The evolution of the iPad

With the release of the fifth-generation iPad Pro (now with Apple's own M1 chip), it’s a good time to take a look at the evolution of the company's game-changing tablet.

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad [cover]
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If you’re a dedicated follower of tech innovation, you no doubt recall the day in 2010 when Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s new tablet computer: the iPad. Internet jokers and wacky morning DJs had a lot of fun with the name. Apple, as usual, had the last laugh.

The iPad has since evolved into an unqualified success, carving out a space between laptop and smartphone, and providing a handy device for checking email, surfing the web, reading e-books, and — most importantly, perhaps — enabling the 21st-century obsession known as binge-watching. It was the device we didn’t know we needed until we had it in hand.

With the release of the fifth-generation iPad Pro with Apple's M1 processors (2021), it’s a good time to take a look at the evolution of Apple’s game-changing tablet. This history is a bit selective; we’ve skipped over some of the smaller iterative tweaks, focusing instead on the more evolutionary leaps. Prices listed here refer to the base model in the U.S. upon release. (Prices go up with premium storage and connectivity options.)

As a bonus, we’ve included secret trivia and some cultural context — and if you’re reading this on an iPad, give yourself 100 bonus meta points.

The original iPad: A new breed of tablet

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > The Original iPad IDG / Apple

The iPad wasn’t Apple’s first foray into tablet computing. Back in 1993, the company launched the Newton MessagePad. But the iPad was another creature entirely. Reviewers hailed the device as a marvel of Information Age design, with its touchscreen interface, familiar iPhone OS, and that oddly useful three-axis accelerometer that could detect movement, tilting and flipping. Around 300,000 iPads were sold on the first day it was available. More than one million shipped in the first month. Just under 15 million were sold before the next model came out.

  • Cultural Touchstone: The No. 1 movie at the U.S. box office on March 3, 2010 was Alice in Wonderland. Somehow, this seems relevant.
  • Double Secret Bonus Trivia: Before the official announcement, the smart money on the rumor circuit was that the new device would be named the iTablet or the iSlate.

The iPad 2: Thinner, lighter, faster

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > The iPad 2 IDG / Apple

About one-third thinner and 15% lighter, the second iteration of the iPad was slimmed down and built for speed. The dual-core Apple A5 processor was touted at the time as being twice as fast as the original iPad chip. Most significantly, the iPad 2 included front and back cameras designed to support video recording and the trendy new FaceTime application. The sequel device got its own gyroscope, too, plus an ambient light monitor.

  • Cultural Touchstone: A few months later, Amazon would release the $199 Kindle Fire tablet, running Google’s Android operating system.
  • Double Secret Bonus Trivia: The iPad 2 came with an optional Smart Cover that protects the screen and flips, origami-style, into a display stand.

The iPad (3rd generation): Four times the pixel density

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > The iPad [3rd Generation] IDG / Apple

Due to the unknowable mysteries of marketing, Apple dropped the numbering convention in the 2012 version of its tablet, officially calling it “The New iPad.” In any case, the big addition this time was the heralded high-def Retina display, with a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels, or 264 pixels per inch. Crunch the numbers, and you’ll find that’s a total of four times the pixels, in the same space, as previous models. The general consensus was that, for binge-watching purposes, the new iPad looked better than most HDTVs on the market at the time. The five-megapixel camera was a significant upgrade, as well.

  • Cultural Touchstone: As you may recall, the world was supposed to end in December of 2012, calculated to be the end-date of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. Instead, we got a new iPad.
  • Double Secret Bonus Trivia: The third-generation iPad is slightly thicker and heavier than the iPad 2.

The iPad Mini: Better portability, a rugged design

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > The iPad Mini IDG / Apple

Consider it a digital age Zen puzzle: If the original iPad was just a bigger version of the iPod Touch — as some skeptics contended — then what do you call a smaller version of the iPad? That would be the iPad Mini, a scaled-down version of the main tablet released in October 2012. Thanks to the magic of screen-to-body ratios, the Mini was half the volume and weight of the iPad proper, yet provided two-thirds of the viewing area. The Mini retained nearly all the functions and features of its bigger cousin, with better portability and a solid, rugged design. (And in 2013, the updated mini got a Retina display.)

