iPad Air Review: So Good You Probably Don’t Need the Pro

iPad Air Review: So Good You Probably Don’t Need the Pro
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

I really, really liked Apple’s 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which launched earlier this year, but it felt entirely Too Much for a person like me. I am someone who needs to get some light work done on the go, but who also wants to use a smaller tablet to read books and watch TV in bed. The larger Pro’s size, price tag, cameras, augmented reality features, and focus on being a laptop replacement are overkill for most people. So when the cheaper but just as capable 4th-generation iPad Air debuted in October, my interest was piqued.

Say hello to the new iPad Air

The new iPad Air sports a 10.9-inch Retina display, flat-edged iPad Pro-like design, support for accessories like the second-gen Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard for 11-inch iPads, and an A14 Bionic processor (the latest and greatest Apple chip — more on that in a minute). It starts at $899, which is steep enough to feel like a splurge but not so wildly expensive that you feel like you’re investing in a laptop. And when competing tablets from Samsung and Microsoft cost about the same but deliver less impressive performance and shorter battery life, a $899 iPad starts to seem like a bargain.

And it is — in fact, it’s the best tablet for most people.

iPad Air (2020)

WHAT IS IT?

Apple's mid-range iPad

PRICE

Starts at $899, not including accessories

LIKE

Large display in a portable size; performance on par with iPad Pro; solid battery life with USB-C charging

DON'T LIKE

The placement of the Touch ID sensor is weird to get used to

Where the iPad Pro seems designed for serious work, the iPad Air feels more fun. More chill. It’s ultra-lightweight, weighing in at just a pound, and comes in cool colours, including the rose gold version Apple sent me, as well as green and sky blue, which are actually unique!

The biggest difference between the Air and the Pro, and the toughest one for me to get used to, is Touch ID. The Air resembles the Pro in that it has thin bezels and a mod design, but instead of Face ID, Apple stuck with Touch ID — except the fingerprint sensor has been moved to the top bezel, adjacent to the side volume buttons, instead of front and centre on the bottom of the display. I swear to god, I still forget that the Air won’t unlock automatically by scanning my face. And I’ve been using this thing for a while now. The Air helpfully provides a visual cue to press Touch ID when it senses that you…for some reason haven’t done so yet. I need that cue basically every time I wake the Air.

I need this visual cue, otherwise I stare blankly at my iPad waiting for it to unlock itself. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) I need this visual cue, otherwise I stare blankly at my iPad waiting for it to unlock itself. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

But Touch woes aside, the Air is the all-around best tablet I’ve ever used. I tossed it in my purse and took it on a road trip, carted it to the pool and read a library book on the Libby app (the Air’s screen is just fine in morning sunlight), watched Netflix on it in bed, and cruised the web on the couch. It’s portable, it’s easy to use, and it requires no workarounds to make it work.

When it comes to battery life, the Air lasted 10 hour and 30 minutes in our video rundown test, which isn’t as impressive as the 12.9-inch Pro’s 12-hour showing, but handily beats competing tablets like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S7+, which clocked in at 8 hours and 2 minutes, and Microsoft’s Surface Go 2, which lasted just 7 hours and 19 minutes. The Air finally supports USB-C charging, which makes it an excellent MacBook companion when you want to Sidecar the device as a secondary display. But it’s also a fine productivity machine on its own, with trackpad and mouse support, built-in Smart Connector for accessories like the Magic Keyboard, and excellent performance.

The Magic Keyboard is $US300 ($419), but I really do love it. The second-gen Apple Pencil is also good, but I'm not much of an artist and I don't take notes by hand anymore. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) The Magic Keyboard is $499, but I really do love it. The second-gen Apple Pencil is also good, but I'm not much of an artist and I don't take notes by hand anymore. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

The Air’s processing power is more than capable of handling just about anything you throw at it. The A14 Bionic was neck-and-neck with the iPad Pro’s A12Z Bionic chip on every synthetic benchmarking test, and I truly couldn’t spot any difference between the two in handling tasks or consuming media. The Pro has better cameras if you’re the type of person who uses an iPad to shoot photos. I physically cannot bring myself to use the iPad as a camera, and I can barely remember to use augmented reality apps on a much more portable iPhone 12 Pro, let alone a gigantic iPad, so the Pro’s dual-lens setup and LiDAR scanner are over-the-top for me.

The Air's camera is way more understated than the Pro's, which is fine for most of us. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) The Air's camera is way more understated than the Pro's, which is fine for most of us. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

Where the iPad has come to excel is multitasking, and while the Air easily handles using multiple apps simultaneously and switching between apps instantly, the 10.9-inch screen is a little on the small side for me. Jumping between the Kinja CMS, various Slack conversations, the hellfeed known as Twitter, photo editing, and all of my other tasks just feels a bit cramped on a display this size, especially compared to the 12.9-inch Pro. This is personal preference, of course, and if your day-to-day work and inability to focus don’t require you to constantly jump between various apps, the iPad Air might be just fine. The Magic Keyboard is a dream to use, as it was with the iPad Pro, though it costs an extra $499, which is just…ugh. So expensive. If you plan to use your iPad Air for work or hobbies that require a lot of typing, I recommend splurging, but for more lightweight use, you could easily get by with a cheaper Bluetooth keyboard.

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Click through for more shots of the iPad Air.

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

The Air’s speakers are great, the screen is nice and bright, iPadOS 14 is packed with useful features like support for Scribble with Apple Pencil — aside from the befuddling (to me personally) placement of Touch ID, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything wrong with this iPad. It’s the perfect middle ground between the more budget-oriented basic iPad, which is also fine but lacks many of the Air’s best features, and the high-end iPad Pro, which is excellent but truly a whole lot for most people. If you’re in the market for a tablet, buy the iPad Air. You’ll be happy with it, I promise.

README

  • I miss Face ID and needed a prompt from iPad OS to use Touch ID. Every time.
  • Otherwise, this is a fantastic tablet and exactly what most people should get.
  • Though it’s also $899.