Battle Royale (with Cheese): The 2020 iPad Air Vs. the 2020 iPad Pro

Is this review full of hot air?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about replacing my computer with an iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard. And for the most part… it worked. Even though Apple says the iPad is not a computer, it does a good enough job at replacing one in my book.

But to get this functionality, do you need to go for the iPad Pro? Until a few weeks ago, the answer was yes- if you wanted to use the Magic Keyboard (which I personally think is a requirement if you want to have the full laptop experience). But as I was gearing up to check out the iPad Pro, Apple was gearing up to release a new version of the iPad Air.

Traditionally, the iPad Air has been the mid-tier of the iPad line up; more expensive and with better internals than the cheapest iPad, but a step away from the Pro line. And that much is still true, for the most part. The biggest separation in the last couple of years has been the design- the iPad Air has always looked like the cheaper iPad, while the Pro series got a nice, minimal-bezel look.

Today, that is no longer true; the new iPad Air looks nearly identical to the 11-inch iPad Pro, enough so that it can use the same Apple Pencil, Magic Keyboard, and cases as the Pro iPad. And that, dear reader, is why I needed to check it out. I needed to know how well the iPad Air compared to the iPad Pro. So……

FIGHT!

Price

If you are buying an iPad Pro, you are going to spend a “pro” price as well. Starting at $799 ($949 for Wi-Fi + cellular), the 11-inch iPad Pro gets you 128gb storage, but can be configured up to 1tb storage at $1,299 (or $1,449 if you opt for Wi-Fi + cellular). No, you’re right, that’s not cheap.

And that price continues when you factor in the peripherals you are likely to buy for it- the Apple Pencil 2 at $129, or the Magic Keyboard at $299, or even just Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio for $179.

By comparison, the iPad Air is a good deal; the $599 asking price ($729 with cellular) will get you 64gb storage, but you can bump that up to 256gb and still pay less than the base-model iPad Pro- $749 to be exact ($879 with cellular). Of course, the iPad Air works with all the same peripherals as the iPad Pro, and unfortunately, those prices remain the same no matter how much you elect to spend on the iPad itself, but at least you can save money on the device to better afford those peripherals, right?

The iPad Pro does also have a 12.9-inch variant; I won’t be talking about that too much in this review since the iPad Air compares more directly with the 11-inch iPad Pro- I mean, if you are seriously considering the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, you probably have little interest in the iPad Air. But for reference, the 12.9 starts at $999 ($1,149 for cellular) and can be configured up to $1,499 ($1,649 for cellular) for the same specs as the 11-inch model. The price also increases for some of the peripherals- $349 for the Magic Keyboard and $199 for the Smart Keyboard Folio.

Winner: I’m always hesitant to declare a winner at the price category because we have yet to see if any dollars saved are worth it in use and performance. But I have to admit… the iPad Air is looking mighty nice right now.

Design

When Apple released the 11-inch iPad Pro in 2018, it came with a beautiful, modern redesign. Gone were the thick bezels and the home button. Gone was the curved edges that made the iPad Pro look like all the other iPads out there.

The 2018 iPad Pro- and the Air that we are reviewing today- has a squared-off design that looks and feels like the iPhone 5 (a design that was finally brought back for the iPhone 12). And damn… does this make it feel comfortable to hold in hand. I am constantly reaching for this iPad and I absolutely love the aesthetic. I am a Trekkie at heart, and it looks very similar to the data pads that they carry around on Next Generation.

But the other major win for the Pro was the screen. With a thin bezel (by Apple’s standards, at least) circling the device, it feels like the thing is all-screen all day long. When I initially looked at the iPad Pro, I did compare both the 11-inch and 12.9-inch screens, and while one was obviously smaller, it never felt constricting- not in the way my 10.2-inch iPad always felt.

