Apple iPad Air 2020 review
Quick verdict: Apple has shifted the value proposition of the iPad Air from being the "fancy" basic iPad to the "low cost" iPad Pro, but the regular iPad is still going to be enough for most people.
- A14 Processor is good for just about every iPad task
- Compatible with Magic Keyboard and iPad Pro Apple Pencil
- USB C charging
- Fingerprint sensor works really well
- Battery life can be quite variable
- Apple still charges too much for storage
It used to be very easy to describe what the iPad Air was. It was the regular model iPad made just a little bit fancy, with a thinner design, nicer screen and often a slightly better processor than the entry level Apple iPad Air.
All that is still technically true for the 2020 model of the iPad Air, but there's a bigger change afoot. Where the iPad Air used to be the fancy iPad, it's better described now as the entry level model iPad Pro, thanks to the switch to USB C, support for all current iPad Pro accessories and processor speed bump.
What all that adds up to is a great value device if you were considering an iPad Pro purchase, because outside some very specific niches it's now the iPad Pro to buy (without the naming), but still, for most users Apple is providing enough power with the regular iPad.
- Wide range of colour choices
- 10.9-inch liquid retina display
- USB C connectivity
- Side mounted TouchID sensor is a revelation
The iPad Air design of years past was always a refined and smoothed out iteration of that year's iPad model, but that's not what you get with the 2020 iteration. Instead, the iPad Air 2020 takes its design inspiration more closely from the iPad Pro line. That's most evident in the use of a squared off rectangular design language with relatively thick and easy to grasp sides. Put an iPad Pro 11-inch next to the iPad Air 2020 and with one exception, the differences are pretty subtle.
That point of difference is colour, with Apple selling the iPad Air 2020 in Silver, Space Grey, Rose Gold, Green or Sky Blue finishes. Apple sent me the Green model, and while it's not to my particular taste, it's certainly eye-catching in a way that the plainer old Silver or Space Grey finishes were not.
The iPad Air 2020 measures in at 247.6x178.5x6.1mm with a carrying weight of either 458 grams for the regular Wi-Fi model, or 460 grams for the LTE-enabled model, which means that Apple's modems weigh just about 2g each.
The primary display measures in at 10.9 inches across the diagonal, marginally smaller than that of the 11-inch ipad Pro, although the practical real world difference is essentially meaningless. It's a "liquid retina" display, and that marketing term is almost entirely meaningless, as so many marketing terms tend to be.
If you were weighing up the cheaper iPad Air 2020 against the iPad Pro 11-inch, the key display differences are in brightness and resolution. The cheaper iPad Air has a 2360x1640 pixel display with a peak brightness of 500 nits, while the iPad Pro 11-inch features a 2388x1668 pixel display with 600 nit brightness and Apple's "ProMotion" display technology. This allows for up to 120Hz screen refresh rates, and that I did feel when testing material side by side because the iPad Air screen is locked at 60Hz. Standalone however, it was less apparent.
If you're working a lot with video or photo manipulation, or have to work a lot outdoors in direct sunlight then that brightness difference might be worthwhile, but I've not honestly felt the lack of resolution or brightness while testing out the iPad Air.
The big change in connections is two-fold this year. Gone is Apple's proprietary Lightning connector, which has to be living on borrowed time by now across Apple's entire range, in favour of a USB C connector for charging and connecting up compatible peripherals. The iPad Air also has the same smart connector as the iPad Pro line, which means it can be used with other Apple accessories such as the 2nd generation Apple Pencil and the Apple Magic Keyboard – presuming you can happily bear its additional cost.
The newer design of the iPad Air 2020 and its mimicry of iPad Pro design means that there's no longer space for a physical home button. While iPadOS deals with that via gestures for app switching and the like already, it does leave biometric home button authentication out of the question. While you might think that Apple would opt for FaceID as it does on the iPad Pro models, it's instead placed the TouchID sensor on the power button, similar to a lot of Android phones. If you want the actual power button you tap the button down, while resting your enrolled finger on the sensor for a second or so acts as the unlocking mechanism.
This works really well, especially in a year where so many of us are wearing face masks as a simple health precaution, at which point FaceID tends to fall over in a screaming heap. I'm seriously hoping that Apple makes every iPad, including the Pro models, with a TouchID capable power button from now on, because its simple utility cannot be overstated.
- Single camera is underwhelming
The other area where Apple saves its premium goodies, of a sort, for the iPad Pro line is in the cameras you'll find on the iPad Air 2020. At the front, you'll be making those FaceTime calls and taking Zoom meetings with a pretty ordinary front facing 7MP camera. At the rear, there's a single 12MP f/1.8 camera lens, skipping out on the dual lens ultrawide and LIDAR capabilities of the full pro model.
Does that massively matter? I'd argue for most use cases where you're actually going to want to shoot stills or even video, it won't matter all that much. LIDAR has some scope for AR applications and those can be useful and instructional within the iOS/iPadOS environment, but it's not as though you can't use AR apps on the iPad Air anyway; they'll just be a tad slower to place objects or marginally less precise when doing so.
