The iPad family has sort of settled in to a consistent lineup for a few years, with five models. Three of them are distinctive:
- iPad, no adjective: the low cost one ($330 starting price)
- iPad Mini: the small one ($500)
- iPad Pro 13-inch: the big one, with the best specs ($1100)
If you want the cheapest, smallest, or biggest iPad, your decision is easy. But in the middle — where most people’s needs, desires, and budgets reside — choosing between the 11-inch iPad Pro and 10.9-inch iPad Air is not so easy. For one thing, they’re almost exactly the same size. What I call the “13-inch” iPad Pro above is officially 12.9 inches. I have never understood why Apple doesn’t want to call that “13 inches”. Go look at a ruler: a tenth of an inch (~2.5mm) is negligible.
But I do get why Apple wants to call the iPad Air’s size 10.9 inches instead of rounding that up to an even 11: side-by-side with the iPad Pro, you can see that the iPad Air has a slightly thicker bezel surrounding its thus slightly smaller display. But while their display sizes are slightly different, their case dimensions are effectively identical. The only difference is that the Air is 0.2mm thicker — close enough that they both fit the same Magic Keyboard, just different enough that Apple makes separate Smart Folio covers for each. But practically speaking, they’re the same size.
As usual, Apple’s online “Compare” page is exemplary for examining their differences. Here’s a link to the Compare page listing three iPads: the new 5th-generation iPad Air (which I’ve been testing since last week), the 3rd generation 11-inch iPad Pro (which debuted in May last year), and the now-discontinued 4th-generation iPad Air (which debuted in October 2020). I’ve also saved a PDF of this three-way comparison for posterity.
Most of the differences between the new iPad Air and last year’s iPad Pro — and the differences between the new iPad Air and the 2020 iPad Air — are easily discerned from that page. Highlights, to my thinking: the iPad Pro has Face ID, and the new iPad Air still has Touch ID on the power button; only the iPad Pro display supports ProMotion;1 both support 5G cellular networking but only the iPad Pro supports mmWave (a.k.a. ultra wideband). The iPad Pro has four speakers, in including sets on opposite sides of the display, but the iPad Air still only two, both on the same side. In landscape this means the Air only has speakers on one side of the display; in portrait, only on the bottom.
On the flip side, the iPad Air comes in fun colors — my review unit is blue and everyone here at DF HQ agrees it’s comely. The iPad Pro only comes in silver or space gray.
But what isn’t quite as discernible are the differences in price. The iPad Air base model starts at $600 and the iPad Pro at $800, but that’s not a gigabyte-to-gigabyte comparison. Here’s the full pricing table:
||2022 iPad Air
||2021 iPad Pro 11″
* These models come with 16 GB of memory; the others all come with 8 GB.
Once again, the iPad Air and iPad Pro only share a single storage tier: 256 GB, and at 256 GB, the price difference is just $150. (The extra $50 charge for cellular networking on iPad Pro is the price you pay for mmWave support. Those Qualcomm modems aren’t free and Apple isn’t eating the cost.)
If you really need or want 1–2 TB of storage and/or double the RAM, your choice is made for you, but you’ll pay at least double the price of the 256 GB iPad Air. If not — and the vast majority of iPad users, even serious ones, should do just fine with 256 GB of storage and the default 8 GB of RAM — the question is whether the iPad Pro is worth $150 extra.
For me, Face ID alone is worth $150. I use my iPad in a Magic Keyboard frequently, perhaps even a majority of the time. It’s my kitchen computer. And I find using Touch ID on the power button somewhat awkward when the iPad Air is in the Magic Keyboard. But the Magic Keyboard is a $300 peripheral. It’s not a niche product but it’s certainly not for everyone. iPads are fundamentally handheld tablets, and handheld, the iPad Air’s Touch ID instead of Face ID is much less of a difference. I still decidedly prefer Face ID, though. Touch ID on the iPad Air makes it feel easy to unlock. Face ID on the iPad Pro makes it seems like it wasn’t even locked in the first place.
Overall, when you look at the specs as they stand today, it seems like there should be just one 11-inch iPad Air or Pro. But that’s just the result of the tick-tock pattern of Apple’s iPad refresh cycle. None of the models in the iPad family are on annual refresh cycles like iPhones are. Because all new iPhones — SE models excepted — debut alongside each other every September, the overall iPhone product matrix makes sense continuously. With most iPad models getting updated roughly every 18 months, but with the iPads Pro and iPad Air on opposite sides of the calendar, the comparisons are never quite aligned. Right now, with the brand-new iPad Air upgraded to the same M1 chip that’s in the iPad Pro, it looks like there’s little reason for the 11-inch iPad Pro to exist. Apple could add a few higher-capacity storage options for the iPad Air, add Face ID, and make it the one and only “11-inch” mid-to-high-end iPad.
But wait until later this year, probably October, and if the iPads Pro get refreshed — as one would expect not just from the rumor mill, but by looking at Apple’s historic pattern — all of a sudden the differences between the iPad Air and iPad Pro should be much more profound. And then a year later in the fall of 2023, there will likely come a 6th-generation iPad Air that will significantly close the gap again. That’s how it goes. Or at least that’s how it’s been going for the last few cycles.
Right now, though, the new iPad Air is a lovely device. And if your iPad usage is such that you really don’t need more than 64 GB of storage, at $600 (or $750 with cellular2), it’s a veritable bargain.
My biggest gripe remains unchanged from all recent iPad models: the front-facing camera placement is awkward when the iPad is oriented in landscape, but landscape is how the iPad is oriented when it’s in a Magic Keyboard or propped up using a folded Smart Folio cover — and those are the natural ways to use an iPad for a video chat at a desk or on a counter. It’s a great camera (and the M1 has an excellent image signal processor), but horizontally, you wind up with a high-quality image of yourself from a bad angle. The camera is too low and off to the side. If you look at the camera you’re not looking at the screen, and if you look at the screen the camera makes it look like you’re not looking at the screen. I don’t know what the solution to this problem is, but Apple hasn’t found it yet.