  • Cultural Touchstone: 2012 also saw the release of hybrid devices and “phablets” like Google’s Nexus 7, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1, and the Microsoft Surface.
  • Double Secret Bonus Trivia: The first iPad Minis were offered in black or white, with an optional but proportionate Mini Smart Cover.

The iPad Air: More power in a lighter package

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > The iPad Air IDG / Apple

Technically the fifth-generation iteration of the device, the iPad Air was designed to pack even more power into a smaller and lighter package. The 64-bit processor opened new options for high-octane productivity apps. Indeed, the Air clocked speeds nearly twice as fast as the previous model, according to independent testing. Potential buyers had plenty of options with the Air. Considering all color, storage, and networking features, Apple offered 16 different versions upon initial release.

  • Cultural Touchstone: In 2013, Disney’s smash hit animated movie Frozen inflicted the highly contagious song “Let It Go” onto the global population.
  • Double Secret Bonus Trivia: The iPad Air was the first to feature dual microphones working in conjunction to better facilitate FaceTime and video sound.

The iPad Mini 4: Improved image quality, increased speed

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > The iPad Mini 4 IDG / Apple

Following up on the underwhelming Mini 2 (2013) and Mini 3 (2014), the Mini 4 featured a redesigned body that was slightly taller, thinner, and lighter. The mini-tablet was praised for better overall image quality, thanks in part to a laminated display with anti-reflective coating. The 1.5GHz Apple A8 processor, which sped up typical tablet tasks, represented a relatively significant upgrade. Alas, the new Mini’s debut was dramatically overshadowed by Apple’s new “Maxi” initiative – the iPad Pro (see next slide).

  • Cultural Touchstone: The year 2015 is often marked by cultural critics as the apex of the Peak TV phenomenon as AMC’s Mad Men finally bows out.
  • Double Secret Bonus Trivia: The improved iSight forward-facing camera added support for burst mode and slow-motion video capture.

The iPad Pro: A larger canvas, an innovative stylus

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > The iPad Pro IDG / Apple

With the big and muscular iPad Pro, Apple delivered a laptop-replacement tablet system powerful enough to run most serious workplace apps. But the innovative Apple Pencil is the real star of the show. The next-generation stylus was aimed in part at those who do a lot of drawing and drafting, and more generally towards early adopters who would appreciate the technology on its own gee-whiz merits. Advanced pressure sensitivity and tilt detection complemented a bigger digital canvas, delivering a fast-forward futuristic experience, especially for graphic designers.

Apple followed up with a 9.7-inch version in 2016 (at $599); then two second-generation models in 2017, with 12.9-inch and 10.5-inch displays.

  • Cultural Touchstone: A week before the iPad Pro hit shelves, Justin Pierre James Trudeau was sworn in as the 23rd and current Prime Minister of Canada.
  • Double Secret Bonus Trivia: The iPad Pro’s four speakers put bass on the bottom and treble at the top, no matter what orientation you’re holding the tablet.

The iPad (6th generation): Faster processor, Apple Pencil support

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > The iPad [6th Generation] IDG / Apple

With Apple now hawking three separate lines of iPads — the Mini, the Pro, and the original — the company hit a reset button of sorts with the sixth-generation 9.7-in. entry model known simply and once again as the iPad. While hardware on the 2018 edition is essentially the same as the 2017 iPad, the new device added the speedier A10 processor and supported the Apple Pencil (a separate $100 purchase that pushed the actual price for the full-featured version to $429).

  • Cultural Touchstone: In a sign of the times, Macworld’s official testing of the new iPad included a rigorous play test of the ubiquitous Battle-Royale combat game Fortnite.
  • Double Secret Bonus Trivia: Leveraging Pencil support, Apple tried like crazy to get the 2018 iPad into schools as the go-to note-taking and all-around learning device for future generations.

