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Apple iPad Air (2020) review: The iPad Pro for everyone else

iPad Air 4

Apple iPad Air (4th gen)

“The iPad Air 4 is the iPad Pro for the masses. It's perfectly situated to offer an exceptional tablet experience, without pushing into the territory of high-end laptop pricing.”
  • Excellent hardware design
  • Strong battery life and USB-C
  • Wonderful display
  • Pro-level performance
  • Magic Keyboard support
  • Fast fingerprint sensor
  • Base 64GB of storage
  • Expensive upsell to 256GB
MSRP $599.00

On the face of it, the new iPad Air (4th gen) looks like a perfect Goldilocks iPad. Compared to the base iPad, it has dramatically better specs, a completely new design, a much better display, and double the base storage. At the same time, it’s $200 cheaper than the 11-inch iPad Pro, but looks and feels nearly identical, and in all practical purposes offers the same core experience, including support for the Apple Pencil 2 and Magic Keyboard.

So for $599, is the new iPad Air the tablet to get? Actually, it just may be the best value you can get in an iPad today.

Hardware, design, and display

Apple did an exceptional job with the design of the latest iPad Pros, so I’m not upset in the slightest that the iPad Air is a carbon copy. The metal body is perfectly flat across the back — save for the camera bump — and runs into flat sides. It just feels fresh and modern compared to the old curvy style — particularly now that it fits with the iPhone 12’s design. It’s also available in a wider variety of colors, which are much more playful than any prior iPad. Even though most people will go for a boring color like my Space Gray model, you can go bright if you want to express your personality a bit. (The iPad Pro is stuck with gray and silver, for now.)

iPad Air 4
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

It’s reasonable to think that the design would be tough on your hand, but it isn’t. The transitions from back to side are nice and smooth, and the corners have a wide radius, so it’s quite comfortable whether you’re just propping it up with one hand or holding it in landscape mode with two. And with its extremely light 1-pound weight, which is evenly distributed, it definitely earns its “Air” moniker.

Because it’s missing Face ID from the Pro, you’ll find a Touch ID fingerprint sensor integrated into the power button. It’s positioned well to use with your right index finger when holding it vertically, and your left index finger when horizontal. And the initial setup process makes it clear that you need to teach it both directions. Following that quick tutorial, the sensor was fast and accurate. While it may not be as seamless as Face ID, it’s a perfectly usable authentication method — and it no longer requires a large screen bezel to be embedded in the home button.

iPad Air 4
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

The 10.9-inch display is simply wonderful. There’s just enough bezel around it to easily get a grip with your thumb when needed, but it’s not so big that it feels clunky. It isn’t the same display as the iPad Pro, but to most people’s eyes, it looks like it could be. It has the same pixel density, super-low reflectivity, wide color gamut, and True Tone color adjustment. It’s technically not as bright, but I never had trouble seeing the screen indoors or outdoors. The fact that it’s a laminated display and has incredibly low reflectivity means that even in direct sun, you can still use it easily.

The hardware is perfect, and the display is simply wonderful.

The only flaw, if you could call it that, I found is a bit of white-pink color shift when the screen is viewed a bit off-axis, which really only comes into play if someone sitting next to you is also looking at the tablet. You could also point to the fact that this display has just a 60Hz refresh rate, not the dynamic 120Hz “Pro Motion” of the iPad Pro. If you’re used to an iPad Pro, you’ll notice; if you are used to any other iPad, you’d never complain because iPadOS is so smooth, it really helps make up the difference.

Another Pro-level feature of the Air is its speakers. You get an equal-sized pair of speakers split on the sides (in landscape) for balanced sound that can get incredibly loud. The placement makes it nearly impossible to block all of the sound, and the 50/50 split makes it much more immersive for video watching.

Whether it was just taking the easy way out or a stroke of genius, making the iPad Air compatible with existing iPad Pro keyboard accessories is a huge benefit. That means the existing $179 keyboard folio (which is nicer than the one for the base iPad, by the way) and the absurdly expensive but completely amazing $299 Magic Keyboard work with the Air. Chances are if the Air had a distinct design, it’d be stuck with just a folio and not get its own version of the Magic Keyboard.

The iPad Air almost requires a keyboard — and that’ll set you back at least $170.

I opted to get a regular folio with my Air because I think that spending $300 on a keyboard for a $600 iPad is absurd. But I can easily see the argument that by saving $200 from not getting the iPad Pro, you can justify that steep price tag. And if you’re going to use the iPad Air for any semblance of work or computer-like tasks, you absolutely need a keyboard. The keyboard folio definitely gets the job done, and I’m able to type on it very quickly, but I wish one of its two stand angles was flatter. It also suffers from the same problem as all keyboarded iPads (sans the Magic Keyboard) in that it can be a bit wobbly when actually using it on your lap. That’s just part of trying to make an iPad into a laptop-level productivity machine.

Another slightly awkward part of that horizontal-first use is the front-facing camera, which is on the lefthand side when you’re docked on the keyboard. The 7-megapixel sensor is fine and fully gets the job done for video calls with 1080p resolution, but having it off to the left — making it look like you’re not paying attention — always feels weird compared to a laptop.

