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Tablets

Apple iPad Air (2019)

Think of the new $499 iPad Air less as Apple’s midrange tablet and more as its low-cost laptop. The 2019 Air is light, smooth, fast, and runs a wide range of entertainment and office apps. It suffers from a bit of middle-child syndrome, though. It’s neither as cheap as the entry-level iPad, which does basic tablet things just fine, nor is it as powerful for creative apps as the iPad Pro. When you pair it with a keyboard accessory, though, the iPad Air suddenly comes into its own as a basic laptop for people who don’t need to mess with a more powerful OS. That’s a big enough niche that the iPad Air will find its fans.

Physical Design and Pencil

The Air comes in gold, gray, or silver. A 64GB model costs $499 and a 256GB model costs $649. Adding 4G LTE cellular to either adds $130. The Apple Pencil costs $99, and Apple’s keyboard case costs $159. Sticking with the 64GB model and the keyboard case, that gets you an “Apple laptop” for $658. The 11-inch iPad Pro and the MacBook Air, the least expensive Mac laptop, both cost at least $300 more.

The tablet’s design is a lot like the 2017 10.5-inch iPad Pro. It measures 9.8 by 6.8 by 0.2 inches (HWD) and weighs exactly one pound. There are dual speakers on the bottom, a Lightning (not USB-C) port, and a traditional home button with Touch ID. The Air doesn’t support Face ID, but Touch ID was very accurate and easy in testing.

The 2,224-by-1,668, 10.5-inch screen, meanwhile, is similar to the new iPad mini screen. The colors are quite accurate. Apple’s TrueTone technology changes the screen’s white point based on ambient light. We tested the screens with SpectraCal’s CalMAN for Business software and a Klein K-80 colorimeter, and found that both the iPad Air and iPad mini are about equally bright with TrueTone turned on, at 432 to 440 nits, but that the mini is brighter with TrueTone turned off, at 480 nits to the Air’s 451. Both are brighter than most smartphone screens.

The tablet supports the original Apple Pencil stylus, as well as Logitech’s $69 Crayon, which is easier to hold than the long, round Pencil, but lacks tilt sensitivity.

Drawing with the Pencil feels great, until you use the new Pencil on the iPad Pro models. While Apple’s first-gen Pencil is more accurate, more sensitive, and less laggy than capacitive styli used on older or cheaper tablets, the 120Hz screen on the Pro tablets makes the second-gen stylus feel even more responsive, more realistic, and makes you aware of a tiny bit of lag on 60Hz screens.

The biggest reason to buy this iPad is Apple’s $159 Smart Keyboard case, which attaches to physical connectors that smaller and less expensive iPads don’t have. It’s hilarious, but Apple’s iPad keyboard is now better than its disappointing MacBook keyboard. The chiclet-style keys are sealed against dust and water. They have some travel to them, and land softly but firmly. They’re much quieter than the clack of the MacBook keyboard I used to use, and I find the Smart Keyboard faster to type on.

I also find Apple’s keyboard better than the third-party keyboards I’ve used. It’s lighter than, say, the popular Logitech Slim Folio case, and the keys feel a bit more solid.

Processor and Performance

The iPad Air has the same A12 processor as the iPad mini and the current iPhones do, and it benchmarks just about the same: 4,776 on Geekbench single-core, 11,501 on Geekbench multi-core, and 24.42 on GFXBench’s most intense Aztec graphics test. Those results aren’t quite as fast as the current iPad Pro models, which use an A12X processor with boosted graphics, but they’re considerably faster than the current $329 iPad with its A10 processor, which got 3,512 single-core and 5,934 multi-core on Geekbench.

As I found with the iPad mini, you see most of the performance difference when using apps like video encoding or augmented reality. Plantale, an educational AR app about plants, animates much more smoothly on the iPad Air than on the standard iPad. The A12 chip also just has more runway in front of it, something to keep in mind because many people hold onto tablets for four or five years. In three years or so, if history is a guide, new games will drag on an A10 processor but not on an A12.

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Battery life is good, for an iPad. The Air lasted 6 hours, 13 minutes streaming a YouTube video with the screen set to full brightness over Wi-Fi, which is noticeably better than the fifth- and sixth-gen iPads, which lasted 5 hours, 40 minutes each. That translates to about eleven hours of use at half brightness.

The iPad Air also has the same networking capabilities as the iPad mini. That means a perfectly good 802.11ac Wi-Fi setup and an optional LTE modem that supports all US and most foreign networks. The Air has both an eSIM and a physical SIM card slot. Using the eSIM, you can sign up for plans on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or various roaming carriers; you can use a physical SIM with Verizon or any other carrier.

