Apple iPad Air M1 review: Almost too powerful
Quick verdict: The Apple iPad Air M1 mostly hits it out of the park with attractive colour choices, the peerless power level of the M1 processor and good battery life – but it’s still not quite the laptop replacement that Apple wants it to be.
- M1 is very powerful for a tablet
- TouchID has its benefits for unlocking, despite what Apple says
- Range of colour choices
- More affordable than the Pro models
- Lesser display tech than the fancy Pro variants
- No camera upgrades from the 2020 iPad Air
- 64GB on the base model is insulting
The iPad Air has long held a place in Apple's iPad line-up as the slightly-fancier-than-stock model.
It rather stumbled in that spacing with the release of the smaller but more powerful 6th generation iPad Mini – right up until Apple plonked the mighty M1 processor (already found in Apple products ranging from the Mac Mini through the iPad Pros and up to the MacBook Air M1 and MacBook Pro 13 M1) into it.
It's that power combined with a lower price point than the iPad Pro tablets that give the iPad Air M1 its allure. If the basic model 9th Gen iPad isn't quite enough tablet for your needs, it's the obvious choice to make.
Apple iPad M1 review: A few light design tweaks, a few new colours
The iPad Air got its suffix originally because it was the thinner and lighter iPad compared to what was available in regular iPads at the time. Bear in mind that this was in a pre-iPad Pro era.
That thin and light idea is still present, but it's nowhere near as obvious as it used to be. Indeed, Apple hasn't really done much at all with the iPad Air design compared to the prior 2020 generation iPad Air.
At 247.6x178.5x6.1mm it's exactly the same size as the prior generation models, although both the Wi-Fi and 5G capable models are marginally heavier than their predecessors. When I say marginally, they're 3g and 2g heavier each. You'll never pick that even if you are holding both side by side without a scale.
The benefit here is that if you do have older iPad Air accessories, they'll mostly work just fine with the iPad Air M1. That includes the Apple Pencil, the pricey Apple Magic Keyboard and any other cases you may already have.
The obvious comparison point here is with the 11-inch M1 iPad Pro. The iPad Air M1 has a slightly smaller display screen at 10.9 inches diagonal with a resolution of 2360x1640 at 500 nits of brightness, compared to the 11 inch 2388x1668 pixel, 600 nit screen of its Pro counterpart. Of course, if you want the fanciest Apple display technology, you have to opt for the significantly more expensive 12.9 inch iPad Pro.
One area where the iPad Air M1 beats its Pro competitors is in colour choice. The Pro models ship in either Silver or Space Grey, while the iPad M1 Air can be yours in Space Grey, Starlight, Pink, Purple or Blue finishes.
I'll trade away Silver for 4 other colour choices any day of the week. The model Apple supplied me for review was the Blue model, and it's quite lovely, even if it isn't a radical style departure from its immediate iPad Air predecessor.
Camera: No change at the rear, Center Stage takes… centre stage at the front
I will never tire of telling people that they shouldn't use tablets for any kind of serious photography. They're big and bulky, and they don't pack in cameras that are any way near what you can get from a smartphone in the same (or often cheaper) price points.
But still, sometimes you've only got your tablet on you, and you have to make do. Making do is very much the story of the iPad Air M1's rear camera, which features a solitary 12MP sensor. It's the exact same sensor as on the iPad Air 2020, which is frankly a little disappointing. Apple's camera app is easy enough to use, but the results just aren't that great most of the time.
It's at the front that Apple has tweaked matters, with a 12MP ultra-wide lens. Sure, you can take selfies with it if you must, although it lacks any kind of portrait blur feature:
Where the ultrawide front facing camera really comes into its own is with the inclusion of Apple's Center Stage technology. Just as it does on other iPads and devices like the Apple Studio Display, Center Stage tracks and pans to keep you in frame using AI.
It's not always 100%, especially if you have a group in front of the iPad Air M1. For some reason it had a fascination with zooming in on my skull intermittently when testing it with a Zoom call while sitting on my sofa. Nobody really needs that, although you can disable it if you don't like its zooming capabilities.
Apple iPad Air M1 sample photos
Performance: M1 is powerful… but iPadOS still needs to do more
Apple clearly wants to make the most out of its investment in Apple Silicon, and the M1 SoC specifically, because you can get an M1 processor in so many Apple units right now.
While the comparison to the iPad Pro M1 11 inch is the most obvious one for the iPad Air M1, it's also the same unit found in the MacBook Air M1 and 13 inch MacBook Pro as well.
What this means is that when you come to benchmark them for performance, there's a certain absolute uniformity to the results you get. Here's how the iPad Air M1 compares on CPU performance against all of Apple's current larger iPads and its immediate predecessor:
In one sense that's great news for the iPad Air M1, because it's offering M1 class performance for much less than any other M1 device. There's a clear jump up in multi-core performance against the older iPad Air model, and a differentiating jump from the regular iPad if that's not enough for you.
