I’ve been using Apple’s new iPad Air, the 2020 model, 4th generation, for almost 2 weeks now. Tapping, swiping, Penciling, typing, watching, working, sketching, surfing, just… all of it.
After 2 weeks, , I’ve come to some deeper conclusions and I’m going to tell you all about them, right now.
One of the most common question in tech right now is how the new iPad Air compares to the current iPad Pro. And, I mean, I get it, I totally get it. Nerds gonna nerd.
And part of that is Apple’s fault. They use the iPad Pro line and its higher price tag to introduce new, more advanced, but also more expensive technologies. To push the state of the tablet art. Things like new industrial designs, edge-to-kinda-edge displays, ProMotion adaptive refresh rates, LiDAR, Smart Connectors, and Apple Pencil.
Then, as they pay them down, they relentlessly push those technologies to lower and lower price points. So, after a couple years, the iPad Air gets the keyboard and pencil, then, the iPad nothing gets them as well. Making those technologies ever more affordable and accessible.
But also making those iPads better and better, snapping at the heels of the pros, and forcing the pros to keep pushing even further, even faster forward, if they want to stay ahead. And right now, today, we’re at a point where the iPad Air has almost caught up with the iPad Pro. Almost.
And that’s why nerds like me are so fascinated by the comparison, because Apple has let them get so close. Just… so… close.
But I also think the vast majority of people don’t look at it that way. Like, at all. The vast majority of people have an original iPad Air or Air 2, maybe a 9.7- or 10.5-inch Pro, are looking for their next upgrade, and are wondering if they should save some money and go with the iPad 8, or spend a little more and get an almost-Pro Air but at less than full-on Pro prices.
So, here’s the deal.
The new iPad Air inherits the current generation iPad Pro design. It trades the gentler curves introduced by the original Air and mini back in 2012 for the flatter, more retro-future, iPhone 5 style design that came to the Pro in 2018, and the iPhone 12 just this month.
And, personally, I all-caps love it. I loved on the Pro and I love it just as much now that it’s on the iPad Air as well. Even more, maybe, because unlike the Pro, Apple lets the Airs loosen up a bit. Have some fun. Have some color. Like a party going on in I.D., and pink, green, and blue are finally invited.
Now, it is thinner and flatter, so you do want to be more careful with it. Not baby it, per se, but if you need it to be more rugged, throw it in a more rugged case.
Or, if you prefer the classic design, and that’s the most important thing to you, you’re going to want to stick with a classic iPad, like the iPad 8.
But this design, to me, better delivers on the promise of the original iPad. It’s closer to that slab of glass that can just become any app, any web page, any task you need it to — An almost full window in the digital world.
And, color aside, it’s all but indistinguishable from the iPad Pro design.
Like the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, the differences between the iPad Air and iPad Pro are way more than casing deep.
If you’re coming from an older iPad, pretty much any older iPad, the new iPad Air display is going to be just one hell of an upgrade.
The Home button is gone and the bezels, top and bottom, are gone with it. And that space is now taken up more than ever by the display.
At 10.9-inches, it’s not quite as big as the 11-inch iPad Pro. The bezels are ever-so-slightly more bezel-y. But I haven’t used the 11-inch since the original launched and don’t really notice the difference.
I’ve been using a 12.9-inch iPad Pro because I prefer that size. What I want from a digital canvas is... more canvas. And if you want the same, you’ll have to go Pro to get it.
But if the original iPad size was and is your jam, if you’ve been at anything from 9.7 to 10.2 to 10.5, you’ll be super happy with 10.9 or 11, because the overall size hasn’t changed much. The display has just grown to fill most of it.
Sure, it’s still LCD. Apple doesn’t seem to like OLED on larger panels and will likely go miniLED instead at some point. But it’s wide gamut, which means more colorful, richer reds, more vibrant greens, and Apple does a terrific job with the calibration and color management. So, it’s pretty much the best LCD in the business.
It’s definitely not HDR — you don’t get the same inky blacks and bright whites, but it’ll play back HDR content, including iPhone 12 Dolby Vision, using things like temporal dithering. And unless you have an HDR panel next to it, or pay close attention to the blacks and whites, it looks terrific.
