iPad Air (2020) review: A tablet designed for work and play

by admin October 21, 2020 at 2:52 pm

Early last year, it felt as if Apple had all but forgotten about the iPad Air. Then in March, Apple released the third-generation iPad Air, nearly five years after the iPad Air 2 was released. The update included a faster processor, slightly new design, support for Apple’s keyboard and stylus accessory, and a middle-of-the-road price point at $499. 

This year, Apple announced a completely redesigned iPad Air that looks and works more like the high-end iPad Pro models, and a new starting price of $599. Compare that to the $329 starting price of the entry-level iPad and the $799 cost of the 11-inch iPad Pro, and Apple’s tablet lineup now offers several options based on your needs.

I started my time with the iPad Air skeptical whether or not Apple’s tablet lineup needed three distinct models. I now have an answer, but it’s not what you’d expect. 

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Design

What’s old is new again, or at least that’s what I’ve heard. And with the iPad Air, along with the launch of the iPhone 12, it certainly appears there’s some truth to the statement. Apple has fully returned to the flat-edge design we first saw with the iPhone 4, and had still been used with the iPad Pro over the last few years. 

The new iPad Air features the same design, complete with five different color options (gray, silver, rose gold, green and sky blue). The 10.9-inch Liquid Retina display spans almost the entire front of the tablet, with similar bezels to those found on the iPad Pro, only without a spot for Apple’s True Depth camera system that enables Apple’s Face ID facial recognition feature. There is a 7-megapixel FaceTime camera that’s found on the left side of the screen when the Air is docked into Apple’s Magic Keyboard. 

After using several different tablets over the last few months that have centered the front-facing camera over the display when in portrait mode, I do wish Apple had made the same change with the redesign. It’s a subtle change that makes video calls feel more personal, especially right now as we all find ourselves on more and more video calls. 

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In addition to the lack of the True Depth camera, the Air is also missing Apple’s iconic home button; the same button that’s still used on the base iPad.

However, instead of forgoing any sort of biometric authentication, Apple moved the Touch ID sensor into the power button. Well, Apple calls it the top button, but that’s confusing, because it’s not always in the top position. For example, if you’re using the iPad Air with the Magic Keyboard, it’s on the left side of the tablet, near the top corner. If you’re holding it in portrait mode, then it is on the top edge, but on the right side. 

It’s the first time Apple has moved the Touch ID sensor on a mobile device, and, well, it works exactly as you’d expect. When the iPad’s screen is off, you can press the button and leave a registered finger on the button for a split-second to wake, unlock and go straight to the homescreen. If the tablet is already awake, you don’t need to press the button at all — just rest your finger on it and the device will unlock, an app will open or the purchase will get approved. 

The second-generation Apple Pencil attaches to the side of the tablet, just below the volume up and down buttons, and wirelessly charges just like it does on the iPad Pro. 

Another big change to the iPad Air is that Apple’s Lightning connector has been replaced by a USB-C port. This is long overdue for all of Apple’s mobile products, iPhone 12 included, so it’s a welcome change on the Air. 

The USB-C port will drive up to a 4K display, directly transfer photos and videos from cameras, or connect external storage devices and take advantage of up to 5Gbps transfer speeds. 

On the back of the Air is a 12-megapixel camera and Apple’s Smart Connector that’s used to connect to the Magic Keyboard with a trackpad. In fact, Apple built the iPad Air so that it can use the same Magic Keyboard as the 11-inch iPad Pro. 

I’m glad to see this design start to trickle down to more Apple products. I’ve always thought the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 series of phones were some of the best designs, and I loved the design of the iPad Pro. 

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Left: 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Right: 10.9-inch iPad Air. 


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Performance

Apple announced the iPad Air last month, and with it, the A14 Bionic processor made its debut. We learned some about Apple’s latest mobile processor during that event, but it wasn’t until the iPhone 12 was announced (and now, reviews are out) that we learned just how powerful the new chip is. 

The A14 Bionic is a 5nm chip, with a 6-core CPU and a new 4-core GPU. There’s also a 16-core Neural Engine that’s used for machine learning. Apple touts a 40% increase in CPU performance and a 30% boost to graphics performance in the iPad Air, over last year’s A13 Bionic. You can order it with 64GB of storage for $599 or 256GB of storage for $749. Ideally, Apple would do away with 64GB base storage and bump that up to 128GB. It’s possible to live with a 64GB iPad, but you’ll find that you end up managing storage quiet often. 

