Apple’s iPad lineup has had a gap in it lately.
At the top end, you had the 2018 refresh of the iPad Pro—an immensely powerful, envelope-pushing tablet priced and positioned as a laptop replacement. At the bottom, you had the entry-level iPad, which lacked many of the best features in newer Apple products and shipped with a CPU much slower than what’s in the latest iPhones.
You were either buying a monster of a tablet for a monster price, or you were getting a tablet that compromised a lot to compete with Chromebooks at the low end. Apple was still making an iPad mini last year, but it was woefully outdated.
Many of us wanted more than the entry-level iPad offered but nevertheless saw a tablet as a secondary device, not a replacement for our main workhorses. That meant we weren’t willing to pay iPad Pro prices. As a result, I held on to my aging, first-generation iPad Air (2013) through last year. I probably wasn’t alone.
But with the launch of the new iPad Air and iPad mini last month, Apple finally filled the gap. These two tablets seemingly served up the best the iOS platform had to offer, ditched the pretense of replacing your laptop, and didn’t break the bank (much).
After spending some time with the devices recently, the result seems clear: Apple’s latest tablets are likely the best fits for most people.
Table of Contents
- A short rant about device and screen sizes
- Smart Keyboard
- Apple Pencil
- The Good
- The bad
- The ugly
These updates are more than a spec bump, but the most notable addition to both the iPad mini and the iPad Air is Apple’s A12 system-on-a-chip, which houses the CPU, GPU, Neural Engine for machine-learning tasks, and more.
|Specs at a glance: Apple iPad Air and iPad Mini|
|Screen||2048×1536 7.9-inch (326PPI) pressure-sensitive touchscreen for the mini, 2224×1668 10.5-inch (264PPI) pressure-sensitive touchscreen for the Air|
|CPU||Apple A12 Bionic (2x high-performance cores, 4x low-power cores)|
|GPU||Apple-designed A12 Bionic GPU|
|Storage||64GB or 256GB|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5 (LTE optional add-on)|
|Ports||Lightning, 3.5mm headphone jack|
|Camera||8MP rear camera, 7MP front camera|
|Size||8″×5.3”×0.24″ (203.2×134.8×6.1mm) for the mini, 9.8”×6.8”×0.24” (250.6×174.1×6.1mm) for the Air|
|Weight||0.66 pounds (300.5g) for the mini, 1 pound (456g) for the Air (imperceptibly more for the LTE models)|
|Battery||19.1-watt-hour for the mini, 30.2‐watt‐hour for the XS Max|
|Starting price||$399 for the mini, $499 unlocked for the Air|
|Other perks||Augmented reality sensors, computational photography features, Apple Pencil support, Smart Keyboard support (Air only)|
It’s the same chipset found in last year’s iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, and apart from the extremely speedy A12X in the 2018 iPad Pros, it’s the fastest consumer mobile CPU on the market right now. We’ll get more into benchmarks later in the review, but performance shouldn’t be a problem on these devices any time in the next few years.
The screens are another area of improvement. The Air has a 10.5-inch LCD display with a resolution of 2,224×1,668 pixels, and the mini comes in at 7.9 inches and 2,048×1,536. That means the mini has a higher pixel density (326 pixels per inch to the Air’s 264), but that difference is hardly noticeable.
Both displays have a wide color gamut (P3) and a maximum brightness of 500 nits, and both are fully laminated. That last point makes a subtle but desirable difference over the base iPad—and it makes a big difference to Apple Pencil support, which we’ll go over shortly.
Both tablets come with two storage options: 64GB and 256GB. 64GB is not enough for most people, but 256GB is probably too much for some folks, so a 128GB option would have been nice. (The entry-level iPad offers that, but it comes with many other compromises.)
The port options are either a relief or a disappointment, depending on your priorities. One all-around win: there’s a headphone jack. You’d think that would be a given on a tablet, but Apple omitted it in last year’s iPad Pro.
But the Air and mini come equipped with Apple’s proprietary Lightning port for charging, data transfer, and accessories. I’d been hoping that Apple would move the entire line to USB-C after it did so with the iPad Pro, even though that implementation was half-baked. USB-C is so much more common and more flexible than Lightning.
On the other hand, this means you won’t have to buy new cables and the like if you’re coming from an older iPad.