It’s also 500 nits of max brightness, instead of 600 nits like the Pro, and locked at 60hz, instead of using ProMotion for adaptive 24 to 120Hz like the Pro. Which I really miss. Not so much for the scrolling, I forget about that after a day or so of not seeing it — though I really notice it when I go back. But because the Pro can show movies at 24fps — yes, the way nature and Hollywood intended — and I notice that every time. Even though it’s a total nerd thing.
It’s also laminated and anti-reflective, something Apple went to with the iPad Air 2, but which still isn’t on the iPad 8, which gets its screen design, and glare, from the original Air.
If none of this matters to you, like at all, you’ll be fine with the iPad 8.
If you need a 12.9-inch iPad, you’ll need an iPad Pro.
But for most people, most of the time, I think the 10.9-inch iPad Air display is all but indistinguishable from the 11-inch Pro.
I’m really impressed with Touch ID on the iPad Air. I know other companies have done power-button based fingerprint biometrics before, but Touch ID has always been a best-in-class implementation and when you mess with that, you never know what quirks will creep in. But so far, so none. It’s great.
Instead of registering my thumb like I’ve always done on my iPhones, I registered both index fingers, so it doesn’t matter if I’m holding the Air in portrait or landscape, upside or down, Touch ID is just always close by. And for me, that’s even better than the old Home button-based Touch ID.
Especially because you can tap to wake the display now, and just rest your finger and have the Lock Screen swipe itself up. Though sometimes I rest then click and end up locking myself out again. Multi-state is a blessing and a course.
Which is part of the reason, overall, that Touch ID is not quite as convenient as Face ID. The other part: when on the Smart Keyboard or Magic Keyboard, where you can just press a key and it opens, because Face ID has been staring straight at you the whole time. But it’s close. And yeah, Touch ID isn’t phased by a mask, so if you’re using your iPad around other people, especially in a work environment, that could be really important to you.
I’m one of those people who wants multiple biometrics, though. Face, finger, voice, all of it. So they identify me before I have to identify myself. Hopefully, we’ll get there eventually.
Like the iPhone 12, the iPad Air has Apple’s latest, greatest custom silicon — the A14 Bionic. I’ve done a whole deep dive video on it already, link in the description, so I won’t recapitulate it all here.
Now, yes, that does make things a little awkward when you compare to the A12Z in the current iPads Pro. My guess is Apple was so busy working on the A14 platform for the iPhone 12 and Apple Silicon Macs and, yeah, the next generation iPads Pro, they literally didn’t have time to make an A13X for the March 2020 model. So, instead, they used the 8GPU binned A12X instead and called them A12Z to highlight the extra graphics performance.
And that means the iPad Air now has better single core performance than the iPad Pro. Things like how responsive the interface is and how fast apps launch. Also, much better machine learning and photo processing.
The iPad Pro still has more cores, 2 extra CPU and 4 extra GPU, greater memory bandwidth, and 6 GB of RAM in straws of 4 GB. So, any really intensive workloads, things that hit multiple cores and suck up a lot of memory, will still be better on the Pro. For me, that includes what I swear is just a tiny little more lag when using multiple windows at the same time. Especially over time. After being velocities by those 6GB.
Battery life has been good. Apple seems still targeted on 10 hours of average battery life for an iPad, and still pretty much always hits that mark. And, especially now when I’m not traveling, unless I’m really hitting the processor hard, it just goes and goes.
At $599 for 64GB, the Air is up over that classic, ideal $499 iPad-for-everyone price, and unless you’re big on streaming, like all Netflix and Spotify all the time, and everything stored up on the Google cloud, then you might want to go up in storage. Unfortunately, unlike the iPhone 12 where you can go to 128GB for just $50 more, the iPad Air is stupefyingly missing that option. If you want more, you have to go to 256GB, and pay much more, $150 more. Bringing the price up to $749 for the Wi-Fi version, more for LTE. And that’s only $50 less than the 256GB 11-inch iPad Pro.
Also, unlike the Pro, which goes all the way up to 1TB of storage if you’re willing to pay for it, the Air tops out at that 256GB option.
If longevity is a major concern for you, though. The A14 in the iPad Air will likely support an extra year of two of iPadOS updates more than the A12 models. In other words, the extra processor overhead means it’ll take longer to age out.
