The 2020 iPad Air is so good it almost makes the Pro obsolete

All hail the glory of trickle-down tech. Except it’s not so much trickle-down with Apple and the new iPad Air, as it has pretty much given the non-Pro tablet most of the advantages of the top-end iPad and, in one comprehensive redesign, cemented even further the brand’s stronghold on the entire category.

Yes, the 2020 iPad Air makes such a compelling package it even cannibalises its more expensive Pro sibling as – to put it plainly, right at the top of this review – this is easily the best iPad you can buy right now. Let’s explain why.

Who’s it for

Well, just about everyone looking for effortless mobile computing who can afford the £579 price. This new model will set you back £100 more than last years’s iPad Air.

Yes, you will be able to do mostly everything on the £329 iPad 8th Gen that you can on the Air, but it’s a so much more pleasurable experience that the extra £250 spent is worth it (especially when you consider how long people usually hang on to iPads for compared to the turnover of iPhones).

It’s also for all of those who have been seduced by the smarter lines of the Pro pads but could not justify the outlay of the best part of £1,000 for a product aimed at a specific and particularly niche power user.

Design

It’s coming up to a year now since Jony Ive’s name disappeared from Apple’s leadership page, confirming an end to his time in Cupertino – but, looking at the new Air, there continues to be no signs of a post-Ive drop in quality of Apple industrial design. In fact, this is the best-looking iPad yet with friendly pastel colours accompanying the grey and silver options.

Thanks to moving the Touch ID system off the front to a side button, a neat trick in itself considering there seems to be no drop in verification speed, you get a slight bump in screen size from 10.5-inches to a 10.9 Liquid Retina display. It’s not much on paper, but you do notice the extra real estate – but even if there wasn’t an increase in size the aesthetic gains as a result of no home button and thinner bezels are obvious.

At just 458 grams, it’s the lightest iPad you can get now, as well, and the recycled aluminium body has a palpable feeling of quality. It’s hard to find fault with how this tablet looks or feels.

Living with it

The inclusion of Apple’s A14 Bionic means you get the company’s latest chip that is in some respects even better than the one in the current iPad Pro. While to say this results in better performance than the Pro would be outright wrong, you do get a big bump in power – a 40 per cent increase in performance over the previous iPad Air, Apple says, and a 30 per cent uptick in graphics performance. Much like the new iPhone 12 series that also carries the A14, the Air is noticeably faster than its previous iteration.

Battery life is of the usual iPad standard – top drawer. You will not need to charge the Air for days with light use, and if you do employ it as a PC replacement (which is certainly possible, especially with the keyboard) you will get many more hours out of it than a standard laptop. The faster 20W charger that comes in the box will help top things up if you do run low.

It’s not all good news, though. Despite stealing so much from the Pro there is no LiDAR and no ultrawide camera. The lack of Face ID is mitigated by the innovations here with the slender new Touch ID tech. It takes a little getting used to and you will need to map more fingers than normal so you’re not continually twisting the tablet around to plant the correct digit on the top button. As for the camera, you really shouldn’t miss the ultrawide.

Killer features

First, the design, obviously. It’s the best-looking tablet around. Second, the upgrade to compatibility with the 2nd generation Apple Pencil is a clear boon, along with the Air’s ability to snap straight into the pricey but excellent Magic Keyboard, which means you get the same typing and trackpad experience as those Pro users.

Lastly, the ditching of the lightning port for USB-C. Yes, Apple has finally given USB-C to a non-Pro product and seas haven’t boiled nor has the world ended – though 2020 is bad year to be testing such things. Not only does USB-C mean 5Gbps data transfer speeds, it means that even though the iPhone 12s have lightning, sadly, the port’s days are now clearly numbered.

Why oh why…

In all honestly, there is not much to criticise on the new iPad Air. You could take umbrage at the £100 price hike, but you still get a lot for your money here. The lack of storage options is also odd, with a 64GB version and then a jump to the 256GB one with nothing in-between. Then there is the fact this has two speakers compared to the Pro’s four, even though the two here are very good.

The only thing really worth getting sniffy about is the 60hz refresh rate as opposed to the iPad Pro’s 120hz. Side by side, the difference is obvious. Used on its own, less so – but I’d still much prefer a better refresh rate for that smoother experience.

So, should I buy it?

Yes, you should. In last year’s review, our marks against the 2019 Air were: “only two speakers; no Face ID; non-Pro design; 1st-gen Pencil support only”. Apple has fixed all of these points (with a neat workaround on Touch ID) apart from the speakers. How could we not recommend it?

It’s also delightfully refreshing that, despite this being a compromise between the Pro and the old Air, you don’t feel cheated in any way. You genuinely feel like you are using an iPad Pro for the vast majority of the time. And that’s a big compliment to Apple. But this is also the most dangerous thing about the new Air for the company: it telegraphs that most people don’t need an iPad Pro, especially now.

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