If I’d done this comparison last year- with the 2018 iPad Pro and the 2019 iPad Air- that would have been it; the iPad Pro’s design would have won the battle on its own. But the 2020 iPad Air finally has the same design as the iPad Pro- in fact, side by side on a table, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these are the same model of iPad. It’s only when you pick them up and start exploring them that you’ll notice the few minor differences.

The first- and potentially most noticeable- difference is that the iPad Air comes in colors. The iPad Pro is available in space gray and silver, and both look nice; I’ve always preferred space gray myself, but the silver does look quite professional. The iPad Air comes in those same colors, but it also comes in rose gold, green, and sky blue. Admittedly, I wish there were one or two more bold color options- I would have loved a (PRODUCT)RED iPad Air- but I’m already taken with the light blue and green options. It just adds a nice pop that lets you know this is a different device. Though I’ve only been able to get my hands on a space gray model, I’m likely going to trade it in for the green, which I’ve read looks silver in some lighting and lime green in others.

The other visual changes are somewhat subtle. If you get the Wi-Fi only model of the Air, it is missing the antenna line that runs along the back edge of the tablet near the camera on the Pro (though the cellular option still has it). And that camera is different too; the iPad Pro has a large camera module that looks like the ones found on the iPhone 11 or 12 models which includes a wide-angle and an ultra-wide-angle lens, as well as a LiDAR sensor. The iPad Air only has a single wide-angle lens, and the bump looks more like what you’d find on the iPhone 10 or the 2018 iPad Pro. While it is nice to have the extra camera features on the current iPad Pro, I have to question the necessity of them; I don’t know about you, but I do not ever take photos with my iPad. I suppose it is nice to have the option, but my iPhone takes better photos and is much easier to handle when trying to get the perfect picture. The LiDAR sensor is nice for augmented reality, but I just don’t know of many real-world uses for that yet (and it doesn’t seem to have the same benefits that the LiDAR sensor on the new iPhone 12 Pro provides to the cameras, at least not yet). So personally, I don’t think that the camera alone is worth the extra cash. It would be on an iPhone, but not so much on an iPad.

If your eye is keen enough, you might notice that the power button on the iPad Air looks quite a bit bigger, and you’d be right; this is because the iPad Air’s power button houses a TouchID sensor. That’s because even though the iPad Air comes with the Pro’s bezel-lite design, FaceID was not included.

I’ll let you decide if this is a bummer or not; I do love how quickly FaceID authenticates and unlocks the iPad for me, at least when I have it docked in the Magic Keyboard. But since I hold the iPad in landscape mode most of the time (I imagine most people do) and since Apple still insists on putting the front-facing camera- including the FaceID sensor- on the left side of the device when held in this orientation (I suppose it would be considered to be “on top” if you held it like an iPhone with the charging port on the bottom), and since I’m right-handed (and therefore usually holding the iPad with my left), my thumb is constantly covering the FaceID sensor. The iPad Pro does at least pop a little arrow on the screen to let you know that you’re covering the sensor, but about half the time I am too slow at moving my thumb and the iPad is instead asking for my password to unlock. It’s a fast authentication method at the best of times, but for me, it is an annoyance most of the time.

Given how I like to hold my iPad in my left hand, the position of the TouchID button on the iPad Air is very natural; I can pick up the device and press the button at the same time without having to worry if I’m covering the camera. In fact, the iPad Air prompts you to rotate the device and register a second finger just so that you can unlock it no matter which position you are holding it in. That’s a nice touch… if you’ll pardon the pun. I know FaceID is the newer technology, but I think TouchID is a better choice for the iPad. And in today’s mask-covered world, I’m sure many people would welcome TouchID on their devices right about now. I’m actually surprised that Apple didn’t include this sensor on the iPhone 12 since they went out of their way to redesign it for this iPad.

The final physical “differences” between the iPad Air and iPad Pro deal with the size of the devices. On paper, the iPad Air is slightly thicker, but that’s on paper. I almost don’t even want to write about it in this review, but on the other hand I’ve read a lot of other reviews that bring it up and so I think it is important for me to say it here: don’t base your purchasing decision on this detail. It isn’t something you will notice, not at all. Sure, side by side, if you really look closely, you might be able to tell, but when I’m using the iPad Air I can’t tell any difference in hand.

