iPad Air 2020: The iPad Pro for non-pros

It looks like an iPad Pro but can the new iPad Air be an actual alternative?

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Before we even begin, I have to come clean: ever since I’ve used an iPad Pro, I struggle with the idea of using a regular iPad. While a regular iPad felt like just an itch that you could choose to scratch or not, but the iPad Pro was something that I could (somehow lie to myself to) use daily for work and play. There are compromises, of course. But at the very least, it felt like Apple had hit the sweet spot when it comes to specs and features. However, because my productivity was not contingent upon the ownership of an iPad, there was little reason to pursue that line of credit card depravity.

Features

Apple iPad takes its design cues from the iPhone
The latest iPad takes its cues from the iPhone

The iPad shares the same design language as the new generation iPhone, so it’s angular. Maybe a little too angular. Truth be told, I didn’t enjoy holding the tablet for reading – the weight, which hasn’t changed, doesn’t help – and I can imagine that there will be some people who will share the same sentiment. The matte aluminium finish makes it slightly easier to grip, but a case is a worthwhile investment if you intend to use it more like a tablet rather than a mini laptop. A softer edge on your hands certainly will go a long way.

And like the newer Apple devices, there’s no headphone jack to be found anywhere. However, there is a single USB-C port that improves compatibility with external storage solutions, thanks to the availability of third-party options. For those who need the connectivity options or a headphone jack, a hub is a necessity. The Touch ID sensor is integrated into the power button and works perfectly fine. Having Face ID like the iPad Pro would be splendid, but it’s not particularly essential.

Using it as a laptop/desktop

At 10.9 inches, the iPad Air is a Goldilocks size for tablets. Perfect for reading, videos and noodling. Does it cut it as desktop/laptop, though? The response is likely to be mixed. I certainly think it is a compromised experience if you go with the form-fitting keyboards that match the length and width of the tablet. In this case, I had the appropriately-sized Magic Keyboard to try, and at least for me, the keys a little too narrow to type comfortably for hours, but needs must when the devil drives, and desperation to meet deadlines tend to make the experience far more palatable. I think that a 12.9-inch iPad Pro might be a tad better if you intend to use the Magic Keyboard often.

The handy Apple iPad Magic Keyboard.
A laptop would be better, but the Magic Keyboard can be rather handy.

While this nifty attachment is rather hefty, it is worth the trouble if a keyboard is a necessary part of your routine. Not only is it easy to adjust the display to a comfortable angle, but It’s also easy to attach and detach the tablet. The base of the keyboard is weighty, and this makes it less likely for unfortunate accidents to happen. However, that sturdy base doesn’t do much if you have the iPad set up on your lap. It is top-heavy and unstable if you have to shift your legs around to avoid people passing by, say on a crowded train. I would recommend it for desktop use.

The new Pencil 2 has a far better design than its predecessor – the non-glossy shell feels better in my hand (a matter of opinion), and Pencil 2 charges via induction when mounted magnetically to the smart connector. As a non-artist, I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything by stepping down from an iPad Pro. The digitizer works well enough and the writing experience is excellent. Predictive text is mostly accurate, considering how bad my writing is. Once I got the hang of it, I found it quite nifty for taking notes.

Using it as a media device

Apple iPad is all about media consumption.
The iPad is all about media consumption. Anything and everything looks good here.

As a media device, the iPad Air feels quite close to the iPad Pro. The speakers here offer clarity and volume, while the 500-nit IPS display (iPad Pro uses a 600-nit panel) supports the now ubiquitous (to Apple) P3 colour space. The iPad Pro’s display is better, but not by much, even when you consider the ProMotion (120hz) feature as that is only something that matters if you are if you’re playing games that support those framerates or doing illustration work at a very high level. The display isn’t up to snuff when you compare it to the iPhone 12 Pro, which has a 1200 nit display and is capable dark scenes particularly well. But when trying to watch Netflix for hours at a time, you’ll naturally gravitate towards the iPad eventually. It’s just that much more comfortable. Last but not least, an 11-inch tablet is still by far the most comfortable medium to read e-zines.

