The release of the 5th-generation iPad Air means you no longer need to 'go Pro' to get Apple's M1 uber-chip, used in the iPad Pro line and MacBook Air. The latest iPad Air also brings several other key upgrades that narrow the gap between it and the Pro models. Along with the M1 chip, the combination of a greatly improved front camera, 5G cellular, and a faster USB-C port gives most people everything they need to go well beyond the standard iPad and rub shoulders with the Pros.
Price: From $929
The iPad Air can use the same Apple Magic Keyboard as the 11-inch iPad Pro
What makes the iPad Air special?
We tried out the fifth-generation iPad Air courtesy of Apple and found it a big jump up from the standard iPad. It's now much closer in power and features to the current model 11-inch iPad Pro (3rd-generation), though the iPad Air's "Liquid Retina" display screen remains at 10.9-inches (2360 x 1640 pixels), just shy of the 11-inch (2388 x 1668 pixels) iPad Pro screen.
How much extra speed does the M1 bring to the table? Apple says that compared to the previous (4th-gen) iPad Air, the M1 chip's 8-core CPU is up to 60% faster and the 8-core graphics up to twice as fast. There's also the M1's next-generation 16-core Neural Engine that drives the machine learning which underpins much of the iPad's advanced 3D and AR (augmented reality) capabilities.
This brings pro-level power to non-professionals for creativity and fun
All of this gives a pretty decent speed increase to this iPad over the previous version, and over the standard iPad. This brings the iPad Pro-level power to non-professionals for creativity and fun.
The extra processing power works behind the scenes to make everything happen quickly (which makes the iPad Air feel very responsive) and to provide such benefits as handwriting and graphics that are silky-smooth.
The impact will also be felt particularly in apps that are optimised for the M1 chip, though much still needs to be done in this area by third-party developers to optimise their apps, both for productivity and high-level games.
The lone USB-C port is now twice as fast, for connectivity with a wide range of external devices such as solid-state drives
The iPad Air's upgraded connectivity now includes 5G cellular networking, and a USB-C port that's double the speed of the previous model – it's now USB 3.2 Gen2, rated at up to 10Gbps (gigabits per second).
The Smart Connector for keyboards is in the bottom edge when held vertically and the Touch ID fingerprint reader is on the top.
The iPad Air works with the optional second-generation Apple Pencil ($199), which pairs and charges while attached magnetically to the tablet's edge, and uses the same cantilevered Magic Keyboard ($499) designed for the 11-inch iPad Pro. Or you can opt for the Smart Folio Keyboard ($269) or Smart Folio cover ($109).
The front camera gets a big upgrade from the 7MP (megapixels) of the previous Air to a 12MP (megapixel) Ultra Wide camera with the Centre Stage feature, which automatically pans to keep you in view while video chatting or presenting (with the arrival of the Air, all iPads in the line-up now have this feature).
The 12MP Wide camera on the back of iPad Air shoots 4K video, as previously, but now with extended dynamic range for video up to 30 fps (frames per second).
Comparing Air vs Pro
So, with the M1 chip in the Air narrowing the performance gap, you might wonder what the 11-inch Pro model has that the Air doesn't – and do you need it?
The 11-inch Pro gets a much faster USB-C port (40Gbps Thunderbolt/USB 4); ProMotion screen technology (adaptive refresh rate of up to 120Hz; 10MP Ultra Wide rear camera; 2x optical zoom out; 100nits more brightness (up to 600nits); a few more pixels; stereo recording; four-speaker audio; Portrait Mode, Face ID and LiDAR scanner; plus more internal storage options (up to 2TB).
The 5th-gen iPad Air goes well beyond the standard iPad. It's in pro-territory but at a lower cost
For some people that will be enough to outlay the extra $300 price difference for the Pro. That's the current Pro model, though. Expect the next generation of Pro models, when released, to widen the gap again – and likely the price.
Meanwhile, the 5th-gen iPad Air gives most people everything they need to go well beyond the standard iPad and rub shoulders with the Pros, but at a lower cost.
Pricing for the Air starts at $929 for the Wi-Fi version with 64GB (gigabytes), or $1159 for 256GB capacity. Adding 5G cellular to either model is an extra $230. It comes in five colours: space grey, starlight, pink, purple and blue.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.