Review: iPad Air 2020 is a bundle of powerful joy

The iPad Air can handle almost every task you throw at it, making it absolutely the best all-round tablet in the Apple fleet.

Apple, iPad, iOS, iPad Air, iPad Pro
Jason Cross/IDG

The all-new iPad Air is a beast. It has the power you need to get all but the highest-end tasks done. It’s also Apple’s most adaptable system, capable of doing almost everything you need, and it's the iPad to get this season.

What’s inside?

The new iPad Air uses an A14X processor (Apple Silicon). It offers a 10.9-in. display, has a Touch ID sensor underneath the top and one of the side buttons, and offers a 12-megapixel rear camera. In contrast, the last generation iPad Air offered a 10.5-in. display, used an A12 Bionic chip, carried an 8-megapixel rear camera and had the familiar Touch ID Home button system.

The design echoes the squarer design of earlier iPhones, but the tablet is light and durable with its 100% recycled aluminium frame. It has slim bezels, flat edges that make it easy to hold, particularly as the tablet weighs just under one pound. That slight weight makes a real difference if you hold it for extensive periods.

How does it compare with last year’s iPad Air?

Last year’s iPad Air was a great little machine. Apple packed lots of improvements inside, which meant it finally began to assume its own identity as the iPad you need to get things done. This hasn’t changed in this year’s offering. For comparison:

iPad Air 2019

  • A12 chip
  • LED display with iPS
  • Screen: 2224x1668-pixel resolution
  • Memory: From 64GB
  • A 3.5mm stereo jack
  • Battery life: Up to 10-hours
  • Weight: 478g (cellular model).
  • Lightning cable.
  • From $499.

iPad Air 2020

  • A14 Bionic chip
  • LED display with iPS
  • Screen: 2360x1640-pixel resolution
  • Memory: From 64GB
  • No stereo jack.
  • Battery life: Up to 10 hours
  • Weight: 460g (cellular model
  • USB-C charging cable.
  • From $599.

TL;DR? A better processor, outstanding performance, new design, lighter, USB-C, excellent Apple Pencil support, slightly more expensive.

The camera improvements are welcome, but I’m not convinced it’s a sell for enterprise users who will likely prefer the LiDAR inside iPad Pro/iPhone if they need a camera for any sophisticated work. For consumers, educators and artists, it's fantastic, of course.

Performance, enhanced

When Apple introduced the 2019 Air, it claimed the tablet’s A12 Bionic processor would deliver a 70% boost in performance and twice the graphics capability when compared to the 9.7-in. 2018 iPad that existed then. (For reference, that latter device used an A10 Fusion chip.)

With the 2020 iPad Air, the company promises a further 40% boost in processor performance and a 30% boost to graphics capability in comparison to the previous Air.

In other words, the iPad Air I’m writing this review on delivers approximately twice the performance and 260% better graphics capability than the 2018 iPad model, Apple’s own numbers seem to claim.

Itb is smooth as silk to use.

How do the benchmarks stack up?

I tried a couple of benchmark apps on the iPad Air to see what we got. 3DMark delivered an overall score of 6,790 at 40fps, while Geekbench delivered a Compute Comparison score of 12,528 on my 3GHz/4GB memory device.

That’s actually faster than the second-generation 11-in. iPad Pro, which has a reference score of 11,705, and the A12Z Bionic-powered iPad Pro 12.9 in., which gives up 11,680, according to Geekbench.)

We also see a Metal score of 12,5278.

The real limitation is memory (4GB v 6GB), so you may hit problems multitasking when using a processor intensive app on the Air that you may not encounter on an iPad Pro. If that’s a deal-breaker, you need the pro device.

Most people will get iPad Pro performance in this device, which, just like the iPad 2020, helps raise all the boats in Apple’s tablet fleet.  

What this means to enterprise pros

At the moment, the 2020 iPad Air offers a more recent processor than the one inside the iPad Pro. That’s not a complete comparison – the iPad Pro is still more powerful in computational terms, which means it still exceeds the new Air in many ways (not least memory, as mentioned above). But the fact remains that Apple’s latest Air represents pro power at a median price.

In use, you’ll also be impressed by the sharp clear display. True, it’s not the 120Hz high-end display of an iPad Pro. But the 60Hz screen has just as many pixels, a wide color gamut and low reflectivity, which means you can use it comfortably in bright spaces.

