, given how great those things are for text-centric use. At some point, the base iPad could conceivably get a newer Touch ID sensor, better cameras, and greater storage options. All of these things would make the base iPad even better for what I do with it, but they don’t change its function for me. In terms of the technology afforded to it, is the base iPad destined to retain the same kind of role for the conceivable future?

That question is something I’ve thought about a fair bit with this iPad — not in the context of how I use it, but more in the sense of why, specifically, someone would choose an iPad over an iPad Pro, or vice-versa. With the exception of drawing software that supports the Apple Pencil, you can run a lot of the same kind of software on this iPad as you can on the latest iPad Pro. My best guess is that new software built specifically for the iPad Pro’s high-performance processors and capabilities will help materialize a lot of the advantages of choosing one over the other. But, while there are plenty of Mac apps that would be amazing on the iPad, developers have repeatedly pointed out that the economics of building an iPad app just aren’t favourable.

iOS 11 is coming this fall with plenty of enhancements specifically for the iPad, but it will also introduce a new App Store. My hope is that a combination of daily editorial components, greater visibility for non-game apps, better search, and other enhancements will make the iPad a more compelling investment for developers and a more valuable platform for users. In turn, a greater amount of professional software could be available specifically for the iPad Pro, and the case for two unique models should, I hope, become clarified beyond price and pure performance.


  1. Every aspect of this review was made on this iPad, with the exception of taking the photo at the top and transferring it from my camera’s SD card. ↩︎