Image Credit: Redmondpie

With that also comes the screen size. Now, Apple clearly said the iPad Air has a 10.9-inch screen, while the iPad Pro has an 11-inch screen. And what that boils down to is that the iPad Air has a slightly thicker bezel. Again, it isn’t something that will make or break your experience with it. Looking at the image to the left, from Redmondpie, it looks like the bezel is a noticeably thicker, but like with the thickness of the iPad Air, you’re probably only going to ever notice this if you have both iPads next to each other. Honestly, this was one of my biggest concerns (I hate thick bezels), but once I was using the iPad Air, I just didn’t notice it at all. And frankly, a slightly thicker bezel does give you more space to grip the iPad without touching the screen.

Let’s take a look at those screens, shall we? The iPad Air has a slightly lower resolution, but that’s thanks to the missing .1 inches; they both have the same pixels per inch, so there isn’t any difference when it comes to clarity. Both the iPad Air and Pro support Apple’s true tone display, so the screen adapts the colors to your surrounding lighting. The iPad Pro’s screen gets a little brighter- 600 nits over the Air’s 500- but honestly, the iPad Air is plenty bright for me; it hurt my eyes to look at the iPad Pro at maximum brightness, so 500 nits should be good for most everyone.

Unless you have them side by side, you may not notice that there is a difference in the refresh rate. If you are used to the iPad Pro, you may have gotten used to the 120-hertz pro-motion refresh rate that it has; this is great for gaming and for tasks requiring the Apple Pencil, as the iPad Pro’s screen will speed up to 120 hertz to give you the most fluid experience possible. In other tasks where this isn’t needed, the screen will run at 60 hertz, which is the refresh rate that the iPad Air lives with 24/7.

In my experience, the faster refresh rate is most noticeable when scrolling through web pages or switching between apps. It probably makes a difference if you are playing video games, but I don’t really use my iPad for that. What I do use a lot is the Apple Pencil, and in certain apps- like Apple’s Notes- the 120 hertz refresh rate makes drawing with the Pencil super smooth. But I think these are things you’ll only notice if you’ve used the iPad Pro and switch to the Air; I’ve used the Apple Pencil with an iPad for a couple of years now, and the regular 60 hertz refresh rate was never a problem for me- in fact, it wasn’t anything I ever thought of until I had the iPad Pro. It might be something I’ll miss going to the Air, but it is also something I’ll easily get over. And unless you know you need that faster refresh rate for the things you’ll be doing on the iPad Pro often, I don’t think it is worth the extra cost on it’s own. And in day-to-day usage, the iPad Air ain’t no slouch. In fact, in many cases, the iPad Air seems a tiny bit snappier than the Pro, thanks to the new A14 processor; before I got the Air in hand, I was testing the difference between 60 and 120 hertz by turning off Pro Motion in the iPad Pro’s settings, but that turned out not to be a great test- the Air’s screen is usually zippier than the Pro’s at 60 hertz.

Both iPads look excellent while playing back videos, and they sound great too, but the iPad Pro will sound a bit better; this is because the iPad Pro has a quad-speaker design while the Air only has stereo speakers. I don’t think you’re going to kick yourself over sound quality on the iPad Air; it sounds very good. But you will get more volume and fuller sound from the iPad Pro. Again, you should ask whether this is worth the extra cash. And since both iPads run the same versions of iPadOS 14, they both support features like spatial audio with the AirPods Pro (which you might need, since neither have a headphone jack).

Winner: Honestly, these are so close; aside from the refresh rates of the screens, the cameras, and TouchID/FaceID, these are physically basically the same device. At this rate, the iPad Air is coming out on top, because I just don’t feel like the extra camera features or the 120-hertz refresh rate is enough to justify the extra cost unless you specifically need those features. Plus, colors!

