Looking up and down Apple's revised iPad lineup, the newly reborn iPad Air appears to remix all of the company's best tablet features together. The iPad Air packs Apple's fast A12 Bionic chip and support for the Smart Keyboard, a first for a non-Pro iPad. And at $499, it's half the price of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and $170 more than the regular iPad.
Its bright, colorful, crisp 10.5-inch screen falls in a particularly sweet spot as well, giving you a great canvas for multitasking and gaming. Toss in fantastic battery life, and you get one of the best tablets and best kids tablets we've seen in a while.
iPad Air price and availability
The iPad Air starts at $499 with 64GB of storage, which is enough for most, especially those that store photos and files in an iCloud account. A 256GB storage option is available at $649.
You can upgrade to cellular LTE connectivity for an extra $130, a perk I've been begging Apple to offer on the next MacBook Pro. This would mean the difference between relying on airport Wi-Fi, or carrying a hotspot everywhere, as not everyone has a cellular plan that includes mobile hotspot capabilities.
The iPad Air supports Apple's $99 iPad Pencil (1st Gen) and a $159 Smart Keyboard cover.
The new iPad Air is a larger iPad, which makes it a much-larger iPad mini, which is to say we're all familiar with this machined aluminium design (available in silver, space gray and gold). Sure, its side bezels are slimmer than those of the original 2012 iPad Air, but if I were packing a bag in a rush, I might not notice the difference.
This isn't a bad thing, mind you, as the top and bottom bezels (also called the forehead and chin), look a lot less chunky on this 10.5-inch design than on the new 7.9-inch iPad Mini.
The new 10.5-inch iPad Air weighs 1 pound and measures 9.8 x 6.8 x 0.24 inches, which makes it heavier than, but just as thin as, the new 7.9-inch iPad mini (0.68 ounces / 8 x 5.3 x .24 inches). It's a hair lighter and thinner than the 9.7-inch iPad (1.05 pounds, 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.29 inches) and the 10.1-inch Lenovo Tab 4 10 Plus (1.1 pounds, 9.7 x 6.8 x 0.28 inches).
With the Smart Keyboard attached, the iPad Air measures a slightly chunkier 0.5 inches and weighs about 50 percent more, at 1.56 pounds. Having carried the iPad Air around with and without its Smart Keyboard, I prefer holding it with the attached accessory, which provides a grippier surface.
While I'd love the iPad Air to ditch its Lightning port for the USB Type-C port seen in the iPad Pro, I'm happy its other "retro" port -- the 3.5mm headphone jack -- is still around. I'm not sure why this tablet gets a feature that the iPad Pro doesn't, but I'm not complaining. The Touch ID fingerprint sensor has also stuck around (Face ID has yet to replace it), and still unlocks the tablet almost instantly.
When watching a 4K version of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse on the iPad Air, I was giddy with the tablet's image quality. The red-and-blue hues of young Miles Morales' Spider-Man costume popped off the screen as he interrogated Peter B. Parker. Skipping around the movie, I stopped in awe when I saw the seafoam-green walls of Kingpin's Super Collider, which looked absolutely electric on the screen.
The dark corners of the subway tunnels in the movie looked pretty rich to me, despite the iPad Air not using an OLED display. The iPad Air's 2224 x 1668-pixel panel is also great for crisp images, as those tiny Ben-Day dots that permeate every object and person in the Spider-Verse look extremely sharp on this 264 pixel-per-inch display.
According to our colorimeter, the iPad Air produces a high 132 percent of the sRGB spectrum, which jumps over the 116 percent average, the 119 percent rating from the 9.7-inch iPad and the 109 percent rating from the Lenovo Tab 4 10 Plus. The new iPad mini posted a slightly higher 135 percent.
The iPad Air's screen gets pretty bright, emitting up to 425 nits of brightness, besting the 409-nit category average and the 400-nit Lenovo Tab 4 10 Plus. The new iPad mini (490 nits) and the 9.7-inch iPad (489 nits) get even brighter. The Air's screen is so bright that it offers a superb range of viewing angles, with colors looking true even when I'm examining its panel from 85 degrees to the left or right.
As I've navigated the iPad Air's home screen and apps with taps and swipes, I've noticed that this touch-screen display continues Apple's history of excellent input-tracking accuracy. You'll appreciate that responsiveness as you drag apps up from the dock for split-view and swipe them in and out for a third "slide-over" app.
