By Jason Snell
October 21, 2020 6:00 AM PT
2020 iPad Air review: Almost Pro
Apple is at its best when it’s so confident in its product plans that it repeatedly challenges and one-ups itself. Think of that quintessential moment when Steve Jobs announced that he was discontinuing Apple’s best-selling product, the iPod mini, because they’d replaced it with something better—the iPod nano. Which immediately became Apple’s new best-selling product.
The release of the fourth-generation iPad Air feels kind of like that. Apple is apparently so confident in the roll that it’s on with the iPad that it’s happy to take the iPad Air, which it previously defined as a more expensive version of the low-end iPad, and transform it into an iPad Pro.
No, the new iPad Air doesn’t offer every single feature of the iPad Pro. There are still some reasons for some users to opt for the more expensive model. But this isn’t a move that a company terrified of undercutting its own high-margin products would make.
Hold the new iPad Air in your hand and you’ll discover all the styling that you’d expect from the 11-inch iPad Pro, all flat edges and curved corners and a screen unblemished by a home button. Get it in one of the bright color options not available on the iPad Pro and you’ll be impressed with how much more fun it feels, too.
It’s clear that there’s another shoe to drop here. There is, undoubtedly, an iPad Pro update on the horizon that will put plenty of distance between those models and today’s iPad Air. But who cares? Many features that were previously locked into Apple’s top-of-the-line iPads have migrated down to a more affordable model. Not everyone needs an iPad Pro, especially when there’s an iPad Air that’s this good.
The 2018 iPad Pro redesign is one of the best things Apple has done in ages. With flat sides, a curved display with a minimized bezel, and an improved Apple Pencil that pairs and charges when magnetically clipped to the side of the device, it was a huge step forward for the iPad. Now, two years later, all of those distinctive features are available on the iPad Air.
And one of most transformative moments in the history of the iPad was last spring’s release of the Magic Keyboard, which brought full-on cursor support to the iPad for the first time. Likewise, the iPad Air gets to pick up that feature. Because its dimensions are nearly identical to the 11-inch iPad Pro, the iPad Air is completely compatible with all 11-inch iPad Pro cases, including the Magic Keyboard.
This entire review was written on an iPad Air using the Magic Keyboard. This is my first experience with the smaller Magic Keyboard model, and it’s definitely a teeny bit cramped. (Fortunately, Apple has kept the alphanumeric keys in their right places and only made the modifier and symbol keys narrower, so I can type at more or less full speed.) But it’s still a delightfully tiny device that still offers a full keyboard and trackpad. It reminds me, a little bit, of my beloved old 11-inch MacBook Air.
And consider this: At $898, the iPad Air and the Magic Keyboard for iPad combine to create the cheapest laptop Apple currently makes. And you can’t pop the MacBook Air’s screen off and use it as a tablet.
Not quite pro
Though Apple has brought numerous pro-level features to the iPad Air, there are many more that it hasn’t. The iPad Air has two speakers rather than four. There’s no second rear camera, no portrait mode support, and no Lidar scanner. And the screen refreshes at 60Hz, not the buttery-smooth 120Hz found on Pro models.
Despite all that, the iPad Air does introduce one piece of hardware never before seen on an iOS device—sort of. Instead of using the TrueDepth sensor bar used in modern iPhones and the iPad Pro, the iPad Air lets you biometrically authenticate via a Touch ID sensor embedded in the iPad’s sleep/wake button.
Apple has obviously been down this path before, in adapting Touch ID to work with the power button on Mac laptops. But the sleep/wake button on the iPad Air is certainly the narrowest surface ever for Touch ID.
Apple has done a good job of adapting this technology for this particular device. When training Touch ID to accept a finger, a user needs a bit more finger movement in order to scan the entire finger surface area, and Apple’s software does a good job at encouraging this. Also, once you scan the first finger, Apple’s software encourages you to scan a second finger on the other hand—I scanned both of my index fingers—in order to prevent having to flip the iPad over every time you need to unlock it.
Once it was all set up, using the Touch ID sensor was easy. My initial fears that I might need to be careful about exactly how I rested my finger on the narrow (but long) surface of the sleep/wake button were unfounded. It handled every angle I could throw at it, and unlocked instantaneously.