Performance

For the longest time, the trouble with trying to assess iPad performance is that the competition is sparse. Apple has a far better library of apps optimised for the iPad, that it just didn’t make sense to get anything else. Likewise, the iPad uses the latest A14 SoC, which is another way of saying that it’s far too powerful for what its intended use anyway. Everything runs buttery smooth and even running a game like Genshin Impact at maximum settings doesn’t seem to faze the iPad Air one bit. Even editing multiple streams of 4K 100mbps video turned out to be unexpectedly viable. In short, if you think that the iPad Air is slow, it says more about the NASA-level setup that you have running at home than anything else.

Final thoughts

While the MacBook Air is the consummate MacBook, the new iPad Air seems to have cemented its status as the definitive iPad. Both devices represent the essence of their company’s design DNA; it’s key features and selling points distilled into a package that’s appropriately priced at a premium but not excessively so.

I’m neither an artist nor a pro-gamer, so the additional features on the iPad Pro lean towards ‘want’ than ’need’. Everything I need is right here in the iPad Air. I wish it had the bright OLED display of the iPhone Pro range, but what it has isn’t a massive step down; I only notice it on TV shows and movies that place a lot of emphasis on high dynamic range.

So here it is: I don’t miss the iPad Pro any more. I’m pretty sure that I would change my tune if I pick it up again, but the difference now is that if I can only buy the iPad Air, I wouldn’t feel like I’m settling for something far less. The iPad Air resets our expectations of the iPad line and means that the next iPad Pro will have far bigger shoes to fill.

That said, the iPad Air is not going to replace a desktop or laptop. As good as the Magic Keyboard setup is, I suppose the 13-inch iPad Pro might be a little more suitable, and an 11-inch iPad is a case of “oh well, it beats working off a phone.” And don’t forget that the accessories for the iPad will set you back quite a bit. The new Pencil 2 ($189) and the ($439) cost $628. That’s three quarters the cost of the basic iPad Air ($879, 64GB, Wi-Fi). The basic MacBook Air costs $1,449. If you plan to use the keyboard often, then a regular iPad with a keyboard is worth considering if you need the tablet form factor. Otherwise, the MacBook Air is the sensible choice.

As good as the regular iPad is right now, the iPad Air sells the idea of an ultraportable computing device far better. It also establishes the iPad Pro clearly as an unnecessary option (unless you want or need to), and I simply turn my angst to choosing between the iPad Air and MacBook Air instead.

  Features - 8/10

  Value Proposition - 7/10

  Performance - 9/10

  Design & Build Quality - 8/10

  Overall - 9/10

  Verdict

The iPad Air is now the perfect Goldilocks iPad, with the essential features of the iPad Pro while keeping the price somewhat reasonable.

Specifications

Apple iPad Air (2020)

Price From $879
Finish Silver, Space Gray, Rose Gold, Green, Sky Blue

Operating System iPadOS 14
Processor A14 Bionic with Neural Engine
Capacity 64GB, 256GB

Display 10.9" IPS (500 nits), 2,360x1,640 at 264 ppi with P3 colour and True Tone display; supports Dolby Vision and HDR10 content
Speakers Stereo
Microphones Dual microphones
Wireless Dual-band 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6; Bluetooth 5.0 technology
Cellular (for Wi-Fi+Cellular) UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, DC-HSDPA, GSM, EDGE, Gigabit-class LTE
SIM Nano‑SIM (supports Apple SIM), eSIM

Camera (main) 12MP, f1.8 wide-angle, with up to 4K video recording at 60 fps and slo-mo at 1080p 240 fps
Camera (front) 7MP, f2.2, with Retina Flash, wide colour capture and 1080p video recording at 60 fps

Connectors Magnetic Connector, Smart Connector, USB-C
Included accessories USB-C Charge Cable (1 meter), 20W USB-C Power Adapter
Supports Apple Pencil (2nd generation), Magic Keyboard

Dimensions 247.6 x 178.5 x 6.1 mm
Weight 458g (460g Wi-Fi+Cellular)
Battery 28.6‐watt-hour LiPo