M1 iPad Air Review — But Why?

Why an M1 in the iPad Air? Because, that’s the biggest difference between the previous A14 iPad Air and this new M1 iPad Air, and a lot of macOS on iPad advocates would argue M1 isn’t even being used to its full potential on the iPad Pro. Only one port. No hypervisor. No windowing, including and especially on external displays… And, settle down herds, I hear you, I feel you, topic for another video. But iPad Air (5th Generation)? That’s not even surfacing Thunderbolt, or providing the option for 16 GB of RAM. Or using that ridiculous up to 120Hz ProMotion adaptive refresh rate High Dynamic Range display engine. Just… What in Jobs’ name is Apple even doing with the iPad Air 5?

Well, I have some thoughts. I’ve been using the blue version on loan from Apple for the last few days, by which I mean so many The Batman sketches… so many… and I have some thoughts.

First, we’re currently living in what could only be the darkest timeline. Aside from the Fringe one with no coffee, of course. But as twenty-first century decades go, it’s just the worst. It’s going on two years later and you still can’t just walk into a store and buy a PS5. Or a big Ampere card. Or an EV. Whatever. But Apple’s out here super-hero landing M1, inarguably one of the best chips in the business, in almost every flavor of Mac, iPad Pro, and now iPad Air as well. What’s next, Magic Mouse? And you can just order them, and they’ll ship in like 3-5 days.

Because that’s what Tim Cook’s Apple does. Logistical God Mode. They get in early, help crack the technology, pre-pay to the extent they’re basically funding it, and then just Pac Man-up all the bleeding edge node capacity they can. And it probably doesn’t hurt that M1, like the A14 it’s derived from, is on Taiwan Semiconductor’s OG 5 nanometer process. Not the ever-so-slightly newer N5P that’s fabbing A15 for the iPad mini. More on that in a minute.

So, sure, if Apple’s silicon team had infinite time, Johny Srouji could artisonally hand-craft bespoke chipsets for each and every Apple device, with transistors specifically forged for the exact capabilities they need and not a dark atom more. But they’re time is so very finite, so they use their scalable architecture approach to design single chips that can be used in as many devices as possible. Like the A15 in the iPhone 13 and iPad mini, which won’t use the image signal processor anywhere nearly to it’s 4K60 Dolby Vision ProRes 422 HQ capacity. But it’s still way, way, way, way-to-the-n, more efficient than making separate chips.

Same for M1 in the iPad Air. Apple wanted to provide more cores for the baseline iPad, something they’ve been doing since A5X on the iPad 3… or A8X on the iPad Air 2. And faster I/O, because as anyone who’s tried to pull those 4K60 Dolby Vision ProRes 422 HQ files off the iPhone 13 will tell you, the I/O on the A15 still suuuuuuucks. But M1 has two full-speed USB-C and Thunderbolt controllers.

But, I hear you commenting, if commenting could be heard! If M1 has all this potential, why isn’t Apple using it in the iPad Air? And to you I hit reply and say, because it’s potential. Surfacing it still costs money. More to the point, it costs us money.

It’s not enough to have am HDR ProMotion engine, you need to add the high-refresh rate mini-LED panel that displays it. Not enough to have a thunderbolt controller, you have to build out the actual thunderbolt port. Not enough to support up to 16 GB of memory, you have to add a SKU, a shop keeping unit, a model, that offers it. Not enough to have an image signal processor that can fuse across cameras, you have to add the wide angle and LiDAR cameras. Not enough to have neural engines with face matching algorithms, you have to include a TrueDepth camera for Face ID. And all of that adds to the sticker price until you get, say it with me, an iPad Pro.

Same reason, by the by, that the M1 iPad Pro has an HDR display but the M1 MacBook Air does not. Because there are some people who want to get Pro-level work done but just can’t afford to pay Pro-level prices. Or just prefer Touch ID. And Apple would rather give them… give you… give us… the power to do it, even if it means going without all the bells and whistles.

And let’s be honest, as is the iPad Air currently starts at $600 for 64 GB. An even $100 over the traditional baseline iPad sweet spot of $500. And $750 for 256 GB. With still no 128 GB goldilocks option in the middle, or 512 GB option for heavier users. All of which I’d love to the Air embrace.

