Review: Apple's new iPad Air is stylish and packs a powerful punch

The new iPad Air
It comes with the same M1 processor from the iPad Pro range. Photo credit: Newshub

The recently launched Apple iPad Air gives those seeking a powerful tablet a new option that, on the face of it, stacks up well against the pricier iPad Pro models.

A pleasant surprise in the announcement was the fact the M1 chip, which powers those Pro models and other Apple hardware, was going to be part of the Air.

That should mean a device with exceptional speed and processing power, as well as one that's very light and very portable.

So can the new iPad Air bridge the gap for those who want something better than the basic iPad models, but don't want to fork out for the expensive Pro versions?

I've been using the new iPad Air for a few days now and here are my thoughts.

The good

Where else is there to start than with the M1 chip on board?

Apple's own silicon has launched something of a revolution across its range of desktop and laptop devices, and it made a big difference to the performance of the iPad Pro launched last year.

Essentially it means the iPad Air offers the same overall performance as the more expensive models, albeit without some of the bells and whistles like Thunderbolt support and 120Hz refresh rates.

And that performance is exceptional. When held in your hands the Air is light, comfortable and offers speed that simply can't be matched by other similarly sized devices.

The new iPad Air
Photo credit: Newshub

It didn't matter whether I was handwriting my work plans for the day, streaming high-definition video or playing Divinity 2, there was no noticeable slowdown and no delays in opening or closing apps, even when multitasking.

I also played around with editing photos in Adobe Lightroom and the fact they didn't look amazing was solely down to my ability to use a camera, not the capabilities of the iPad.

The screen is also terrific. 

It may not be an XDR display, but I watched the absolute delight that is Pixar's Turning Red on the 10.9-inch Liquid Retina Display and wasn't remotely disappointed with how it looked. The colours were beautiful and true and I never felt I was missing anything offered by the more expensive displays.

The overall experience was helped by four pretty decent speakers on board too - with two on each side at the top and bottom. The sound was full and not tinny in the slightest.

If you're after a device which will give you the best possible experience for indulging in marathon binge-watches, this could well be exactly what you need.

Like the last iPad Air, this version is charged via USB-C, but it has been upgraded this time around. Now it transfers up to 10Gb/s of data and can also support an external display of up to 6K resolution.

That means if you're lucky enough to have one of Apple's new Studio Displays, you can plug the iPad into that and see your screen in all its glory.

There are also some really nice colours to choose from so you can add some of your own personality to the device.

The new iPad Air
Photo credit: Newshub

Space grey, pink, purple and starlight all look good, but frankly nothing comes close to the blue. I want every other Apple device I own to be that colour now.

There are a couple of cameras - a 12 MP wide camera on the back and a 12 MP ultra wide front camera. I'll be honest, I've never understood the back cameras on the iPad and I absolutely reserve the right to judge people who use them to take photos out and about.

But the front camera does offer advantages, particularly in the days of ubiquitous video conferencing.

It supports Centre Stage, which allows you to move around the room and the camera will retain focus on you. It's pretty cool if you have a tendency to wander instead of sitting still during those work calls.

Last, but certainly not least, the battery life won't disappoint. You'll get all day battery and more, allowing you to use it to your heart's content and then juice up while you're sleeping.

The new iPad Air
Photo credit: Newshub

The bad

In terms of overall performance and look there really is not an awful lot to dislike about the fifth-generation Air.

The biggest issue, which can often be the case with Apple's products, is the need to pay a premium to unlock the full potential.

You can pick up a new 64GB iPad Air for $1049 for the WiFi version, or $1299 if you want 5G included too.

But 64GB? Really? That's almost insultingly small these days, particularly with games and music taking up many gigabytes of data.

There's no 128GB option either, meaning you're going to have to spend an extra $200 to boost storage to 256GB.

The new iPad Air
Photo credit: Newshub

Then, of course, you're probably going to want a keyboard so you can type on it like a laptop. And maybe even an Apple Pencil 2 to be able to handwrite notes and draw doodles.

That's going to set you back a bit too: An extra $239 for the Apple Pencil 2 and $549 for the Magic Keyboard.

That leaves you forking out $1837 for the lowest cost Air model with all of its potential realised.

Perhaps in terms of overall specifications, this doesn't seem extreme. Did I mention just how quick and amazing the performance is?

It just stings a bit when you end up having to fork out almost $800 on top of the minimum of more than $1000 to get there. I'm not sure that will ever change, but it's something you have to bear in mind when you're shopping around to get the right fit for you and your budget.

There are a couple of minor annoyances too.

There's no FaceID with this iPad, meaning you're forced to use a password or TouchID to unlock. I don't mind this too much because I typically use my iPad in landscape mode.

That forces the front facing camera to the left hand edge of the iPad and makes it easier to block the camera with your arms - I had a similar issue with the iPad Pro.

The new iPad Air
Photo credit: Newshub

The Touch ID actually works really well, and I love the prompt to do fingers on both hands so that whichever way you're holding it, it's easy and quick to unlock.

There's also no headphone jack. Again, not surprising these days given the proliferation of Bluetooth headphones - including Apple's own - but I do wish I could plug in high-quality wired headphones when I wanted to.

The verdict

It should come as no surprise that the new iPad Air is a stunning piece of technology.

It's also an intriguing proposition, stuck between the cheaper basic iPads and the more expensive iPad Pros offering XDR displays.

What makes this real value for money is the inclusion of the M1 chip on board. Not only does it give you speed and power it also means you're unlikely to run into performance issues with this iPad for a number of years.

The new iPad Air
Photo credit: Newshub

I loved the iPad Mini and still use it constantly for playing games and reading graphic novels and books - but it's too small to be used as a serious work or school device.

I'm also not inclined to buy the cheapest iPad with the much older A13 Bionic chip as I fear I'm quickly going to want to upgrade the older tech.

That puts the Air head to head against the iPad Pro models, albeit starting at $300 cheaper than the basic of the top specc'd machines.

I think that's a smart pricing point for people who don't need XDR displays but want a reliable device that can be used for entertainment or work.

If I had to buy a tablet for my partner for digital artwork, or my children for their schoolwork, there's no question in my mind the new iPad Air would be the right choice.

I just wish I didn't have to fork out so much more to unlock its full capabilities.

Newshub was supplied with an iPad Air, Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil for this review.