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The 2020 iPad Air

I’ve been using the new iPad Air for the last week, and, as is my wont with iPad reviews, I’m writing this on it. My personal iPad has been an 11-inch iPad Pro from late 2018. This new iPad Air looks and feels like the current 11-inch Pro’s spiritual sibling.

The 2018 and 2020 11-inch iPads Pro (1st and 2nd generation) are precisely identical in size and shape, camera systems aside. The new 10.9-inch iPad Air, with its single-lens rear camera system, is nearly identical to the 2018 11-inch iPad Pro, and uses the same basic industrial design: flat sides, round “edge-to-edge” displays, no home button. A glance at Apple’s iPad Compare page shows that the new iPad Air and both generations of 11-inch iPad Pro are the same height and width right down to the tenth of a millimeter. The one minute difference in size is that the new Air is 0.2 mm thicker. Hence, the new Air fits perfectly in the same Magic Keyboard as the 11-inch iPad Pros.

Side-by-side with an 11-inch iPad Pro, you can see that the bezel surrounding the display of the new 10.9-inch Air is slightly wider. It has to be — with the same size body but a slightly smaller (and, I presume, slightly less expensive) display, the bezel has to be ever so slightly thicker. In practice, when you’re not looking at them side-by-side, it’s not noticeable.

The only obvious-at-a-glance difference is that the new Air is available in colors that the iPad Pro is not — green, blue and rose gold — in addition to silver and space gray. Apple provided me the green one — it is charmingly minty.

ProMotion and the A14 vs. A12Z Chips

Comparing the displays of the new iPad Air to the iPad Pro, the 0.1-inch diagonal size difference is not significant. The maximum “typical” brightness (500 nits vs. 600 nits) doesn’t seem that significant to me either. But one difference is significant: the iPad Pro offers ProMotion — Apple’s name for dynamic refresh rates up to 120 Hz — and the iPad Air does not.

Apple introduced ProMotion to the iPad Pro over three years ago, in June 2017 — so long ago that those original ProMotion iPad Pros had home buttons. iPads Pro are still the only devices Apple makes with ProMotion, to the consternation of folks who were hoping to see the technology make it to iPhones this year.

With iPads, ProMotion offers two tangible benefits: smoother motion content (most notably scrolling and slow-motion videos) and lower-latency Pencil input. In addition to higher refresh rates (above 60 Hz), ProMotion also allows for lower refresh rates to save battery life. E.g. while playing a 30 FPS video, a ProMotion display should drop to 30 Hz.

Side-by-side I can definitely tell the difference. Scrolling is just nicer and smoother on the iPad Pro than the new iPad Air. And I think I could take the Pepsi Challenge and identify which iPad has ProMotion and which doesn’t from Apple Pencil latency alone.

There’s nothing bad about the iPad Air’s 60 Hz refresh rate or Pencil latency. But the Pro models are definitely nicer. That niceness is a significant part of what you’re paying for with an iPad Pro instead of the new Air. Here’s the pricing:

iPad Air 10.9″ (2020) iPad Pro 11″ (2020)
64 GB $600
128 GB $800
256 GB $750 $900
512 GB $1,100
1024 GB $1,300
Cellular +130 +150

It is unclear to me why cellular networking incurs a $150 charge on the iPad Pro but only $130 on the iPad Air, other than the fact that in addition to professional and premium, “Pro”, in Apple’s parlance, also simply means “more expensive”.

Storage upgrades across both the iPad Air and iPad Pro are $50 per 64 GB of additional capacity — except for the 1 TB iPad Pro, where 512 GB of additional storage costs just $200, only $25 per 64 GB. A veritable bargain. Comparing models with 256 GB of storage — the only storage tier available on both the Air and Pro iPads — shows that the iPad Air costs $150 less than the iPad Pro for non-cellular models. Color options aside, the decision between a new iPad Air and new iPad Pro clearly comes down to the ProMotion display, Face ID, and the higher storage options available only on the Pro. But, in a genuine oddity of product update scheduling, the iPad Air (with the same A14 SoC as the new iPhones 12) is in most cases a slightly faster-performing computer than the iPad Pro (with the A12Z).

Geekbench 5 scores, averaged over two runs, with all devices running iPadOS 14.1:

Chip Single Multi Compute
iPhones 12 A14 1,590 4,010 9,190
iPad Air (2020) A14 1,580 4,240 12,530
iPad Pro (2020) A12Z 1,120 4,680 12,000
iPad Pro (2018) A12X 1,120 4,370 10,930

Browserbench Speedometer 2.0 scores, which aim to measure real-world web application performance:

Chip Speedometer 2
iPhones 12 A14 200
iPad Air (2020) A14 213
iPad Pro (2020) A12Z 146
iPad Pro (2018) A12X 146

The iPad Pro’s A12Z still wins on multi-core CPU tests, which isn’t surprising — the A14 is a 6-core chip; the A12X has 7 cores and the A12Z has 8. But single-core performance — which in my opinion has more real-world utility, especially for consumer usage — is noticeably faster on the A14, and even the GPU (as tested by Geekbench’s “Compute” benchmark) is faster on the A14. Presumably, new iPad Pro models based on the A14 (“A14X” would be a smart guess for the name) will appear next year.