All told, these are big leaps over the previous versions of either tablet—but that’s not hard, given that neither of these product lines had seen new entries for several years. We’ve already talked at length about the efficiency and power of Apple’s custom silicon, and I’ll get into it a bit more in the performance section of this review. But it suffices to say that these are extremely fast, energy-conscious tablets.
Apart from sticking with the Lightning port, the specs are a win pretty much across the board, and they justify the purchase price for both devices.
Neither of these tablets has a brand-new design in Apple’s lineup.
The Air’s design is pretty much the same as that of the 2017, 10.5-inch iPad Pro. That means 9.8×6.8×0.24 inches, weighing in at exactly one pound (1.02 for the LTE model). The mini is very close to its 2015 predecessor: 8×5.3×0.24 inches, and 0.66lbs (0.68 for LTE).
Both tablets come in three color options. First, there’s the space gray Apple has been offering in most of its new Macs. That finish includes black bezels. The original “silver” color for the back is also available, but that comes with white bezels. And finally, there’s gold with white bezels. The gold is the gold most people know from the iPhone 8 (among other things), not the striking PVD (physical vapor deposition) stainless-steel gold of the iPhone XS and XS Max.
Below: Photos of the iPad Air.
As is the case with other iPads, the backs are made of aluminum and the fronts are made of glass. There’s no wireless charging, but that’s not a priority for devices of this size anyway.
Both iPads have home buttons with Touch ID, and they lack Apple’s TrueDepth camera-array system used for Face ID. If you were expecting Apple to ditch the home button completely in all new devices, that’s surely a surprise.
While Face ID scores high in the cool factor, and it’s (in theory) more secure in many situations than Touch ID is, it’s not a distinction that’s going to matter to most users. Both technologies are responsive and secure enough for the vast majority of people. Yeah, it’s neat to never have to even think about taking any specific action to unlock your device (as is the case with Face ID), but the fingerprint reader works so quickly it’s far from a burden.
It does mean you miss out on a few apps that use the TrueDepth sensors in interesting ways, but developers haven’t exactly been cranking those out in huge numbers to date.
Of course, these iPads support all the same touch gestures and swipes that the home-button-free iOS devices do. So you’re not missing out on any functionality at all.
The iPad Air’s design looks quite modern. No, it doesn’t have the rounded screen edges and almost-nonexistent bezels of the iPad Pro or the newest iPhones. But while those things are striking, I wouldn’t expect them in a $499 tablet. I don’t think anyone was complaining that the 2017 iPad Pro looked dated—at least, I wasn’t—and 10.5 inches is a happy medium size for a tablet display.
The mini, on the other hand, looks quite dated—so dated that when I brought it out in front of someone who is far from a techie, she immediately commented on how “old” it looked. I know reviewers sometimes get flak for focusing more on bezels than is really necessary, and sometimes that might be fair. But in this case… it really does look like a design from the past.
Having an up-to-date small tablet option in Apple’s lineup is very handy—it’s the perfect size for reading books and magazines, I’d argue. And the 7.9-inch display is certainly adequate, though it feels cramped when using the latest multitasking features in iOS. But it’s disappointing that Apple didn’t find a way to (or choose to) get more screen real estate out of this chassis for an even more optimal small-tablet experience.
A short rant about device and screen sizes
I’m consistently frustrated that the devices that get edge-to-edge displays and massive bezel reductions are frequently larger devices that don’t need them as much. If you have a smaller tablet or phone, reducing these bezels for more screen real estate makes a huge difference. But if you have a big tablet, the display is usually already big enough to be comfortable. So you’re just adding icing to the cake.
I have a dream sweet spot in my head where we could have a convenient, small form factor but an edge-to-edge display. Then we could enjoy the benefits of a highly portable and flexible device at the same time we enjoy the benefits of a roomy screen.
But when Apple introduced edge-to-edge displays to iPhones, it axed the iPhone SE. And it didn’t reduce the bezels at all in the iPad mini. Imagine what an iPhone SE would have been like with an edge-to-edge display. Imagine what an iPad mini would be like if its screen was closer to the size of the base iPad’s screen.
Yet Apple seems to cling to this notion that smaller means entry-level, so smaller devices don’t get the top-level features. I personally find that endlessly disappointing, even though I understand the business reasons for it. Yes, the iPad mini has the A12, and that’s welcome. But that screen is smaller and less usable than it needs to be.
Some users want small devices with high-end features, and they would be willing to pay for it. But Apple’s not giving them all of its best here.
Listing image by Samuel Axon