The product isn’t without compromises. For example, my feeling is that the 64GB storage in the entry-level configuration is low for a tablet obviously destined to handle real tasks – more casual users will be delighted by the 2020 iPad announced at the same time. That system brings performance just slightly shy of the 2019 Air.

So, what does this mean to enterprise professionals? Quite simply, you won’t hurt your eyes staring at the screen while you work, and you’ll get the work you need to finish done quickly, thanks to the speedy processor and the many productivity features of iOS 14.

The fingerprint sensor

I’ve had problems with the new fingerprint sensor in the power button, particularly when using the device with the Magic Keyboard (separate review later). Basically, it feels somewhat unintuitive to reach for the sensor each time I go into my customary contemplative trance while trying to think when the tablet goes to sleep. In part, it's about positioning – I have to raise my arm to reach that sense in landscape view, while a mid-placed Touch ID button lets me keep my elbow on the table.

This may sound like a first world problem, but as an RSI sufferer I do like to manage extraneous movement where I can. My solution? I switched Auto-Lock to 5 minutes, which means I’m not forever unlocking the device.

It is fair to note that when I pick up the iPad and use it manually, the Touch ID sensor in the switches is convenient and works well.

I was also impressed with the stereo speakers. Because these are situated at the left and right of the device when in landscape mode you get good stereo audio playback, which you’ll need if you’re watching a movie or indulging in that endless weekly Zoom conference with Harry from accounts who hasn’t stopped laughing since visiting his local total landscaping center.

You’ll almost feel like you’re right there with him.

Should you buy or wait?

I think this is the best value iPad you can buy at this time. It’s great for games, entertainment, surfing and all the entry-level tasks we do, but it’s also powerful enough for sophisticated work, including graphics, photography.

For enterprise pros, iPad Air is plenty powerful enough if you need to write and research reports, spreadsheets, presentations and to use powerful enterprise solutions such as SAP-powered apps. I’d recommend it above the entry-level device for enterprise tasks, in part because that extra memory improves the stability of apps — particularly data-intensive apps.

The fact it now supports an external mouse, keyboard and Apple Pencil just puts an alluring bright red cherry on top of this particularly tasty cake, especially for data entry and scientific use.

The built-in Machine Learning support in the form of the processor’s Neural Engine also raises possibilities for firms engaged in digital transformation of the workplace. That you can easily (in minutes) get the cellular version online with a time-limited mobile data account while travelling may also interest pro users.

Accessories include Apple Pencil, the iPad Folio case and the iPad Magic Keyboard with trackpad, which I’ll be looking at in a separate piece. On the latter, I will note that my partner said it looked like it changed the iPad into a MacBook Pro. To some extent, she’s right.

In the long-term?

I think we all know that when you buy most Apple products you are picking up something you can continue to use for several years. Those years will be punctuated by regular software updates, and those updates will add new features and improvements.

This means what you do and will do with an Apple device isn’t limited by the now, but continues to extend across years of life with the product. As a second machine to supplement a desktop or notebook-based workflow, iPad Air is a great system, though Apple can also quite honorably describe it as all the computer many users need, because it actually is.

One more thing: Such is the unequal state of competition in the tablet market that Apple at this stage competes with itself. All its iPads are good, and the models are becoming better defined.

You’ll use a Pro (from $799) for the most demanding tasks, an entry-level ($429) iPad for most things, though it's not as great to use as the Air (apps won’t launch as quickly, for example). That means the perfect system for flexible utility and reliability is now the iPad Air.

This is bad news (at present) for the iPad Pro, but I’m relatively certain Apple’s got a plan to raise the bar on that product line, once it introduces the Apple Silicon Mac.

Final thoughts: A joy to use

  • If you’re in the market for an iPad and can afford to spring for an extra $200, this is the one to get.
  • If you’re an enterprise pro who needs a tablet that’s powerful and reliable but don’t need quite as much ‘oomph’ as you find in a Pro, this is also the one to get.
  • If you want to equip several members of staff with a decent mobile device you can all rely on for the next two to three years, then there’s something in this Air.
  • And if you just want an iPad to familiarize yourself with Apple’s tablet user experience, it makes sense to start here rather than with the entry-level product, as you’ll outgrow it more slowly.

Not only that, but it’s a joy to use.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon