iPad Air First Impressions: Goes Pro

At the end of 2018, Apple unveiled a radical redesign of the iPad Pro. Mechanical buttons gave way to an edge to edge display. Button clicks were replaced with gestures. TouchID with FaceID. All of these changes were packaged in a slimmer, more industrial form factor. Until now, this new design language was reserved specially for the iPad Pro. Now Apple is bringing Pro to the masses with the new, iPad Air.

Design

To the casual observer, the new iPad Air could easily be confused with the iPad Pro. Unless of course you happen to be looking at the new Green, Sky Blue or Rose Gold colour options. All new first time colours for the iPad Air line and definitely not to be found on the iPad Pro. But colours aside, the form factor looks very familiar to an iPad Pro. The display goes edge to edge, 10.9 inches corner to corner. The edges of the device are flat and smooth and the home button is no more.

Performance

This iPad ships with the new A14 processor also found in iPhone 12 and 12 Pro. The A14 chip is a power house, based on a 5 nanometre process. This just means that Apple is able to pack in a lot more transistors into the chip. The transistors are responsible for circulating energy around the chip and the closer you can pack them together, the more efficient and powerful the chip.

Graphics see a huge boost in performance compared to the previous iPad Air but don’t quite match the graphics performance of A12Z in the iPad Pro (which packs more graphics cores). In some cases though the iPad Air can match the iPad Pro for performance and very occasionally out perform it which is impressive as it contains less cores and less RAM than the Pro.

Connectivity and Accessories

The iPad Air of course supports all the standard connectivity features you’d expect such as WiFi, Bluetooth and an optional cellular modem for LTE connectivity (sorry no 5G). Apple has transitioned the iPad Air away from lightning connector following in the footsteps of the iPad Pro. Wired charging takes place over USB C and this also means the iPad Air can support USB C accessories such as hard drives and hubs.

On the back of the iPad you’ll find Apple’s proprietary smart connector. And as the iPad Air is the same size as Apple’s 11 inch iPad Pro, it means the iPad Air can connect to the same accessories as the Pro! That even includes their fancy (and expensive) Smart Keyboard. There are of course various third party keyboards and accessories that work with the smart connector and it’s nice to have the option to take advantage of them on a none Pro iPad.

Now that the iPad Air has flat edges, Apple has also built in a magnetic charging point on the right edge of the device to charge an Apple Pencil 2. The second generation Apple Pencil offers a number of improvements over the first generation including lower latency, double tap controls and wireless charging.

The Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil 2. Image courtesy of Apple Inc.

Cameras and Biometrics

On the front of the iPad, you’ll find a 7 megapixel, f/2.2 aperture camera, capable of 1080p 60 frames per second video, smart HDR and Retina Display Flash for low light photos. On the back is the same 12 megapixel wide angle camera found on the iPad Pro and the iPhone 11 Pro. It features a f/1.8 aperture, five element lens and support for up to 4K video recording at 6o frames per second. The camera doesn’t include a flash but realistically, most people aren’t buying this iPad to take photos at night. The wide angle camera is totally overkill for a tablet but needless to say, it can take excellent photos in normal lightning conditions.

One of the biggest changes and most notable features of the iPad Air compared to the Pro, is that TouchID remains on the iPad Air but it doesn’t get FaceID. As the home button has given way to enable an edge to edge display, Apple has chosen to move TouchID to the power button at the top of the iPad. This helps to keep the iPad Air at it’s lower starting price point of £599 compared to £799 on the iPad Pro. The removal of Face ID means the iPad Air doesn’t support facial recognition for unlocking and it can’t capture depth data to take portrait mode photos (not that many are doing that on an iPad).

The iPad Air also doesn’t include the ultra wide rear camera from the iPad Pro or the LiDAR scanner for capturing depth data and enhanced AR functionality. AR is still supported by the iPad Air however albeit with less accuracy and speed.

The iPad Air features a wide angle camera and microphone. Image courtesy of Apple Inc.

Display

The 10.9 inch display features a resolution of 2360×1640, 500 nits of brightness and support for the P3 wide colour gamut. The display is an IPS display (in plane switching) for excellent off axis viewing angles and supports Apple’s True Tone technology. True Tone adapts the colour profile of the display to match the ambient light of the environment you’re in. The display is also fully laminated so content looks like it’s floating on top of the display. It’s a really beautiful LCD display with excellent blacks and bright whites. Whilst the blacks aren’t as inky as an OLED display, the iPad Air still supports Dolby Vision and HDR 10 content.

The display does have one big omission compared to the iPad Pro. It doesn’t support a 120hz high refresh rate or as Apple refers to it, Pro-Motion. The iPad Pro has an adaptive display that adjusts the refresh rate of the screen depending on the type of content you’re looking at. It’s a wonderful feature to have but whilst the Air doesn’t support it, unless you’re coming from an iPad Pro 2017 or later, you won’t have experienced it on an iPad before anyway. The FOMO in this case is probably limited to a very select group of people who would probably buy an iPad Pro anyway

Features: Pro Vs Air

The new iPad Air includes many of the features that have previously made and iPad Pro a Pro. But not all of them and this is reflected in the price. Here is a quick break down of the key differences between the two.

iPad Pro

  • 11 or 12.9 inch display
  • 120hz refresh rate display
  • Wide and Ultra Wide angle rear camera with mic
  • Rear camera flash
  • LiDAR Scanner
  • Face ID
  • Front facing portrait mode photography
  • Quad stereo speakers
  • A12Z Bionic chip with 8 Core GPU
  • 6GB of RAM

iPad Air

  • 10.9 inch display
  • 60hz refresh rate display
  • Single Wide angle rear camera with mic
  • No rear flash
  • No LiDAR Scanner
  • Touch ID power button
  • Doesn’t support front facing portrait mode photos
  • Dual stereo speakers
  • A14 Bionic chip with 4 Core GPU
  • 4GB of RAM

Bottom Line – Kind of pro

If you choose the iPad Air, you’ll be giving up a few genuinely great features such as the Pro Motion display, quad speakers and FaceID. The graphics performance while excellent isn’t quite to the level of the iPad Pro and with less RAM, it might not keep as many apps in memory. Typically iOS and iPadOS are great at managing RAM but it’s important to know none the less. If you’re planning to edit video or use an iPad for graphics design work flows then the iPad Pro would be the better long term investment.

The iPad Air however is a great iPad with many Pro features. The design is modern, sleek and fresh and encloses a gorgeous display. It supports all of the latest apps and features of iPadOS. Performance is blazing fast and the A14 bionic chip guarantees software updates for years to come. Support for USB C means the iPad Air is compatible with a wide variety of accessories for storage, connectivity and more. Compatibility with Apple Pencil and the Magic Keyboard makes this a great iPad for creativity and productivity.

All in all, the iPad Air includes just enough Pro features that I think for most people, it’s probably the better choice. You’ll save a bunch of money, have access to everything that the iPad ecosystem has to offer and all packaged in a stunning design. And I think that for most us, that’s enough.

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