Software, features, and battery life

We all know the details of iPadOS 14 at this point. Coming from any other iPad, you’ll feel right at home on the Air. But with this big screen and extra power at your disposal, you’ll want to refresh your knowledge of the myriad multitasking gestures available in iPadOS. Without knowing how to open split view and lide Over for multi-window management, or the gestures to quickly hop between apps and pull up the dock without going home, you really miss out on the power of this machine. While iPadOS continues to struggle with approachability, there’s no real affordance to learn all of its capabilities. But once you do, you’ll be surprised by how much you can get done.

iPad Air 4
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

And you certainly can get a lot done on the Air, thanks to its A14 Bionic chip that’s shared with the iPhone 12. It’s technically faster for single-core performance than the iPad Pro’s A12Z, though it’s also technically a tad behind for multi-core performance. Regardless, you wouldn’t know the difference — the iPad Air flies through any task. You really only hit a limitation if you’re using an intense graphical app and cycling through Slide Over apps — but that’s just a subtle delay. It’s likely due to the Air having only 4GB of RAM (memory), to the iPad Pro’s 6GB.

Apple talks a big game with the multi-camera array, and LiDAR sensor, on the iPad Pro, but for most people the simple single 12MP camera on the Air will be more than enough for the occasional snap. Despite hopes that the high-end cameras and depth sensing would turn the iPad Pro into some sort of revolutionary AR device for gaming and doing interior design work, it simply hasn’t. A vast majority of people will be happy that the Air has a smaller camera bulge, and the price is lower.

The only spec actually holding the iPad Air back is its storage, which is a meager 64GB in the base model. And there’s only one upgrade option: 256GB, for $150 extra. Having an upsell for more storage that’s 25% of the base price is really rough, especially when you look at the simple storage upgrade on something like the iPhone 12, which charges just $50 to go from 64GB to 128GB.

That being said, I’m using only 22GB of my 64GB model after two weeks, but perhaps I’m not the heaviest iPad user because it’s a secondary device to my MacBook Pro. But if you’re aiming to use an iPad Air like most would a Pro, loading up huge “pro” apps and lots of media content, that storage could vanish quickly. Alternatively, I suppose you could really lean into iCloud — that $150 upsell charge could cover a 200GB storage plan for over four years.

There’s more than enough power here, and battery life continues to be an iPad strong suit.

The key benefit of using an iPad over a similarly priced laptop is battery. The iPad Air can easily handle the heaviest day of work, with 6-plus hours of “screen-on” time, and no battery mitigation measures, and still have plenty of battery remaining. Simple tasks like just streaming video or browsing barely touch the battery, and iPadOS continues to be fantastic at using barely any power when not actively in use. Considering very few people are using the Air as their only computing device, there’s no doubt that it can be part of your device usage every day and go multiple days on a charge.

And my goodness — I’m way too excited about this, but I don’t care — the iPad Air now charges over USB-C! Yes, now I can charge my Air with the same exact cable and charger I use with my MacBook and Android phones. Yes, I have an iPhone and so there are Lightning cables around, but my apartment is littered with USB-C cables of all lengths and types, and it just makes it dead-simple to charge my iPad. It also has the knock-on effect of letting me charge phones from the iPad, which is actually really nice to have in a pinch.

For your hefty $599 price tag, you also get a 20-watt USB-C charging brick in the box, as well as a nice (albeit short) USB-C cable. But I doubt I’ll ever touch them.

Our take

The base iPad is a tablet you buy as an appliance — something you need, but you’re not excited about. The new iPad Air is a tablet you buy as an aspirational tool — you desire to have it, and you’ll strive to make the most of its capabilities when it arrives. And it has to chops to handle a whole lot of what you’ll throw at it.

The hardware is superb, as is the display, and nothing about the design or feeling in your hands makes you think for a second that you saved $200 over an iPad Pro. Apple perfectly trimmed the parts of the iPad Pro that most people won’t care about, and kept everything else that makes it great, including Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard support. Pair it with a keyboard, and learn the quirks of iPadOS, and you can even turn this into a pretty capable laptop replacement — so long as you know its limitations, which are in the software far more than the ultracapable specs.

The only knock against the Air is in its pricing if you don’t want to get a keyboard and push the limits of the A14 Bionic. If this is going to just be a tablet for media consumption and casual browsing, $599 is a steep price and the extra capabilities of this hardware will be lost on you. But just knowing you can do much more could be enough to make you spend the money and get this, the best all-around iPad model.

Are there better alternatives?

There are only two alternatives to the iPad Air, and only one is a reasonable comparison. You can spend $429 on an iPad (8th gen) with 128GB of storage, but frankly it isn’t a proper competitor. The base iPad is a fine tablet for a lot of uses, but it isn’t in the same league in terms of performance or display quality, and doesn’t at all exude the sense of being high-end in the way the iPad Air and Pro do. It also isn’t compatible with the Apple Pencil 2 or the Magic Keyboard.

So the real decision here is between the iPad Air and 11-inch iPad Pro, which starts at $799. For that money, you get 128GB of storage, as well as Face ID, a 120Hz ProMotion display, and additional cameras. But otherwise, in the core features and fundamentals of what most people will use the iPad for, the experience really isn’t appreciably different. Just like buying an iPhone 12 Pro or a MacBook Pro, you’re spending quite a bit extra to eke out that last bit of extra power, performance, and features over the base model.

How long will it last?

One of the big benefits of buying an iPad of any level is excellent long-term software support. You can expect the iPad Air to get another five versions of iPadOS, if you’re so inclined to hang onto it for that long. And better yet, with the iPad Air’s incredibly powerful A14 chipset, it’ll be able to run those future iPadOS versions without any issue.

Should you buy it?

Yes. If you’ve been eyeing an iPad Pro but didn’t want to spend that much money, the iPad Air is a great place to land. You’ll get most of the experience of an 11-inch iPad Pro, but save a considerable amount of money. However, if you can’t get the iPad Pro from the back of the mind, you can always wait for the Black Friday iPad deals that are around the corner.

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