With a new Apple iPad out in the wild - and the tablet PC as we know it now over seven years old - we take a look at what comes next for the slate-shaped phenomenon...

Seen the news? You can now grab the brand new Apple iPad from just £20 upfront at Vodafone UK, with 5GB of monthly data for only £32 per month. If you missed it, however, it might be because this year Apple chose to update the iPad line-up without the usual keynote address and fanfare. But what does that slightly quieter approach mean for the iPad range – and tablets – in 2017 and beyond?

To find out, we’ve been speaking to John McCannTechRadar’s esteemed phones, tablets and wearables editor. But before we look ahead, there’s just time for a quick iPad restrospective…

New kid on the block

“Tablets exploded onto the scene in 2010 with Apple’s first iPad,” John explains. “Initially people were unsure and sceptical about why anyone would need a tablet as well as their smartphone or laptop, which already seemed to cover everyone’s bases. But over the next couple of years, people really cottoned on to tablets – they became desirable devices because they’re perfect for browsing the web from the sofa or watching movies or TV shows on a bigger screen on your commute.”

According to John, even though the idea of a tablet initially seemed superfluous, they quickly became the norm because Apple was able to bottle lightning – making something new that was also really simple and fun to use:

“Apple made a device that few people were asking for, and few people thought they needed, but made it incredibly desirable. That’s something Apple do very well. It’s an approach that won’t always work, but if you make a solidly good device and market it well, you can sometimes win that battle, which is what certainly happened in the iPad’s case.

“Because of that, there were a couple of heady years after the initial iPad launch with the iPad 2, 3 and 4, and with Android rivals starting to come to the fore. Samsung had loads and loads of Android tablets, Google had its own Nexus line and even launched Android Honeycomb, which was a tablet-only OS… But then things began to slow down somewhat.

“iPads have always been the dominant force in the space,” John explains. “They seem to mix the right combination of usability, use case and form factor. And as such, there are very few high profile tablet launches in the last year aside from those from Apple. But even Apple has dialled things down slightly to the point where they only make four iPads now – two Pros, the iPad mini and the new iPad.”

Which leads us to today…

Finding their niche

Apple’s new iPad for 2017 sits between the iPad mini 4 and the two iPad Pro models, offering super snappy modern processing power in a light, thin and premium chassis. In a lot of ways, then, it’s the epitome of what a modern tablet should be.

So why the relatively quiet update? John believes it’s all about how the role of iPads (and tablets in general) has changed since their inception:

“With phones, people accept that they’ll get a new phone every two years. But a tablet is a longer term purchase.”

“In 2010, smartphone screen sizes were hovering around the 5-inch mark, at max. Now we have devices like the new Samsung Galaxy S8 range – with 5.8 and 6.2-inch displays and at 2K quality – in your pocket with plenty of power and storage.” And he says that it’s this ongoing smartphone evolution which might be changing what a tablets can and should be for. “There’s also the emergence of connected home tech,” he adds, “with devices like Google’s Chromecast making it easy to watch something from your phone on your big TV.

“These are new, simpler choices for watching content, whereas back in 2010 you’d have to dig out a cable and only some phones would even support that functionality, so watching things on a tablet was the more obvious solution.”

Are the humble tablet’s days numbered, then? Not at all! John just believes that they’re now maturing and settling into place as a common household necessity, rather than the headline-grabbing new kids on the block the once were…

“With phones, people accept that they’ll get a new phone every two years. We’re all happy to do that to get the latest tech. But a tablet is a longer term purchase, more akin to your laptop or TV, in that you might buy a tablet and use it for double the time you might your phone because you use it less overall. The refresh cycle isn’t as quick, so four years down the line a lot of people will stick will what they’ve got because its spec still matches their needs.

That’s why, while everyone will be super excited about the next iPhone later this year simply because it’s the iPhone, less people get as excited about tablets in general. So there’s still definitely a place for tablets, but it’s perhaps a slightly smaller market than in 2010-2012 when they were seen as huge deals.

“And don’t forget, they’re still really useful to have – you see plenty of people on trains with tablets, and I take mine on long flights because it’s much easier than bringing a laptop while offering a better viewing experience than a phone.”

The future of tablets

All of which begs the question: what’s next for the tablet form factor? What is the future of iPads?

“It’s interesting to see how Apple is positioning the iPad Pro range,” John says, “as a true laptop replacement, where their ads highlight problems people have with a traditional laptop that could be solved by having an iPad Pro instead. And that’s an interesting thing because Apple obviously still makes and sells MacBooks. Those are more expensive than an iPad, however, so to some extent iPads now nicely fill in that lower-level market.

“It depends on what you use each device for, of course, but a huge amount of people just use a computer for emails, web browsing and the odd word document, which you can very much do on a tablet.

“So I think what we’ll see in the future,” he says in closing, “is more and more of that kind of line-blurring, and the coming together of what a laptop, a tablet and a phone can all do.” Sounds pretty good to us.

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