The rumor mill expected Apple to unveil a fifth-generation iPad Air at its Peek Performance event, but most people thought it would be a modest update with the same A15 Bionic processor found in recent iPhone models and the iPad mini.
Instead, Apple announced that the fifth-generation iPad Air uses the M1 chip, which places the mid-range tablet in the same silicon class as the iPad Pro models released last year (see “New iPad Pros Boast M1 Chips and Liquid Retina XDR Display,” 20 April 2021).
Apple needs good arguments to entice budget-minded customers into choosing the 10.9-inch iPad Air over more affordable models. In 2020, it was a physical revamp mimicking the industrial design of iPad Pro models, along with an A14 Bionic chip then exclusive to the iPad Air (see “Apple Redesigns iPad Air, Updates Base-Model iPad,” 15 September 2020).
This year’s iPad Air looks the same as its predecessor and retains its compatibility with the second-generation Apple Pencil. But with its internals—notably that M1 chip—Apple has a persuasive pitch. For the same price as the preceding iPad Air, customers get performance comparable to an iPad Pro, not to mention the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and 24-inch iMac, all of which rely on M1 processors (not that iPadOS is a match for macOS at tapping all that power).
Compared to the previous iPad Air’s A14 Bionic:
- The M1’s 8-core CPU provides up to 60% faster performance.
- The M1’s 8-core GPU delivers up to twice the graphics performance.
Apple intends the new iPad Air for tasks that would stymie the previous model, like editing multiple 4K video streams, playing graphics-intensive games, redesigning a room in 3D, and enjoying hyper-realistic augmented reality.
Other key changes in the new iPad Air include:
- Cameras: The front-facing FaceTime HD camera is a 12-megapixel Ultra Wide version (up from 7-megapixel) with the Center Stage feature that automatically pans to keep users in view as they move around and adjusts when additional people join the chat (see “Center Stage Keeps You in the Video Chat Frame,” 23 September 2021). All current iPads now support Center Stage. The rear camera appears mostly unchanged with 12-megapixel resolution and 4K video capture.
- Internet connectivity: The new iPad Air supports 5G, as do the current iPad Pro and iPad mini along with all recent iPhones (see “The iPhone Gets 5G, but What’s It Like in Real-World Use?,” 19 November 2020). However, it doesn’t support the fastest millimeter-wave 5G flavor. The $459 iPad is now the only LTE-only model. The new iPad Air also supports eSIM and Wi-Fi 6.
- USB-C: The previous iPad Air had a USB-C port, but the one on the new iPad Air is twice as fast, with a data transfer speed of up to 10 Gbps. Thunderbolt remains exclusive to the iPad Pro models.
Beyond those changes, many other features remain the same. The Liquid Retina display seems little changed from that of the previous iPad Air with 3.8 million pixels, P3 wide color gamut, True Tone, 500 nits of brightness, and so on. Landscape stereo speakers and Touch ID authentication built into the top button also are comparable. Storage capacity is the same at either 64 GB or 256 GB—Apple has so far disregarded calls for a 128 GB iPad Air and iPad mini.
As before, Apple is offering the iPad Air in five colors. The previous colors were silver, space gray, rose gold, green, and sky blue. The new ones are space gray, starlight (silver/gold), pink, purple, and a new shade of blue.
Wi-Fi-only versions of the iPad Air cost $599 with 64 GB of storage and $749 for 256 GB. Models that add cellular connectivity are $749 with 64 GB and $899 for 256 GB. Availability starts on 18 March 2022.