Apple iPad Air 5th Gen Review: In a zone of its own
There is quite nothing like the iPad. In my brief career span as a technology journalist, I have always had a liking for the iPad as a gadget. There are things only the iPad can do very well and despite the competition getting better, the iPad remains unbeatable as a tablet device. Be it for watching movies, browsing social media, playing games, or doing light computing stuff, the base iPad 9th Gen will keep you happy. For those into sketches and editing, the iPad Pro models fit the bill. Where does this leave the iPad Air?
For the last three years, I have been using the iPad Air 3rd Gen as my desk companion, hopping into a bag when I need to carry my movies, or my work documents when my laptop doesn't make the cut. The Air brings more power than the base iPad but is not quite the Pro many seek. Even with the 2020 update, the iPad Air was among the least popular iPad models. This year though, Apple took a leaf out of its Mac division and gave it the highly acclaimed M1 chip! Yes, the same M1 chip you get on a MacBook Air!
Having a PC-class processor in a tablet seems tempting, especially for power users not a fan of spending bucket loads of money. With the rest of the package staying largely unchanged, does the iPad Air 5 finally become the power tablet to replace your cheap laptop? Let's find out.
Apple iPad Air 5th Generation Design
The previous-gen iPad Air 4 brought a new design inspired from the iPad Pro models, flaunting the same flat sides, angular edges, and absolute flat display. That does not change with this generation of the iPad Air, considering it still looks the same. It has got a beautiful metal body with a fantastic matte finish and a gorgeous “Starlight” colour. The rear camera sticks out substantially and can cause some wobbling on the desk when placed flat. However, at 462 grams, the iPad Air is unbelievably lightweight and despite its angular edges, it is comfortable to hold.
The power key resides in the “usual iPad position” and it still hosts the Touch ID sensor for biometric verification. Look around and you will enjoy seeing the USB-C port. Apple still hasn't given it Thunderbolt credentials but the data transfer speeds have gone up to 10Gbps, which is appreciable if you edit your photos on the iPad a lot.
The accessories list is pretty impressive too. You get the 20W Apple USB-C charger in the box. I have the standard Folio case that works great as a kickstand. If you are willing to spend more for productivity, the Magic Keyboard accessory is also compatible with this iPad. And yes, the 2nd Gen Apple Pencil works with this one.
Apple iPad Air 5th Generation Display
The iPad Air never gets the cutting-edge Apple stuff and hence, you are making some compromises here. No miniLED tech, no 120Hz ProMotion, no higher brightness levels – Apple still wants you to spend extra for the iPad Pro. That said, for a tablet of its price category, the iPad Air has one of the nicest displays I have seen in a while. The 2360 x 1640-pixel resolution with 264 PPI across the 10.9-inch canvas looks nice, with natural colour tuning and the help from True Tone. Be it watching the Formula 1 races live, or going though a document, this display on the iPad Air impresses. However, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 offers 120Hz refresh rate at a similar price and Apple sticking to the 60hz refresh rate seems miserly. It is high time that high refresh rate displays need to be a standard feature on Apple products, be it the iPad or the iPhone.
Apple iPad Air 5th Generation Performance
This is where all the hype surrounding the iPad Air rests. I use a MacBook Air M1 as my work laptop and I am aware of the M1's capabilities to keep my demanding “journalist workflow” flowing. That chip on the iPad Air only raises eyebrows, when you consider the theoretical implementation.
In the real world, the iPad Air works as smoothly and efficiently as any of the current-generation iPad Pro models. iPadOS 15 is not a desktop-grade OS and hence, you are quite limited to what you can do on the iPad Air. Surely, you can take lighter office workloads on this iPad but the learning curve is huge and you still need a dedicated keyboard accessory to get the most out of it.
