November 24, 2020
iPad Air 2020 review: Apple's middle child iPad steps up

iPad Air 2020 review: Apple’s middle child iPad steps up


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The iPad Air looks just like the iPad Pro now, and performs nearly like one, too.


Scott Stein/CNET

It’s hard to keep track of iPads. Apple’s tablets are pretty fantastic and versatile, but also blend together across a wide spectrum of sizes and prices. Knowing which one to get is usually a matter of weighing what you’re willing to spend and how much you’re planning to do.

All iPads, right now, can do similar things. They all support Pencil sketching, keyboards and trackpads and all current models have pretty new processors. So, the redesigned iPad Air is either one of two things: a fancier everyday iPad for you, or a cheaper iPad Pro.

Like

  • Excellent display and performance.
  • USB-C means better support for chargers and dongles.
  • Feels just like the iPad Pro, but costs less
  • Works with older iPad Pro 11 accessories
  • Works with Pencil 2 and Magic Keyboard

Don’t Like

  • Lacks the extra rear cameras and lidar of iPad Pro
  • Can get very expensive if you add the accessories
  • Front camera still not great for landscape Zoom meetings
  • Base model still only includes 64GB of storage

After using it for a handful of days and so far I really like it. I think it’s now my favorite iPad. In fact, I’ve mostly forgotten about the iPad Pro. The Air is just about as good, for less. And if you’re really, really interested in a Pro, which was last updated back in March, I’d consider just waiting till next year to see what else gets introduced (like a mini LED display, perhaps).

If you have the money, though, I really love this new iPad Air. I love its design, I love its accessories. And it takes the edge off the Pro’s super-premium prices, adding useful extras (USB-C, a crisp larger display, fast performance) and taking away stuff that you probably didn’t even need.

But that doesn’t mean the Air is necessarily the best iPad for you. For its price, the standard eighth-gen iPad remains the better deal, and the go-to for most people. In fact, consider the eighth-gen iPad this way: it’s basically last year’s iPad Air at a lower price. 


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The perfect size, with one new Touch ID button

The 11-inch iPad Pro has been my favorite size for a while. This new fourth-gen iPad Air is exactly the same size and fits the 11-inch Pro’s cases and keyboards, too. It feels identical, with one exception: it has Touch ID on the top power button, instead of Face ID.

So I slapped the old Smart Keyboard from the iPad Pro 11 on and things felt almost exactly the same. IPad Pro who?

The display is basically the same as the 11-inch Pro, but not exactly. It’s weird. The 11-inch Pro has an 11-inch, 2,388×1,668-pixel LCD with 600 nits max brightness. The Air has a 10.9-inch, 2,360×1,640-pixel LCD with 500 nits max brightness. I never noticed the difference. The side bezels seem a hair bigger on the Air. The iPad Pro also has smoother ProMotion screen refresh, at up to 120Hz, versus the iPad’s more normal feel. ProMotion is lovely, but I’m also fine without it.

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Touch ID is right there, on the power button.


Scott Stein/CNET

What about the new Touch ID button, though? The Air doesn’t have Face ID, which the Pros and iPhones have. The Face ID camera is cleverly hidden around the black bezel of the Pro and works at nearly any orientation. Meanwhile, the Air is Apple’s first device with a fingerprint sensor on the small power button on its edge, instead of the circular home button (which this iPad doesn’t have). 

You have to remember which direction your iPad is facing, because that Touch ID could end up just about anywhere. Luckily, a pop-up on-screen indicator lets you know where it is in moments where Touch ID is needed. But, the orientation sometimes works for my left forefinger, sometimes for my right. I registered two fingers for practical comfort in landscape and portrait. The new Touch ID button seems to work reliably so far and there’s no reason why future iPhones (or even the Apple Watch) couldn’t get these little Touch ID buttons, too.

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Compared to the 2019 iPad Air, the 2020 version gets a big chip boost and Pro-like extras (USB-C).


Scott Stein/CNET

How fast is it?

