For the past few years, there’s been a giant void left in Apple’s iPad lineup. On the low end, the base iPad model has retained the traditional form factor, with a spec bump here and there, and most recently gained Apple Pencil support. The iPad Pro line, however, has taken advantage of the fastest processors, modest display improvements, and Apple’s Smart Connector tech for keyboards and sat comfortably at the high-end of the lineup.
The price difference was stark, as well. The iPad starts at $329. The newest iPad Pro models start at $799. There wasn’t a device priced in-between the two.
Then, last month, Apple somewhat quietly released a new iPad Mini and a revamped iPad Air. It’s the first iPad Air since the iPad Air 2 was released in 2014 and then discontinued in 2017. The third-generation iPad Air mixes some of the high-end iPad Pro features while retaining some of the core iPad features and looks, at a $499 price point.
ZDNet’s Matthew Miller recently reviewed the iPad Mini and found it to be outstanding. And for the past two weeks or so, I’ve been using the new iPad Air.
Instead of complicating Apple’s tablet line, the new iPad Air provides some clarity.
The new iPad Air comes with Apple’s A12 Bionic processor, Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ac WiFi, and 64GB or 256GB of storage. The latter of which carries a $150 over the $499 starting price. If you want to add LTE connectivity to the iPad Air, the price increases by $129 for either storage model.
Color options include silver, space gray, and gold. In lieu of Face ID, the iPad Air uses Apple’s tried-and-true home button with Touch ID. An 8-megapixel camera is found on the rear, with a 7-megapixel camera on the front for selfies and FaceTime calls.
Apple Pencil support is now a standard feature across the entire iPad lineup, including the new iPad Mini. Only the iPad Pro supports the newest Apple Pencil with wireless charging. With the Air, you’ll still need to stick one end of the Apple Pencil into the Lightning port for initial pairing and charging the Pencil. There’s a headphone jack on the top of the housing.
Apple’s Smart Connector is located on the side of the iPad Air, providing connectivity and power to the Smart Keyboard; a new accessory for the iPad Air line. Previously, the Smart Connector and associated peripherals had been reserved for the iPad Pro line. A Lightning port on the bottom is used for charging. Without the keyboard, the new Air weighs right at one pound.
The iPad Air looks very much like older iPad Air models, only instead of a 9.7-inch display, the new iPad Air has a 10.5-inch 2224×1668 display. That’s the same size panel that Apple used in a previous generation of the iPad Pro. It’s just enough extra screen real estate to ease the cramped feel of using multiple apps at the same time.
When using the iPad Air, as opposed to the iPad Pro that I’ve used daily for the last few months, it quickly became apparent there are two features I sorely miss. The first is Face ID. Sitting down at my desk and double-tapping the spacebar and watching as the iPad Pro unlocks and goes back to the app I was in last has become a task I didn’t even think about. Unlocking the iPad Pro with Face ID is done the moment the iPad wakes up and requires zero thinking on my part.
With the iPad Air, I have to either enter my pin code or place a finger on the Touch ID home button. Double-pressing the space bar does nothing more than wake the iPad Air, and I’m left staring at it, waiting for it to unlock.
The other feature I miss is the sound quality of the speakers. The iPad Pro has four speakers: Two on the top and another two on the bottom when holding it vertically. The iPad Air, however, only has two speakers, both of which are on the same end as the home button.
Outside of those two areas, the iPad Air is every bit as capable as the iPad Pro in my work routine. A routine that consists of text documents, triaging my inbox, photo editing, and occasional video editing. At no point during my time using the iPad Air in place of the iPad Pro did I feel like it was underpowered or lacking in performance.
Battery life has been more than enough to get through a normal workday, with power to spare. Apple estimates 10 hours of use, and my experience has mirrored that expectation.
Writing or drawing with the Apple Pencil is smooth and the iPad Air’s display is responsive. I’ve made it clear before, I’m no artist, but I do like to use an iPad and Apple Pencil to jot notes during a meeting or when brainstorming story ideas.
One area that all iPads fall short in is software. I complained about with the iPad Pro and iOS 12; the iPad Air runs the same software and suffers from the same shortfalls. Specifically, the lack of a desktop-class browser. Despite the reach of the App Store and the number of companies with apps available for every sort of task, some tasks rely on using a full web browser. Hopefully, iOS 13, which Apple should reveal in early June at this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference, will include a heavy emphasis on improving the iPad’s computing experience.
Which model do you go with?
With different iPad models of various sizes, capabilities, and price points, there’s bound to be some debate on which model to purchase.
I’d imagine that for most users — including those in the enterprise — the new iPad Air is the right choice. It’s not overly expensive, and the recent updates provide modest performance improvements over the iPad. The addition of the Smart Keyboard helps the iPad Air toe the line between a tablet built for productivity, and one that’s better suited for binging on Netflix shows and checking an occasional email.
Unless you absolutely have to have the best of Apple’s best, or a 12.9-inch display, the iPad Pro is too much tablet and has a price point to match. The Air nearly matches the Pro in performance, and at that, I doubt most users would notice the minor differences. And it does it for a few hundred dollars less.
Update: An earlier version of this review stated there wasn’t a headphone jack on this model. That’s been corrected. ZDNet regrets the error.