But if the last decade of Apple product dev has shown us anything, it’s that Apple uses the high end to introduce and pay down all the whiz-bang new technologies, and then pushes those new technologies down to mainstream and, eventually, entry level products as well

It’s great for Apple, because they benefit from the economies of scale, it’s great for developers because their apps can work to their full potential on a far wider range of products, and it’s great for us, because we get tomorrow’s tech at today’s prices and that forces Apple and developers to keep on racing ahead of us with even newer and better tech for the day after. Virtuous cycle.

So, yeah, A15 wouldn’t have provided the faster USB-C speed boost the iPad Air is getting, and while single core performance would have been slightly faster and considerably more efficient, the iPad Air has a way bigger thermal envelop than the iPad mini, a way bigger battery, and I think for most people, especially anyone interesting in doing more on their iPads, slightly faster single cores still pale by compression to just having the more massive number of cores. Specifically, four performance cores instead of two, and 8 graphics cores instead of five.

Don’t get me wrong, A15 is a cold-hearted, graphical beast of a chipset, and I can’t wait to get it’s M2 equivalent into an iPad Pro. And there is a legit downside — with M1 being the same silicon generation as A14, this new iPad Air will still only get the same number of updates over its lifespan as the previous iPad Air. Where, presumably, the iPad mini on A15 will get one generation more. But otherwise, for anyone wanting to do or get into any kind of heavier workload, from multi-layers painting to video editing to audio processing, to higher end gaming, it’s pure win. Just throw all the cores at it win.

Why 5G but not high-band mmWave 5G? Well, Snarky Rene would just once again say mmWave has so far proven to be as relevant to consumers as WiMax. But I don’t want to lose my Canadian citizenship, so polite Rene will just sorry, so sorry that and say for most of the world, mmWave is irrelevant and even in the U.S., mid-band 5G, especially what they’re calling C-Band is far better for far more people, and it feels like 5G is already coalescing around that anyway. Which, yay. Honestly. 4G LTE was blissfully simple and uniform by comparison for consumers. 5G… is just embarrassing, with mmWave, high band, mid-band, low band, sub-6, new radio, frequency range 1, frequency range 2, c-band, and, of course, AT&T fake 5G. No one should have to deal with that. Even know all that. I kinda want to flashy thing it out of my brain right now. So… the simpler and more uniform it becomes, the better.

Design wise, the 2022 iPad Air is almost identical to the 2020 model, but with a fresh coat of spring paint. In addition to the new blue, there’s pink, purple, starlight, and… space gray. Yeah, Space Gray like the iPad Pro and Macs, not Midnight like the iPhones non-Pro and Apple Watches. Which is why we can’t have nicely coordinated things.

But, while Apple didn’t add an ultra wide to the iPad Air’s back camera system, they did mighty morph the front facing camera to a wide angle. But they did it to enable Center Stage, which is the fancy new neural-engine powered conferencing system that’s now run rampant across the whole iPad line up. It basically captures that wide angle and then pans and scans, and zooms in an out, to keep you front and center, and pick up and let go anyone else who happens to wonder in and out of frame. It’s been done before, but never with Apple’s of silicon to pixel level of integration and polish, and it works just kind of flawlessly.

But.. it’s still mounted vertically in an increasingly horizontal world. Omni-directional me all you want, but from iPadOS to Magic Keyboard, Apple’s clearly picked a preferred orientation and vertical ain’t it. Not like on a phone. Or TikTok. Because phone. Whatever. I get that Apple’s already given up the horizontal land grabs to the Pencil charging system and the keyboard smart connector, but I’d take the pencil on the top at this point if it meant having the camera on the side and I could stop giving basically everyone on FaceTime and Zoom just the wickedest of constant side-eye.

So, is this new iPad Air for you? Well, if you’re new to iPad or haven’t upgraded in a few to five years, and you want more than the $329 iPad offers, but don’t need a bigger display, all the higher end tech, and just don’t want to pay that much for an iPad until you’re making that much more with the iPad, then the iPad Air might just be the perfect middle iPad for you.