With a Mac-level chip, a zooming Center Stage front camera and optional 5G, the in-between iPad mostly caught back up to the iPad Pro.
Much of the new iPad Air from Apple is a known quantity. The design, screen, speakers, rear camera, and fingerprint scanner are all carried over from the 2020 model. The updated front-facing camera with Apple’s Center Stage feature can be found across the entire iPad line. It’s compatible with all the same cases, keyboard, and stylus accessories as before. And the M1 chip inside the new Air is lifted right from last year’s iPad Pro and the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and iMac.
What’s new is that you can get that combination of features in a tablet that starts at $599. That’s now the lowest price you can get access to Apple’s impressive M1 processor, undercutting even the value-driven (and screenless) Mac Mini. You also have the option of 5G for slightly faster-than-LTE cellular speeds. Oh, and there are a couple of new colors this time around, including the fetching blue of my review unit.
New processor and 5G aside, the iPad Air remains the iPad for those looking for a nicer tablet than the base model, but don’t necessarily want to spend the cost or need all the bells and whistles of the iPad Pro. It’s got a modern design, more performance than most people will know what to do with in a tablet, and an excellent screen that works equally well in portrait or landscape orientation.
It’s not the iPad I’d recommend wholly replacing a laptop with, though it can work for certain laptop-like tasks when paired with an optional keyboard case. It’s the nicer iPad for those looking to do iPad things, like reading, watching video, playing games, taking notes, and perhaps writing the occasional email but aren’t planning on making it their only computing device.
There isn’t much to say about the design of the new iPad Air that wasn’t covered in our review of the 2020 model. It’s still an all-aluminum tablet with Apple’s current design ethos of uniform bezels and flat sides. From the front, you’d be hard-pressed to tell it apart from an 11-inch iPad Pro.
The size and weight are both comfortable for tablet tasks, including sitting on the couch and reading articles or books or taking notes with the Apple Pencil, as I like to do. It’s not quite as easy to one-hand as the 8.3-inch iPad Mini, but the tradeoff is you get considerably more screen real estate.
The Air’s 10.9-inch screen is imperceptibly smaller than the 11-inch Pro’s display, but it’s still large enough for a great movie watching experience. It does start to feel cramped when you’re using it for laptop-like work, with split screen and multitasking modes. If you’re considering trading in your 13-inch laptop for an iPad, I’d strongly recommend going with the 12.9-inch Pro model.
What you don’t get on the Air is the Pro’s ProMotion variable refresh rate display, nor do you get the 12.9-inch model’s brighter Mini LED screen. Most people won’t miss ProMotion — it can make scrolling animations smoother, but if you’re reading static text or watching video, it won’t make a difference — and it’s not worth the $200 cost to upgrade to an iPad Pro for it alone. Similarly, while it would have been great to have the Mini LED display here, the current 500 nit screen is still plenty bright enough to use the iPad Air in bright rooms or even outdoors, although if you watch a lot of movies you might miss the inky blacks offered on the larger Pro.
The Air technically doesn’t have as advanced of a speaker system as the Pro, with just two speakers instead of four. But the two speakers it has are on opposite sides of the tablet (left and right in landscape, top and bottom in portrait) and are able to provide a stereo experience that is clear, loud, and great for anything I wanted to listen to on it. The Pro might win in a side-by-side comparison, but I don’t think anyone will complain about the Air’s speakers.
Like the prior model and the latest iPad Mini, the new Air doesn’t have the Pro’s Face ID facial recognition system for logins and authentication, instead using a fingerprint scanner built into the sleep / wake button. The scanner works well — it’s easy to set up and is quick to recognize my fingerprint — but it’s not nearly as convenient or seamless as just looking at the iPad and swiping on the screen, as you can do with the iPad Pro.
Apple didn’t bring down the Pro’s Thunderbolt 4 USB-C port to the Air this year, but it did upgrade the speed of the port to 10Gbps, or twice as fast as the 2020 models so you transfer files from external storage a bit faster or plug in to an up to 6K external display. Sadly, Apple also didn’t add back a 3.5mm headphone jack — the only iPad in the lineup with that port at this point is the base model.
The base model Air also still comes with 64GB of storage, which is starting to feel a bit stingy at its $600 price point. It doesn’t take much to fill up that amount of space, especially if you use the iPad for gaming (Genshin Impact consumes 14GB on its own, for example), and if you’re going to be keeping this iPad for multiple years as most people do, you’ll probably have to do a bit of storage management at some point. Upgrading to 256GB of storage is a steep $150, bringing the price up to $749, or dangerously close to the iPad Pro, which offers 128GB of storage at its $799 base price.
Though the rear camera remains the same single 12-megapixel unit as before (and it’s perfectly fine for scanning documents or taking quick snaps), the front camera has been upgraded to a 12-megapixel ultrawide unit with support for Apple’s self-centering Center Stage feature that is designed to keep you in frame during video calls.
In my testing, Center Stage is hit or miss — when I have the iPad Air on my desk in a keyboard case, it would zoom in uncomfortably close to my face and tilt my camera at an angle. This happened in both FaceTime and Zoom calls in various rooms. When I picked up the iPad and walked around with it, Center Stage did a much better job keeping my face level. But since the majority of video calls I make are when I’m seated at a desk, I eventually had to turn it off. Center Stage is a neat trick, but it doesn’t make up for the placement of the front-facing camera on the side of the screen when you’re using the tablet in landscape mode, an ongoing annoyance across the iPad line.
The main upgrade this year is the jump from the A14 chip in the 2020 model to the M1 chip. The M1 is Apple’s desktop-level ARM processor and offers an industry-leading blend of performance and battery efficiency when running macOS on laptops and desktops, which makes finding it in a $600 iPad pretty impressive.
