Apple has released more than 20 different iPad models over the nearly ten years since Steve Jobs unveiled the very first tablet computer to drum up a mass market following. While iPads have steadily gotten better since that original, deciding which model to buy nowadays invites a fair bit of confusion.
I’ve been wrestling with this question while trying out the brand new (4th generation) iPad Air that will be released Oct. 23. At $599, the latest Air fits somewhat neatly between Apple’s most affordable new tablet, the $329 8th generation base model that is called simply iPad, and the most powerful tablet in the lineup, the current $799 iPad Pro. Let me quickly note the sums listed here are starting prices; you can spend way more for iPads with extra storage or a larger display. Indeed, an iPad Air with 256GB of storage (versus 64GB) costs $749, $879 if you add cellular to bolster Wi-Fi.
(For the purposes of this piece I’ll concentrate on the Pro versus the Air, though having said that the entry level iPad remains the smartest buy for the average consumer who wants a tablet to mainly consume a movie, read a book and do a little browsing.)
There’s little not to like about the new Air except perhaps a price that can swell past four digits should you choose to go for the full experience by accessorizing, which many of you will feel compelled to do. But you are still spending considerably less than the Pro, while gaining a similar design and many of its features.
Pricey accessories. The accessories I alluded to above are the very same ones that fit the pricier Pro. These include Apple’s optional $299 Magic Keyboard or perhaps Logitech’s $159.99 Folio Touch keyboard case, as well as the second generation $129 Apple Pencil accessory that will let you draw, sketch, or jot notes on the screen, and that magnetically attaches to the tablet.
Chip confusion: The Air has a lovely vibrant 10.9-inch Liquid Retina display and robust A14 Bionic chip. The chip happens to be the same processor inside the new iPhone 12s. Apple points out it uses 11.8 billion transistors, the kind of detail that tells you this slate can handle pretty much whatever tasks you throw at it. But you may wonder since the current Pro has an older A12Z Bionic chip if that tablet is somehow weaker than the Air? Without going all geeky, I’ll just mention that the Pro’s wider architecture and other variables under the hood may suggest otherwise, though the takeaway is that the Air is plenty powerful for most anyone reading this.
There’s other overlap between the Air and the Pro. You charge both through the USB-C power brick that comes in the box, which I mention since Apple no longer includes a power adapter with the iPhones. Neither the Air nor the Pro have standard-sized headphone jacks, just one more reason to appreciate the entry-level iPad which still has it.
Pro versus Air differences. Of course, there are other differences between the Pro and the Air and you’ll have to decide whether these are worth spending the extra loot. At 11-inches or 12.9-inches, the Pros have larger Liquid Retina displays with more fluid scrolling compared to the Air. For my money the 10.9-inch display on the Air was just fine.
Pros also boast larger storage capacities (up to 1TB versus up to 256GB), which can be a meaningful marker for those of you considering an iPad as a laptop substitute.
And while the Pro and Air both have 12-megapixel rear cameras, only the Pro also has a 10MP ultra-wider camera and LIDAR (depth) scanner, potentially useful for augmented reality apps.
The Pro also has four stereo speakers compared to a pair on the Air.
Finally, you can unlock the Air with a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, not the Face ID facial recognition on the Pro that is more secure and frankly simpler. Apple has placed the fingerprint sensor on the Air onto the top power button rather than below or the side of the display (depending on how the screen was orientated) on its prior Touch ID tablets. For what it's worth, I fussed a little more setting it up on the Air, and also found it a bit more difficult unlocking the iPad when the screen was positioned in landscape mode in the Magic Keyboard. I had to remember that the button was now on the side which meant awkwardly reaching with my right hand. Consider these quibbles rather than major criticisms, and I could have made things easier by training the iPad Air to recognize fingers on my other hand.
I like the iPad Air a lot and despite its high price would be hard-pressed not to choose it over the even more expensive iPad Pro.
If you’re thinking of buying an iPad, which model are you likely to choose?
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