To test the iPad Air I restored it from a backup of my iPad Pro (2018) and put my Pro on a shelf. For the last five days, I’ve worked on the Air, using it as I would the iPad Pro, writing stories, taking care of emails, working in Excel or Google Sheets, streaming music and videos and responding to Slack messages with my colleagues. 

The biggest change for me was going from the 12.9-inch display on the iPad Pro to the 10.9-inch screen of the iPad Air. Or at least, that’s what I expected the biggest change to be before the Air arrived. Maybe it’s because there’s no home button, or that the front of the iPad Air looks nearly identical to the iPad Pro, but not once during my testing did I feel like the screen was too small or cramped; something I’ve often felt when working on the iPad or even last year’s iPad Air. 

More so, I began to appreciate the decrease in size, taking it with me to work in my car while picking up my kids from school, or removing the keyboard and using it as a tablet to browse the web while watching TV. It’s small enough that I didn’t mind carrying it with me at all times, but big enough that I felt like I could still comfortably work. 

I do hope that Apple’s working on a bigger version of the iPad Air to complement the 10.9-inch model, but I have a feeling the 12.9-inch display is going to be reserved for Pro users. 

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

I thought I’d miss Face ID, and for the first few hours, I did. I’m used to double-pressing the space bar on the keyboard to wake the iPad Pro, which then automatically scans my face and unlocks without me having to do anything else. I kept pressing the Magic Keyboard’s space bar, only to watch a small animation on the iPad Air’s display remind me where the Touch ID sensor was. Eventually, the gentle reminder was no longer needed and I was instinctively reaching for the button to wake and unlock the tablet by the second day of testing. 

While I haven’t had the iPad Air for very long, I’ve been going about two days between charges with moderate use. I have no doubt the iPad Air’s battery would last through a full workday of use, even when connected to the Magic Keyboard. However, if you plan on working all day, then playing games or streaming shows at night, you’ll likely need to connect it to power. And, yes, Apple is still including a power adapter (20W, to be exact) and a USB-C charging cable. 

As for Apple’s performance claims, while I can’t tout specific numbers, I can say that the Air did feel as if apps were loading faster. Specifically, opening iPadOS 14’s new Spotlight-like search bar happens almost instantly on the Air, while there’s a slight delay on the iPad Pro. 

I dabbled with a few games, like Among Us and War Robots, and the Air kept up without any issues. 

All-in-all, I never once felt as if my overall experience was impacted or that I had somehow downgraded tablets by switching to the iPad Air. Granted, I was directly comparing the experience to the 2018 iPad Pro with older internals, but I had just sent back the review sample of the 2020 iPad Pro, so that was still fresh in my mind as well. 

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Who is the iPad Air for?

So, who is the revamped iPad Air for? It’s a significant upgrade over the base iPad, but not quite as capable as the iPad Pro — although it’s closer than ever. 

As I mentioned, I’ve struggled with answering this question over the last week or so, and I think where I landed is here: The new iPad Air is for (almost) everyone. 

The iPad Air sits between the base iPad and the iPad Pro in price, features and performance. It’s more powerful and more versatile than the base iPad, thanks to the addition of USB-C and compatibility with the Magic Keyboard. Both additions increase the Air’s flexibility, with full keyboard and trackpad support, as well as the ability to connect cameras, displays and other accessories. 

Honestly, I think we’ve been spoiled by the fact that Apple has kept the standard iPad at $329 for all these years. It’s tainted our view on nearly every other competing tablet, and even Apple’s own lineup, making it easy to discount or discredit more expensive tablets, even if they also have an Apple logo on the box. 

If you’ve never owned an iPad and are unsure how exactly it’d fit into your daily life or workflow, then the standard model makes the most sense. However, if you plan on using a tablet from Apple to triage your emails, work on school or business projects, draw or sketch out ideas, then the iPad Air is exactly what you want. 

I went into this review questioning why the iPad Air even exists in Apple’s tablet lineup, but the longer I’ve used it in place of my iPad Pro, I’m starting to wonder why the iPad Pro exists. 

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