Smart Keyboard, Apple Pencil
The iPad Air is the first tablet outside the iPad Pro line to both support the Apple Pencil and feature a Smart Connector for use with Apple's Smart Keyboard cover. And while I'm delighted to see these two perks finally arrive, it just makes me want more.
The iPad's Air Smart Keyboard ($159 extra) offers a decent typing experience. Despite its keys being quite shallow, with 1.1 millimeters of travel (we look for at least 1.5 mm), I was able to type comfortably at 73 words per minute (with 98 percent accuracy) on the 10FastFingers.com typing test. That's below my regular 80 words per minute (98 percent accuracy) average, but I'm OK with the trade-offs.
The biggest issue with the Smart Keyboard is its high price, especially since this is not the latest version of the keyboard. Fortunately, you can pair this tablet with any Bluetooth keyboard, though the benefit of the Smart Keyboard is how neatly it folds into the tablet as a display cover for travel.
The iPad Air supports the Apple Pencil ($99 extra), which works just as well as ever. When I handed the tablet and stylus to my colleague Remy Zimmerman, a graphic designer, she whipped together a gorgeous-looking avocado in the Procreate drawing app, mixing greens, yellows and browns together in the app while drawing a mix of thin and wide strokes on screen.
I wish the Air supported the 2nd Gen Apple Pencil, which is currently limited to the iPad Pro. Sure, that device only charges via magnetic connections, and there's no such edge on the iPad Air's design. But its matte barrel feels much more natural than the glossy (and a bit too slick) 1st Gen Apple Pencil. Plus, the process of connecting the Apple Pencil to the Lightning port on the bottom of the iPad Air still feels awkward, like something's going to break.
The iPad Air's A12 Bionic system-on-chip (which features a Neural Engine for machine learning and the M12 co-processor) provides plenty of speed for such apps as Procreate and Pixelmator Photos to enable snappy creative experiences. This processor can also handle more-traditional laptop-like usage as well. Splitting its screen between the Bear text editor and nine tabs in Safari, I was able to quickly jump, without any stuttering, between tabs about Tucson, Arizona, and plan out my upcoming trip, even with the Music app active as the third slide-over app.
I found the limits of the Air only by switching the third open app to YouTube, where I opened a 1080p clip from the VideoGameDunkey channel. Then, I saw Safari tabs taking a moment to refresh when I reopened them by clicking Cmd+Tab to cycle through open pages.
On the Geekbench 4 general-performance test, the iPad Air notched a solid 11,471, more than twice the 5,600 tablet average. The new iPad mini (also packing the A12 and M12 chips) scored a similar 11,515, while we saw a lower 5,983 from the 9.7-inch iPad (Apple A10 Fusion) and a 4,097 from the Lenovo Tab 4 10 Plus (Qualcomm Snapdragon 625).
The iPad Air is one of the best tablets for gaming, thanks to its speed, large screen, access to a wide range of iOS games and its augmented reality perks. As I played NBA 2K Mobile I was impressed by the visual effects, including the beads of sweat on the neck and back of Frank Ntilikina, who moved smoothly up and down the court at Madison Square Garden. (The fans, on the other hand, looked realistically bored and disappointed with the ever-underperforming squad).
Indie game Donut County, where you navigate a sinkhole around California, looks even better on the iPad Air's 10.5-inch screen than it does on my iPhone XS Max. Even as phones get larger and larger, apps just look better on larger canvases, where you have more space to enjoy the cartoonish visuals of a giant donut shop and its workers falling through the earth.
I also got to enjoy a couple of augmented-reality apps on the iPad Air. In Avo!, I doodled lines on my screen to direct an avocado with googly eyes around my coffee table, and in Ghostbusters World, Slimer appeared in my bedroom, where I got to zap him on screen when he levitated in front of my TV. In each app, the AR objects handled object-detection well, and moved fluidly without issue.
On the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited test, the iPad Air earned a great 77,385, easily toppling the 26,854 tablet average, the 37,117 from the 9.7-inch iPad and the 13,801 from the Lenovo Tab 4 10 Plus.
One of the most impressive apps I've tested on the iPad Air is Pixelmator Photo, currently in its final beta, which provides a really neat trick. Its ML button applies Machine Learning-based intelligence based on thousands of improved photos to instantly make your photos look starkly more realistic. (That's where the A12 Bionic chip comes in.)