Though the A14 and M1 are very similar in terms of age and architecture, the M1 is an eight-core chip with four high-performance cores and four efficiency cores. The A14 meanwhile has two high-performance cores. Likewise, the M1’s GPU has eight total cores vs. the A14’s four. And lastly, the M1 has a slightly higher peak clock speed of 3.2GHz vs the A14’s 3.1GHz.
It’s interesting that Apple didn’t use the newer A15 chip here, as it has in the iPhone 13 line, the new iPhone SE, and last year’s iPad Mini. The A15 is built on a newer architecture and has roughly the same peak clock speed as the M1. But when you compare the M1 to the A15, the M1 still pulls ahead — it has two more high-performance cores and three more GPU cores.
THE M1 CHIP OFFERS MORE PERFORMANCE HEADROOM THAN THE NEWER A15, PLUS IT’S PAIRED WITH 8GB OF RAM
In both the base 64GB model and the 256GB review unit I’ve got, the M1 is paired with 8GB of RAM, the same amount you’ll find in a base MacBook Air or iMac.
All of that adds up to more performance in both day-to-day work and GPU demanding tasks, such as games. It’s also the same level of performance you get in the more expensive iPad Pro line.
If you’re using the iPad for things like browsing the web, reading books, watching movies or TV shows, or even light productivity, you won’t likely notice the extra performance headroom the M1 chip provides. It mostly shines when doing especially demanding tasks, like editing and exporting 4K video or managing large file transfers. The Air is capable of doing those jobs, but there are better tools available if that’s what you intend to do that don’t have the limitations of iPadOS and a relatively small screen.
To see if I could observe the performance gains of the M1 in tasks I like to use a tablet for, I loaded Genshin Impact, one of the most demanding mobile games, on the new Air, a 2021 iPad Mini with the A15, and an 11-inch 2020 iPad Pro with the older A12Z chip and spent a few hours playing it.
Obvious spoiler alert: the iPad Air ran the game the best, with the graphics fully cranked and at 60FPS. It was able to maintain smooth gameplay even after extended play time, though the battery took a beating, and the back of the tablet was very warm to the touch.
But the other tablets weren’t far behind. In fact, the iPad Pro with the A12Z processor was able to play the game nearly as well, enough for me to say that upgrading from that two-year-old tablet to the new Air isn’t worth it. The iPad Mini was slightly held back by its fewer GPU cores, and it wasn’t able to push the graphics as hard as the other models. But the game still ran smoothly, and I can’t say the experience was worse off because of it.
Outside of intense gaming, the M1’s presence doesn’t hurt the Air’s battery life. It’s still an all-day tablet and can last multiple days if you’re just using it occasionally for light tasks. When I worked exclusively on it for a day, it was in need of a charge after about seven hours, which is typical for a tablet of this size.
Ultimately, the main advantage of the M1’s headroom is that the Air will be fast and capable for many years and will likely be supported by Apple for a long time. If you’re buying a tablet with the intention of keeping it for five years or more, then the Air should serve you well.
The other upgrade this year is you can now get the Air with 5G, instead of just LTE. It has the same sub-6GHz 5G as the latest iPad Mini, but it’s not able to connect to super-high-speed millimeter-wave networks like the current iPad Pro. For most people, that won’t be much of a loss, since those mmWave networks are few and far between. The cellular upgrade is still a steep $150 though, which makes a fully loaded Air with 256GB of storage and 5G a cool $899 before you add any accessories.
Speaking of accessories, the new Air is fully compatible with the same ones as the 2020 model. It can work with Apple’s pricey $299 Magic Keyboard as a small, makeshift laptop, and you can draw or write on the screen with the $129 second-generation Apple Pencil (which magnetically snaps to the side for charging). Adding those accessories quickly pushes the Air into laptop price territory, however, and I don’t think most people need all of them. I spent a couple of days using the Air to work on documents (including writing this review), and while it works, I wouldn’t trade my laptop for it.
That’s partly because while the Air is a comfortably sized tablet, it’s a downright small laptop, and it quickly feels cramped. But a big part of it is that multitasking and file management are still a lot harder in iPadOS than in macOS. I won’t belabor it here because the Air really is going to be a tablet-first experience for a lot of people, and iPadOS is still great for that use case. There are many excellent apps, it’s easy to navigate with a finger, it’s smooth and fast, and it integrates extremely well with the rest of Apple’s ecosystem. There really isn’t another tablet from other companies that can compete, and certainly not at this price point.
But I’m hoping we see some new development on iPadOS soon — it really feels like it’s been stuck in place the past couple of years.
A lot of people will be wondering if they should get the Air instead of an 11-inch iPad Pro, and I think the choice is easy — buy the Air. You give up the ProMotion display, Face ID, a couple of speakers, an extra rear camera with LIDAR, and the option for mmWave 5G. Of those, Face ID is the one I’d miss the most, but I don’t think it’s worth spending $200 for.
The whole time I was using the Air for this review, it was difficult to find something that stood out about it, partly because we’ve seen so much of this before. That’s not necessarily a problem, and the flip side of that is that I was able to just use the Air for a wide variety of things without finding much to complain about. Sure, I’d rather have Face ID, and the Mini LED screen of the big iPad Pro would be great, but the absence of those things doesn’t diminish the Air’s overall experience.
What you get with the Air is the same performance, capability, portability, and operating system, plus compatibility with the same accessories. It’s a nice upgrade for someone coming from an older iPad with a home button.
Really, that’s just it. The iPad Air is the nice one.