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

Both are great, but one is clearly superior

Shoppers choosing between the iPad and iPad Air face a tough choice. Unlike the iPad Pro, which wears its intent on its sleeve, the iPad Air is more difficult to tell apart from the base iPad at first glance.

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

The iPad and iPad Air.

Overall Findings

iPad (2020)
  • Affordable price, great value.

  • Quick enough for most tasks.

  • Larger and heavier than iPad Air.

  • Only supports 1st-gen Apple Pencil.

iPad Air (2020)
  • Similar design to iPad Pro.

  • Excellent performance .

  • Laminated display reduces glare.

  • Supports 2nd-gen Apple Pencil.

  • Supports Magic Keyboard.

The Apple iPad and iPad Air differ in design. The iPad has chunky display bezels, while the iPad Air has the more modern, slim-bezel look of the iPad Pro and iPhone 12. While both tablets have an attractive touchscreen, the iPad Air’s display is larger and better resists glare.

Under the hood, the iPad Air uses the latest Apple A14 Bionic processor, while the iPad has the older A12 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 only supports the original version.

Design: The Classic iPad Shows Its Age Next to the iPad Air

iPad (2020)
  • Classic, large-bezel design.

  • TouchID button still front and center.

  • Slightly thicker than the iPad Air.

iPad Air (2020)
  • Larger screen, but smaller overall.

  • Similar look to iPad Pro and iPad Air.

  • TouchID moves to power button.

Apple’s iPad Air has a slim-bezel, thin design like the iPad Pro and iPhone 12. Although the iPad Air has a larger display, it’s lighter than the iPad, at one pound compared to the iPad’s 1.08 pounds. They’re similar in size, differing most notably in thickness, where the iPad Air is 14 millimeters thinner. 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’ll use the Touch ID button for certain tasks, like going to the home screen. The iPad Air uses the newer, button-free, gesture-based UI found on most iPhones, as well as the iPad Pro. This UI is a bit quicker in day-to-day use. 

Display: The Difference Is in the Details 

iPad (2020)
  • 10.2-inch display

  • 264 pixels per inch

  • Glare can be an issue

iPad Air (2020)
  • 10.9-inch display

  • 264 pixels per inch

  • Laminated display reduces glare

The iPad and iPad Air have a similar display on paper. While the iPad Air’s display is slightly larger, it’s a small difference, and both appear equally sharp. They’re also a match in brightness, with each reaching an extremely bright 500 nits. That’s enough to make each tablet 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 more premium touchscreen experience.

The iPad Air’s display also 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 (2020)
  • Apple A12 chip.

  • 10 hours of battery life.

  • Limited to older Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

iPad Air (2020)
  • Apple A14 chip.

  • 10 hours of battery life.

  • Supports latest Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The 8th-generation iPad comes with Apple’s A12 chip, which arrived in 2018. Buying the iPad Air nets you the latest Apple A14. 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 will help 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 Apple Peripherals 

iPad (2020)
  • Has a headphone jack.

  • Uses Lightning connector.

  • Has Lightning to USB-C cable.

iPad Air (2020)
  • Lacks headphone jack.

  • Uses USB-C connector.

  • Compatible with Magic Keyboard.

The iPad’s design again shows its age in the extras. It has a 3.5mm headphone jack, which is helpful if you have wireless headphones. The iPad Air doesn’t have a headphone jack.

You’ll also find the Lightning connector on the iPad, while the iPad Air has the more modern USB-C. The iPad does include a Lightning to USB-C cable in the box, so you can use it with USB-C devices.

The iPad Air supports Apple’s Magic Keyboard, the best keyboard you can buy for an iPad. You can find third party options for the iPad, however.

Value: Both Deliver Bang for Your Buck

iPad (2020)
  • Starts at $329.

  • Base model has very limited storage.

iPad Air (2020)
  • Starts at $499.

  • Base model has (barely) passable storage.

  • Storage upgrade is expensive.

Apple charges $329 for the iPad with 32GB of storage. The limited storage is a problem, however. The 128GB model, which we recommend, starts at $429.

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 is $749.

Choosing a Wi-Fi + Cellular model adds $130 to the MSRP, no matter the model of iPad or iPad Air you want.

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 will 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 video 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.