Apple iPad Air (2020) full review

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The iPad Air has had an interesting history. It launched back in 2013 and was improved by the second-gen iPad Air the following year, but then Apple ditched the branding and nothing more was heard about it until five years later, with the launch of the third-gen iPad Air in 2019. Despite the multi-year wait, not much was new with the iPad Air, but the same certainly can’t be said of 2020’s iPad Air.

It ditched the old-school look for something sleeker and more angular, and with an upgraded chipset and compatibility with accessories previously exclusive to the iPad Pro, can the iPad Air tempt consumers away from the iPad Pro? It certainly has the potential, but with a £100/$100 price hike, it’s also more expensive than ever.

Design and build

Apple hit the jackpot with the iPad Pro design; the solid aluminium slab that was the 2018 iPad Pro introduced a design reminiscent of the iPhone 5, ditching the curved corners for something altogether more angular – and consumers loved it. Apple kept up the trend with the iPad Pro 2020 range and introduced the new look to the iPad Air and the iPhone 12 too, regaining a level of synchronicity in design among most of Apple’s current product offering.

The angular design does take some getting used to, as there is a change in how it feels in the hand. It doesn’t fit in the grooves of my hands as comfortably as a curved edge, but the flipside of that is that I can grip the iPad Air more easily, and it feels more secure in my hands than its predecessor – even with a larger display this time around.

iPad Air (2020) review

Despite the iPad Pro-esque design, there is one key difference between the mid-range and high-end tablets: colour options. Apple and other tech manufacturers are of the opinion that high-end consumers prefer muted colours, and that’s reflected in the standard Silver, Space Grey and Rose Gold offering of the iPad Pro range.

The iPad Air, however, isn’t a high-end device and doesn’t have to follow that same ideology, and Apple has lent into the fun nature of the iPhone 12 colour options with the latest iPad Air. You’ll find new Green and Sky Blue variants alongside the standard Silver, Space Grey and Rose Gold options, with optional Smart Folio covers to match. The end result is a fun, sleek iPad that’s guaranteed to catch the eye.  

Aside from the updated design, the iPad Air introduces a whole new way to use Touch ID – a first for any Apple product, in fact. You see, Apple couldn’t ditch the Home button and integrate Face ID because it’d cannibalise the iPad Pro 11, so it decided to keep Touch ID and embed it into the side-mounted power button. It’s certainly not a new concept – Android manufacturers have been doing this for years – but it’s a first for Apple.

iPad Air (2020) review

It works as well as you’d expect a Touch ID scanner to work, unlocking the tablet almost instantly after resting a finger on the power button, but the problem is that it’s not always easy to find. The new symmetrical design of the iPad Air means it can essentially be used in any orientation, and that means that the power button can either be in the top right or bottom left.

The tablet does indicate where the scanner is on-screen to help alleviate the issue, but unlike with older iPads with front-facing Home buttons, it’s probably not something that’ll become muscle memory for most. It’s arguably better placed on the iPhone 12 as an alternative to Face ID, especially considering that facemasks render Apple’s facial recognition tech useless, but it’s a feature exclusive to the iPad Air – for now, anyway.

The display is technically 0.1in smaller than the iPad Pro at 10.9in, but it measures in at the same size. In fact, iPad Pro 11 cases fit the iPad Air perfectly – so where has the 0.1in gone? The answer is simple; in the bezels.

Though it features the same full-screen design as the iPad Pro, the bezels of the iPad Air are slightly chunkier than its Pro companion. I’d argue that it doesn’t really have a negative impact on the overall look, as it’s still a much better screen to body ratio than the previous iPad Air and its Home button, and the 9.5mm-thick bezels mean mispresses are practically non-existent too.

Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil support

The fact that the iPad Air sports the same dimensions as the iPad Pro 11, and the inclusion of Smart Connectors, mean that you can take advantage of the Magic Keyboard introduced alongside the iPad Pro earlier this year. It might not sound like it, but that’s a big deal. I think the Magic Keyboard is one of Apple’s star products of 2020, essentially turning the iPad into a fully-fledged laptop replacement complete with a trackpad and additional USB-C port for charging.

iPad Air (2020) review

The iPad snaps into place and, utilising a cantilever design and built-in magnets to secure the tablet, looks like it floats above the keyboard. The keys are based on those of the latest MacBook Pro range, and although they aren’t identical, it’s still a vast improvement on the butterfly keyboard found on older Mac laptops. Each keypress is solid, wobble-free and provides a satisfying click feedback that feels great under the finger, allowing for lightning-fast typing simply not possible on the inferior Keyboard Folio available for the entry-level iPad 10.2in.

