iPad vs. iPad Air: What’s the Difference?

Both are great, but one is clearly superior

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Shoppers choosing between the iPad and iPad Air face a tough choice because they seem similar at first glance. Unlike the iPad Pro, which wears its intent on its sleeve, the iPad Air is more difficult to tell apart from the base iPad. The current iPad (9th generation), released by Apple in September 2021, is almost a year newer than the latest iPad Air (4th generation) released in October 2020.

The differences in the tablets are substantial in both price and performance. While the iPad is an outstanding value for most tasks, the iPad Air is significantly quicker and has several convenient features. These benefits are worth the higher price.

The iPad and iPad Air.

Overall Findings

iPad (9th generation)
  • Affordable price, great value.

  • Quick enough for most tasks.

  • Retina Display.

  • Supports 1st-gen Apple Pencil.

  • Works with Smart Keyboard.

iPad Air (4th generation)
  • Similar design to iPad Pro.

  • Excellent performance.

  • Liquid Retina Display.

  • Supports 2nd-gen Apple Pencil.

  • Supports Magic Keyboard.

The Apple iPad and iPad Air are similar in appearance. While both tablets have attractive touch screens, the iPad Air’s display is superior and slightly larger.

Under the hood, the iPad Air uses the Apple A14 Bionic chip, while the iPad has the older A13 Bionic chip. Gamers and content creators will appreciate the iPad Air’s quicker processor in applications like Adobe Photoshop and iPad games. Also, the iPad Air supports the 2nd-generation Apple Pencil, while the iPad supports only the original version.

Design: More Similar Than Different

iPad (9th generation)
  • Touch ID button front and center.

  • 12MP Ultra Wide front camera.

  • 8MP Wide back camera.

iPad Air (4th generation)
  • Touch ID moves to power button.

  • 7MP FaceTime HD camera.

  • 12MP back camera.

Apple’s iPad Air has a slim-bezel, thin design like the iPad Pro. Now that the iPad has adopted the slim bezel, they look almost identical. Although the iPad Air has a larger display, it’s lighter than the iPad, at one pound compared to the iPad’s 1.07 pounds. They’re similar in size and almost the same thickness. Overall, the iPad Air nets you a larger display in a lighter, thinner frame.

While both use Touch ID login for security, the iPad Air moves it to the top button. It works just as well as before, but the move is important for other reasons. With the iPad, you use the Touch ID button for specific tasks, like going to the home screen. The iPad Air uses the newer, button-free, gesture-based UI found on most iPhones and the iPad Pro.

One place the iPad outshines the iPad Air is the 12MP Ultra Wide front-facing camera, while the iPad Air still has a 7MP FaceTime HD front camera. The camera on the back of an iPad is an 8MP Wide camera, while the iPad Air has a 12MP Wide camera.

Display: The Difference Is in the Details 

iPad (9th generation)
  • 10.2-inch Retina display.

  • Lacks anti-reflective coating.

  • sRBG display.

iPad Air (4th generation)
  • 10.9-inch Liquid Retina display.

  • Laminated display reduces glare.

  • Wide color display (P3).

The iPad Retina display and iPad Air Liquid Retina display are both crisp and bright, but the Liquid Retina display has a clear edge in this category. In addition, the iPad Air’s display is somewhat larger. They’re a match in brightness, with each iPad reaching an extremely bright 500 nits. That’s enough to make the tablets usable outdoors.

There are differences in the details, however. The iPad Air’s display is “fully laminated,” which means it is closely bonded to the glass. This decreases the tiny gap between the display and the glass covering it, creating a premium touch screen experience.

The iPad Air’s display suffers less glare and has a wider color gamut. The iPad Air is better for viewing photos, watching videos, or playing games. 

Performance: The iPad Air Is Faster Across the Board 

iPad (9th generation)
  • Apple A13 chip.

  • 10 hours of battery life.

  • Limited to older Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2.

iPad Air (4th generation)
  • Apple A14 chip.

  • 10 hours of battery life.

  • Supports latest Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0.

The iPad (9th-generation) comes with Apple’s A13 chip. Buying the iPad Air nets you the Apple A14 chip. The entry-level iPad can handle most applications, but the iPad Air’s modern hardware will feel smooth for years. In fact, the latest iPad Air is quite close to the iPad Pro in benchmarks.

Despite the gap in performance, battery life is a tie, with both iPads promising 10 hours of web surfing and video playback.

Wireless connectivity is a win for the iPad Air. It supports Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5, while the iPad only supports Wi-Fi 802.11ac (and older) plus Bluetooth 4.2. The iPad Air’s better support helps future-proof the tablet. There’s no significant difference in cellular wireless options for each tablet, and neither supports 5G.

The Extras: iPad Air Supports the Latest Technology

iPad (9th generation)
  • 1080p HD video recording.

  • Uses Lightning connector.

  • Works with Smart Keyboard.

  • Has a headphone jack.

iPad Air (4th generation)
  • 4K video recording.

  • Uses USB-C connector.

  • Works with Magic Keyboard.

  • No headphone jack.

The iPad’s design shows its age in a few areas. If you are interested in 4K video, the iPad Air is the only way to go. The iPad has classic 1080 HD video capabilities.

The iPad Air supports Apple’s Magic Keyboard, the best keyboard you can buy for an iPad, while the iPad works with the older Smart Keyboard. You’ll find a Lightning connector on the iPad, while the iPad Air has the more modern USB-C. The iPad includes a Lightning to USB-C cable in the box, so you can use it with USB-C devices.

The iPad has a 3.5mm headphone jack, which is helpful if you have wireless headphones. The iPad Air doesn’t have a headphone jack.

Value: Both Deliver Bang for Your Buck

iPad (9th generation)
  • Starts at $329.

  • Comes in two colors.

iPad Air (4th generation)
  • Starts at $599.

  • Comes in five colors.

Apple charges $329 for the iPad with 64GB of storage. The 256GB model starts at $479.

The iPad Air starts at $599 for 64GB of storage. That’s a usable amount of storage, though you’ll run out if you work with high-resolution photos or video. The 256GB model starts at $749.

Choosing a Wi-Fi + Cellular model adds to the cost. The price gap between the iPad and iPad Air is large, but both offer good value. 

Final Verdict

Choosing between the iPad and the iPad Air may come down to budget.

The iPad Air is clearly superior. It’s quicker, has a more usable display, supports the latest Apple accessories, and has better Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. You can buy the iPad Air with confidence.

However, there’s a big price gap between them. The iPad is nearly half the price of the iPad Air. The iPad is still an excellent tablet, and owners who only plan to browse the web and watch videos will be happy.

In either case, we recommend you opt for the iPad or iPad Air model with additional storage over the base version. Running out of space is a real pain, and with the size of applications increasing over time, the base models will force you to rely on cloud storage.

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