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Apple iPad Air (2020) review: take it from the Pro

Despite the higher cost, this iPad is the one to get

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

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If you’re looking to get an iPad right now and can afford it, the new $599 iPad Air is the best tablet for most people. Apple has taken the design from the more expensive iPad Pro and brought it down to a more reasonable price point. It’s $100 more than it was last year, but in return this year’s iPad Air has a bigger, better screen and a faster (and very intriguing) processor. 

There are two basic ways a midrange device like the iPad Air usually gets made. Either it’s built up from the base model with key improvements (as happened with last year’s iPad Air) or it’s based on the premium, flagship version with some expensive parts stripped out or replaced. That’s this year’s iPad Air, and that switch means that it feels like a modern device instead of a throwback.

It’s also one of the most enjoyable computing experiences you can get. iPadOS may not have the versatility of a full desktop OS like Windows or macOS, but it’s a lot more relaxing to use. 

The 2020 iPad Air and new iPad Mini have the same design and shape as the iPad Pro
The 2020 iPad Air has the same design and shape as the 11-inch iPad Pro.

iPad Air design

The new iPad Air for 2020 switches over to the squared-off sides and rounded-corner display we first saw on the iPad Pro in 2018. It’s the exact same size and shape as the 11-inch model. Back then, Nilay Patel said this design is “kind of brutal looking — almost like a reference design.” I’ve gotten used to it in the intervening years and apparently so has Apple. The new iPhone 12 and 12 Pro bear a familial resemblance.

The screen is .1 inch smaller than the 11-inch iPad Pro
The screen is .1 inch smaller than the 11-inch iPad Pro.
The iPad Air now works with 11-inch iPad Pro accessories.
The iPad Air now works with 11-inch iPad Pro accessories.
It also (only) works with the newer style of the Apple Pencil
It also (only) works with the newer style of the Apple Pencil.
There’s a single 12-megapixel wide-angle camera on the back. It is fairly good, but shouldn’t drive your purchasing decision one way or the other.
There’s a single 12-megapixel wide-angle camera on the back. It is fairly good but shouldn’t drive your purchasing decision one way or the other.

The hardware’s job on a tablet is to disappear, and it does so fairly well here. If you’d like some more character, though, Apple is offering some new colors for the anodized aluminum frame. In addition to the usual silver, gray, and rose gold, there’s now green and a subtle light blue.

The iPad Air also makes the switch over from Lightning to USB-C for charging, just like the Pro. I applaud this move wholeheartedly — USB-C is a more universal port and it opens up the iPad to more accessories, including some of the same dongles you might already use on your laptop. (And yes, I wish the iPhone 12 had done the same).

If you’re switching over from an older iPad, though, be aware that the cable is different. Also be aware that this new design means the iPad Air uses the iPad Pro-style accessories. The old Lightning-based Apple Pencil won’t work here, nor will old keyboards or cases. 

Instead, you have the far superior second-generation Apple Pencil and a choice of a couple of keyboards from Apple. The fancier keyboard option is the Magic Keyboard, which includes a trackpad and backlighting for $299. The regular Smart Keyboard Folio is still fine, and it’s lighter, too; it costs $179. There are also more keyboard options from Logitech and others. Now that the iPad Air has it, maybe we’ll see this back-mounted smart connector get a real ecosystem of accessories.   

One last design note: the front camera is still on the side when you hold the iPad in landscape. So prepare to have your eyes looking way off to the right or left when you’re on Zoom calls. Or prepare for your camera not to be on at all, since iPadOS turns it off as soon as you start to do any kind of multitasking. 

Other than the new colors, there are really only two exterior differences between the Pro and the Air, both of them subtle. The first is that the Air’s screen is technically smaller: 10.9 inches diagonally instead of 11. That’s a touch odd but not really noticeable. The second is that instead of Face ID cameras, the iPad Air has Touch ID embedded in the power button.

TouchID is on the power button now. It takes some getting used to but works well
Touch ID is on the power button now. It takes some getting used to but works well.

Touch ID on the power button

That’s right, for the first time Apple is putting its fingerprint sensor on the power button (technically, it’s called the “Top button;” I have many opinions about what this button should be called, which I will spare you from). It’s a little bit larger than other iPad buttons but not that big.

It works well but a little differently than I expected — which is probably because I’ve been trained so heavily by the tap-to-wake fingerprint sensors on Android phones. Just like the old Touch ID sensor on the home button, you need to click down the power button and then let your finger rest on it for a beat. Bam, you’re unlocked. (And yes, it’s a real button.)

