Apple iPad Air review

If Apple wanted to sell iPad Pros, it shouldn’t have made the iPad Air this good

The iPad Air excels in entertaining but is also a reliable companion for professionals.
The iPad Air excels in entertaining but is also a reliable companion for professionals.
The iPad Air excels in entertaining but is also a reliable companion for professionals.

Highs

  • Excellent 10.5-inch screen
  • Fantastic performance
  • Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard support
  • Great battery life
  • Helpful multitasking features

Lows

  • Dull design
  • Fast charging cable and adapter not included
  • No second-gen Apple Pencil support

Apple’s iPad Pro used to sit around the $650 mark, but the latest models introduced in 2018 jacked the prices up to $800 and $1,000. If you want a premium, large-screen iPad, but don’t want to shell out a ton of money, the new third-generation iPad Air is your best choice.

It’s powerful, has a 10.5-inch screen, and supports the Smart Keyboard as well as the Apple Pencil.  If the iPad Pro range is appallingly expensive, the $500 iPad Air is next in line as the more affordable tablet for professionals.

Similar design, great display

If the iPad Air looks familiar, well, there are good reasons why. Not only does it follow the same design language Apple has been using for several years, but the dimensions are exactly the same as the 2017 iPad Pro. Both have a 10.5-inch screen, and the length, width, and thickness are identical. The difference is in weight. The Pro weighs 1.03 pounds, whereas the Air shaves it down to just 1 pound.

Apple iPad Air
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The 2017 iPad Pro is no longer available from Apple, so the new iPad Air is effectively replacing it. I’d love to see a design refresh similar to the 2018 iPad Pro, which has slimmer bezels around the screen and Face ID, but you’ll have to cough up a lot more money if you want that. The design here is safe and uninspiring. I don’t feel anything when I stare at the iPad Air, unlike the new iPad Pro, which prompts a feeling of awe.

Samsung made the Galaxy Tab S5e look modern and sexy, and it costs less than the new iPad Air. It’s a shame Apple couldn’t do the same. Still, not everyone will be put off by the chunky bezels, as they do make the tablet easy to hold.

There isn’t much to complain about with the iPad Air’s screen.

The aluminum frame feels well-built and cool to the touch. You may be happy to hear there is a headphone jack, which is absent on any iPad Pro. A Lightning port sits at the bottom flanked by speakers. There’s no alert slider, just a power button at the top, next to a volume rocker on the right edge. The buttons are clicky and easy to access.

Surprisingly, the stereo speakers sound impressive. They’re loud, well-balanced, and while they might not fill a whole room at a party, they will satisfy most people. The iPad Pro offers a quad speaker setup, so if plan of listening to a lot of music with a tablet, then it may be worth going for it over the Air (alternatively, you could buy a Bluetooth speaker).

Face ID may be the norm for most iOS devices today, but Touch ID is still alive. It’s here on the iPad Air, and using it to unlock the tablet is snappy. Face ID is faster and more convenient, but when a tablet is flat on a desk, Touch ID wins. You can just place a finger on the button without having to pick up the Air.

Apple iPad Air
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The 10.5-inch LCD screen is a highlight. It’s bright enough to see in sunny conditions, and it looks sharp. It has 2,224 by 1,668 resolution (264 pixels per inch), which sounds low, but the screen looks crisp when viewed at a normal distance. The Galaxy Tab S5e has a higher resolution and more pixels per inch (287 ppi), but you won’t notice much of a difference.

Apple has added wide color gamut support, so the screen shows more colors for a richer viewing experience. There’s also support for True Tone Display, which changes the tone of the screen based on the lighting conditions you’re in.

Apple iPad Air
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Overall, there isn’t much to complain about. Episodes of Netflix’s ‘Love, Death and Robots’ look great on the large screen, with vivid colors, sharp-looking scenes, and dark blacks that create plenty of contrast.

The iPad Air’s size is another plus. I like the iPad Mini because it’s compact and easy to carry around. The Air can’t quite match this, but it’s still small enough to stow in a small backpack and take anywhere. Its size is a great blend of productivity and portability.

Speedy performance, tablet-optimized software

The same processor that powers the new iPad Mini, iPhone XS, and iPhone XR sits inside the iPad Air — the A12 Bionic chip — and boy it’s fast. From playing games like Civilization VI and Hello Neighbor to transitioning through several apps and multi-tasking, the iPad Air hasn’t stuttered for a second.

