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The Best Value Tablet: iPad Air 4th Generation Review (2020)

 

“What’s a computer?”

I’m a nerd. I collect and restore old iBooks and MacBooks for fun. I built a PC (who hasn’t in 2020?). I own a lot of computers. But there is no computer I love nearly as much as the iPad.

And I have had a lot of iPads. I waited in line for the first iPad in 2010, thinking it would be an ideal MacBook replacement, and it fell noticeably short. Beyond not having a physical keyboard accessory that was easy to transport, the original iPad simply lacked the available software and processing power of the Mac and was ultimately not sufficient at the time as a full-on ‘computer.’ I didn’t give up. Becoming particularly enamored with the idea of turning an iPad into a laptop replacement, I tried again, souping up an iPad Mini 1st generation with a keyboard case (a ClamCase—remember those?!). Again, the iPad was not enough. I tried again, this time with the iPad 5th generation. I loved this iPad. I managed to get most of my work done during a summer internship with little issue, thanks to an enormous library of apps and updated multitasking capabilities. I stuck with the device for a few years, and last year traded it in for the iPad Air 3rd generation. This time, I would be studying in Tel Aviv and would only have access to this as my primary computer. Using Apple’s smart keyboard at the time, this was a good solution. But it just was not enough. The iPad Air 4th generation, however, is.

iPad Air 4 is the culmination of a decade of iPad evolution. What began as a giant iPhone has grown up to become a full-on laptop replacement, including real file management, multitasking, and raw computing power that puts many PC notebooks to shame.

I believe Apple’s announcement at WWDC to transition away from Intel chips and to Apple-designed silicon will be the beginning of a much larger transition, as Apple merges its app stores and likely their software platforms—iOS, iPadOS, and macOS—to be one in the same. The Mac, once the golden child of the Apple dynasty, is losing popularity. Consumers who buy Macs have historically been content creators, schools and students, artists and moviemakers—you know, the creative types. But Apple is a devices company now (remember, they’re no longer Apple Computer Inc., but Apple Inc.), and they ship iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. Hell, Apple ships smart speakers and streaming boxes now. This is not the Apple of the 20th century, and it began with the iPod and was cemented with the iPad.

In 2010 at his last appearance at All Things Digital 8, Steve Jobs commented on the role of their then-new iPad and the future of the traditional desktop Mac.

“When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers and America started to move into those Urban and then Suburban centers, cars got more popular…PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by every one in X people. This transformation is going to make some people uneasy because the PC has taken us long ways…”

When Steve Jobs made this statement at D8 in 2010, it was a hugely different time for the iPad. Developers were just beginning to write new apps for the platform, the capabilities of the Apple-designed single-core A4 chip were still considerably limited—not to mention the impossible-to-upgrade and paltry 256 MB of RAM.

This is no longer the case. The iPad is a computer. 

Let me get this out of the way, any of Apple’s iPads could be used a laptop replacement. The entry level iPad 8th Generation is a fantastic device for only $329. The A12 is fast and will likely feel so for years to come. Even the iPad mini makes for a great travel computer (it was my go-to on-the-go computer). The iPad Pro has already become a lot of folks’ primary device. But it starts at $799, and that’s just for the iPad. Add a smart keyboard and Apple Pencil, and you’re looking at over $1200. It’s expensive, and that is why it’s the ‘pro’ device. The iPad Air 4 combines all the best essential features with a price that is only $100 more than the original 16 GB iPad, and is markedly reasonable when compared to the Pro.

Design, Smart Keyboard, and Apple Pencil 2nd Gen

The iPad Air is essentially an iPad Pro 11” with an ever-so-slightly smaller display, which means this tablet is a looker. From its futuristic flat edges and minimal slate-like appearance, this feels like the first consumer-level iPad that capture’s Steve Jobs’ vision for an immersive experience where the device fades away to allow the user to focus on content and software. The iPad Air features a new Touch ID sensor embedded in the lock switch, a single USB-C port, and a beautiful edge-to-edge laminated 10.9” ‘Liquid Retina’ display. There’s no 120 Hz refresh rate or what Apple coins ‘ProMotion,’ but it doesn’t need that to feel smooth and speedy. There’s no pro camera with LiDAR, but most people won’t miss it. There’s no Face ID, but Touch ID on this device is extremely convenient and quick. I hope Apple brings this to iPhones in the future, and it feels like they missed the mark not providing it as an alternative unlocking feature on the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro.

