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M1 iPad Air review: A familiar face

The new iPad Air is coming this week. It’s an enticing mid-range iPad for people who don’t need the extra features of the iPad Pro but want something bigger than the iPad mini and better than the base-model iPad.

What it isn’t is new. The iPad Air offers features that premiered on the previous-model iPad Air (released in October 2020) and the 2021 iPad Pro. So just as the iPad Air remixes features from other iPads, this review is a remix of my previous reviews of those other iPads.

Challenging the iPad Pro

I have to admire the fact that Apple makes an iPad Air that undercuts the more expensive iPad Pro in so many ways. As I wrote back in 2020:

Apple is at its best when it’s so confident in its product plans that it repeatedly challenges and one-ups itself… 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.

Familiar M1 power

The big story with the new iPad Air is that it has adopted the M1 chip, which already powers the MacBook Air, Mac mini, 13-inch Macbook Pro, 24-inch iMac, and iPad Pro:

It might seem a little weird that the iPad is running a Mac processor, but it might be more accurate to say that the Mac is running an iPad processor, since the M1 is clearly an evolution of the A12X/Z processor that powered the last two generations of iPad Pro.

As cross-platform test results prove out, the iPad Pro is just as powerful as any of those Macs. It’s an impressive processor, but since previous models of iPad Pro also used an Apple-designed chip, the performance leap isn’t quite as dramatic as when Macs moved to the M1. In my tests, the M1 iPad Pro was about 50 percent faster than the 2020 iPad Pro at single-processor tasks. (The 2020 iPad Air, whose A14 processor is part of the same chip generation as the M1, was only about eight percent slower at single-processor tasks.)

The big difference comes on multi-core tests, when the eight processor cores of the M1 are put to the test. The 2021 iPad Pro is 60 percent faster than the 2020 model on those tasks, and 80 percent faster than the 2020 iPad Air. Graphics tests showed a similar story.

I also ran a test using one of my most processor-bound tasks: zipping and unzipping podcast projects in Ferrite Recording Studio. Zipping was 20 percent faster on the 2021 iPad Pro, and unzipping was 40 percent faster. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the M1 chip is pretty good.

Still, there are several key differences between the iPad Air and the iPad Pro that make choosing between them more complicated than you might expect:

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.

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 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… Once it was all set up, using the Touch ID sensor was easy.

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.

The new iPad Air also offers, as a $150 upgrade, a cellular model that is now 5G capable. That’s a good thing, but there are some drawbacks:

As always, you can raise that price even more by adding wireless networking to the equation. I became a believer in cellular iPads back in 2015. It’s just incredibly convenient to have an always-on cellular connection—I’d love that on my Mac laptop, come to think of it!—and these days most carriers will let you add an iPad on to your existing phone plan for a fairly low monthly fee. The big step forward… is support for 5G networking. I know that 5G is an eye-roll-worthy buzzword and that in most parts of the country 5G isn’t too much faster than 4G if you can even find it.

Unfortunately, unlike the iPad Pro, the iPad Air doesn’t support the ultra-fast millimeter wave version of 5G. So while 5G may offer you faster speeds than you have experienced with 4G LTE, it’s an incremental victory. If you work someplace with millimeter-wave coverage, this isn’t the cellular iPad for you.

Please welcome Center Stage

The new iPad Air becomes the final iPad to add Center Stage to its feature set:

Center Stage… uses the iPad Pro’s front-facing camera to dynamically zoom and pan to properly frame your video. It’s a bit like having your own personal camera operator.

Center Stage works via a combination of hardware and software. The front-facing camera is a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera that captures a wide swath at high resolution. (In the Camera app, the image is zoomed and cropped by default into something resembling a more traditional camera view; you can tap or pinch to zoom out to the full ultrawide view, which is distorted at the edges.) On the software side, Apple is using its face detection algorithms to figure out who is in the frame, and then dynamically zooms, pans, and adjusts for distortion to frame the image properly.

The result is pretty great. I was able to move around a room, sit down, and stand up, and the camera tracked me in a smooth motion. Center Stage dynamically adjusts as people enter or exit the frame; when a second (or third, or fourth) person enters view, the camera view zooms out to make sure all people are in the frame.

No, it’s not perfect. Center Stage doesn’t want to be constantly readjusting your camera angle—it’s distracting—but sometimes that can result in a slightly off-center framing that almost looks artistic, but could also be interpreted as a little sloppy. If you want to cut yourself out of a shot, holding your arm in front of your face will do it. The moment I stretched out an arm during our family videoconference, Center Stage acted as if I had left the frame and automatically reframed on the people whose faces remained visible. It also won’t react for other sorts of moment—for example, if you count on cute moments when your pets get in the shot, Center Stage will disappoint. It didn’t zoom out when my cat and dog wandered into frame.

When Apple first demonstrated Center Stage, it used its own FaceTime app, but Center Stage will work in more or less any app that can access the front-facing camera.

Center Stage is great, and now it’s everywhere on the iPad and debuting later this week on the Mac via the Studio Display. I expect that 12-megapixel ultrawide camera is going to go on every Mac before too long, too.

Same look, new colors

Like its predecessor, the new M1 iPad Air picks up the design language introduced to the iPad line a few years ago:

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…. all of those distinctive features are available on the iPad Air.

And one of most transformative moments in the history of the iPad was the 2020 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.

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.

The new iPad Air comes with a different selection of colors than last year’s model. Starlight has replaced silver, there’s a purple rather than green, and the blue option—which I’ve seen in person—is much brighter and more fun than the previous models, which were a bit muted. Three cheers, even louder than last time, for a blue iPad Air.

The happy middle ground

So should you buy an iPad Air? Is it a way to get a high-end iPad without shelling out for an iPad Pro? Well… yes and no.

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.

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.

So what’s next?

Back in 2020 I speculated about the iPad Pro needing an update to differentiate itself from the iPad Air:

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.

There was an update, but… it didn’t do much to differentiate between models, and now the iPad Air has the M1 processor that the 2021 iPad Pro added. So really, the most important difference—other than the pricing, as I detailed above—is that the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a spectacular high-dynamic-range display.

I suspect new iPad Pro models are on the way that use a faster processor and bring the HDR display down to the 11-inch model, which would definitely give them a leg up on the iPad Air. But truth be told, the M1 processor is overkill for almost any iPad task you can think of. If you want to hold out for an HDR iPad Pro, that’s reasonable. But if you want an iPad today, the strongest choices are the iPad Air (if you can get by with 64GB of storage) and the current-model 11-inch iPad Pro (with 128GB of storage).

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