It's a common complaint that where it was once streamlined and simple, Apple’s product line-up has become bloated and difficult to navigate.
While we know most people will be able to deal with it just fine, we have to admit, even we're struggling with the 2019 iPad lineup.
At the top of the pile is the iPad Pro, with all of its bells and whistles including FaceID integration and gorgeous liquid retina screen. Then you’ve got the standard iPad at the bottom; a classic tablet experience without support for the extras such as Apple’s Pencil and Smart Keyboard.
Now, back from the dead and sitting somewhere in between those two, are the iPad Air and iPad Mini. They essentially have the same innards as each other, they just differ in terms of screen size and support for the aforementioned keyboard (the Air has an accompanying Smart Keyboard, the Mini doesn’t).
The last Air was released all the way back in 2013, and was pushed as the premium iPad before the Pro came on the scene.
So who, exactly, is the iPad Air for now it's back in 2019? And is it an iPad worth buying?
Design: Reflecting the times
By this point, you've no doubt owned an iPad, held an iPad, or at least seen a tourist awkwardly hold one aloft to snap a historic monument. The new iPad Air looks like all the other non-Pro iPads that have gone before it. And at 10.5-inches, it sits right in the middle between the standard iPad at 9.7-inches and the cheaper iPad Pro at 11-inches.
Physically, the iPad Air is nowhere near as sleek as the all-screen iPad Pro with its FaceID module. There's a large bezel top and bottom for the front-facing camera and the TouchID home button respectively. The bezels on the side of the Air are thinner than on the standard iPad though, allowing for a greater screen-to-body ratio.
The Air still lives up to its heritage when it comes to thinness, though, shaving 1.4cm off the standard iPad for a 6.1 mm depth. It’s worth mentioning that the Pro is even thinner, but then it also has that annoying camera bump, which the Air doesn’t.
All iPad models are now roughly the same weight, and any differences are so small they're almost irrelevant. However, the Air comes in at 456g for the Wi-Fi version and 464g for the cellular model. That’s well under half the weight of even the most portable of laptops.
The main complaint about the basic iPad when we reviewed it two years ago was the screen. It wasn’t bad, it just lacked the anti-reflective treatment from other iPads, meaning it became a mirror in direct light. It also wasn't bonded to the actual glass, meaning there was something of a disconnect when using the Apple Pencil.
The iPad Air’s screen addresses both these concerns with an anti-reflective screen and a beautiful display that feels great when you're drawing on it with Pencil. It also supports True Tone and Wide Colour, so photos and video look great while adapting to the environment automatically. The only big thing it doesn’t have is ProMotion high refresh rate from the iPad Pro, which made using that device feel so silky smooth.
Performance: Fantastic Fortnite
The new iPad Air boasts the same A12 Bionic chipset as Apple’s latest phones, including the XS and XR. That means it scores a very similar 11543 in GeekBench; that's not quite up there with the iPad Pro and its A12X chipset, but still lightning fast for apps and multitasking.
In the real world, that means you can play any game and run any app from the App Store on the iPad Air, and probably will be able to for the next couple of years at least. Fortnite plays beautifully, iMovie exported my 1080p movie in roughly half its duration time, and quickly switching between apps was always smooth.
Annoyingly, the only storage options for the iPad Air are 64GB and 256GB, with the 128GB sweet spot missing from the lineup. And this being Apple, there’s quite a price jump between the two, with the 64GB WiFi model coming in at £479 and the 256GB one £150 more at £629. And, as always, there’s no expandable storage.
Features: Lightning Strike
The new iPad Air supports both of Apple’s premium accessories: the Smart Keyboard and Pencil (1st generation). The compatible Smart Keyboard comes in at an eye-watering £159, an astronomical amount considering it STILL doesn't come with backlighting so is pretty useless in low-light. As long as you can see it though, Apple's keyboard is one of the best tablet keyboards out there, helped by the iPad Air's size which makes key spacing more comfortable. Personally, I wouldn’t use it as a laptop replacement, as it’s not as comfortable to type on as a proper laptop keyboard. Thankfully, more comfortable Bluetooth keyboards are available for considerably less money than Apple’s Smart Keyboard, so that remains an option as well.
