Can I do this every day? Is the combination of the new $599 iPad Air, $299 Magic Keyboard (with integrated trackpad) and Apple Pencil 2nd Gen ($129) the right combination for work, play, and creativity?
Short answer? Yes. Longer answer follows in my full review.
With the new Apple iPad Air, Apple has finally thrown out the by-now almost iconic iPad design (it lives on in the flagship product and mini) and shifted the Air model to the iPad Pro esthetic camp. At a glance, the iPad Air is a little brother to the iPad Pro 11 and 12.9. It has the same smooth edge running around the body, a completely flat metal back, large iPad screen (10.9 inches), no home button, and no 3.5 mm headphone jack.
It’s still distinctive, with an iPad’s first ever Touch ID Power / Sleep button on the top edge, and remains worthy of the “Air” name. The iPad Air measures 9.74 inches by 7 inches by 6.1 mm thick and weighs 1 lb. making it slightly shorter, a tad wider, and virtually the same weight and thickness as the previous iPad Air. As a result, the new iPad Air is both a brilliant industrial redesign and a faithful representative of the genus ultra-portable mobile technology.
The expansive Liquid Retina Display (LED backlit) is still surrounded by a noticeable 3/8-inch bezel circumnavigating the entire screen. Hidden along the same side as the Touch ID button is the FaceTime camera. There’s no TrueDepth Module, so such a thick black bezel seems like overkill and Apple must know by now that consumers would accept a drill hole through the screen for the camera. Still, the more you use the iPad Air, the more that bezel fades from view.
Technology and resolution wise, the screen is only slightly larger than the previous iPad Air and, at 2360 x 1640, it has the same 264 ppi. In fact, that’s essentially the same display specs as the iPad Pro 11. In many ways, the iPad Air is like an iPad Pro Lite. It has the same look and feel, the same screen, the same three-dot Smart Connector for Smart Folio and Magic Keyboard, and the same charging spot along one edge for the Apple Pencil 2nd gen.
The differences, though, are notable and have a material impact on how the iPad Air operates. There’s the aforementioned lack of Face ID and, more important, Apple’s latest and most-advanced mobile CPU, the A14 Bionic. You’d be wrong to assume, however, that the A14 Bionic bests the not even a year old A12Z Bionic inside the iPad Pro. It does and it doesn’t.
Setup and benchmarks
Setup for virtually all of Apple’s products is uniform and simple, especially if you already have an Apple ID and a backup of legacy device that you can use to jump to start your new Apple Product. The iPad Air is no exception. Even the new Touch ID button worked smoothly, and the setup guided me to register not one, but two fingers. Usually, I’d register my thumbs, but the button’s placement made both index fingers better candidates. I registered each digit quickly and have used the button to unlock and verify purchases without a single missed read. The button can even read my prints upside down.
With setup done, I quick installed Geekbench 5 and ran a pair of benchmark tests. The results are telling.
According to GeekBench, the iPad Air is clocked higher than the iPad Pro A12Z (2.99 GHz vs. 2.49 GHz) but the iPad Pro has considerably more RAM, 5.54 GB vs. 3.66 GB.
The A14 Bionic is, it appears, a fundamentally faster CPU than the A12Z. The single core CPU score bears that out. But the graphics performance numbers, which might impact pro-level operations like multi-stream, 4K video editing, or HD audio mixing (or a combination of those) tell a different story. The Multi-core numbers on the A12Z are significantly higher. Compute scores between the A12Z and A14 are basically a wash.
It is fun, though, to see the massive leap Apple is making from the iPhone 11’s A13 Bionic to the A14 (all iPhone 12s are running the A14 Bionic). Compute scores virtually double. Single core is notably higher. Multi-core, though, is only marginally higher.
Numbers aside, my experience with the iPad Air across a variety of tasks demonstrates a well-tuned, high-performance tablet system that, like so many Apple products and their bespoke CPUs before it, has an ample amount of headroom.
What’s an iPad
There was a time when I happily called the iPad a “content consumption device.” It’s still that but, perhaps thanks to convertible tablet computers like Microsoft’s excellent Surface Pro line, iPads have slowly but surely become productivity devices.
Over the last few years, Apple’s gradually nudged its mobile OS even further into the flat computer space, a process that accelerated with the introduction last year of iPadOS (this year called iPadOS 14). Now, the platform not only supports trackpads and mice, but there’s a file system (the platform can read thumb drives), drag and drop, and multi-tasking even at an app level (multiple windows for Safari, Mail and other native and third-party apps). Granted, multi-tasking is still limited (a max of three visible app windows (many more can be running in the background). In addition, some app partners are still playing catchup. Microsoft’s Office apps, for instance, support two instances of the apps running side-by-side, but I ran into Microsoft Word for iPad bug where, as I typed, the new trackpad support kept switching to the wrong Word window. Microsoft is apparently working on full support for these newest features.
In many ways, the iPad Air is now as much a personal computer as a touch-screen Windows Laptop. It feels perfectly normal to be writing this review on the iPad Air. Granted, I’m doing this with the Apple’s still relatively new Magic Keyboard for iPad. The $299 device has a slightly cramped 9 and 3/8-inch wide backlit keyboard (a Surface Pro’s Type cover is almost 11-inches wide) with decent 1 mm travel and a 4-inch (measured diagonally) trackpad. I’ve grown accustomed to using gestures — two fingers to scroll, three to switch to apps, a single finger swept down to access the dock. I know how to quickly see all windows open under one app by pressing and holding on an app icon in the dock and selecting Show All Windows.
The Magic keyboard includes a charge port that frees up the iPad Air’s lone USB-C port for use with external media or to connect and extend the interface to another screen. More importantly, the Magic Keyboard uses a magnetic back to hold the iPad Air above the keyboard, so your fingers don’t brush up against the screen as you type. That back includes a bend that lets you adjust the tablet screen, so it faces your face. I only wish the fold was more adjustable instead of the approximately 45-degrees of movement it does allow.
Together, the iPad Air and Magic Keyboard are essentially an ultraportable laptop. And, yes, I had no trouble using the combo on my desktop or my lap.
Capture and create
Long before the advent of Bluetooth styli, I was drawing on iPads. As soon as I saw, in 2010, the 7.9-inch iPad Gen 1 display, I couldn’t wait to start creating, even if it meant drawing on the screen with my fingers.
Now, virtually all iPads support Apple’s Pencil. I was thrilled to see the iPad Air supporting the 2nd generation Apple Pencil. That stylus is shorter, lighter, smarter (two taps on the body to change tools) and wirelessly charges through the iPad body.
I spent hours drawing in Procreate on the iPad Air. The Apple Pencil 2nd Gen offer excellent pressure and tilt sensitivity, and, crucially, there’s virtually no visual latency between the Pencil and the iPad Air screen. I drew with the iPad in my hand, but also did so while the tablet was mounted on the Magic Keyboard.
If you don’t want to draw pictures, you can take them with the iPad Air’s new 12 MP rear camera. It’s the same 12 MP wide camera that you’ll find on the iPad Pro (which also has a 10 MP ultrawide and LiDAR). The iPad Air’s camera shoots sharp color-accurate photos and 4K video up to 60 FPS. It can also shoot slow motion (up to 240 FPS art 1080p), time lapse video, and panorama shots up to 63 MB. I’m not someone who ever plans to carry around a tablet to capture random photos or video (that’s what my iPhone is for), but I can see how useful this would be for on-the-go creative professionals and at work.
I did use the iPad Air to shoot, edit, and export 4K video in Adobe Premium Rush CC. I tried stressing the tablet by overlaying four 4K clips on top of each other, but the app and system acted like it was just another day. Maybe next time I should try this with 8K video.
The iPad Air has a pair of excellent microphones, which are good for FaceTime calls (which you can do in 720p on the FaceTime camera), and to summon Siri. At one point, I whispered, “Hey Siri, open the browser,” and Safari instantly filled the screen. I can, by the way, also summon Siri by pressing and holding down the Touch ID button.
It wasn’t all work. I watched Netflix and iTunes library movies on the iPad Air (Netflix and the TV app support iPadOS PiP, but not YouTube), taking note of the new stereo audio system which switches to stereo separation depending on whether you have the iPad in portrait or landscape mode. I can’t say I noticed much of a difference. In general, the iPad Air’s audio is excellent and can get very loud. I prefer, however, to listen to music and video content through my paired AirPod Pros. Thanks to iPadOS 14, the Bluetooth earbuds now have spatial audio, which is akin to virtual surround sound. It’s awesome.
I also played some intense games on the tablet, including GRID Autosport and Players Unknown Battlegrounds. I thoroughly enjoyed playing on the big screen, but after 30 minutes or so I got a little tired of holding the 1-pound tablet, Mobile gaming is still best on an iPhone-sized device.
Supported by the A14 Bionic’s powerful 16 core Neural Engine, the iPad Air also offers excellent Augmented Reality support. I loaded up Monster Park AR and opened a portal to the Jurassic era in my backyard. Soon a T-Rex was roaring in front of my shed, while pterodactyls soared overhead. The effect was eye-popping. Unfortunately, the app also suffered from one persistent bug. It froze every time I tried to use the in-app camera feature.
Battery life and price
Overall, the iPad Air is, for its size and weight, a battery champ. I could play music or videos all day long (at least 10 hours). Doing more processor-intensive productivity work cuts battery life down to between seven and eight hours. Still good enough for an average workday.
For all this, the iPad Air is a solid, but not exceptional, value at $599 for the 64 GB model. Apple really should’ve started the base iPad Airs with at least 128 GB of storage. The 256 GB model I tested starts at $749. A cellular model with 64 GB starts at $729. With the Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil, which I highly recommend, you’ll spend at least $1,027.
I can think of many Windows ultraportables that include touch screens keyboards, work with Bluetooth styli, and offer a lot more storage, RAM, and ports, for the price. That might seem like an unfair comparison, but the iPad is no longer just a tablet or content consumption device. It’s a powerful computer capable of doing real world work and creative tasks.
None of this makes me want it any less. I get that, as Microsoft does with its Surface Pro line, Apple is charging a premium for a cutting-edge design that offers almost unparalleled portability and performance in a single package. Still, now that Apple is in a bundling mood (see Apple One), it might want to consider an all-in-one price for the Magic Keyboard, Apple Pencil 2nd Gen, and iPad Air. It really is an excellent combo.
And, yes, I could do this every day.
Check out my video review!