But something about it being placed on the power button threw me at first. As with the home button version, if you press down too long you get Siri. If you don’t leave your finger on long enough, it won’t unlock and will give you a little reminder to “Rest to Open.” 

It unlocked the iPad quickly, conveniently, and securely. You won’t miss the home button on your old iPad once you get used to it along with the swiping navigation that’s now required to go home and multitask.

The new iPad Air with Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil
The new iPad Air with Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil.

iPad Air specs and processor

I’m not going to go down an entire benchmarking rabbit hole about the new A14 Bionic processor on the 2020 iPad Air even though I’m sorely tempted to. It’s made with a new 5nm process, which means it has the potential to pack more transistors in the same space and also have lots of power efficiency gains. 

It’s tempting because this A14 Bionic processor is not only the same one that’s in the new iPhone 12 models, it’s also widely expected to be very similar to the chip that will power Apple’s upcoming ARM-based Macs. So I fully expect there to be a wash of articles detailing the many benchmark results you can get on this chip and what they could portend for the future.

It’s also tempting because the A14 Bionic is newer and in some ways faster than the 7nm A12Z Bionic chip in the current iPad Pros, which were only just released in May. However, the comparison isn’t apples-to-apples (pardon the pun). These chips differ in their cores and GPUs, and iPadOS is very good at taking advantage of those.

Okay, I gave in and ran just one benchmark, a Geekbench 5 Pro test. The results are that this iPad Air is very fast. It is fast enough to do everything you want to do with an iPad today and will likely continue to be fast for several years to come.  

The 2020 iPad Air’s single core results are impressive, but don’t tell the whole story
The 2020 iPad Air’s single core results are impressive, but they don’t tell the whole story.
Geekbench 5 Pro compute benchmark results
Geekbench 5 Pro compute benchmark results

It does show that the iPad Air is faster than the iPad Pro in at least one regard — a single-core Geekbench score of 1580 handily beats the performance you will get out of an iPad Pro. But the iPad Pro has higher scores on other metrics. My advice: if you know exactly why you need a more powerful GPU or CPU on an iPad, wait for the next iPad Pro to get this new A14 chip or something like it. 

If all you care about is that the iPad Air is fast and that it will let you do both iPad things and lots of real-work things, then yes: it can do that.

Battery life is also exactly what I’ve come to expect from an iPad. It’s possible to drain the battery down if you use it as a work computer, but it will get you to dinner for sure. If you use it more lightly, as an entertainment tablet, you should expect it to go two or three days before needing to worry.

My biggest complaint is about storage. The base $599 model has 64GB, which is a good enough amount today but may feel cramped over time. That’s not the complaint, though. The complaint is that there’s no 128GB option — to get more storage you have to spend $150 more for 256GB. At $749, you’re just $50 away from the 128GB 11-inch iPad Pro and you may as well just get that one. (Come to think of it, that’s maybe not an accident.)

Compared to the iPad Pro, here’s what you’re missing out on with the iPad Air: a processor optimized for GPU-intensive tasks, Face ID, a ProMotion high-refresh rate screen, an ultrawide camera, a LIDAR scanner, and quad speakers.

Of those, the only thing I miss is the high-refresh rate screen, but I suspect most people won’t be bothered by it at all. The screen still looks great and animations on iPadOS are smooth even without 120Hz. The iPad Air has stereo speakers in landscape mode and they sound good, so the loss of two more isn’t huge.

The 2020 iPad Air in blue
The 2020 iPad Air in blue.

It does sting a little that Apple raised the price by $100 compared to last year’s iPad Air, but it’s also a great tablet and a very good computer. I am still annoyed that the iPad can’t support multiple users, but that may not bother everybody as much as it does me.

I think that if you can afford the $599 price, you should definitely get it instead of the basic $329 iPad. Although that base iPad is quite good, it is beginning to look a little stale (and it too has its own storage configuration problems). 

For me, one of the biggest reasons to use an iPad instead of another computer is that it’s just a nicer experience. You can pad around your house with it, attach or detach a keyboard, and almost never really have to worry about it crashing or slowing down. Apple has allowed iPadOS to grow a little more complicated in recent years, but it’s still a more chill computing environment than the Mac, Windows 10, or Chrome OS.

And the iPad Air epitomizes that niceness with its new design. Chances are if you’re buying an iPad, you’re going to keep it for many years, and so spending more on a nicer product is going to pay off more in the long run than it would for, say, a phone that might only last you two or three.

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