Apple has even updated its clever animation indicating how to biometrically unlock an iPad. This feature originated with the first iPad Pro with Face ID and helps inform users where to look (and perhaps to remove a finger that’s covering the camera) in order to engage Face ID. On the iPad Air, that’s been changed into an indicator pointing at the corner of the iPad where the Touch ID button is located, so you don’t have to guess. (I did encounter a bug that occasionally drew the arrow in the wrong corner. Whoops! Fortunately, Touch ID itself still worked fine.)
While Apple did a great job implementing Touch ID on the iPad Air, it is most definitely a step down from Face ID. Unlike on the iPhone, where Face ID is frequently foiled by wearing a mask in public, I’m only using my iPad Pro at home—and I have gotten really used to most of my authentication happening without me needing to make adjustments of any kind. When using the Magic Keyboard, opening my iPad requires a single tap of the space bar, at which point Face ID fires off and my iPad unlocks.
On the iPad Air, every single one of those authentications turns back into a task I must perform. Tapping the space bar on the Magic Keyboard must be followed by a reach to the upper left corner of the iPad for Touch ID. A trip to 1Password requires a reach and touch. It’s a nice enough experience, but Face ID is better. In my opinion, it’s the most relevant reason to opt for an iPad Pro over an iPad Air.
On the other hand, the iPad Pro only comes in Apple’s dull palette of “pro” colors: gray and silver. The iPad Air, on the other hand, also comes in gold, green, and blue. These colors aren’t quite as bright as I might prefer, but it’s so nice to have the choice of going for a nice blue or green iPad instead of being limited to Apple’s boring shades of gray. Three cheers for the blue iPad Air.
The iPad Air is shipping simultaneously with the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro, all of which are powered by Apple’s new A14 processor.
The previous iPad Air was powered by the A12 processor, still in use in the 2019 update to the iPad mini and the 2020 base-model iPad. Jumping two generations ahead has definitely benefited the iPad Air. It was 42 percent faster than A12-based iPads at single-core performance, 47 percent faster at multi-core performance, and a whopping 127 percent faster at GPU-based tasks.
In fact, the A14 processor is so impressive that it managed to only be a tiny bit slower1 in multi-core performance than the A12Z processor found in both 2020 iPad Pro models, despite the fact that the A12Z has four performance-focused processor cores, compared to only two in the A14. And it outscored the iPad Pro at GPU-based tests by about three percent—again, despite the iPad Pro having eight GPU cores versus four on the A14.
So for this one shining moment, the iPad Air is faster at single-core tasks than the more expensive iPad Pro models2. It feels like it’s only a matter of time before the iPad Pro gains a new A14-based variant with the same power as the A14, augmented with more processor and GPU cores. But let’s enjoy the sunshine right now and let tomorrow take care of itself.
The happy middle ground
Could you get by with buying an iPad Air instead of an iPad Pro? Yes, of course. The iPad Air is a remarkably capable device that offers many features of more expensive models for a lower price.
Though it’s fair to point out that the price isn’t that much lower. The iPad Air starts at $599, meaning it’s $200 less than the base-model iPad Pro. However, that iPad Air model only has 64 GB of storage. If you choose the only other storage option, a model with 256GB of storage, you’ll pay $749—which is $150 less than a comparably equipped iPad Pro, and only $50 less than the base-model 128GB iPad Pro.
So while the iPad Air is a great deal if you don’t need more than 64GB of storage, if you do need more than that, you’ll need to seriously consider if an iPad Pro might be a better option. (And if you’re considering an iPad Pro, you should probably wait—it’s due a major update very soon.)
That’s why I think it’s perhaps better to think of the iPad Air as a product for people who are not iPad Pro users, who don’t need to spend for the top-of-the-line iPad Pro features. Instead, the iPad Air is meant to fill a happy middle ground between the bargain-priced iPad and the high-end models. If you want to use the nicer Apple Pencil and the Magic Keyboard, you don’t need to buy an iPad Pro anymore, and that’s a good thing.
- The A12Z was 14 percent faster than the A14 in multi-core tests. ↩
- The iPad’s GeekBench Compute (GPU) score was much higher than on the iPhone 12, which also has the A14 processor. But the 3DMark Wild Life graphics test app showed the same scores for both devices. I’m not sure what’s causing that disparity. ↩
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