- Apple's new $599 iPad Air launches on Friday. I've been testing it for the past several days and think it's the best iPad for most people.
- It's more powerful, has a better front-facing camera and offers the option for 5G support, which makes it the best mix of power and price if you need more than the regular $329 iPad but don't want to pay up for the $799 iPad Pro.
Apple's new $599 iPad Air launches on Friday. I've been testing it for the past several days and think it's the best iPad for most people. It's more powerful and is better than the regular $329 iPad in almost every way, the best mix of features and price for people who want to play the latest games and do some video and image editing. But power users may be disappointed by the skimpy 64GB of storage in the base model and could find that the $799 entry-level iPad Pro is a better deal.
Apple's iPad sales were down 14% year-over-year during the holiday quarter, generating $7.25 billion in revenue, while Mac sales soared 25% during the same period to $10.85 billion. Apple had some supply constraints, but also spent much of the last year hyping up its new M1-powered Macs, which helped drive sales in that segment.
That M1 chip has been available in Apple's more expensive iPad Pro. Now it comes to the iPad Air, giving Apple's midrange tablet the same power as some Macs and more expensive iPads.
Here's what you need to know about it.
Three things stand out to me about the iPad Air: the new front-facing camera for Center Stage video chat, support for faster 5G cellular networks if you want it and the new faster M1 processor.
OK, four things: The new blue color is also pretty awesome. It's a deeper hue than Apple used in 2020 and gives it a unique look that will stand out against most gray and black tablets. Apple has been brightening its products with new colors over recent years, and I hope the trend continues into its MacBook laptops.
The M1 chip gives you the option to do a lot more than you can with the regular iPad. You can edit photos and videos faster in apps such as Adobe Photoshop or LumaFusion or play all of the latest games, including some that don't run on the regular iPad, such as "Divinity: Original Sin 2." I own the regular iPad Pro and didn't notice any performance difference in using the more affordable iPad Air. I think of the M1 chip as future-proofing more than anything else, though, since there's enough power here to run the latest apps for years.
Center Stage was first introduced on the iPad Pro last year and has since made its way to the regular iPad, but it's one of my favorite new features in Apple's tablets. It helps keep you in the frame during video calls, which means you can move back and forth around the room while chatting on FaceTime and the camera will follow you. I love using it for video chats with my toddler and his grandparents because it helps keep him in the frame as he bounces around the room.
5G is nice to have if you care about using your iPad outside of a Wi-Fi network, like on the bus or the train. I usually buy the cellular model because I like having that option. But 5G doesn't offer consumers all that much yet over the older 4G LTE networks, other than faster downloads, which might be useful if you need to quickly download some movies before hopping on a flight. Just expect to pay about $150 more for the cellular version.
Finally, I'm a huge fan of Apple's $299 Magic Keyboard. I know it's expensive, but it allows you to turn the iPad Air into a more traditional laptop-like computer. I love sitting on the couch at night and browsing the web with a keyboard and trackpad, texting with friends or working on a story. I still turn to my Mac when I need to run lots of windowed apps for work, but the iPad Air is a great secondary computer.
You might also consider the $129 Apple Pencil, which charges with magnets on the side of the iPad Air. It's one of those things that's convenient to have when you need it, like for signing documents on the go. Others may find it more useful for finely tuning photos and videos, drawing or taking notes, but I rarely use it for that.
My biggest ding against the new iPad Air is that the entry-level model gives you only 64GB of storage. That's probably fine for folks who don't install a ton of apps and games or prefer to stream movies instead of downloading them. But you may fill that up fast. So, you should consider the 256GB model for $749. But at that point you're $50 shy of the entry-level iPad Pro, which has a nicer screen, twice the storage and more camera options. Apple should have just put 128GB in the entry-level iPad Air.
The screen has great colors and is nice and bright, but it lacks the high refresh rate you'll get in the iPad Pro. I get that Apple wants to keep the feature on its more expensive iPads, but I think all consumers can benefit from higher refresh rates, from just smoother scrolling through websites and long photo albums to smoother game play. Apple offers the high refresh rate screens only in its pro-level products, though, including in its iPhone 13 Pro and new MacBook Pro.
You also don't get Face ID like you do on the iPad Pro. Instead, you unlock the iPad with a fingerprint reader hidden in the power button. It works fine, but I like that the iPad Pro just unlocks right when I start using it.
Should you buy it?
I think it's the best iPad for most people. You probably don't need to upgrade from the 2020 model, but it's a great bump from anything before that. And you get a lot more power than the entry-level $329 iPad with a way better screen, better speakers and cameras and support for the Magic Keyboard and better Apple Pencil. Still, if you need more than 64GB of storage, you should consider the $799 iPad Pro, which gives you a better screen, Face ID, more cameras and even better speakers.