Review: The iPad Air 5 remains the most versatile Apple tablet

With its M1 chip, the iPad Air 5 absolutely delivers the power you need to get work done like a pro, without the bells, whistles — and price tag — of an iPad Pro.

Apple, iPad, iPad Air, tablet

Equipped with an M1 processor, a much better video-conferencing camera, and 5G as a cellular option, the iPad Air 5 absolutely delivers the power you need to get work done like a pro — without the bells, whistles, and price tag of an iPad Pro.

iPad Pro or iPad Air?

Apple’s decision to pump an M1 processor inside the latest iPad Air means comparisons with iPad Pro are  inevitable, given the company’s pro tablets now host the same chip. What makes that decision a good one is that Apple has a steady supply of these processors, and has managed to ensure they ship, which has been a problem elsewhere in the industry over the last year or so.

The M1 chip is arguably the best silicon available right now. Not only is it highly performant, it also scales all the way from the iPad Air to the Mac Studio, stopping at multiple stations in between. In the future, it will sit inside a high-end desktop equipped with a vast cooling system and we’ll finally discover what the top end of its performance might be, shaming the competition.

What this means is that while the processor may not be accomplishing everything it is capable of when it sits inside an iPad Air, it is still more efficient with more performance per watt and 10-hour battery life. If you migrate from a fourth-generation iPad Air to this new model, Apple promises 60% faster processor and twice the graphics performance.

The USB-C port offers up to doubled transfer speeds.

Is it true you’ll get better performance?

I think it is. My experience with an iPad Air (loaned to me by Apple) bears it out. But what about the data? Early reports suggest the M1 iPad Air delivers the same performance as an M1-powered iPad Pro. That means Geekbench 5 scores of 1,700 single-core and 7,200 multi-core for iPad Air 5, compared to scores of 1,583 single-core, 4,209 multi-core on the iPad Air 4.

Both my experience and the data agree: apps run faster, graphics operations are transacted faster, and if you want to run image-editing apps, create video clips in iMovie, design something fabulous in Procreate, build spreadsheets and presentations, or handle other work-related tasks, you’ll see a discernible improvement.

I’m particularly fond of the fluid, latency-free sensation I got when editing images and working with an Apple Pencil. Some transitions simply pop off the screen as you draw. I think that feels quite amazing. You will experience performance just as good as that you experience on an 11-in. iPad Pro with a system that costs around $200 less.

Similarities between the Air and Pro don’t stop there. Both run the second-generation Apple Pencil and both are compatible with Magic Keyboard.

What about the display?

The iPad Air uses a 10.9-in., 2360x1640-pixel, 264ppi Liquid Retina display with 500 nits of brightness. If this sounds familiar, it’s the same specification we saw in the iPad Air 4 display. That also means it carries a smaller version of the (also Liquid Retina) display in the 11-in. iPad Pro, which offers 600 nits brightness.

The 12.9-in. iPad Pro with its Liquid Retina XDR display provides up to 1,000 nits brightness. What this means in brief is that while the screen is smaller by a few pixels than the Pro, the iPad Air offers an equally good display.

What about weight?

The iPad Air 4 became my favorite iPad. In part, this is because it weighs slightly less than the iPad Pro. My unique position is that I suffer from writing-related RSI, which means even a few grams less weight makes holding these things easier, so I always tend toward the lighter device. The new iPad weighs just over 1 pound. This is slightly heavier than the iPad Air 4, but still lighter than the 11-in, iPad Pro.

What about the new camera?

Apple has given the FaceTime camera a welcome upgrade. It’s now a 12-megapixel Ultra Wide camera. That means you can use Center Stage, which makes for a much better experience when making video calls. Center Stage uses artificial intelligence to keep you in focus when you move around. That front-facing camera also supports 4K video capture.

What hasn’t changed is the primary camera. This remains the single lens 12-megapixel camera that was introduced in the last generation iPad Air. If you use a camera on your iPad for pro work, this may be a deal-breaker compared to the iPad Pro, which offers a more sophisticated pro camera system with 2x optical and 5x digital zoom.

What about 5G?

There are numerous 5G standards around, which is quite confusing. We may be using 5G, but what should we expect from using it? We don’t know. Are we on mmWave? Or is our provider offering any of the numerous n-series bands? Or is it that 5G which isn’t 5G AT&T briefly "supported" in 2020?

This is just a phase in the deployment story, and things are going to improve quite quickly as device deployment creates demand to prompt networks to provide coherent cross-border 5G support and install the required infrastructure.

For now, 5G is a good-to-have feature; it hasn’t yet become essential — though it will likely to become so in the next year or so, which means wit the iPad Air, you already have a base from which to access future 5G networks and services.