That’s coupled with a trackpad which completely transforms the iPad experience. The cursor, a circular icon, can shape-shift and snap onto buttons and other tappable objects in apps, making iPadOS more mouse-friendly without developers having to completely redesign apps. You can drag and drop, copy and paste, select text and images and just about anything else you’d want to do with a trackpad on a traditional laptop. Pair that with the split-screen functionality available in iPadOS 14 and you’ve got a relatively cheap laptop replacement.

And, like the iPad Pro, the iPad Air finally offers support for the updated second-gen Apple Pencil, complete with the ability to mount it onto the side of the tablet when not in use. It’s an all-round improvement on the first-gen Pencil, bringing another previously Pro feature to the mid-range.  

Display

Despite being near-identical to the iPad Pro 11 in terms of design, size and aspect ratio, it’s the display of the iPad Air where the differences between it and Apple’s Pro range are most apparent. Sure, you’ll find the same resolution (2360 x 1640) and pixel density (264ppi) as the iPad Pro, but it’s missing Apple’s ProMotion refresh rate technology, enabling a 120Hz refresh rate when required.

iPad Air (2020) review

The result is that apps and games aren’t quite as buttery-smooth as they are on an iPad Pro, but that’s not to say there’s a poor viewing experience on offer from the iPad Air. Aside from the lack of a high refresh rate, something generally exclusive to the iPad Pro in the overall tablet market, you’re getting a bright, detailed and gorgeous HDR10-enabled display perfect for watching all that Dolby Vision video you’ll be shooting on your iPhone 12.

That’s backed up by our Datacolor SpyderX display benchmarks, with the iPad Air scoring a decent 95% sRGB coverage and a peak brightness of 512 cd/m2.

It’s not the very best it could be though; despite the great performance from the display, it’s still an IPS LCD and not the superior OLED or AMOLED. That means blacks aren’t quite as inky as those on the iPhone 12 or Galaxy Tab S7+, but that said, it’ll still be more than enough for most people wanting to stream Netflix in the bath or play big-screen games on the daily commute. This iPad isn’t designed for creative Pros, after all!

Features and performance

At the heart of the iPad Air you’ll find Apple’s latest and greatest A14 Bionic chipset, the same chipset featured in the iPhone 12 range. Despite the jump in numbers, it’s not quite as powerful as the A12X in the iPad Pro range, with two fewer CPU cores and one fewer GPU core, but that doesn’t mean the iPad Air isn’t a beast. It’s the same chipset as Apple’s latest flagship smartphone, after all, so you should expect the same level of flagship performance.

That largely reflects my experience with the iPad Air over the past few weeks. The A14 Bionic is a capable bit of kit, able to handle split-screen multitasking, AAA gaming and even photo editing without even a hint of stutter, making it a versatile tablet suited to a variety of uses. It’s not quite as powerful as the iPad Pro range, it’s true, but it’s certainly enough power for the vast majority of users – especially when compared to the Android competition – and that’s backed up by our benchmark results.

It’s worth pointing out that the 2019 iPad Air featured the A12 Bionic, a chipset that was already a year old by the time it was released, so a two-year jump in processor tech could help explain why the price of the iPad Air has gone up this year. You’re getting flagship-level performance this time around, and with other iPad Pro-esque features on offer, it’s not hard to see why Apple saw fit to add an additional £100/$100 to the iPad Air price tag.

Alongside the A14 Bionic, you’ll get either 64- or 256GB of storage to play with. As with pretty much every Apple product up until this point, there’s no way to expand the storage, so you’ll have to decide just how many apps, photos and videos you’ll want to store on your new tablet before you buy it. I personally feel that 64GB is still enough for most people, but with most of the competition offering 128GB at the entry-level, it is a little disappointing to see Apple stick to its 64GB guns.

You’ll also find optional cellular connectivity, but unlike the iPhone 12 range, there’s no 5G support. It’s not too surprising though – Apple will likely add the upgraded connectivity tech to the flagship iPad Pro range before making it available on the iPad Air and, eventually, the entry-level iPad. Besides, 5G tech is expensive, it’s not widely available and it’d just make the cellular option even more expensive, so it’s not as big a downside as some may lead you to believe.

iPad Air (2020) review

When it comes to battery life, Apple likes to keep things uniform across the iPad range. Like the iPad Pro and entry-level iPad, the iPad Air has a quoted 10-hour battery life and, for the most part, I found that to be on the money. The iPad Air managed a decent 9 hours and 7 minutes during our battery benchmark, just behind the iPad Air (2019) and Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+, but what does that mean in real life? Essentially, the iPad Air comfortably lasts a day on a single charge, and with more sporadic use, I’ve managed to squeeze a couple of days out of the iPad before needing a top-up via USB-C.

The good news is that unlike most Apple products being sold right now, the iPad Air does come with a USB-C charging brick – a fast-charging 20W brick, in fact, which supplied 26% of charge in 30 minutes during testing. It’s not exactly ground-breaking, but it’ll certainly minimise the amount of time spent tethered to the wall.

Camera

When it comes to tablets, cameras aren’t the main priority for most. Sure, you’ll get the occasional person wandering around with an iPad taking photos, but those are far and few between. That being said, the single rear 12Mp f/1.8 snapper of the iPad Air is decent: you’ll get detailed shots in well-lit conditions and video quality is fine too, but the images can look soft in more challenging lighting conditions.

iPad Air (2020) review

The same applies to the front-facing 7Mp f/2.2 camera. It’s great enough for the occasional selfie and video chatting on FaceTime, but you won’t find the more advanced features like Portrait Mode, Night Mode or the ability to switch between wider and tighter angles like you can on an iPhone 12.

It’ll suffice when you need to take a snap without your phone handy, but you won’t be ditching the iPhone 12 for the iPad when it comes to photography. And you know what? That’s fine.

Software

The iPad Air ships with iPadOS 14, Apple’s latest version of its tablet-optimised operating system, and simply put, it’s the most capable and well-polished tablet software available right now.

It offers a huge library of apps and games optimised for the iPad – unlike many scaled-up mobile apps available on Android tablets – and the combination of split-screen multitasking and the ability to drag and drop between apps means that it can be used for way more than just scrolling through Twitter or replying to emails. It’s a capable, versatile bit of kit that can handle just about anything you need – you just need to pay for the apps, which can sometimes be pricey on the App Store.

There’s also the integration with the Apple ecosystem, allowing you to reply to texts and take calls from your iPhone on your iPad, quickly switch audio input using AirPods simply by unlocking the device you want to use and much more.  

iPad Air (2020) review

Price and availability

There is one downside to the iPad Air that we’ve alluded to already, and that’s that it’s more expensive this time around. We’re not talking about a small increase either, with this year’s iPad Air seeing a £100/$100 jump in price, starting at £579/$599 and surpassing the entry-level iPad Pro 11 if you go for the more expensive variant. Here’s how much the new iPad Air costs:

  • iPad Air (64GB, Wi-Fi): £579/$599
  • iPad Air (256GB, Wi-Fi): £729/$749
  • iPad Air (64GB, Wi-Fi & Cellular): £709/$729
  • iPad Air (256GB, Wi-Fi & Cellular): £859/$879

It could be argued that the combination of an upgraded design with more functionality, a bigger display and inclusion of the flagship A14 Bionic could justify the increased price, but it’ll very much depend on your personal needs and what you’ll be getting out of the tablet. It’s £250/$270 more than the entry-level iPad, but you do get a much nicer tablet experience. It’s certainly better than most other tablets available right now, offering a lot of the functionality of the iPad Pro at a cheaper price point.

If you’re tempted, you can pick up the iPad Air from Apple alongside third-party retailers like Amazon and John Lewis in the UK, and Best Buy in the US. And, if you’re curious as to how the iPad Air compares to the competition, take a look at our selection of the best tablets right now.

Verdict

The iPad Air 2020 is a huge glow up for Apple’s mid-range tablet, ditching the ageing design for something more industrial and modern. The new design brings it into line with the iPad Pro range, and with a near-identical full-screen display and dimensions to the iPad Pro 11, it can be hard to tell the two apart.

Of course, it can’t quite compete with the 120Hz ProMotion display tech or Face ID on offer from the Pro tablet range, but if you can live without those features, the iPad Air is all the Pro most people really need.

You get the great design, Touch ID, bright colour options, a gorgeous high-resolution full-screen display – albeit with slightly larger bezels – and compatibility with the Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil, accessories previously exclusive to Apple’s high-end tablet. The A14 Bionic, the same chipset found in the iPhone 12 range, is a beast that can handle just about anything you throw at it with ease, and although it’s not quite as powerful as the iPad Pro range, it’s more than enough for the average joe.

The hike in price can be a hard pill to swallow, but if you can justify the extra spend, you’re essentially getting an iPad Pro in an iPad Air’s clothing.

Specs

Apple iPad Air (2020): Specs

  • 10.9in Liquid Retina display, 2360 x 1640 resolution, 264ppi, True Tone, Wide Colour, Fully Laminated
  • A14 Bionic processor, 64GB/128GB storage, 12MP Wide camera, f/1.8, SmartHDR, Wide colour, 4K video at 60fps, Slo-mo 1080p at 240fps, Continuous autofocus, Cinematic video stabilisation
  • 7MP FaceTime HD, 1080p video recording, Smart HDR for photos and video
  • WiFi 6
  • Bluetooth 5
  • GPS, Gigabit LTE, USB-C connector
  • Touch ID
  • Apple Pencil 2nd Generation support
  • Apple Magic Keyboard compatible
  • 247.6mm x 178.5mm x 6.1mm
  • 458g (460g for cellular)
  • available in Silver, Space Grey, Rose Gold, Green, Sky Blue

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