The iPad Pro (3rd generation): New design, Face ID, new Apple Pencil

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > iPad Pro [3rd Generation] IDG / Apple

Apple's 3rd-gen iPad Pro was completely revamped, offering a "Liquid Retina" display, narrower bezels and the same Face ID technology that first arrived on the iPhone X. The larger iPad Pro still had a 12.9-in. screen, while a new 11-in. version had a display that extends further to the edges. Both of the new models were 5.9mm thick and offered up to 1TB of storage. Both were powered by Apple's A12X Bionic processor with 10-hour battery life. (The Wi-Fi + cellular models were expected to last about nine hours, according to Apple.)

Both models had a 12MP rear-facing camera and a 7MP TrueDepth front-facing camera. The 11-in. model started at $799 (with 64GB of storage); the larger iPad Pro started at $999.

  • Cultural touchstone: It wouldn't be an all-new iPad Pro without an all-new Apple Pencil. And this one had a few new tricks up its sleeve. New magnets built into the tablets' edge allowed the Pencil to attach to the side of the iPad Pro, where it paired automatically and charged wirelessly.
  • Double secret bonus trivia: For those who wanted their iPad Pro to be more like a laptop replacement, Apple has a new Smart Folio Keyboard. The $199 keyboard attached magnetically and offered two different viewing angles – one for casual use (like reading in bed) and a more upright one for desktop use.

The iPad (7th generation): Larger display, upgraded hardware

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > The iPad [7th Generation] IDG / Apple

Apple's newest iPad features a larger 10.2-in. Retina display, upgraded cameras, longer battery life, and – for the first time – support for the company's Smart Keyboard. Pricing starts at $329 for a 32GB Wi-Fi-only model and jumps to $429 for the 128GB version. (The keyboard and Apple Pencil are both sold separately and cost $159 and 99, respectively.) The iPad comes in three colors: Space Gray, Silver and Gold. For more ubiquitous connectivity, a Wi-Fi+cellular model is available for $459. While this iPad does run Apple's new iPadOS, it still relies on Touch ID for authentication and has wider bezels than other iPad models.

  • Cultural touchstone: It might not have all of Apple's current design tweaks, but the iPad does offer one feature users might really care about: An old-fashioned headphone jack.
  • Double secret bonus trivia: With iPad support for the Smart Keyboard, Apple is pushing even harder to pitch the entry-level model as a laptop replacement– especially for students. Education pricing starts at $299.

The iPad Pro (5th generation)

Computerworld > The Evolution of the iPad > iPad Pro [5th Generation] IDG / Apple

Apple's newest iPad Pro line-up offers a couple of important firsts: Apple M1 processors in both the 12.9- and 11-in. models and a brighter, better mini-LED screen in the larger model. The new models (announced at the same time as M1-based iMacs) continue Apple’s move to its own silicon across all devices. The 2021 iPad Pros feature an upgraded 12MP camera and a 10MP ultra-wide camera, up to 10 hours of battery life, and support for a new Magic Keyboard (which now comes in white). Pricing starts at $799 for a 128GB Wi-Fi-only model and jumps sharply to $1899 for the 2TB version. (The keyboard and 2nd-gen. Apple Pencil are sold separately and cost $299 and $129, respectively.) For more ubiquitous connectivity, a Wi-Fi+cellular model starts at $999 (11-in. model) and $1299 (12.9-in. model) and feature 5G connectivity. The new iPad Pros come in two colors: Space Gray and Silver, and run iOS 14.

  • Cultural touchstone: With video calling a much more common occurrence, the iPad Pro’s very cool Center Stage feature “follows” callers around as they chat to keep them in the frame.
  • Double secret bonus trivia: Apple rightfully has made a big deal about the new M1 chip; it features 8 CPU cores and 8GPU cores, making this equal to the company’s 13-in. M1 MacBook Pro.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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