Jacob Krol/CNN
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It’s déjà vu all over again with Apple’s new ninth-gen iPad. In short: It’s much the same as we’ve seen with its entry-level device in years past — with just two noteworthy changes. Namely, a newer processor (Apple’s A13 Bionic) speeds things up a bit, while the new 12-megapixel front-facing camera supports Center Stage to dynamically keep you in the shot.

After testing the ninth-gen iPad for six days, here’s everything we think you should know.

All about value

Apple's entry-level iPad is for anyone who wants a tablet with a sizable display and plenty of power for nearly any task.

The who, what and how

Who this is for: Apple’s 2021 iPad is for anyone who wants a tablet with a sizable display and plenty of power for nearly any task. If you’re happy with your current model, be it a seventh-gen or an eighth-gen iPad, we wouldn’t make the upgrade unless you need more performance.

What you need to know: Year over year, Apple really only boosted the processor and tossed in a new front-facing camera to the entry-level iPad. So for anyone expecting more of a retooling to the iPad, there’s always next year.

How this compares: For its comparatively affordable price tag, the ninth-gen iPad can really roll with the rest of the iPad line when taking on most tasks. Trying to do an epic amount of multitasking or edit your next AAA movie on the device will show the limits of its capabilities, though. It’s really all about value, and the ninth gen can do a lot for the price. It outpaces Amazon’s Fire HD line in terms of actual productivity skills and a wider selection of apps for entertainment or gaming. Applications like Netflix, Hulu or Disney+ open two to three seconds faster than on a Fire 7 or HD 8, and the iPad is far more usable with productivity applications, considering the processing speeds and the number of accessories designed for it.

It’s all about the processor

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We’ve been throwing quite a bit at the ninth-gen iPad for nearly a week — from Pages to Slack and Zoom, while also mixing in plenty of web browsing. And with all of these, the ninth-gen iPad really just chugged along.

In comparison to the eighth-gen iPad, it’s not a night and day upgrade, but it is a much-improved processor (thanks to a jump from an A12 Bionic to an A13 Bionic chip). We could effortlessly multitask in Slide Over or Split View, which let us keep Slack or Mail open on the left, with word processing on the right. In fact, we wrote this review mixing between a Smart Keyboard and a Logitech Combo Touch attached to the ninth-gen iPad. We still greatly prefer the Logitech accessory, as the keys have a lot more travel and it doesn’t result in finger pain as a result of bottoming out on the Smart Keyboard.

A key feature of the A13 Bionic is the Neural Engine, which helps with processes related to artificial intelligence and machine learning. And a lot of features that tap into those two areas come with iPadOS 15. You can open photos and scan for text, then highlight it and copy it out to somewhere else. You can also translate on the fly, whether it be in messages or selected text in an email.

The real, and honestly only, sell here is that the A13 Bionic future-proofs the ninth-gen iPad. Yes, applications and processes get started a second or so faster. But the real upside is that the newer chip will give you a longer shelf life if you’re comparing it to previous generations of iPad — and considering that these end up as a child’s first tablet, in a classroom or even as a family device, you’ll want it to stick around for a while.

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We really only have pause around the ninth-gen iPad when it comes to more intense tasks like using it for design or video editing — tasks that are better reserved for an iPad Pro. Exports take a bit longer on the ninth gen compared to the Pro depending on how many elements are part of a file — that goes for photos and video. But we think that for most common tasks and even with a hint of these more intense ones, you’ll likely be served just fine with the ninth-gen iPad.

And the benchmarks show an increase here as well. As we do with every CNN Underscored review, we ran the ninth-gen iPad through GeekBench 5 to quantitatively see how the device measures up. We use this to match with our qualitative thoughts, usage and tests after six days. The ninth-gen iPad scored 1334 on single-core and 3272 on multi-core within GeekBench 5.

We also ran the 2021 iPad through our battery test in which we stream a video with brightness set to 50% and connectivity turned off. The iPad lasted for nine hours and 45 minutes, which is a 25-minute increase over the eighth-gen iPad.

Center Stage trickles down

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The other big new feature with the ninth-gen iPad is an upgraded 12-megapixel camera on the front. And for those following the iPad line closely (if not, we have you covered), that’s the same lens featured on the 11-inch or 12.9-inch iPad Pro. It’s as if an Apple engineer used a pair of tweezers, pulled the camera out of the TrueDepth sensor and plucked it on the ninth-gen iPad. And it’s a good addition.

For starters, it replaces a 1.2-megapixel front-facing lens that was really passable at best for calls. It struggled with lighting the scene properly, and colors at times could look skewed. This 12-megapixel lens does a much better job of reading the room and is a real treat for video calls or selfies. You can even tap an “arrow” icon to opt for an ultrawide view. It also still lives in the same spot — when being held vertically it’s center on the top bezel, or horizontally it’s on the left side centered.

And in addition to the lens and hardware being better, Apple’s Center Stage tech for keeping you in the frame when recording video or taking calls is on board. Essentially, when on a call or shooting a video, the front-facing camera works in tandem with software to keep you in the shot. It will be a tighter framing around your face, but as you get up to move around, it will pan and follow you. We’ll include a quick screen recording below, but we’re as impressed and pleased with this feature here as we were on the iPad Pro. (Note that it doesn’t work on the 8-megapixel rear camera, though.)

We’ll also call out here that the 2021 iPad is still pushing forth with a 10.2-inch Retina display that’s surrounded by a healthy amount of bezels. Like we said last year (and the year before that), the entry-level iPad opts for a classic design. You still have a home button with Touch ID built in and bezels all around the display, which to a degree make the device easier to hold. It’s also still a tapered back design with slightly rounded sides, which makes it easy to grab. And it’s an aluminum build available in silver or Space Gray.

New to the display this year is Apple’s True Tone tech, which uses a sensor to match the color temperature to the space the iPad is being used in. It’s all done in real time and does make using a tablet, especially for writing or spreadsheets, a lot easier on the eyes.

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Bottom line

When it comes to the new ninth-gen iPad, there’s nothing really monumental, but Apple is continuing to increase the feature set of its entry-level tablet. For $329, you’re getting a very capable device that can handle work and play, with enough speed to not leave you questioning why you purchased it in a few months or a year.

Apple’s ninth-gen iPad isn’t an immediate necessary purchase if you currently have the eighth gen, but if you have an older iPad it’s an excellent time to jump.