The iPad Air also works with the Pencil, although the first generation model only. That means it’s cheaper (£90 vs £120), but it also means it doesn’t snap to the tablet and charge wirelessly like the second generation does to the iPad Pro. Instead, it awkwardly and somewhat fragilely sticks out of the iPad's lightning port to pair and charge. It also has a really annoying tendency to roll around uncontrollably when placed on a desk. In the hand, though, Apple's Pencil is still the best tablet stylus going, and if you like to draw, annotate or just take handwritten notes, it’s a dream to use.
Battery life has always been impressive across the iPad line, and the iPad Air is no different. We were able to use the iPad for a full nine-hour work day and still have 20 per cent charge left to read Stuff on the train home.
While the iPad Air doesn't officially support fast charging, we were able to use a USB-C charger (not included) to get the iPad Air from empty to 60 per cent in just over an hour, and then fully charge it in two and a half hours. Only a 10W charger is included in the box, though.
Apple’s spoken a lot about audio advancements on its devices of late, with louder stereo sound coming to the iPhone XS line, plus the iPad Pro's four speaker array. The Air boasts no such improvements sadly; there are just two speakers on the bottom of the device, just like in previous generation devices. They sound good and go loud, but you don’t get the kind of separation and presence you might like for video content when watching in landscape.
The iPad Air still sports a Lightning connector on the bottom, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on your adoption of USB-C at this stage. USB-C on the iPad Pro allows for some interesting features such as external device support and reverse charging. Lightning is still extremely popular at this stage though, and also has loads of compatible accessories.
The final noteworthy upgrade on the Air is Bluetooth 5.0, which is an improvement over 4.2 in the standard iPad. This means better range if you’re using wireless headphones, although it should be noted the Air still has a headphone socket too.
Photography: Front facing furtherance
The rear camera is one area where there's no difference between the iPad Air and the cheaper iPad -- they both have an 8MP sensor. This means that the iPad Air takes good if serviceable photos for a tablet that are probably some way off the quality you'd get from the phone in your pocket. But if you somehow find yourself in the situation where you have to take a photo using a 10.5-inch tablet, then you’ll find it to be a serviceable snapper.
It's not so great for low-light shots though, as it lacks the TrueTone flash of the Pro model, but it takes Live Photos (Apple’s animated images) and shoots in HDR, just like the standard iPad.
The main lens on the back sits flush with the device, which means there isn’t a wobble when you have it lying on a flat surface. It’s a small thing, but a lot of Apple phones and tablets have a camera protrusion that creates a wobble when laid flat, and it's just one of those little annoyances that builds over time.
The front-facing camera is where the improvements are to be found, with the 7MP camera being a big leap over the iPad’s 1.2MP model. This means that you'll look better than ever on Facetime video calls.
It’s not a TrueDepth camera, so you’re missing out on the Animoji and Portrait Mode options from the iPad Pro and iPhone X series of phones. However, in the 18 months I’ve had an iPhone X/XS Max, I can count on one hand how often I’ve used those features, so you’re not missing too much.
Video recording maxes out at 1080p, which is fine for most people, but 4K is reserved for the iPad Pro only.
Apple iPad Air (2019) Verdict
While the iPad lineup is bountiful, it's clear that the iPad Air is meant to sit firmly in the middle of the range. Comparing base WiFI models, the iPad Air 64GB is £479, £290 cheaper than the iPad Pro 64GB, but only £160 more than the standard iPad 32GB.
Given the feature set of the Air, that price makes it the most attractive iPad for most people. The Pro is significantly more expensive and the extra features are only really relevant for a small number of people. But the £160 extra over the standard iPad gets you a better and larger screen, a significant boost in power and therefore longevity, smart keyboard compatibility, and an extra 32GB of storage. If you can afford it, it's a total no-brainer.