The iPad Air 4 gives the Pro a run for its money
The iPad Air 4 received a major facelift compared to the previous generation, but the new aesthetic is hardly the biggest change here. Equipped with the powerful A14 Bionic processor, a beautiful and fully-laminated Liquid Retina display, and a magnetic Magic Connector that works with accessories like the second-generation Apple Pencil and the fantastic Magic Keyboard, Apple has quietly built a solid competitor for the iPad Pro at a lower price point.
The prospect of a more affordable alternative to the impressive iPad Pro that comes anywhere close to the latter’s capabilities is intriguing, but hardware specifications only tell part of the story. To that end, I spent a couple weeks with an iPad Air, Magic Keyboard, and second-generation Apple Pencil as part of my daily carry, with results that surprised me.
What We Like
- Snappy performance
- Big, beautiful Retina display
- Uses USB-C
- Great looking color choices
- Solid competition for the iPad Pro at a lower price
What We Don’t Like
- No Face ID
- Not enough storage options
- Fingerprint sensor is touchy
Combined with the Magic Keyboard, the iPad Air 4 is a remarkably competent laptop replacement. I’m not exactly ready to mothball my laptop in favor of a tablet just yet, but between the capabilities of the iPad Air 4 and its price point, Apple has found a winning formula that just may edge out the iPad Pro for a lot of users.
Design: Big changes with strong design cues from the iPad Pro
The iPad Air line was due for a visual refresh sooner or later, and the iPad Air 4 is it. The chunky top and bottom bezels and sharp screen corners are gone, in favor of a uniform border and a display that, like the iPad Pro, features rounded corners. The overall look is similar to the iPad Pro actually, right down to the perpendicular edges that allow the new iPad Air to support a magnetic Magic Connector. This connector, if you’re not familiar, allows you to sync and charge the second generation Apple Pencil, connect to the Magic Keyboard, and more.
Along with the reduced top and bottom bezels, Apple ditched the old familiar home button. Instead of the physical button, you’ll have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to return home. The fingerprint sensor, which used to be found in the home button, has been relocated to the lock button. It feels a little weird to use this oblong button as a fingerprint sensor at first, but I got used to it pretty quick.
I was able to split the screen with two windows, watching YouTube videos in one while jotting down notes in the other without a hint of slowdown or lag.
Another big design change found in the iPad 4 is that the Lightning port has been replaced by a USB-C port. That brings the new iPad Air even more in line with the iPad Pro, while simultaneously splitting it from previous generations of iPad accessories that rely on the Lightning connector. You can use all your iPad Pro accessories, and a huge variety of other USB peripherals and dongles, but you’ll need to reach for a Lighting-to-USB-C adapter if you want to keep using your old stuff.
The redesign brings a bevy of beautiful color options as well. My test unit was a pleasing shade of metallic green, but you can also choose between sky blue, rose gold, silver, and, of course, space gray. I’m particularly fond of the green hue of my test unit, but the colors are all uniformly understated rather than flashy or gaudy, lending an upscale feel to the device.
Display: Gorgeous 10.9-inch Liquid Retina display
The iPad Air 4 didn’t just receive cosmetic upgrades over the previous generation, and the display is one area where we see a big improvement. It’s bigger, at 10.9 inches versus 10.5 inches and a slightly different aspect ratio. The resolution is 2360×1640 and the pixel density is the same at 264ppi, but the iPad 4 features a fully-laminated Liquid Retina display compared to the Retina display found in the previous model.
In terms of performance, the iPad Air 3 display was already great, and the iPad Air 4 display is just a notch better. They have the same pixel density, as mentioned before, the same brightness, and the same color accuracy. Viewing angles are also fantastic, with some dimming at extreme angles but very little color shift.
The display to looked great in most lighting conditions, including bright indoor light. The display was even visible outdoors on sunny days thanks to its sheer brightness. I did run into some visibility issues outside in direct sunlight, thanks to the highly reflective glass screen, but a bit of shade solved that problem pretty quickly.
Performance: Impressive speed from the A14 Bionic chip
The iPad Air 4 features Apple’s brand new A14 Bionic chip, which puts it in the strange position of being Apple’s fastest tablet until the next iPad Pro refresh. Where the 8th gen iPad 10.2-inch flirts with laptop-replacement status, the iPad Air goes all in.
I did my best to leave my laptop behind whenever possible and stick to the iPad Air and a Magic Keyboard, and the results were surprising. Where I felt myself missing my laptop a little more than I was comfortable with when using the iPad 10.2-inch, the iPad Air 4 is so competent that my only real complaints are that the cramped Magic Keyboard takes a bit of getting used to, and it’s tougher to effectively multitask on a 10.9-inch screen than the 13- and 15-inch screens of my laptops.
With a faster processor and access to the same great accessories, the iPad Air does just about everything the iPad Pro does for less money.
