iPad Air 2020 vs. iPad Pro 2021: Which One Should You Buy?

They’re both 'Pro' enough for most people

Key Takeaways

  • The iPad Pro shares an M1 chip with the Mac, but right now, it can’t push it to the limits.
  • The iPad Air is an incredible iPad and best for most people.
  • The amazing new Liquid Retina XDR display only comes on the big 12.9-inch Pro.
Someone creating an illustration on an iPad Pro.

Sorin Gheorghita / Unsplash

The new M1 iPad Pro looks incredible, but you should probably buy the iPad Air. 

Unless you have specific pro-level needs, then the iPad Air is probably enough iPad for most people. That said, "Pro" means different things for different people, and there’s one significant feature missing from the iPad Air that might be worth the $200 upgrade all by itself.

"Both these iPads are currently more than capable of handling any task you can throw at them."

The Specs

It’s tricky to compare the iPad Air and Pro like-for-like because even the base configurations of storage are different, and the Air is only available in the 11-inch size. To get the big, beautiful, miniLED, Liquid Retina XDR display, you have to go for the bigger 12.9-inch Pro. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, let’s look at the main differences:

  • Cameras
  • Processor
  • RAM
  • Face ID vs. Touch ID
  • 4G/5G
  • That screen
  • Colors

And here’s what’s the same on both the Air and the Pro:

  • 10-hour battery life
  • Apple Pencil compatibility
  • Magic Keyboard with trackpad compatibility
  • USB-C connector
  • Squared-off edges and slim screen bezels

M1 vs. A14

The M1 chip could just as easily have been called the A14X, following the conventions of previous Apple Silicon generations. The X variant is found in iPad Pros and is essentially a souped-up version of that year’s iPhone chip, with extra processing cores and a more powerful GPU.

This year, Apple put this chip (or more accurately, system-on-a-chip or SoC) into Macs. Imagine the two choices. Call it the A14X, and the press will say that the Mac now uses an iPhone chip. Call it the M1, and you can say that the iPad Pro now uses a Mac chip. Same SoC, much different story. 

Someone using an Apple iPad Pro with an M1 chip in it while sitting in an outdoor cafe.

Apple

Which is to say, the "X" makes a difference. The old A12X that powers the 2018 and 2020 iPads Pros (the 2020 model is named A12Z, but is really the same SoC) is still superior in some regards to the A14 that powers the iPad Air and the iPhone 12. 

But it’s not that easy. Both these iPads are currently more than capable of handling any task you can throw at them. The software just doesn’t (yet) push the hardware to its limits.

That may change in June when Apple details iOS 15 at its Worldwide Developer Conference. If it makes significant changes to the iPad’s operating system, then perhaps the extra power of the M1 will be justified. Otherwise, almost anyone can easily get by on the iPad Air’s A14. 

Cameras

Who buys an iPad for its cameras? Nobody, that’s who. The Air has a 12 megapixel wide camera for photos and a 7 megapixel FaceTime camera. The Pro adds an ultrawide rear camera, plus a LiDAR camera for AR, but then things get interesting. 

"There’s a lot of difference between these two iPads, and any one of the Pro’s features might get you to spend the extra. On the other hand, the iPad Air is incredibly capable..."

The new M1 iPad Pro also has an ultrawide front camera. This adds a neat feature to FaceTime. When video-chatting, the wide camera will digitally zoom in on you as you move around. It looks like you have a camera operator who's following you. And even if you don’t move, the wider camera can fit more people into the shot. 

That Screen

Only available on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the Liquid Retina XDR display is brighter, contrastier, and just better than any other iPad or MacBook screen. The screen is similar to the one found in Apple’s $5,000 Pro Display XDR, only better. For instance, it has 10,000 mini-LEDs in the backlight for regional brightness control. The Mac display has only 576 LEDs in its backlight, and yet it measures 32-inches. 

Other Differences

The iPad Pro comes with 8GB or 16GB RAM, just like the M1 Macs. The Air has 4GB RAM. More RAM is useful when running multiple apps simultaneously, for video and photo editing, and for keeping lots of browser tabs open.

iPad Air with magic keyboard

Apple 

The iPad Pro also has FaceID instead of TouchID, which is much better if you use the iPad on a desk or a stand because you can unlock it by tapping a key on an external keyboard. The Pro also comes with a 120Hz Pro-Motion display for smoother animation and a more responsive touch feel.

Speaking of keyboards, cases, and responsiveness, both iPads use the same Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard case, which is good if you upgrade in the future. 

Finally, the iPad Pro has more speakers—four instead of two, and they reconfigure depending on how you hold the device, so left is always left, and right is always right. 

In conclusion, then, there’s a lot of difference between these two iPads, and any one of the Pro’s features might get you to spend the extra. On the other hand, the iPad Air is incredibly capable, so if you can live without some of those extras, it’ll be a great computer. Only you can decide.

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