The New iPad Air Is Pro in Everything but Name

Apple’s latest iPad Air almost out-pros the iPad Pro

  • Unless you need Face ID, 4 speakers, or a 120Hz screen, you should buy the Air, not the Pro.
  • The only change to the entry-level iPad is a CPU upgrade.
  • The new iPad Air can use all the iPad Pro’s accessories—including the Magic Keyboard and Trackpad.
The new iPad Air in various colors

Apple’s new iPad Air is amazing. So amazing, in fact, that it’s probably not worth spending the extra $200 for the next model up, the iPad Pro. Let’s check out the lineup, and see what’s going on. 

Apple updated its mid-and-lower-tier iPads this week, and caused some confusion. If you’re shopping for the cheapest, plain iPad model, then things are easy. The only change there is a chip upgrade.

But the new iPad Air is quite a step up. It has the iPad Pro’s cool edge-to-edge screen design, shares the same accessories, and has a brand-new A14 chip. This makes it hard to decide whether to buy the Pro, or opt for the almost-as-good Air and save $200. 

"I’m using an 11-inch iPad Pro myself, and can hardly find a difference to these new Airs." Mac and iOS developer Matthias Gansrigler told Lifewire via direct message. "They do seem quite attractive, and if I were in the market right now, I’d probably choose an iPad Air over the Pro."

iPad Nothing

The basic iPad, the one that starts at $329, is the same as the previous model iPad, but with a newer, faster chip (a new A12 Bionic replaces the old A10 Fusion processor). The current iPhone 11 uses A13 chips and iPad Pro uses an A12 chip. This new basic iPad, then, might not be the fastest device around, but it’s plenty fast enough. 

Air vs Pro

The confusion comes with the new iPad Air. It gets the iPad Pro’s cool narrow-framed screen with no home button, and no big “chin.” In fact, it looks almost exactly like the current iPad Pro, right down to the squared borders that let you magnetically stick the Apple Pencil 2 onto the side for charging.

So close are the Pro and Air that it’s better to list the differences:

Here’s what the iPad Pro has, that the Air doesn’t:

  • Face ID
  • 120 Hz Pro Motion display, slightly brighter
  • Up to 1 TB storage (Air maxes out at 256 GB)
  • 12.9-inch screen option
  • Ultra-Wide rear camera
  • Four speakers (two on Air)
  • LiDAR scanner (for augmented reality)
  • Portrait Mode, Memoji, and Portrait Lightning on front camera
  • Brighter True-Tone flash

And here’s the reverse list: things the Air has, and the Pro lacks:

  • Touch ID power button
  • Next-generation A14 processor
  • Cool color options

That’s it. Everything else is the same. Both use the same Apple Pencil, have the same modern Wi-Fi and (optional) cellular radios, and can shoot the same-quality video.

I’m using an 11-inch iPad Pro myself, and can hardly find a difference to these new Airs.

Even the physical dimensions are almost identical (the screen of the Air is slightly smaller, so the surrounding bezels are slightly thicker). This means that the Air can use all the (11-inch) iPad Pro’s accessories. We already mentioned the Apple Pencil, but you can also use the amazing Magic Keyboard and Trackpad case, which turns the iPad into a laptop computer. And you also get USB-C, which lets you plug in pretty much anything without an adapter. 

Apple's new iPad Air with magic keyboard

It’s almost certain that the next iPad Pro, whenever it ships (probably not until spring next year) will widen the gap again. But right now, the Air looks like an incredible deal. 

"The difference between the iPad Air and iPad Pro is smaller than ever, but for my work, I still prefer the 12.9-inch iPad Pro with its bigger ProMotion display, beefier SoC, and Face ID," tech journalist and iPad user John Voorhees told Lifewire via Twitter DM. "That said, I will probably be buying an Air as a secondary device. The size and weight of the Air are better for activities like reading, which also makes it more portable for traveling."

Face ID

The iPad Air has one feature that’s a first for any Apple device: the new Touch ID sleep/wake button. The iPad Pro and the iPhone X ditched the home button in favor of Face ID, but face ID is a liability in COVID times. Putting the fingerprint scanner in the power button lets us use Touch ID while still enjoying an edge-to-edge, buttonless screen. Expect this to come to the iPhone 12 next month.

iPad Air with a larger 10.9-inch Liquid Retina display and new Touch ID sensor integrated into the top button.

But Face ID on the iPad is a different game. iPad Face ID is amazing. It’s like you don’t have a passcode at all. And it’s best when you’re using the iPad as a laptop, either with the Magic Keyboard, or with a regular keyboard and a stand. Then, touching any key wakes and unlocks it. Having to reach up to authenticate with a finger is a big step backwards. 

Buying advice

So, which iPad should you buy? If you need/want a Pro-only feature like Face ID, a larger 12.9-inch screen, or more storage, the choice is easy: go Pro (unless you can wait until next year). But if you like the new modern look, don’t want to spend Pro money, or just fancy those sweet new iPad Air colors, you should consider the Air. It really does look great.

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