In my real-life testing, this iPad Air mostly sat on my desk next to my laptop, acting as a second screen for attending meetings, doing video calls, catching up with online event streaming, hourly social media browsing sessions, and occasional short sessions of Shadow Fight 4, or SIMS 4. My old 3rd Gen iPad Air had no issues dealing with these tasks but on the 5th Gen model, everything feels a tad faster. Those apps and games load faster, processing times in iMovie are faster, and games run with more fluidity than ever. I don't edit pr-grade videos in LumaFusion or other processional editing apps, but based on critical acclaim, I guess the M1 chip should handle it all well.
And thanks to iPadOS 15.4, I was able to enjoy Universal Control at its best. The ability to fuse your iPad with the Mac seems magical and it only enhances the productivity appeal of the iPad to another level – no other tablet can do this as seamlessly as the iPad does, that too wirelessly. And once you learn the gestures on iPadOS, you can easily handle multiple apps together. You can transfer files with drag-n-drop functionality, which is a boon for us pro users. iPadOS has some of the best designed tablet apps that work exactly the way they were intended (with the exception of Instagram). You can pair up a keyboard and mouse to make it work like a Mac but the use case is quite limited – I was unable to get my office work done solely on the iPad.
The dual stereo speakers are loud and offer a good audio output quality, while the new 12MP front camera makes video calls look better. CenterStage is a useful addition for group calls but I did not find any application for the feature in my use cases.
The iPad Air 5th Generation also has a 12MP rear camera meant to scan documents or do AR stuff. If you still do some tablet photography, this camera will keep you smiling under the sun but starts crying once it goes down. It can even record 4K videos at 60 fps. Know that your iPhone 13 or iPhone 12 still has the better camera for doing camera things.
Apple iPad Air 5th Generation Battery
The battery life on the iPad Air still remains among the best-in-class, offering up to 9 hours of usage on a single charge. Note that my usage was primarily done on Wi-Fi networks, and involved a variety of use cases, which included Netflix binge sessions on weekends, or 2-3 hours of meetings on weekdays. With the supplied charging set in the box, I was able to top-up the battery from under 10 percent in over two hours' time.
To be honest, the iPad Air 5th Gen is simply unnecessary for those considering to spend extra over the base iPad. At the same time, it is inadequate for those wanting to save some money over the 11-inch iPad Pro. This iPad Air is designed to sit perfectly in between, tempting prospective buyers of the standard 10.1-inch iPad to upgrade for the “Pro-like” experiences. For basic “iPad things”, this iPad Air is an overkill and you could be content with the standard iPad, or even the iPad Mini.
However, if you are new to video editing and your ecosystem involves the Mac, iPhone and AirPods, this iPad Air then makes sense. The M1 chip offers basically the same raw power as the iPad Pro, and for basic editing jobs on the move, this iPad Air 5 will be more than enough. But if you want this iPad Air for editing, the base 64GB variant costing Rs. 54,900 is not enough and upgrading to the 256GB variant will set you back by Rs. 68,900 for the Wi-Fi variant. This is extremely close to the 11-inch iPad Pro Wi-Fi variant with 128GB storage. Why won't you prefer the Pro over the Air then?
Hence, it is the 64GB variant of the iPad Air 5 that makes sense and you genuinely need to ask yourself the need to choose it over the base iPad. For creators, the iPad Pro is still the only iPad making sense.
That doesn't mean the iPad Air 5th Gen is useless. In my two weeks with this iPad, I enjoyed the finer experience of its immersive display, good speakers, great video call camera, slick performance, and a beautifully polished iPadOS experience. This is an iPad for iPad enthusiasts who want to keep an eye on the budget. If you just want a good iPad without the bells and whistles of the Pro models, I can't think of anything better than the iPad Air 5th Gen.
- Beautifully built
- Superb performance
- Great battery
- Polished iPadOS
- No high-refresh rate display
- Meagre storage in base model
Display10.9-inch IPS LCD 2360x1640-pixel resolution 60Hz
ChipsetApple M1 8-Core CPU and GPU
Front Camera12MP Ultra-wide
Battery28.6Whr, 20W USB-C charging