It has plenty of power for any task you throw at it, though if you do need more, you’ll want to look at the 2018 iPad Pro, which has the A12X Bionic chip. For most people, the power the iPad Air provides will be more than enough.

Here are our benchmark results:

  • AnTuTu 3DBench: 377,908
  • Geekbench 4 CPU: 4,806 single-core; 11,461 multi-core

These scores are among the highest we’ve seen on a tablet recently, with only the iPad Pro besting the iPad Air. Samsung’s flagship Galaxy Tab S4 doesn’t come close to the iPad Air’s scores, and it costs more. I didn’t find the Galaxy Tab S4 to be slow at all, but push these tablets to their limits, and the iPad Air will race ahead.

The Air also has an edge because iOS on a tablet is far more optimized, with more apps supporting a larger tablet interface, than anything you’ll find on Android. Everything looks much nicer on the slate. There are still some apps that have yet to add iPad support, though, with Instagram being one of the biggest offenders.

iOS is fluid and polished, and it enriches the experience of using the iPad Air.

The gesture interface makes it easy to navigate with the large screen, and there are several multitasking features that makes the iPad Air more versatile. Split View, for example, lets you use two apps at once side-by-side, and the 10.5-inch screen means there’s a good deal of information you can see from both. You can even drag-and-drop between apps, though I haven’t found much of a need to use this feature.

The dock, which you can customize to show select apps and see recently-used apps, is my favorite feature, as you can bring it up whatever app you’re in. It’s easier to switch to another app using it, and it also makes initiating multitasking modes fast.

iOS is fluid and polished, and it enriches the experience of using the iPad Air.

Getting work done with the Smart Keyboard

So, you want to get stuff done on the iPad Air? You’re in luck. Apple’s Smart Keyboard works with this model (unlike the iPad Mini), so you can attach the $160 accessory to bang out some work. I prefer mechanical keyboards with more key travel, and I think it’s too expensive, but it gets the job done.

I wrote this entire review on the iPad Air with the Smart Keyboard, and the experience was mostly smooth. My hands did feel a little cramped after typing for hours, but responding to Slack notifications, emails, and private messages was fluid thanks to iOS.

Apple iPad Air
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

That said, I’m not as fast as I would be working on my desktop or laptop. See all these links in this review? I added them on my desktop after finishing the first draft on the iPad Air because linking on a touchscreen is painful. As I said with the $800 iPad Pro, the lack of a trackpad or mouse support makes working on iPads a problem in certain situations.

I wouldn’t take the iPad Air with me to a press event. But for light work it’s perfect, and when I’m done, it transforms into an entertainment powerhouse with all the games available on the App Store and a screen large enough for a pleasurable movie-watching experience.

If the Smart Keyboard is out of your budget, there are third-party keyboards and cases you can buy for the iPad Air that won’t break the bank.

Apple Pencil

Then there’s the Apple Pencil. Everything I said about it in my iPad Mini review applies here too. I love drawing with it. It’s responsive, there’s great palm rejection technology so I can rest my hands anywhere on the screen while drawing, and pressure sensitivity means I can make lines thick or thin by pressing harder on the screen.

My problems stem from having used the newer, second-gen Apple Pencil. Only the first-gen Apple Pencil works with the iPad Air. The newer version of Pencil only works with the 2018 iPad Pro. The second-gen version is matte, has a flat edge for more comfort, and can magnetically attach to the tablet and wirelessly charge.

Apple iPad Air
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I currently just toss the first-gen Apple Pencil in my backpack and hope for the best. I’ve misplaced it once already, and I am frequently worried about snapping it off when it’s plugged into the iPad Air’s Lightning port for a recharge. Apple could have improved the experience by going with the second-gen Apple Pencil. It’s so disappointing.

It’s good to remember that the Pencil, like the Smart Keyboard, doesn’t come with the iPad Air. It’s an extra $99.

Camera and augmented reality

Your smartphone camera is most likely better than the camera on the tablet, but there are people that will still use a tablet to take photos on vacation. The 8-megapixel camera on the iPad Air will do the job, but don’t expect impressive results. It does a decent job with HDR and photos captured in well-lit environments looks detailed and colorful. Zoom in and you’ll find image quality isn’t as great, and it start to deteriorate as the sun goes down.

