A large portion of Apple’s new iPad Air is well-known. The 2020 model’s design, screen, speakers, rear camera, and fingerprint scanner are all carried over. The new front-facing camera with Apple’s Center Stage feature is available on all iPad models. It’s backwards compatible with all previous cases, keyboards, and stylus accessories. The M1 chip in the new Air is the same as in the iPad Pro from last year, as well as the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and iMac.
What’s new is that that mix of characteristics is now available on a tablet starting at $599. That’s now the cheapest way to buy Apple’s powerful M1 chip, undercutting even the low-cost (and screenless) Mac Mini. You can also choose 5G for slightly better cellular speeds than LTE. Oh, and there are a few new colors this time, including the appealing blue of my test unit.
Aside from the new CPU and 5G, the iPad Air remains the iPad for consumers who want a nicer tablet than the base model but don’t need or want all the bells and whistles of the iPad Pro. It has a sleek design, more power than most people will need in a tablet, and a fantastic screen that works equally well in portrait and landscape orientation.
It’s not the iPad I’d recommend for completely replacing a laptop, but when paired with an optional keyboard case, it can handle some laptop-like duties. It’s the nicer iPad for folks who want to do iPad things like reading, viewing videos, playing games, taking notes, and maybe writing the occasional email but don’t intend to use it as their primary computing device.
- Performance that is quick
- Excellent speakers and display
- Long-lasting battery life in both portrait and landscape modes
- The base model only has 64GB of storage, and adding more costs a lot of money.
- In landscape mode, the front-facing camera is weird.
- Face ID is more convenient than Touch ID.
There isn’t much to say about the new iPad Air‘s design that we didn’t already discuss in our review of the 2020 model. With Apple’s current design ethos of consistent bezels and flat sides, it’s still an all-aluminum tablet. It’s difficult to tell it apart from an 11-inch iPad Pro from the front.
The size and weight are ideal for tablet applications, such as reading articles or books while sitting on the couch, or taking notes with the Apple Pencil, as I do. It’s not as comfortable to hold in one hand as the 8.3-inch iPad Mini, but you get a lot more screen real estate as a result.
The Air’s 10.9-inch screen is noticeably smaller than the 11-inch Pro’s, but it’s still plenty big for a satisfying movie viewing experience. When you use it for laptop-style work, with split screen and multitasking settings, it starts to feel tight. If you’re thinking about replacing your 13-inch laptop with an iPad, the 12.9-inch Pro model is the way to go.
The Pro’s ProMotion variable refresh rate display, as well as the 12.9-inch model’s brighter Mini LED screen, aren’t available on the Air. Most people won’t miss ProMotion – it can make scrolling animations smoother, but it won’t make a difference if you’re reading static text or watching video — and it’s not worth the $200 jump to an iPad Pro just for it. While the Mini LED display would have been nice, the present 500 nit screen is bright enough to operate the iPad Air in bright rooms or even outdoors, though if you watch a lot of movies, you might miss the inky blacks afforded by the bigger Pro.
With only two speakers instead of four, the Air doesn’t have as advanced a sound system as the Pro. However, the tablet’s two speakers are on opposite sides (left and right in landscape, top and bottom in portrait) and create a stereo experience that is clear, loud, and perfect for everything I wanted to listen to on it. In a head-to-head comparison, the Pro may win, but I doubt anyone will complain about the Air’s speakers.
The new iPad Air, like the previous generation and the most recent iPad Mini, lacks the Pro’s Face ID facial recognition feature for logins and authentication, instead relying on a fingerprint scanner integrated into the sleep/wake button. The scanner is functional — it’s simple to set up and recognizes my fingerprint quickly — but it’s not as simple or fluid as simply staring at the iPad and swiping on the screen, as you can do with the iPad Pro.
This year, Apple didn’t extend the Pro’s Thunderbolt 4 USB-C port down to the Air, but it did increase the port’s speed to 10Gbps, which is twice as fast as the 2020 versions, allowing you to download files from external storage faster or connect to a 6K external monitor. Sadly, Apple did not include a 3.5mm headphone jack in the new iPads; at this time, the base model is the only one that has one.
At $600, the lowest model Air still comes with 64GB of storage, which is starting to feel a little tight. It doesn’t take much to eat up that much space, especially if you use the iPad for gaming (Genshin Impact alone takes up 14GB), and if you plan on having this iPad for a long time, as most people do, you’ll have to do some storage management at some point. The cost of upgrading to 256GB of storage is $150, bringing the total price to $749, dangerously close to the iPad Pro’s base price of $799, which includes 128GB of storage.
Though the rear camera is still the same single 12-megapixel unit (which is fine for scanning documents or snapping quick photos), the front camera has been upgraded to a 12-megapixel ultrawide unit with support for Apple’s self-centering Center Stage feature, which keeps you in frame during video calls.
When I had the iPad Air on my desk in a keyboard cover, Center Stage would zoom in uncomfortably close to my face and tilt my camera at an angle. This happened in multiple rooms during FaceTime and Zoom calls. Center Stage performed a much better job of keeping my face level when I picked up the iPad and walked around with it. However, because I make the most of my video conversations while seated at a desk, I eventually had to turn it off. The positioning of the front-facing camera on the side of the screen when using the tablet in landscape mode is an ongoing irritant across the iPad line, and Center Stage is a creative gimmick, but it doesn’t make up for it.