Testing it out on a photo of a nightclub I shot in a back alley in London, a tap of the ML button instantly fixed the white balance of the image. Because of this, the van parked outside the venue gained a more natural white, and the pink design on the towel taped to it also cleaned up nicely, and you could see the dark gray (not black) tone of the marker-written words "SECRET GIRL GANG CLUBHOUSE." It's a much faster alternative to re-touching shots in VSCO, my current means of image doctoring, which can often lead to images that look unnatural and oversaturated.
Testing a beta version of the Moleskine Flow drawing and writing app, I saw loads of potential in the app that could provide an alternative to using a real notebook, as it packs tons of writing utensils and an unlimited set of pages in a clean aesthetic.
Unfortunately, I noticed a slight latency in my input in Flow when compared to using the Pencil in the Apple Notes app. Hopefully, this is something that gets solved in development.
Luniz's "I Got 5 On Us" sounded great on the iPad Air as it filled my loft's living room with accurate bass, crisp drums and clear synths. The iPad also handily reproduced James Blake's soulful "Where's the Catch?" with the singer's plaintive, serene vocals coming through accurately.
The iPad Air is a trooper when it comes to endurance.
The Laptop Mag Battery Test (web surfing at 150 nits) took 11 hours and 54 minutes to drain the slate of its charge, a time that beats the 10:16 tablet average and the 10:07 time from the 9.7-inch iPad by nearly 2 hours. The new iPad mini (12:40) and Lenovo Tab 4 10 Plus (13:06) last longer.
Photography is definitely not a strength of the iPad Air.. I'm not just saying that because of how awkward I looked as I snapped photos with a 10.5-inch tablet, either. The 8-megapixel and front 7-MP cameras just aren't very impressive.
I was able to eek out decent selfies and shots of street art in downtown Manhattan -- with accurate hues of spray paint and sharp details for my stubble -- but only with the help of ample daylight (Though too much light caused sections of photos to be overexposed.) Fortunately, Pixelmator Photos' MR button helped salvage those images.
The rear cam's ƒ/2.4 aperture (higher is worse) is partly to blame, as the iPad Air's shooter lets in less than the wide-angle (ƒ/1.8 aperture) camera on the back of my iPhone XS Max. The iPad Air's selfie cam sports an ƒ/2.2 aperture, the same as the selfie shooter on the iPhone XS. Both cameras are surprisingly zoomed in, which didn't help, either.
If I were giving this iPad to a relative, I'd advise them to keep using the phone in their pocket, as it's also easier to hold in one hand than the 10.5-inch iPad Air. Instead, the iPad Air's cameras are best suited for use in augmented-reality apps.
iPad mini vs. New iPad Air vs 9.7-inch iPad: What should you buy?
As Apple's iPad lineup grows, the decision about which iPad is best for you becomes harder. The newly updated iPad mini is so similar to the iPad Air regarding battery life, screen quality and performance that any decision between those two comes down to three questions.
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The first is "Do you love to multitask?" because the iPad Air's 10.5-inch screen is much better suited to having three apps open at once, accomplished by using split-view apps with a third that you "slide over" on top of one of the first two, as the 7.9-inch iPad mini's screen is a bit cramped for all those apps.
Next: "Do you prefer to use your tech with one or two hands?" The lighter, smaller iPad mini is ideal for single-hand use, while the large screen of the Air practically requires using both hands. Lastly: "What kind of reader are you?" While comic books look great on the iPad Air's large screen, ebooks fit the smaller iPad mini's screen a lot more naturally.
But what about the cheaper $329 9.7-inch iPad, which is often marked down on Amazon (it's on sale there for $249 (opens in new tab) at the time of publication). With its slower A10 Fusion chip and lack of Smart Keyboard support, I'd recommend this slate to those who are looking for a tablet primarily for web browsing, email and looking through their photos. That's why it's a good fit for younger students.
The new iPad Air doesn't reinvent anything about the tablet, but simply provides a great combination of Apple's existing parts and pieces. If only it included Apple's Smart Keyboard, it wouldn't feel so pricey at $500 (which is enough for a decent laptop). Still, the iPad Air's fantastic display, lengthy battery life and speedy performance place it in a league of its own. The $329 iPad will suffice for more modest users, but those who want a great tablet experience without breaking the bank should buy the iPad Air.
Credit: Laptop Mag