Like other iPads, the Air runs iOS 12.2, which is a blessing and a curse. Apple’s OS has versions of all the major business apps, like Microsoft Office and Photoshop, but they’re not full-featured. iOS 12.2 also supports dual-window multitasking and a limited file manager, but workflows that demand easily switching between different windows and documents still don’t work ideally on iPads.

I’m tiptoeing here a little because I feel the “iOS isn’t ready for real work” debate is tired. My father’s primary computer at home is an iPad. He’s a business executive; he handles emails, critiques PowerPoints and edits documents on it just fine. I, on the other hand, am sometimes trying to run data visualization apps based on output from SQL queries that I’ve processed through Excel spreadsheets. That’s technically possible on iOS, but it’s a lot more difficult than on Mac OS or Windows.

Camera and Multimedia

Like the new iPad mini, the iPad Air has an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 7-megapixel front camera, both of which record 1080p video at 30 frames per second. Images are aggressively sharpened, and often quite noisy. They both fall far short of the quality that you get from the most recent iPhones, especially in low light. It’s not that they’re dim, it’s that they’re noisy.

In my mind, that fits with what you should be using these iPad cameras for (as opposed to what too many people use them for). While the iPad Air is fine for editing your next movie, it isn’t great for shooting it. Use an iPhone for that. Rather, the hyper-sharpened iPad camera is for computer vision, especially as Apple tries to push augmented reality apps. Text and bar codes look razor sharp, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the new image processing software helped the iPad map the room more quickly than previous models when I was testing it with AR software.

The TrueTone screen supports the DCI-P3 wide color gamut, so photos and videos look excellent, if not technically HDR. While the screen is technically better than the $329 iPad’s display, which doesn’t support the wide color gamut and has a little bit more reflectivity, I wouldn’t spring for the upgrade just to watch videos.

There are dual speakers on the bottom of the iPad Air; like on many tablets with this layout, it’s a little too easy to muffle one of them when holding it in landscape mode. The iPad Pro has quad speakers, but it costs $300 more. At least there’s a headphone jack.

Comparisons and Conclusions

Apple’s iPad lineup has gotten pretty granular this year, but it’s relatively clear to me who each of the models is for and why.

The base $329 iPad is for kids or anyone focused primarily on video and web browsing. Its less powerful processor doesn’t really matter in basic use. You can certainly dress it up with a less expensive keyboard case like the $99 Logitech Slim Folio, but that isn’t as elegant as Apple’s solution for the Air. Its Pencil support makes it good for drawing and taking notes.

The $399 iPad mini is primarily for someone who wants a smaller iPad. But with its small, light form factor and powerful processor, it’s also ideal for augmented reality applications.

The $799 iPad Pro is for people who want to use the Pencil in serious creative apps. The second-generation Pencil is much more convenient than the first-generation one thanks to its magnetic charging, the ProMotion display makes the stylus more responsive, and the upcoming version of Photoshop will run well on the A12X processor.

A Mac laptop is for most people trying to do traditional corporate workflows.

The $499 iPad Air is for either creative apps or basic quasi-laptop use. Apple’s keyboard case is more reliable than Bluetooth, and the more powerful processor reaps real benefits in apps like iMovie and Photoshop Express. No, it is not a real laptop; if you have a workflow that involves a lot of dragging files between applications, no iPad will work for you. But many people just want a word processor and web browser.

Ultimately, they’re all good. But as I’ve been saying for a few years now, iOS is holding back iPads for people who want primary, professional computers. I now use an iPad Pro for taking notes and travel, but there’s no way I’d be able to produce a PCMag article on it. Our production system doesn’t support iOS, but more than that, like most professionals I tend to have a bunch of tabs and text-editing windows open at once when I’m really working, and iOS is just too focused for that.

iPads still stand pretty much alone, for what they are. Yes, there are decent cheap Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8.0; affordable Chromebooks with great keyboards and mediocre screens like the Lenovo 500e; and good complex Windows 2-in-1s like the Microsoft Surface Go. But there’s no real competitor for this combination of simplicity and quality. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S5e is the best bet if you insist, but Google’s tablet software strategy is super confusing right now.

The $329 iPad still has enough power to support most of the apps that basic tablet users want, so it remains our Editors’ Choice for larger tablets. The Air and the Pro are both steps up, and they both unlock more capabilities. iOS limitations mean I still have trouble seeing them standing alone as primary computing devices, but that may not be true for you.



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