Still, it’s adequate for capturing images of documents and the like. The 7-megapixel selfie camera is similarly decent for capturing selfies or for video chatting.

Apple iPad Air
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

More and more, however, Apple is talking about the cameras on its iPads being used for augmented reality (AR). And indeed, they offer a much better experience over a phone, because the screen is big enough to see more virtual artifacts. I think the iPad Mini is one of the best tablets for AR, as its compact enough to hold with one hand, but the iPad Air comes close.

Navigating the protagonist in Euclidean Skies while moving around with the tablet in a room can be a little tiring, but it’s fun. I also walked around my apartment and used the IKEA Place AR app to place true-to-scale furniture in my home to get a better sense of they would look. It was a seamless experience and was genuinely helpful in my purchasing decision. The larger screen on the Air over the Mini does help even if it’s a little heavier, but you can likely use AR apps for a longer period on the Mini before your arms get tired.

Satisfactory battery life

The iPad Air should get you through a full work day with medium usage. That involves using it to write, read, play a few games or stream some video. Use it a little bit a day, and you can stretch it for two to three days.

If you plan on using it to binge watch as many Netflix shows as you can, then it will last around 6 hours and 13 minutes — that’s according to our battery test, where we played a 10-hour video on YouTube over Wi-Fi, with the brightness set to the max. That’s much better than the battery life of the new iPad Mini, which lasted around 4 hours and 45 minutes.

Apple includes a USB-A to Lightning cable in the box along with an adapter you can use the charge the iPad Air. It took us 3 hours and 45 minutes to take it from 0 to 100 percent. It’s disappointing that Apple couldn’t include a fast charging USB-C to Lightning cable and adapter to cut the recharge time, as the iPad supports it.

Price, availability, and warranty information

The iPad Air costs $500 and it’s available now for purchase. The cellular model starts at $629, and the cost to maintain a data plan will vary on your carrier, though it usually sits around $10 a month. You can choose between silver, space gray, and gold color options. The base storage is 64GB, but there’s a 256GB model that starts at $649 as well.

Apple offers a standard limited one-year warranty that covers manufacturer defects, and not much more. You can add AppleCare+ for $3.49 a month up to 24 months (or $69) to get two years of tech support and accidental damage coverage.

Our Take

The iPad Air excels in entertaining but can also act as a reliable work companion. If you want a great tablet experience without wanting to drop the same amount of money you spent on your phone, this is the tablet to buy.

Is there a better alternative?

The iPad Air sits in a tricky place in Apple’s iPad lineup. For most people, the 9.7-inch iPad from 2018, which costs $330 (and can be found for less), is more than powerful enough for most everyday tasks. The 7.9-inch iPad Mini is easier to recommend, as it’s built for people looking for a small tablet. The $800 and $1,000 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro tablets are for those who want to replace a laptop, or for creatives looking for a big canvas.

So, who should buy the iPad Air? People looking for a compact slate that can stand in for a laptop when they need to do a little work. This person also wants to enjoy watching movies and shows on a big screen. The lack of a product between the $500 to $800 range means that for most people looking for a powerful, large-screen tablet, the iPad Air is the best bet.

The Huawei MediaPad M5 Pro is a decent alternative that costs a little less than the iPad Air, but as is the case with all Android tablets, you’re not going to get as polished of a tablet experience as you are with iOS. The same applies to the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4, though I’d argue it’s slightly better for productivity as you can use a Bluetooth mouse for more precision. There’s also the Galaxy Tab S5e, which costs $400, but it’s not as powerful.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Microsoft Surface Go, which starts at just $400. It’s a 2-in-1, so you get a tablet that can connect to a keyboard when you want to work. It excels where the iPad Air does not — in offering a great experience for cranking out a lot of work. Its tablet experience, though, is lacking. Check out our guide to the best tablets for more.

How long will it last?

The iPad Air should last four to five years if you take care of it. The battery will likely start to degrade after a few years, which is when you will want to upgrade. But Apple often offers software updates for devices past their prime that will keep this Air going if you don’t mind the reduced battery life.

Should you buy it?

Yes. For people looking for a big-screen tablet they can also use for some work, the iPad Air is a great choice.

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