Apple iPad Air (2020) vs iPad Pro (2021): Which should you buy?

Time to go Pro? Or will you be walking on Air with Apple’s mid-range tablet?

Last year, Apple refreshed the iPad Air in audacious fashion, bringing to it many benefits of the iPad Pro. But now that the company’s revamped the actual iPad Pro, which iPad should you buy?

Our reviews helpfully give both devices a full five stars, so let’s dig into how they compare, and then outline whether you should splash out on Apple’s flagship tablet or whether a cheaper option can do the job.

Design: a splash of colour

These tablets look broadly identical: rounded rectangles that are ‘all screen’ on the front, bar an even black bezel that hides the FaceTime camera and gives your thumbs somewhere to be.

Flip them around and you get more colour options with the Air. The Pro is either boring silver or boring grey, but the Air can be rose gold, green or sky blue. (Sadly no purple as yet.)

The 11in iPad Pro and Air are about the same size and heft. The 12.9in model requires meatier arms, since it weighs over 680g (which is, entertainingly, the same as the original 9.7in iPad).

Screen and audio: go pro

When you dig into video and audio, the iPad Pro’s differences become clear. The 2020 Air has a solid speaker set-up, which is quite beefy in landscape. But in portrait, the stereo image plays from top to bottom. The iPad Pro’s four-speaker set-up doesn’t care which way up the device is and sounds fantastic.

The display on the Air is a gorgeous Liquid Retina with True Tone. But the iPad Pro has ProMotion (120Hz), which makes everything feel smoother and more responsive. The 12.9in model goes even further, with a stunning mini-LED display that gives you richer colours and contrast. The Air won’t let you down, but gawp at a 12.9in Pro and other displays will be dead to you.

Performance: up the M1

The A14 chip debuted in the 2020 iPad Air and later found its way into Apple’s iPhone 12 line. Twinned with 4GB of RAM, this made Apple’s mid-range tablet a powerhouse, capable of bettering the then iPad Pro in some tasks.

Not now.

Apple’s 2021 iPad Pros have an M1 and 8GB of RAM – unless you get a 1TB+ model, in which case your tablet will be loaded with a whopping 16GB. That’s MacBook Pro power. For most people, this will be overkill and an Air will do. But for pro-grade workflows, high-end gaming, or making terrible puns about a terrible British motorway, the iPad Pro’s M1 has the Air beat.

Connectivity and storage: USB-Cs are good

All these devices have a USB-C connector, but not all USB-C connectors are equal. Standard USB-C is fast, convenient and affords the iPad Air connectivity options beyond Apple’s iPads with Lightning. But 2021 iPad Pros get Thunderbolt/USB 4, which means blazingly fast transfer speeds and support for up to 6K displays. Although since iPadOS has such ropey external display support, the last of those things is barely a win.

Storage-wise, there are big differences. The Air starts out at a miserly 64GB – fine if you use the cloud a lot or are happy to have the device offload apps and games you’re not using, but otherwise a squeeze. The only other option: 256GB. The Pro starts at 128GB and goes all the way up to a whopping 2TB. However, you pay for all that space – the 2TB 12.9in model will net you precisely a quid in change from two grand.

Price: a lot, whichever iPad you choose

Apple doesn’t do cheap. Even the 8th-gen iPad doesn’t slug it out with the Amazon Fires of this world. Apple’s pushing quality and value rather than punching its own face off in a race to the bottom. So it follows when you go higher up the range.

The Air kicks off at £579 for a 64GB unit. £729 nets you a 256GB one. Need cellular? Another 130 quid. The 11in/12.9in Pros, respectively, start off at £749/£999 and go up to £1749/£1999. Cellular on those models costs an extra £150, for reasons.

Be mindful that you might want an Apple pencil (2nd generation only, £119) and a keyboard (various options available, with Apple’s Magic Keyboard starting at £279) too.

Verdict: go 64GB or go Pro

The iPad Pro is Apple’s flagship tablet and the objectively better iPad. But you might not need what it has to offer. If you fancy a tablet with more clout than an entry-level 8th-gen iPad, modern design and great speakers in landscape, and you don’t need much storage, the 64GB iPad Air is the best buy. You’ll also get change from £600. Which is nice.

Things get complicated when you’ve more money or greater demands. The 128GB 11in iPad Pro costs £20 more than the 256GB iPad Air. Sure, that’s half the storage, but you get superior audio, a better display, an M1 chip, LiDAR and a far better camera system. That feels like a solid trade-off.

Finally, if you’re big of wallet, want a big(ger)/better screen experience, need to run the most ambitious apps, or just hanker after the finest tablet around, get the 12.9in iPad Pro.

TL;DR: if budget’s tight and/or you can make do with 64GB, get the iPad Air. If you can afford more and need extra storage, prioritise the 11in 128GB iPad Pro over the 256GB iPad Air. And if you demand the biggest and best iPad, get the 12.9in iPad Pro and spend countless hours showing off Center Stage at every opportunity, before your friends subsequently all block you on FaceTime.