Other than that, day to day, I don’t think many people will notice much if any difference between the Air and Pro. Everything is just super slick and snappy. and if you do the kind of work where you will, then I’m willing to bet you’ve already self-selected into the Pro.
Same with USB-C. Which, yeah, the iPad Air has gotten this year, same as the iPad Pro got back in 2018. It’s not quite as fast — 5Gbs instead of 10Gbs, but otherwise connects to the same, traditional computer-class accessories, peripherals, and displays.
If you’re all in on Lightning and aren’t willing to pay dime one more for new adapters, the iPad 8 will let you stick with the dongles you know.
Otherwise, the Air will connect to everything you need, including up to 4K displays. It’s so good I really still want two of them on the main iPad. Never mind the Magic Keyboard. Especially the Pro, but even the Air.
I’m not going to go into my usual rant about how I wish Apple would give iPads the same level of cameras as iPhones. Pro for Pro, non-Pro for Air. But, until it happens, it’ll remain my beautiful L0ve2dream.
That said, the Air doesn’t have Face ID, so it doesn’t have the True Depth camera, so it can’t do all the fancy effects like Portrait Mode and Memoji. They’re all 7 megapixels though, and they’re all still stuck in portrait orientation even as 2020 and online meetings has increasingly forced us into a landscape world. As have a pretty much all of Apple’s keyboard accessories since the original. I really hope Apple can figure out a way to move it in the future, even with the Smart Connector and Pencil charger hogging all the valuable landscape real estate.
The back camera on the iPad Air is the same 12 MP wide angle as the iPad Pro, but it doesn’t have the same ultra wide angle or LiDAR scanner. Which, you know, I didn’t really miss them. The ultra wide angle is fun and I use it all the time on the iPhone and the use cases just haven’t been as compelling for me on the iPad. LiDAR just isn’t as well integrated on the iPad Pro as it is on the iPhone Pro — it doesn’t help with focus or portrait mode, at least not yet. That could change in the future though.
Either way, both are just light years ahead of the iPad 8 cameras. Both for stills and video.
And yes, I like having 4K60 on my iPad. At me.
The really cool thing about the 10.9-inch iPad Air now, essentially, being in the 11-inch iPad Pro body, is that is now works with those iPad Pro accessories — specifically and especially the Apple Pencil 2 and Magic Keyboard.
If you’ve never used an Apple Pencil or only even used the original Apple Pencil, either way, the Apple Pencil 2 is... a revaluation, at least for me. It’s magnetic and inductive so you just slap it on and it just charges. So much that you start to forget it even needs to charge. It’s just always there, ready and charged. It even has a capacitive button so you can double tap it to change tools, like from pencil to eraser.
The Air doesn’t have the faster refresh rate of the Pro, so depending on how perceptive you are to those things, you might notice it’s not quite as silky smooth and immediately responsive on the Air as it is on the Pro. But, the Air has better machine learning, so theoretically, the predictive algorithms that try to keep ahead of your pencil strokes or figure out your Scribbles could be a little faster.
I don’t really notice the difference unless I’m using them side by side, turning my head, and squinting just so. I do notice the smaller screen size compared to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro I’m used to, because like I said in the beginning, I prefer bigger canvases.
Same with the keyboard, actually. I’ve been using the smaller Magic Keyboard for the last two weeks and it’s fine. It’s great even. Probably the best small keyboard I’ve ever used. But if I have my druthers, I just prefer the roomier feel of the bigger Magic Keyboard on the 12.9-inch Pro.
That 12.9-inch size is what’s absolutely going to keep me on the iPad Pro. But I’d go for a 14-inch, maybe even 16-inch iPad Pro if Apple ever made one.
On the flip side, if you just want an inexpensive iPad to do iPad things with, the iPad 8 still starts at $329 and has the OG pencil and keyboard options as well. So if low price is your most important spec, that remains just one of the best values in tech.
If you want more, though, and you prefer the smaller size, the 10.9 to 11-inch size, then the new iPad Air is so good it should just be your default. If you don’t need the wide angle camera and LiDAR, if your workload doesn’t demand the 2 extra CPU and 4 extra GPU cores and the 2 extra GB of RAM, the up to 1TB of storage, and if you don’t care desperately about the ProMotion adaptive refresh rate, then you can save a little bit of money, add some color and a fancy new processor to you life, and be absolutely delighted with the Air.