However, there are some challenges to the iPad Air M1's value proposition. The cheapest iPad Air M1 will run you $929, and for that money you only get a paltry 64GB of onboard storage. Apple has long been rather stingy with its entry level storage, hoping that you'll upgrade to the heftier 256GB model. You can totally do that, but it will run you $230 extra for the privilege.
Apple supplied me with the heftier 256GB 5G enabled model, as well as an Apple Pencil and the white model iPad Magic Keyboard to review. It's a lovely combination, but getting to that would run you some $2,039. Suddenly that iPad Air M1 isn't so cheap anymore… and there's another problem to deal with.
A 256GB MacBook Air M1 with a larger screen, more ports (and ones that aren't just USB-C but fully Thunderbolt compatible) will run you $1,499, less than that full asking price.
Apple's contention is that the M1 chip is powerful, and it's not wrong in that respect. But that power needs something to do, and iPadOS remains stuck in this odd limbo of supporting some multi-tasking, but not a full range of it. You can totally be productive on an iPad, but within the strict constraints of its ecosystem. The reason to buy an iPad Air M1 would relate primarily around that performance story, but to get it up to full Apple speed, you'd spend more than on a comparable MacBook Air M1.
I struggle to see how that makes much financial sense.
That being said, you could shave a little off that price by opting to use a more generic bluetooth keyboard case for less while also skipping out on the 5G LTE option as well. That would put it on more of an even keel with the MacBook Air. It's more portable than the MacBook Air, which could suit your needs as well, and then there's the option of 5G to consider.
The iPad Air M1's 5G implementation is interesting in the Australian context. I've complained over the past couple of years that Australians are short-changed when it comes to iPhones, because US models have mmWave 5G that the local models lack.
The iPad Air M1 has the same limitation of being sub-6Ghz only, but here at least we're not being sold a lesser product, because there's no mmWave model of that tablet anywhere. It's another goodie held back for the pricier Pro line tablets only.
Actual throughput performance for the iPad Air M1 was broadly in line with what I've seen out of Telstra's 5G in Sydney so far. Expect between 200–400Mbps down if you're in my area; coverage elsewhere could of course boost or drop those figures markedly. The catch with 5G is that, as is the case with smartphones, you'll pay for that mobile data speed in battery terms.
Battery: Sometimes good, sometimes average
Like any other mobile device, the battery endurance of the iPad Air M1 will directly relate to how and where you use it. Over a few months of testing, I've hit just about every scenario you could name with the iPad Air M1.
Apple's official specifications reckon that it's good for the classic amount of battery time that Apple accords to just about every iPad model. It claims "up to" 10 hours of surfing the web via Wi-Fi or watching video.
That's feasible just, but I've generally found it's good for more like 7 hours with consistency, and a whole lot less if I was using mobile data or doing lots of heavy duty application or gaming work. It 100% does count as "work" to be gaming on a tablet if I'm reviewing it, right?
Conversely, if I was busy with other tasks and devices, I could leave the fully charged iPad Air M1 for a day or so and return to it without worrying about it being automatically flat.
The tradeoff here if you are looking at the iPad Air M1 as a productivity device is that most ultraportable laptops will do a little better than this. They're generally a little bigger – 13 inches is the average – so there's more space for batteries in them as well, to be fair.
While iPhones are now a charger-free zone, that's not the story for the iPad Air M1, which ships with a 20W charger and USB-C cable to top it up once its battery starts getting low.
Should you buy the Apple iPad Air M1?
- Buy it if the standard iPad model doesn’t quite do it for you.
- Don't buy it if you need the photo-specific features of an iPad Pro – or if the MacBook Air would be better.
If you're after an iPad just because you want a tablet to browse the web, social media and game on the sofa at night, the regular old 9th Gen iPad is still absolutely the model to buy.
If, however, you need just a little bit more performance, then the iPad Air M1 is a good deal. You're going to save some dough relative to the price of the iPad Pro M1 11 inch while still getting the same essential performance.
The existence of the iPad Air M1 shifts the current Pro tablets much more towards their Pro audience, and specifically the pro photography and video crowds, where the higher refresh rate ProMotion screens and Thunderbolt ports make more sense anyway.
However, if you're considering the iPad Air M1 as an easy way into the Apple world as a productivity device, balance it up against the superior multitasking and more open nature of the Apple MacBook Air M1. By the time you drop a keyboard and mouse onto an iPad Air, you can easily be in a similar price territory.
Apple iPad Air M1: Pricing and availability
The Apple iPad Air M1 retails in Australia from $929.
How we tested
I've been testing and evaluating the Apple iPad Air M1 for a period of 10 weeks now, using it for both productivity and more recreational uses, because that is one of the strengths of tablet devices.
I've tested it extensively with the Apple Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil, as well as pairing it to other Bluetooth-enabled keyboards and mice. The iPad Air M1 was also extensively benchmarked and observed for performance in real world applications relative to prior and current iPad models.
The model of the iPad Air M1 used for this review was loaned to me by Apple.
I've got over 2 decades of tech product reviewing under my belt. I'm a multi-time Australian IT Journo award winner, including awards for best reviewer and best technical journalist.