MAY 22, 2024 /

Apple iPad Air 5th Generation Review: The Smarter Pro Tablet

For the past couple of years, Apple has split its iPad tablet lines in half. On one side, you’ve got the more affordable iPad, iPad Mini and iPad Air. They’re designed primarily as devices for viewing or interacting, whether your taste runs to Netflix binges, mobile gaming, or social media.

On the other side of the iPad tablet divide are the pricier Apple iPad Pro models. As the suffix suggests, they’re designed for professional use, using devices like the Apple Pencil to sketch out blueprints or make cuts in videos or the like. Apple’s been pushing the idea that an iPad can be more than just a blank screen for a while now, and I’ve already written about how you can turn an iPad into more of a full “computer” before.

The new model of the Apple iPad Air would seem to still fall into the more consumer-centric category… but it’s actually more like a slightly cut down iPad Pro than anything else.

That’s because the biggest change in the iPad Air in 2022 is the shift towards the same Apple M1 processor found in the newer iPad Pro devices, as well as Apple’s MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini, amongst others.

You don’t have to know or care much about processors in this case, just that the M1 is a serious chunk of high-performance silicon, aided by the fact that Apple can absolutely control the code that runs on it as well for optimal performance. I’ve been testing out an M1-based iPad Air – confusingly, Apple doesn’t attach obvious model numbers to its tablets, so they’re all just “iPad Air” – against a 2019 model iPad Air, and the difference is more than triple in straight line performance terms. It’s a seriously fast and capable device, in other words.

That kind of power also means that it compares in an interesting way to the already available 11-inch Apple iPad Pro. I’d still stick to my conviction that for most folks who do just want a tablet for viewing content and playing games that the base model iPad is still your best bet, but if you want or need a more capable iPad, the Air might just be the best value option.

It’s possible to pick up either an iPad Air M1 or an 11-inch iPad Pro for around the same asking price, and the reality in performance terms is that they both run about as fast as each other. They’re both also optionally available with integrated 5G capabilities if mobile broadband is important to you.

The iPad Pro 11 inch is marginally larger than the Air, but not by a degree you’ll notice. You’ll also miss out on FaceID, because the Air uses the fingerprint based TouchID system instead, built into the power button so that you can quite seamlessly turn the screen on and unlock in one motion. One neat trick here is that you can enrol multiple fingers, which means you can have multiple users. FaceID can’t handle multiple faces – most of us only have the one, after all – so it’s not quite as friendly in a sharing sense. You do at least get Apple’s neat “Center Stage” face tracking on the iPad Air, so if you’re on a Zoom conference or FaceTime call and someone sits down next to you, it’ll zoom out to get you both in shot without having to move the iPad at all. It’s a subtle bit of tech that will surprise you the first time it happens for sure.

The Pro model has a slightly better refresh rate, but at the same price points, what you’ll give up is onboard storage, which I’d argue most people will get better use out of. Bear in mind that while you can attach a USB C based flash drive or hard drive to the iPad Air’s USB C port, actual compatibility can be sketchy, and there’s no capability to upgrade internal storage on any iPad.

Both of them work with Apple’s peripherals including the 2nd generation Apple Pencil for sketching, selecting or annotating. I can’t claim to be some kind of artistic genius, so my own sketching efforts aren’t worth replicating here, but it’s not hard to see the artistic potential in the iPad Air. It’s also compatible with the pricey Apple Magic Keyboard, and that does do a very good job of turning it into a much more capable desktop computer on the go.

Apple reckons that the iPad Air is good for up to 10 hours of use on the go, although you should expect less if you’re hammering it with 5G data requests frequently. That’s a fair claim based on my own usage; in some instances, I’ve been able to stretch to a multi-day scenario using the iPad Air on a moderate basis, but if I was heavily hitting it, I’d need to recharge it more directly before the day was up.

The iPad Air 5th Generation is best for: Those who want more of a “computer” style tablet for work, school, or creative uses, but who don’t want to stump up the even heftier prices of the iPad Pro line

The iPad Air 5th Generation is not for: Anyone who just watches streaming TV or plays games on a tablet – buy the basic iPad instead and save your money.

If you’re in the market for a new iPad or tablet and need help getting it set up, call Geeks2U today. We’ll make sure it’s running as intended, that your files are transferred correctly, and it’s secure from viruses and other threats.

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Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.