Apple sent the iPad back to school, literally. At an event at Chicago’s Lane Tech High School on Tuesday, Apple unveiled a new model of its entry-level tablet designed to appeal to teachers and students.
The new iPad got a speed boost and support for Apple’s Pencil stylus, but keeps its familiar design and $329 price. The changes are welcome, but stop short of a full-on assault on the simple — and inexpensive — Google Chromebook laptops that have stolen Apple’s thunder in American schools.
I got the chance to spend a little time with the new iPad following Apple’s announcement in classroom demonstrations, which included wowie-zowie augmented reality, music-making and drawing programs. One app let me dissect a frog with an Apple Pencil.
So why all the fuss? Two reasons: Apple’s tablets are popular, already outselling Mac computers. And, as the song goes, the children are the future: Apple used to dominate in schools, but in recent years Chromebooks gobbled up about 60 percent of the U.S. education market, according to analysis firm FutureSource. Last year, Microsoft software accounted for roughly 22 percent. Apple’s iOS held 12.3 percent and its MacOS had 4.7 percent.
Of course, iPads aren’t only popular with students. They’ve become a mainstay of e-book and periodical readers, Netflix-in-bed watchers and creative types who attach accessories to the $650-and-up iPad Pro models. After 13 quarters of declines, iPad sales reignited last summer thanks to a price cut and new iPad Pro models.
Apple didn’t introduce design changes to this entry-level model that would make it lust-worthy for existing iPad owners. From the outside, the new model is nearly indistinguishable from a 2013 iPad Air. While the latest smartphones feature an all-screen look, the new iPad didn’t trim its edges, lose its home button, or add a Face ID system for logging in like on the iPhone X.
A processor boost in the new model may have its own appeal for people still using old iPads. The new iPad has Apple’s A10 chip, the same as an iPhone 7, which makes it run about 40 percent faster than last year’s model, Apple says. The speed boost also lets the iPad better run augmented reality apps that use the camera to lay images over what the camera sees.
For schools, Apple’s challenge is convincing teachers and parents that a device that doesn’t come standard with a keyboard is as good for growing as it is for playing games. (What about Apple’s laptops? While they’re due for an update, too, they got no mention at a launch event where Apple is trying to promote finger-first iPads as its solution for education.)
Adding the Pencil stylus to the iPad makes it more functional for creative tasks, like drawing and taking notes. But an Apple Pencil costs $100 ($90 for schools) — so you’d better hope Junior doesn’t lose it. (Another firm, Logitech, on Tuesday also unveiled a slightly less fancy stylus for the iPad dubbed Crayon, which costs $50.)
The new iPad’s biggest changes are in software. With improved management tools, teachers can now keep track of what students are up to on their iPads, send assignments and receive homework. Multiple students can now share a single iPad and login to their apps and work just by tapping their own picture.
Apple will also now offer students 200 gigabytes of free cloud storage. And it updated its productivity apps to allow people to collaborate on documents via stylus scribbles.
What didn’t change is the price: This iPad costs $330, or $300 for schools that buy them directly. Add on a $100 stylus and $100 third-party keyboard case and you’re looking at more $500 a machine. Chromebooks with keyboards can be bought for $200; touch and stylus-enabled Microsoft Windows laptops start at $300.
Apple has never been about having the lowest prices. But that means it has to argue that iPads can do exponentially more than other devices — an argument that will take time to sink in for grown-ups still accustomed to thinking productivity requires a mouse and keyboard. Apple says there are some 200,000 education and reference apps available for the iPad.
And Apple has one more selling point: Privacy. During their presentation, executives went out of their way to highlight the privacy features they’ve built into the iPad. For example, teachers can share work with students via Apple’s iCloud, but that data is never visible to Apple. At a time when more people are concerned about how their data gets shared, protecting the information of students is worth something, too.
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