Performance

Ok, so here is where these devices have the potential to diverge a bit. Granted, they are running the exact same operating system, meaning they can both use Apple’s array of multitasking- like split view, slide over, picture-in-picture, and opening the same app (where supported) in more than one instance- however, they are running it on different processors.

And this is also where it gets a little confusing. The iPad Air has Apple’s latest chip- the A14 processor, which is also the processor featured in the new iPhones (and could even be the chip- or at least the basis for it- that the first ARM-based MacBooks run on). The iPad Pro runs on Apple’s A12z chip, which was specially designed for the 2020 iPad Pro but is based on an older chip; the A12 chip was first introduced in the iPhone XS and XR, though I really don’t know enough about processors to know how related the A12z (or the preceding A12x) is to 2018’s A12.

Equally befuddling is Apple’s marketing of the A14; their announcement of the iPad Air makes it seem like the chip is up to 40% faster than all previous iPads (including the Pro), but the reality is that it is up to 40% faster than the previous iPad Air- which ran on the A12 chip.

On paper, the A12z has more CPU cores and more GPU cores than the A14. According to Screenrant, this would mean that the iPad Pro can provide more performance when necessary. On paper. The long and short of it is that the iPad Pro will be overall more powerful, but the iPad Air will be a hair snappier with basic tasks. The iPad Pro also has 6gb ram versus the 4gb in the Air, which again will just lead to better performance when you need lots of performance. It also should mean that apps don’t close in the background as often on the iPad Pro, but I’ve found iPadOS to be very aggressive towards shutting down background apps on both iPads.

In my day-to-day use, the iPad Air is plenty fast and capable of handling just about everything I throw at it. Granted, I don’t do any video editing. At most I’m watching movies, editing photos, writing, or drawing. And the iPad Air handles all of that with extreme ease. I haven’t noticed any performance lag or anything that makes me wish I was using the iPad Pro instead.

So, realistically, this section probably isn’t that helpful. I’m going to declare a winner because that’s what I do (spoilers, it will be the iPad Air), but as far as performance goes, I really think you should consider what you will be asking your iPad to do for you. For my daily tasks, I never needed any extra performance than what the Air was capable of giving me. But your needs may vary greatly. If you are planning on editing a ton of video on the iPad or playing more processor-heavy games, I would imagine the iPad Pro will be the better choice for you.

Winner: For me, the iPad Air. But for you? Well… I’ll let you decide.

More of the Same, Slightly Different

Honestly, there’s not much else to compare in this battle.

Both the iPad Air and iPad Pro should last around 10 hours and charge via USB-C and will reach a full battery in around 2 hours. The Air does come with a slightly faster charger- 20 watts instead of 18- but that’s probably only going to shave a couple of minutes off the total charging time.

I’ve noticed that I’ve used the word “slightly”- or some variation of it- a lot in this review. And that’s because, side by side, there are only “slight” differences between the iPad Air and iPad Pro. So much so, in fact, that I was able to write a large chunk of this review before even having the iPad Air in hand and I didn’t have to change too much of what I’d pre-written once I was looking at the actual device; it met all of the expectations I had of it and didn’t really surprise me in any way.

Honestly, if it wasn’t such a drastic change for the Air, this would be just another iterative update to the existing Pro, albeit a cheaper model that cuts a few of the more expensive corners to bring down the price (think Microsoft’s new Surface Laptop Go… but with an infinitely better screen). In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Apple chose to call it the iPad Pro SE instead.

I think Apple made it easy to decide which device to get. If you need the extra features- the higher refresh rate or the extra processing power- of the iPad Pro, then an extra $200 may not be too much to ask. And frankly, if you do need it, you probably already know who you are. But if you don’t need those things and just want a good, modern-looking iPad, $200 saved is $200 earned. And that ain’t half bad. In fact, for most people, the 2020 iPad Air is the iPad to get.

I am just clever enough to get myself in trouble…

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store