The biggest change this year is the switch from the A14 chip in the 2020 model to the M1 chip in the 2021 model. The M1 is Apple’s desktop-level ARM CPU, which provides an industry-leading balance of performance and battery economy when running macOS on laptops and desktops, making its inclusion in a $600 iPad all the more impressive.
The M1 is an eight-core processor with four high-performance cores and four efficiency cores, despite the fact that the A14 and M1 are quite similar in terms of age and architecture. Meanwhile, the A14 has two high-performance cores. The M1’s GPU has eight total cores compared to the A14’s four. Finally, the M1 has a 3.2GHz peak clock speed compared to the A14’s 3.1GHz.
It’s worth noting that Apple didn’t use the A15 chip in this model, as it did in the iPhone 13 line, the new iPhone SE, and the iPad Mini from last year. The A15 is based on a modern design and has a peak clock speed that is similar to the M1. When comparing the M1 to the A15, however, the M1 still outperforms the A15 since it has two more high-performance cores and three more GPU cores.
The M1 comes with 8GB of RAM in both the base 64GB model and the 256GB review one I have. That’s the same amount as a standard MacBook Air or iMac.
All of this translates to improved performance in both everyday operations and GPU-intensive jobs like games. It also delivers the same level of performance as the more expensive iPad Pro models.
You won’t notice the increased performance headroom provided by the M1 chip if you use the iPad for activities like browsing the web, reading books, watching movies or TV shows, or even light productivity. It really shines when it comes to tasks that are very demanding, such as editing and exporting 4K video or managing big file transfers. Although the Air is capable of performing such tasks, there are better tools available that don’t have the constraints of iPadOS or a small screen if that’s what you want to do.
I spent a few hours playing 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 CPU to see if I could see the performance benefits of the M1 in jobs I like to use a tablet for.
Spoiler alert: the iPad Air ran the game the best, with the graphics turned up to 11 and 60 frames per second. Even though the battery took a battering and the rear of the tablet was very warm to the touch, it was able to sustain smooth performance even after extended play time.
The other tablets, on the other hand, were not far behind. In fact, the A12Z CPU on the iPad Pro was nearly as good at playing the game, so upgrading from that two-year-old tablet to the new Air isn’t worth it. The iPad Mini was held back by its fewer GPU cores, which meant it couldn’t push the visuals as far as the previous devices could. However, the game continued to run nicely, and I can’t claim that the experience suffered as a result.
The M1 doesn’t deplete the Air’s battery life when it’s not being used for heavy gaming. It’s still a good all-day tablet that can last several days if you only use it for minor chores. When I worked on it exclusively for a day, it required recharging after around seven hours, which is typical for a tablet of this size.
Finally, the M1’s headroom ensures that the Air will be speedy and capable for many years, and that Apple will likely continue to support it. If you’re looking for a tablet to last at least five years, the Air is a good choice.
Another improvement this year is that instead of only LTE, you can now get the Air with 5G. It has the same sub-6GHz 5G as the latest iPad Mini, but unlike the current iPad Pro, it can’t connect to super-high-speed millimeter-wave networks. Because mmWave networks are few and far between, this won’t be a big deal for most individuals. However, the cellular upgrade is still $150, bringing the total cost of a fully loaded Air with 256GB of storage and 5G to $899 before accessories.
When it comes to accessories, the new Air is backwards compatible with the 2020 model. It may be used as a mini laptop with Apple’s $299 Magic Keyboard, and the $129 second-generation Apple Pencil can be used to draw or write on the screen (which magnetically snaps to the side for charging). However, adding those peripherals quickly increases the Air’s price into laptop territory, and I don’t believe most people will need all of them. I used the Air for a couple of days to work on papers (including this review), and while it’s functional, I wouldn’t give my laptop for it.
That’s partially because, while the Air is a good-sized tablet, it’s a teeny-tiny laptop that rapidly feels claustrophobic. However, multitasking and file management are still far more difficult in iPadOS than in macOS. I won’t go into detail because the Air will be mostly used as a tablet for many people, and iPadOS is still ideal for that purpose. There are a lot of good apps, it’s simple to browse with a finger, it’s sleek and fast, and it works well with the rest of Apple’s ecosystem. There isn’t another tablet on the market that can compete with this one, especially at this pricing.
But I’m hoping for some new developments on iPadOS soon – it feels like it’s been caught in a rut for the past few years.
Many people will be debating whether they should acquire the Air or the 11-inch iPad Pro, and I believe the decision is simple: grab the Air. You forego the ProMotion display, Face ID, a few speakers, a second back camera with LIDAR, and the mmWave 5G option. Face ID is the one I’d miss the most out of the bunch, but I don’t think it’s worth $200.
It was tough to find something unique about the Air the entire time I was using it for this review, mainly because we’ve seen so much of this before. That isn’t really a drawback, and on the other hand, I was able to utilize the Air for a wide range of tasks without finding much to criticize. Sure, I’d like Face ID, and the huge iPad Pro‘s Mini LED screen would be fantastic, but those features don’t detract from the Air’s overall experience.
The Air offers the same performance, capability, portability, and operating system as the MacBook Pro, as well as compatibility with the same accessories. If you’re coming from an older iPad with a home button, this is a good boost.