In terms of sheer performance, the iPad Air 4 never failed to impress. I was able to split the screen with two windows, watching YouTube videos in one while jotting down notes in the other without a hint of slowdown or lag. I also fired up Photoshop and edited images without a hitch, even in split view with a video playing in the other window. That’s not something I’d normally want to do on such a small display, but I had to see if the iPad Air 4 could handle it.
With its robust processor and beautiful display, the iPad Air 4 also lends itself well to mobile gaming. I installed the hit open world adventure game Genshin Impact just in time for the 1.1 update knowing it would run fine on account of my experience with the lower-powered iPad 10.2-inch, and the iPad Air 4 impressed again. Load times were pretty good compared to other mobile devices I’ve played the game on, and the painterly graphics looked almost as good as they do on my gaming rig.I don’t know that I’d want to use an iPad Air as my primary gaming device, but what a fantastic option to be able to pull out wherever and whenever you happen to have a bit of downtime.
Productivity: Pair it with the Magic Keyboard for an almost laptop-like experience
The iPad Air 4 gives the iPad Pro 12.9-inch a run for its money in the productivity department. With a faster processor and access to the same great accessories, the iPad Air does just about everything the iPad Pro does for less money. As I mentioned earlier, the iPad Air 4 comes pretty close to laptop-replacement territory when you pair it with a Magic Keyboard, making this ultra-portable device one of the biggest productivity aids you’ll find in Apple’s product lineup.
The Magic Keyboard is really the key to unlocking the power of the iPad Air 4. The case is so thin that it’s barely more cumbersome than a non-keyboard case, but it provides a full keyboard and touchpad when you open it up. Pair that with an easily adjustable back to tweak your viewing angle of the tablet, and you’ve got yourself a productivity powerhouse.
The Magic Keyboard is really the key to unlocking the power of the iPad Air 4.
The one issue I ran into was that the Magic Keyboard is significantly more cramped than I’m used to, but I find that it usually doesn’t take too long to get used to a new keyboard. Once I got used to it, I was able to work on articles and reviews, dash off emails and Discord messages, browse the web, edit images, and virtually every other task I’d normally use my laptop for. The only time I was forced to switch to my laptop was when playing games that aren’t available for iPadOS, and when the 10.9-inch screen just proved too small for the task I was trying to complete.
Audio: Decent enough, but no quad stereo like its bigger brother
If you’re searching for a reason to go with an iPad Pro instead of the astonishingly capable iPad Air 4, you’ve found it. The sound quality here is okay, but it’s just okay. You get stereo speakers, but they lack the punch of the quad speakers found in the iPad Pro.
I fired up YouTube Music and threw on “Shatter Me” by Lindsey Stirling, and I was pretty impressed. The iPad Air’s stereo speakers filled my office at half volume, and the vocals were remarkably clear. Stirling’s violin also came through loud and clear, although the more bass-heavy parts of some came through a bit hollow. Overall, the iPad Air 4’s stereo speakers get the job done well enough, and they’re definitely plenty loud.
Network: Good speeds on Wi-Fi and impressive LTE performance
The iPad Air 4 really impressed me with its network performance, turning in decent numbers when connected to Wi-Fi and unbelievable performance when connected to cellular data. For the purposes of testing, I used a 1Gbps Mediacom connection with an Eero Mesh Wi-Fi system, and I used an AT&T data SIM for cellular.
Connected to my Wi-Fi, and in close proximity to the router, the iPad Air 4 managed 347Mbps down and 64.4Mbps up. That’s pretty good, although it’s lower than the 486Mbps that my Pixel 3 managed at the same time. Moving away from the modem and all access points, I measured virtually the same high download speed at a distance of about 50 feet with no fall off to speak of. Moving about 100 feet away from the modem, down in my garage, the iPad Air 4 still hung on with an impressive 213Mbps.
The numbers were even more impressive when I switched off Wi-Fi and switched on cellular data. Connected to AT&T’s 4G LTE network, the iPad Air 4 notched an unbelievable 21.8Mbps down and 2Mbps up sitting on the desk in my office. The highest I’ve seen from my Netgear Nighthawk M1 in the same position, connected to an antenna, is 15Mbps down.
Connected to a massive, custom-built directional Yagi antenna array, the best I’ve been able to coax out of my Nighthawk M1 is about 20Mbps. So that kind of speed out of the iPad Air 4 is truly impressive.
When left to run on its own, screen on, streaming video over Wi-Fi, I clocked the iPad Air 4 at just about 12 hours run time.
Camera: Business in front, Party in the back
The iPad Air 4 features a single 12MP camera on the back, which is one of the areas where it definitely lags behind the iPad Pro. The omission of an ultra-wide-angle lens didn’t seem like much of a hurdle to me though, as the rear camera seemed to take remarkably crisp and colorful photos in conditions where plentiful light was available. I was less impressed with the shots I snapped in low light conditions, with noticeable noise, muddy colors, and an inability to handle even dim backlight.
