Note: This review was first published on 23 Sept 2020.
Apple recently announced two new iPads. There’s a new entry-level iPad called the 8th generation iPad, which is an update to last year’s 7th generation iPad. And there’s a new iPad Air. It goes without saying that the new iPad Air is the sexier new release. Unfortunately, it won’t be available until October. So today, I’m going to evaluate the new 8th generation iPad.
The new 8th-generation iPad is really just a spec bump over last year's model. It shares the same design as its predecessor. The dimensions are the same, so cases that fit last year’s iPad will fit this one too. And as I said before in my first impressions piece, design isn’t this new tablet’s strongest suit. The large bezels look dated, especially next to the swanky new iPad Air. Even though it may look unfashionable, the important thing is that it remains thin, light, and easy to carry around.
The Retina display is unchanged. Size is still 10.2 inches large and resolution is still a very adequate 2,160 x 1,620 pixels. This gives it a respectable pixel density count of 216 pixels per inch. Like most Apple devices, the display is excellent. It can’t hold a handle to the iPad Pro’s excellent Liquid Retina display but it’s certainly in a different league when compared to the swathe of cheap, and vaguely disposable, Android tablets you can find on online shopping platforms. If I wanted to nitpick, then I'd complain about the display's pedestrian 60Hz refresh rate. It doesn't affect the tablet functionally, but there's no denying that the iPad Pro's 120Hz ProMotion display looks better.
The cameras are unchanged and so are the Ports and buttons. This means you get a Smart Connector so you can use the Smart Keyboard. And it also means you get a Lightning port instead of a USB-C port that the iPad Pro already have and that the upcoming iPad Air will have.
Now, there are two ways to look at this. One could say it’s a missed opportunity to consolidate the lineup and standardise the connector used on iPads. The second, and arguably more magnanimous outlook, is that Apple is ensuring that owners coming from anything other than an iPad Pro will be able to use his or her accessories and cables with this new iPad – such as the first-generation Apple Pencil. Either way, as is the case with any products that are in some sort of a transition, there are upsides and downsides to any and every decision.
One of my biggest gripe with this iPad is the speakers. They are stereo but they are positioned on both sides of the Lightning port. This means sounds only come from one side when watching videos in landscape orientation – which I’m guessing almost everyone would do. For me, this is a glaring oversight and something that should have long been corrected. As it is now, watching movies on this iPad is unbearable without headphones. If it's any consolation, the speakers do get very loud.
The big change lies under the proverbial hood. The latest iPad comes with Apple’s A12 Bionic processor. This processor debut in 2018 with the iPhone X, XS Max, and XR. And it was deployed in last year’s iPad Air and iPad Mini.
It may be a slightly old processor, but as you’ll see from the benchmark results on the next page, it’s still pretty spritely. Because of the A12 Bionic processor, the new iPad is noticeably snappier and more responsive than the model it replaces. It’s a distinct step up especially if you are playing a graphically intensive game.
Faster performance aside, perhaps the bigger deal here is that Apple is putting its Neural Engine in an entry-level iPad for the first time. Essentially, it’s a hardware AI accelerator – but a fast one that can process up to 5 trillion operations a second. The Neural Engine first appeared in the A11 Bionic in 2017 and it powers a lot of the stuff that happens in the background on your iPhone and iPad that you might not be aware of, such as the sorting and classification of photos, people occlusion in AR, and enhanced photo-taking, and many more.
Third-party apps also rely on it to accelerate certain features. For example, popular photo-editing app Pixelmator uses the Neural Engine it to power its ML Super Resolution feature, which uses machine learning to improve the way the app increases the resolution of images. Pixelmator has a detailed writeup on how the Neural Engine does this and it’s worth a read here. All of this is to say that raw CPU and GPU performance improvements aside, the new A12 Bionic will also bring AI smarts to this year’s basic iPad.