That’s going to be a nice, connected future for most of us. But for enterprise and creative professionals using a tablet to get work done in the field, it’s going to become increasingly essential. The 5G in iPad Air is a future-proofing move that means the tablet will become increasingly connected over time.

A note about upgrading

Apple continues to refine the set-up experience. Here’s how it works today:

  • Open the box.
  • Take the product out of it.
  • Hold your iPhone near it to use your smartphone to initiate setup.
  • Or login with your Apple ID if you have one.
  • Or login with your Managed Apple ID if you work for a company that uses MDM systems.
  • You may need to enter your Wi-Fi password. You may find a few network or specific app settings need to be put in place.
  • You can begin using your device immediately, while your various apps and documents from iCloud download in the background.
  • The process is simple.

If you already use an iPad, moving to a new one is so simple. You’ll soon feel as if you’re still using your old system, until you realize that most everything you do now works better — sometimes very much better — than before.

That speedy setup and the significant improvements in performance also mean you’ll get more done when using an iPad Air 5. Better performance means tasks take less time. Apple’s upgrade/set-up process is second to none, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re using your own device or working with an MDM system that supports Single Sign-on, such as from Jamf.

Where are we going next?

Apple has engaged on a long journey. From its first adventures in processor designs for iPhones to today’s tour-de-force in which it offers chips so performant and scalable the entire industry skews data to cast aspersions at what it has accomplished. In the absence of the M-powered Mac Pro, we still haven’t seen the performance ceiling of Apple’s first-generation M-series chips, and we know the first Macs running its second-generation chips may appear later this year.

We also think Apple is attempting to unify all its devices across the architecture, with lower-end iPads powered by A-series chips and M-series for its pro devices. This may change. It’s easy to anticipate M-series chips inside iPhones at some point, given they already share so much that is the same. We can also easily imagine M-series chips sliding into every iPad model, which is a good illustration of how Apple throws high-end improvements into its upper-echelon products, then brings them to other systems.

That’s great news for consumers who can see how even entry-level systems will improve in coming years. It’s also great news for developers and enterprise purchasers, who can rely on Apple’s Road Map to provide product and application support and consistency in future.

The next iPad Air will be even better than the current one, which is a vast improvement over all those that came before. That may not be a huge surprise, but it continues to be A Very Good Thing, as it means Apple has built platform consistency. That consistency is boosted by the fact you can now run iPad apps on Macs.

It’s also worth noting the continued direction of travel which means Apple’s tablets, as well as being great machines, are also becoming (for slightly different reasons) increasingly essential to anyone with an iPhone or Mac. Universal Control is a complete gem, while (just about) all your iPhone apps are better on an iPad. Apple’s platform integration means all its products become even more useful when used alongside each other.

The tablet is available in space gray, starlight, pink, purple, and blue. 

Criticism: Storage

My biggest criticism involves storage. The iPad Air comes in 64GB or 256GB capacities, which means there’s a big $150 gap between the $599/$749 64GB and $749/$899 256GB models.

What’s a little upsetting there is that if you do need an iPad Air for serious work, you’ll almost certainly choose the higher-capacity model. The thing is, once you do, the difference between an iPad Pro and an iPad Air erodes a little; you can pick up a 128GB 11-in. iPad Pro for $799/$999 or a 256GB Pro from $899/$1,099.

While I appreciate Apple wants people spending cash, I do think a 128GB iPad Air option would be popular; it’s a shame there isn’t one available. All the same, in comparison with iPad Pro, you still save a couple of hundred bucks for a decent machine.

Who is this for?

The iPad Air is for anyone who needs a tablet that’s capable of professional work (including the capacity to drive an external display), but doesn’t need the bells, whistles or added cost of an iPad Pro.

  • If you’re purchasing an iPad for the first time, I’d recommend an iPad Air because it provides a great balance between the needs of pro and consumer users, will still be a fantastic tablet when the next model ships and because its processor is more than capable.
  • Equally, if you’re upgrading from another model, this seems a pretty good place to go.
  • If you’re looking to deploy numerous Apple tablets for business, education, or any other uses, the iPad Air may well tick all the boxes. It doesn’t have everything you expect in an iPad Pro (if the camera matters to you then go up), but for a balance of features, it makes complete sense.
  • If you have a last generation iPad Air, you still own a fantastic tablet that will deliver what you need for a long while yet. I don’t see any big reason to upgrade, unless you really want the latest processor or access to Center Stage for better meetings.

The iPad Air has everything the last generation offered, but supplements this with future-focused 5G support, and a better chip. It’s a genuine improvement to Apple’s most versatile tablet and gives developers a platform to support even more demanding applications in future. Overall, it's an excellent tablet that reinforces the Air’s position as the reference standard that defines the mid-range expectation of what tablets can do. 

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Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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