The new A14 chip, also in the iPhones 12, is in the Air. It sounds faster than any other iPad and that’s half-true. The A14 is certainly faster than the A12 on the iPad and iPad Mini, based on benchmarks in Geekbench 5 and even in everyday use (initial runs show a score of 1118, and a multi-core score of 4675 — higher is better). But the iPad Pro’s A12Z is faster in multitasking, while the Air beats it in single-core speed. Which is weird. The A12Z has more graphics power in its chip. But if you really wanted an iPad Pro, it would make me want to wait for a Pro with a possible A14Z chip next year.

The front camera is fine, but still not great for Zoom

We’re all in video chats now. The iPad Air hasn’t solved the iPad’s biggest video chat problem, which is that the front camera ends up on the side in landscape mode. You’ll look like you’re staring off-screen in Zooms. The 7-megapixel camera is better than the entry iPad’s, but I would have preferred something more centered for video chats.

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Magic Keyboard and Pencil: not included.


Scott Stein/CNET

Accessories will cost you

Apple’s iPad pricing slope starts seemingly affordable ($329, often on sale for $299 or less) and climbs up from there with storage tiers, models with extra features and pricy but useful accessories. It’s a lot like car shopping: suddenly you’re getting the all-leather interior and deluxe extras.

The Air is a semi-expensive midrange model in that analogy and can add up fast. The base 64GB $599 (£579, AU$899) iPad Air doesn’t feel like enough storage for an iPad made to last years. But there’s no 128GB model, so the 256GB version bumps to $749. (Skip the cellular add-on unless your office is paying.)

And then, the Pencil and keyboards. The Air supports all the newest Apple accessories like the snap-on magnetic Pencil 2 and the Magic Keyboard with trackpad. The Pencil 2 is $129 and the Magic Keyboard is $299, which is half the price of the iPad Air itself. You end up climbing to over $1000 and now this is hardly a budget iPad anymore. No, it’s not compatible with the first-gen Pencil, either.

You could even end up talking yourself into the iPad Pro at that point: the 128GB 11-inch Pro is $799, $50 more than the 256GB Air. And so it goes.

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With a keyboard, still great for writing.


Scott Stein/CNET

It multitasks, but iPads are still not the same as laptops

A word, once again, on the promises and limits of iPads as true computer replacements. iPads are shockingly versatile and with a keyboard case slapped on, I can find myself suddenly using it like a laptop for hours on end. That’s the great thing about iPads and iPadOS. The 10.9-inch screen is big enough to split two apps reasonably well and monitor different things at once, too.

Apple’s also made a lot of strides in iPadOS 14 to enable file storage, drag-and-drop between multitasked apps, plus trackpad and mouse support and better Pencil support for scribbling and annotating on the iPad more easily. But, it still doesn’t feel exactly like a laptop. File storage can get weird. Browser support is better but not perfect. And when I tried split-screening Zoom and Gmail and discovered that my camera was cut off in multitasking mode, I realized that there are some limits that have real impacts right now. 

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The iPad Air, between the 2020 iPad (left) and iPad Pro (right). The Air is Pro-like, but the basic iPad is as good as last year’s Air.


Scott Stein/CNET

A more affordable fancy iPad, but do you need it?

For my tastes, I prefer the new iPad Air over any other current iPad. And I’d want the Magic Keyboard, too, plus the extra storage. But that places me at $1100 or so and that’s a pretty fancy iPad setup, indeed.

And much like a lot of Apple’s product lineups, that’s the key: knowing where you should land on pricing and upgrades. The odds that you’ll just use the base 64GB iPad out of the box with no extras is pretty slim, unless you already have some 11-inch iPad Pro accessories lying around.

Just know that this Air really does feel like it’s left off some less essential iPad Pro features and offered up a more affordable device in return. It’s like when the iPhone XR arrived after the iPhone X. Not exactly the same, but in a lot of ways more than good enough.

It’s great that Apple upgraded the Air so much since last year. But also remember that last year’s perfectly capable iPad Air is still around: It’s just basically been turned into the entry-level iPad and it’s more affordable than ever.



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