As for why the new iPad Air scores slightly higher than the iPhones 12, both in Geekbench tests and Speedometer, I don’t know. Comparing phones to tablets is a little apples-to-oranges-y, I suppose, in terms of power management. The differences aren’t enough to worry about.

The Return of Touch ID

While using it, the only time I notice that this is the new iPad Air and not my trusty iPad Pro is when I need to use Touch ID instead of Face ID. That’s a hard habit to break. When you go from using a Touch ID device to a Face ID one — whether iPhone or iPad — it’s a pretty easy transition, because Face ID generally kicks in without you doing anything. The whole point of Face ID is that the device recognizes you just by your looking at the device, and when you’re unlocking it, you’re generally looking at it. Whereas with Touch ID, you need to take action. You need to put a finger on the sensor.

When I’m hand-holding this iPad Air, I’m kind of used to the Touch ID sensor already, but I still miss Face ID. You can just tap-to-wake the screen, but when you do, you need to authenticate by resting your finger on the Touch ID sensor to unlock the iPad without entering your passcode. You just get used to waking the iPad by putting your finger on the power button, or even just picking it up with a grip that puts your right index finger on the button.

But when the iPad Air is connected to the Magic Keyboard (as it has been throughout my writing of this piece) — I just can’t get used to not having Face ID. With an iPad Pro in the Magic Keyboard, you just press any key on the keyboard (I’m a space bar man, personally) or wiggle a digit on the trackpad and boom, Face ID recognizes you and the iPad is unlocked. With the iPad Air, you’ve got to reach your left hand up and rest your finger on the power button for a moment. Every. Damn. Time. While writing this very section, specifically about the fact that I can’t stop expecting Face ID to unlock the iPad Air while it’s connected to the Magic Keyboard, I sat here stabbing at the space bar on the keyboard wondering why it’s not unlocking.

The good news is that anyone who already has a 2018 or 2020 iPad Pro, and thus is already habitually acclimated to the experience of Face ID, is not in the market for a new iPad Air. But for those who are eying a new 11-inch-ish iPad and are planning to get a Magic Keyboard (or use their new iPad with any other Bluetooth keyboard/trackpad combination, now that iPadOS has excellent support for such things), the relative obtrusiveness of using Touch ID versus Face ID with a keyboard is the single biggest difference between the iPad Air and iPad Pro.

If you plan to never or seldom use your iPad with a hardware keyboard and trackpad, I don’t think you’re missing that much with Touch ID instead of Face ID. If you do plan to use a keyboard and trackpad, however, you’re missing a lot. Face ID is what puts much of the magic in the Magic Keyboard experience.

Will this Touch ID sensor in the power button ever make its way to iPhones? I think not. I know many people were vaguely hoping it would make a surprise appearance in the iPhones 12 after last month’s announcement of the new iPad Air, but adding Touch ID to the iPhone power button doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

Yes, across the world, many of us are wearing face masks whenever we venture outside the home, and Face ID doesn’t work with masked faces. (Some people report that it does work, sometimes, but it never works for me, and definitely is not officially supported.) But how would a Touch ID sensor on the power button work with an iPhone in a case? Most people use cases, and most cases cover the power button. That’s such a dealbreaker that I think the whole debate might end there. But even putting the issue of button-covering cases aside, how would Touch ID work alongside Face ID? Would they be alternatives — use either one in any situation requiring authentication? That’s how I would guess it would work. But would iOS add a new option to require both forms of biometric authentication for additional security? And if you’re allowed to use either of them in most situations, which one should you use? Practically speaking it would be nice to have Touch ID while wearing a face mask — trust me, I know — but conceptually it seems a bit mushy to have both Touch ID and Face ID on the same device. I think we’re more likely to see a better Face ID system that can identify us while we wear masks covering our mouths and noses than iPhones that have Touch ID sensors on the power button. If we, as humans, can recognize people we know while they’re wearing face masks, computers can do it too.

Touch ID that somehow works through the display, not the power button — that seems like an option worth pursuing, conceptual mushiness of dual biometric systems be damned.

The Bottom Line

The $600 64 GB iPad Air seems like a terrific device for anyone looking for a great modern iPad for handheld use. If you don’t need additional storage and don’t plan to use it with a Bluetooth keyboard or Magic Keyboard (where Face ID really makes a big difference convenience-wise), $600 is a lot less than the $800 starting price for a 128 GB 11-inch iPad Pro, and the new iPad Air is a lot nicer than the no-adjective regular iPads.

But I’m not sure who the $750 256 GB iPad Air is for. Are there people who would be better off with this iPad Air rather than the $800 128 GB iPad Pro? People who need 256 GB of storage instead of 128 GB, but don’t want Face ID or ProMotion or the lidar-equipped camera system? I don’t know who they are, if they’re out there.