Tablets remain a poor choice for shooting actual camera images in any case, because any advantage you get from that "larger" viewfinder is almost entirely broken by the unwieldy nature of the experience of shooting with a large, flat camera. Tie that into a lens and system with little flexibility, and there's not much reason to use the iPad Air 2020 as your primary camera if there's anything else at all available to you. It'll work, but predictably complex motion or low light situations quickly overwhelm it in quality terms.
- A14 Bionic performs very well
- Limited range of storage choices
- LTE capable, but no 5G
You can buy alternative tablet options, but for the longest time, most folks have opted for Apple's iPads, and that's led to a situation where it makes sense for developers to make iPad apps, which means that the iPad has the widest range of available apps… which means it makes more sense to buy an iPad!
It's a virtuous circle (for Apple) and a vicious one for its competitors, especially those hawking Android tablets, where there's considerably less focus on tablet style experiences.
I still don't buy Apple's contention that an iPad is going to be a full-scale replacement for a laptop any time soon, and the recent introduction of its first M1 chip Apple MacBooks further enhances that feeling. However, there's little doubt that the Apple iPad Air 2020 is a powerful little device, and a very nice step up from 2019's iPad Air.
It's running on Apple's A14 Bionic Processor with the usual fixed storage allocations common to every iPad to date. Apple is a little stingy here – the baseline storage is only 64GB which just isn't enough, and the only upgrade option is to 256GB – but the iPad Air is certainly a nippy little unit. Here's how it compares with a range of benchmarks against the iPad range, including the iPad Pro 11-inch that it so closely mimics:
The iPad Pro 11-inch still rules the roost, but there's a pretty slender gap in performance in most benchmarks, and it's actually outpaced by the iPad Air for single core CPU usage.
Getting back to that storage equation, Apple continues to charge way too much for storage expansion. The difference between the base 64GB model and the 256GB model is $230 outright.
With almost no research or comparison, I can score a 256GB MicroSD card for about $50. Now, I can't pop that card into the iPad Air 2020, more's the pity, and I can accept that the integration with the OS might not be the same with external and possibly fractionally slower storage. Still, there's just no way it's $230 of difference. Apple is just price gouging because it can, and it pretty much always has.
What all of that equates to is that the iPad Air is essentially a lower cost version of the iPad Pro. It's an iPad Pro Lite in other words, although I'm hesitant to even suggest that naming lest Apple's marketing department leap on it with gusto. There's certainly little in the iPad apps arena that the iPad Air 2020 can't tackle with ease. Even pushing multiple apps into split screen view doesn't tend to tax it in a performance sense, although you will pay a battery life penalty for doing so.
Like all other iPad generations, there's an option to spend more for an LTE-enabled model of the iPad Air 2020, running either via an eSIM or nano SIM on the side. While Apple now has 5G capabilities for devices such as the iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro this is strictly a 4G LTE only option, although it doesn't take too much crystal ball gazing to suggest that 2021's iPad crop may introduce 5G capabilities.
- Up to 10-hour figure can be a little tough to reach
- 20W charging is pleasingly fast
The iPad Air 2020 is certainly a powerful device, but that level of power needs a fair old whack of battery capacity to go with it, and based on my own experiences, I'm not sure that's what's lurking beneath the surface of that Liquid Retina display.
Apple rates the iPad Air 2020 as being capable of "up to" 10 hours of battery life, the same as its claim for the Apple iPad Air 2019. Last year's iPad Air could generally comfortably reach that 10 hour figure, but I've struggled more to reliably get near that with the iPad Air 2020.
This always relates to usage; if you were only using the iPad Air 2020 as a simple speaker with the screen off you'd probably sail past that 10-hour figure, while if you were using it for in-depth gaming or video rendering tasks you'd get quite a bit less. Still, as a general observation, I'd more comfortably put it in the 6-8 hours camp, rather than the reaching-for-10-hours camp.
At least recharging is easy to do and quite rapid. Gone is the Lightning connector in favour of USB C, and while iPads can be finicky about using third party mobile chargers, they can work.
Naturally, Apple would prefer you used its adaptor, and unlike the new model iPhone 12s, there's still a charger in the box, although I wouldn't be placing money on that being the case for 2021's refresh of the iPad line. The 20W charger you get in the box with the iPad Air 2020 can top it up very quickly indeed, which is pleasing.
Should you buy the Apple iPad Air 2020?
- Buy it if you need the power of an iPad Pro but can't meet that asking price.
- Don't buy it if you just want a tablet – the base model iPad is still your best bet.
Apple has indeed shifted the market position of the iPad Air, and delivered a bit of a bargain to consumers along the way. For most folks, the iPad Air 2020 is overkill, and the base model Apple iPad is the tablet you should buy.
Where the iPad Air stakes its claim – and its pricier sibling right through the heart – is for those people interested in an iPad Pro who couldn't justify the asking price. The iPad Air is so close to power parity as to make little difference in most cases, but it's substantially cheaper while retaining the same device compatibility and form factor. If you've been holding off on an iPad Pro purchase hoping for a lower cost model, this is it.
Pricing and availability
PriceiPad Air 2020 64GB Wi-Fi $899 | iPad Air 2020 64GB Wi-Fi+Cellular $1,099 | iPad Air 2020 256GB Wi-Fi $1,129 | iPad Air 2020 256GB WiFi+Cellular $1,329
Where to buy
Images: Alex Kidman
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