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The new iPad Air makes Apple’s tablet lineup messier by outshining the iPad Pro

The new iPad Air makes Apple’s tablet lineup messier by outshining the iPad Pro

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Apple’s midlevel iPad is cheaper and now just as good as the Pro, so why bother paying more?

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Apple favors simplicity, and nowhere is that more apparent — other than product design — than in the company’s product lineups. But the newly announced iPad Air, which now features a screen designed like that of the pricier Pro with the added benefit of being the only device so far to carry the new A14 Bionic processor, is further complicating what was once the company’s most elegant product lineup.

The iPad lineup used to be simple: you wanted the big one or the little one, and then you had to choose how much storage and maybe pick a color. But starting with the introduction of the Smart Keyboard and the ill-fated 9.7-inch iPad Pro in 2016, the iPad lineup began to bloat.

Apple’s iPad Pro is in a weird spot, thanks to the new powerful Air

As of last spring, there were five different models of iPad, spanning two different connector types (Lightning versus USB-C) and even two different types of digital stylus, as the updated Apple Pencil only worked on newer Apple tablets. That remains true today.

Now, with the reimagined iPad Air, which Apple only reintroduced into its lineup alongside the refreshed iPad mini about 18 months ago, it’s gotten even more confusing. The primary question today is: why buy an iPad Pro? The Pro used to carry certain privileges, like being able to use the Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil while enjoying a prettier bezel-less display.

But nearly all of those benefits, save the higher refresh rate 120Hz screen on the post-2018 iPad Pro models and Face ID, are available on the new Air. The Air also starts much cheaper at $599 compared to the iPad Pro 11-inch’s $799 price tag, and it boasts a newer processor with the A14. Tech enthusiasts were quick to take notice.

We haven’t tested the A14 Bionic chip yet, and it’s too early to say if it’s going to offer the iPad Air a huge enough leap over the current-gen iPad Pro models to create a noticeable performance gap. Apple only says the iPad Air’s new chip gives it 40 percent performance improvement over the prior iPad Air, and it’s worth noting that the A14 Bionic is a 6-core chip while the A12Z Bionic is an 8-core one with a faster GPU and specific benefits toward computer-like use for graphics- and computation-heavy apps.

And the iPad Pro does still have some noteworthy features over the Air. The quad-speaker array isn’t present in the Air, for example, which now uses a stereo setup in landscape mode. The iPad Pro has 512GB and 1TB storage options, while the Air tops out at 256GB. The Pro also has a high refresh-rate ProMotion display that can get brighter, a LIDAR scanner, and an ultrawide camera on the back. Other than storage, it’s a lot of specs that aren’t likely to affect the core things most people do with an iPad.

If you’re shopping for a new iPad, it’s important to take note of what you do get when buying the 11-inch or 12.9-inch Pro versus the new Air. It’s also a good idea to check what compromises you make by scaling down to the standard iPad, which saw a refresh today as well, or even last year’s fifth-gen iPad mini. Here’s how all of the specs break down:

Current iPad model comparison (September 2020)

Category12.9-inch iPad Pro (4th-gen)11-inch iPad Pro (2nd-gen)iPad Air (4th-gen)iPad (8th-gen)iPad mini (5th-gen)
Screen type12.9‑inch Liquid Retina display11‑inch Liquid Retina display10.9‑inch Liquid Retina display10.2-inch Retina display7.9-inch Retina display
Resolution2732 x 20482388 x 16682360 x 16402160 x 1620 2048 x 1536
Front camera7 megapixels7 megapixels7 megapixels1.2 megapixels7 megapixels
Rear camera12 megapixels (10-megapixel ultrawide)12 megapixels (10-megapixel ultrawide)12 megapixels8 megapixels8 megapixels
Stylus supportApple Pencil (2nd-gen)Apple Pencil (2nd-gen)Apple Pencil (2nd-gen)Apple Pencil (1st-gen)Apple Pencil (1st-gen)
Keyboard supportMagic Keyboard, Smart Keyboard Folio, and Bluetooth keyboardsMagic Keyboard, Smart Keyboard Folio, and Bluetooth keyboardsMagic Keyboard, Smart Keyboard Folio, and Bluetooth keyboardsSmart Keyboard (non-folio) and Bluetooth keyboardsOnly Bluetooth keyboards
PortUSB-CUSB-CUSB-CLightningLightning
ProcessorA12Z BionicA12Z BionicA14 BionicA12 BionicA12 Bionic
Storage128 / 256 / 512GB / 1TB128 / 256 / 512GB / 1TB64 / 256GB32 / 128GB64 / 256GB
Weight1.41 pounds1.04 pounds1 pound1.08 pounds0.68 pound
Price (Wi-Fi)$999 / $1,099 / $1,299 / $1,499 $799 / $899 / $1,099 / $1,299 $599 / $749$329 / $429$399 / $549
Price (Wi-Fi + Cellular)$1,149 / $1,249 / $1,449 / $1,649 $949 / $1,049 / $1,249 / $1,449$729 / $879$459 / $559$529 / $679
AuthenticationFace IDFace IDTouch ID built into power buttonTouch ID built into home buttonTouch ID built into home button
Battery life10 hours10 hours10 hours10 hours10 hours
Misc.LIDAR, ProMotion, True Tone, Wi-Fi 6, four-speaker system, no headphone jackLIDAR, ProMotion, True Tone, Wi-Fi 6, four-speaker system, no headphone jackTrue Tone, Wi-Fi 6, two-speaker system, no headphone jackTwo-speaker system, headphone jackTrue Tone, two-speaker system, Headphone jack

There are some oddities you can find in the chart above, mainly between the iPad mini and the new eighth-gen base model iPad. Why, for instance, does the smaller of the two devices have a much better front-facing camera and a True Tone display, when the new eighth-gen iPad does not? It’s also curious that the storage options are doubled for the iPad mini when they remain abysmally low for the base model. Who knows!

Yet, you can clearly see in comparing the two current iPad Pro models with the new Air that you’re getting a whole lot more bang for your buck with the Air. All you’re really compromising on is storage and the lack of ProMotion, thanks to the 120Hz display. But everything else is there, plus the A14 Bionic. So it’s safe to say that, for right now, the iPad Air is a killer deal, even for those considering an iPad Pro.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the chip in both current iPad Pro models. It is the A12Z Bionic, not the A12X. It also omitted some of the other spec differences, which have been added above. We regret the error.