Pro Level Performance At Air Prices

Apple’s M1 chip is not even two years old, but it is already the stuff in legends in the computing space. Released initially as an Intel-processor replacement in MacBooks, the M1 outperformed expectations and flipped industry conventional wisdom (that small mobile chips lack the power to handle a computer’s needs) so much that Intel’s stock immediately took a hit. Now, with the M1 successfully powering critically and commercially acclaimed MacBooks, the large iPad Pro, and even a desk-bound iMac, Apple is bringing it to its second smallest tablet, the iPad Air.

This is a huge deal in the industry, because the iPad Air, priced starting at $599, can be considered an entry level product in Apple’s product category. Its lightweight (1lb) and small enough that it has perhaps the second most diverse user base of any mobile product behind only the iPhone—the iPad Air wouldn’t be out of place in a high school classroom, on the kitchen counter, or at a law firm. This means Apple’s M1, the ultra-powerful chip that was initially eating into Intel’s market share, is now also powering Apple’s mobile devices, which means mobile chip giant Qualcomm has to be on alert.

From a consumer point of view, this new 2022 edition of the iPad Air is simply a superb deal, because it runs on the same chip that powers Apple’s higher-priced, higher-tiered products, including the 2021 iPad Pro. And yes, whether in benchmarks or real world testing, the 2022 iPad Air performed just as well as the 2021 iPad Pro 95% of the time, with the only time that I noticed the Pro’s superiority when running a graphic-heavy benchmark.

This means consumers are getting iPad Pro-level performance in a smaller, cheaper Air package. There are differences between the two—the iPad Pro has double the RAM and base storage, a screen that refreshes at up to 120Hz, better speakers, and the option to go larger (12.9-inch screen). But I’d wager for most average consumers, those features won’t matter enough to justify the higher price tag. Everything else is the same: the iPad Air runs on the same software, it supports the same Apple Pencil stylus and keyboard accessory, and run all the same apps. This makes the iPad Air the new go-to iPad most people should buy.

By now, most readers should know how an iPad works, right? It’s essentially a super-sized iPhone, running software that is just a fork of the iOS powering iPhones. This means any iPhone app that runs on your phone can run on the iPad, but often there are iPad-specific versions that take advantage of the larger screen and different aspect ratio.

iPadOS does bring one upgrade over iOS, and that’s true multi-tasking. With a couple of taps, you can open two apps at once in split-screen view on the iPad Air, which you can’t do with any iPhone. If you want, you can have a third app open in a floating window that hovers around the screen. On this 10.9-inch iPad Air screen, it feels a bit cramped, but it’s possible.

When paired with a keyboard—Apple sells a very nice but very expensive one ($289), but there are cheaper third-party options, too—the iPad Air can do most computer tasks.

There are many Android tablets that can do the same thing—so what sets the iPad (all iPads, not just this iPad Air) apart?

App support is the biggest difference. Most apps were designed for a smartphone screen and sometimes do not play nice with a larger, wider tablet aspect ratio. For iPads, app developers will optimize, perhaps even build an iPad specific app. They rarely do that for Android tablets, because Android tablets don’t sell nearly as well, and Android users don’t spend as much on apps as Apple users.

Samsung’s excellent Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra tried to solve this by building a digital sandbox within Android, one in which Samsung can manipulate the rules and force Android apps to run in its native smartphone form. Even though Samsung has done a heck of a job, it’s still akin to applying glue to fix a broken vase instead of just building a new vase that’s not in pieces. Until app developers put more effort into Android apps, they will run better on iPads.

Ultimately, it all comes back to that M1 chip—having this processor in the iPad Air means the device has desktop computer-level power, and it’s future-proofed for at least a few years. This thing won’t feel underpowered until at least midway through the decade. Factor in excellent battery life—about 10-11 hours of continuous use on a single charge—and seamless connectivity with iPhones and MacBooks, and the iPad becomes the obvious tablet most average consumers should get. And of all the iPads right now, the iPad Air makes the most sense to the most people. The Pro is slightly more powerful but cost more with added bulk, and the Mini is more portable but perhaps too small for real work. The iPad Air is the happy medium.

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