The rear camera also allows you to record video in 4K now. The results were pretty great overall, especially considering the price of the iPad 4 and the fact that recording video isn’t really its main purpose.
The 8MP front-facing camera is a massive improvement over the 720p offering found on the iPad 10.2-inch. If you spend a lot of time video conferencing, and a lot of us are in that boat these days, the iPad Air 4 won’t embarrass you with blurry visuals and herky jerky video. Selfies are crisp and colorful, and video is smooth and clear.That said, the iPad Air 4 still suffers from the age-old problem of having the camera mounted on the side when used in portrait mode.
Battery: Better than advertised
Apple claims a battery life of 10 hours when constantly surfing the web on Wi-Fi, and I found that estimate to be a bit on the conservative side. When left to run on its own, screen on, streaming video over Wi-Fi, I clocked the iPad Air 4 at just about 12 hours run time. When used moderately for web browsing, email, and other tasks, but not as my main work machine, I was able to go a few days between charges.
Software: iPadOS continues to impress
The iPad Air 4 ships with iPadOS 14, and the continued evolution of this tablet-centric take on iOS continues to impress. This is the same version of the OS you get with the iPad 10.2-inch (2020), only it runs even faster here thanks to the A14 Bionic chip.
In addition to a lot of behind the scenes improvements, iPadOS 14 brings some pretty flashy additions that help make multitasking easier, improve productivity, and help push the iPad further into laptop replacement territory.
My favorite addition is Scribble, which is a feature that leverages the Apple Pencil. This feature allows you to write handwritten notes and have them transformed into text on the screen. It also allows you to write with the Apple Pencil in any text field, with your handwriting then being transformed automatically into text. It makes filling out forms a breeze when using the iPad Air in tablet mode without a physical keyboard, and it was fairly accurate overall.
Another feature I enjoyed was Smart Stack, which is essentially a stack of widgets you can swipe through that’s automatically selected based on a variety of factors like your location and time of day. It isn’t perfect, but it tends to surface relevant information, and it was useful more often than not.
Price: It’s a good value, but the only storage upgrade option is pricey
The iPad Air is positioned as a midpoint between the iPad 10.2-inch and the iPad Pro, with an MSRP between $599 and $879 depending on the configuration you choose. The cheapest option is $270 more expensive than the iPad 10.2-inch, and $200 less than the baseline iPad Pro (2020). That’s a pretty good place for the iPad Air 4 to be, considering how much of an improvement it is over the iPad 10.2-inch, and how little you lose by choosing it over an iPad Pro.
Apple iPad Air 4 vs. Apple iPad Pro
Yes, I’m actually pitting the iPad Air 4 against its historically much more capable cousin, the undisputed king of productivity in the tablet form factor, the iPad Pro. It isn’t even as far fetched as it sounds, either, as the iPad Air 4 is a truly impressive piece of hardware that asks a surprising question: is the iPad Pro really worth the extra money?
This equation will change when the new iPad Pro arrives in 2021, but at its release, the iPad Air 4 is actually the fastest iPad on the market. The next iPad Pro refresh will change that, but it’s a bit of a weird dynamic at the moment. The iPad Pro does bring some good stuff to the table, like 120Hz Pro Motion refresh rates for the display, LiDAR scanner, better cameras and quad speakers.
The question you need to ask is it worth shelling out the extra money for those features, when the iPad Air actually has a faster processor and matches the iPad Pro virtually stride for stride in terms of productivity and performance? If you have the extra room in your budget and don’t need to make a purchase immediately, the next iPad Pro might be worth the wait. But right now, the iPad Air 4 sure seems like the better value.
Like an iPad Pro-lite with a price to match.
The iPad Air 4 is an impressive piece of hardware that you need to consider if you’re looking for a tablet that can do a pretty convincing laptop impression with the right accessories. It functions great as a tablet, especially with the Apple Pencil and Scribble feature, and really shines when snapped onto a Magic Keyboard. It’s worth every penny that it costs to upgrade from the iPad 10.2-inch, and makes a very convincing case for itself even against the more expensive iPad Pro. This is one tablet that won’t fail to impress.
- Product Name: iPad Air 4
- Product Brand: Apple
- UPC: 190199810600
- Price: $599
- Release Date: September 2020
- Weight: 16 oz.
- Product Dimensions: 9.8 x 6.8 x 0.29 in.
- Color: Space Gray, Silver, Rose Gold, Green, and Sky Blue
- Warranty: 1 year
- Platform: iPadOS 14
- Processor: A14 Bionic chip with 64-bit architecture, Neural Engine
- RAM: 4GB
- Storage: 64GB, 256GB
- Camera: 12MP Wide camera, 1080p FaceTime HD Camera
- Battery Capacity: 28.6 watt-hour
- Ports: USB-C
- Waterproof: No