The story of iPad Air’s design does not end with the tablet itself, as Apple’s Smart Keyboard and 2nd generation Apple Pencil are almost necessary to transform this device into a productivity and creation device. This is not my first time using the new Smart Keyboard, but it is my first time using it extensively. While I really enjoyed playing with Logitech’s Combo Touch, it was annoying trying to use it on my lap or in bed if I wanted a keyboard and trackpad. Apple’s solution feels like using a MacBook, just with less viewing angles (but truly, I have not yet found a situation where this is an inconvenience). It’s sturdy, and the iPad Air feels safe with the strong magnets holding it to the keyboard. I seriously shook the shit out of this thing to try and get the iPad to fall off, and it clung on with zero effort. Just as easily as it stays connected, it can be removed for when you want to use the Air as a tablet. Fuck yeah, magnets! The keyboard itself has great travel and a trackpad that feels no different than any MacBook I’ve ever used. The 2nd gen Apple Pencil is responsive and is a must for artists and content creators looking to get the most out of the Air’s large canvas.

Apple’s new product strategy with the iPad is the same as the new iPhone 12—modularity is the solution to the iPad’s prior limitations. Want to do work? Get the Smart Keyboard. Want to create content? Get the Apple Pencil. Need more I/O? Add an adapter or dongle and expand the port offering. Need more storage? Attach a USB flash drive or hard drive. We no longer live in a world where everyone needs an array of ports. My only complaint is with outputting video to an external display, which looks silly with large bezels tapering the sides of the scaled up iPad screen, and with no option for extending your display—you can only mirror what is on your screen. I think this is a huge setback for people who desire using an iPad as a primary device and is something Apple can and should rectify in a later iPadOS release.

Performance and the A14

The iPad Air is fast. How fast, you ask? After running Geekbench 5 for both the CPU and GPU, the Air’s new A14 silicon proves its worth. The CPU score I ran came back with 1598 in the Single-Core and 4356 in the Multi-Core. The Compute Benchmark showed a Metal score of 12271. In comparison, the A14 performance is more capable than the A12X and A12Z in some areas, and easily surpasses the processing power of the A12. That performance really shines when running apps like LumaFusion, Call of Duty Mobile, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Procreate. Virtually any piece of software on the App Store will run very well on the Air.

Of course, the new bump in processing power in the iPad Air is thanks to the new 5 nm process of the A14, which allows Apple to pack 11.8 billion transistors in the smaller package size than the A12. This, along with a new 16-core Neural Engine, allows the Air to process 11 trillion operations per second. For most people, this doesn’t mean much beyond “wow, this thing is pretty fucking fast!” For the bigger picture, the advancements made with the A14 SoC (system on a chip) is promising for this pro-like device to run pro apps, be more advanced at machine learning tasks, and for future Apple Silicon to be seriously powerful. Not to mention the benefits inherent in efficiency, with Apple ARM chips not requiring the same thermal management as an Intel or AMD machine. Now, of course, the A14 is a step down from Apple’s new M1 chip in the MacBook Air and Pro 13”, but it provides more than sufficient performance for every app I tested, especially games like Call of Duty Mobile, PUBG, Asphalt 8, and especially during instances of multitasking.

One of the most noticeable upgrades from the iPad Air 3 to the iPad Air 4 is battery life and charging. I was able to get about 12 to 13 hours a day on average with long FaceTime calls, productivity, and streaming music and video on my iPad Air 4. That said, iPads almost never have battery issues when they’re still new, and Apple’s 10-hour rating is usually above or on par with real-world use. The iPad Air 3, in my experience at least, was similar, minus perhaps an hour or two of use. But the real story here is with the new 20 W charger Apple includes in the box, which charges this thing fast. I also tried to charge my iPhone from my iPad Air while it was plugged into power from the Magic Keyboard and my Anker USB-C adapter. The results were rather unimpressive, yet I look forward to situations outside of a pandemic where I’ll need to charge my iPhone using my iPad.

Can it Replace My MacBook?

In a word, yes. The real question to ask, is, should it? Apple’s latest MacBook Air is a screamer—a surprisingly fast CPU and GPU inside an entry level Mac—but it suffers from compatibility issues with iPhone and iPad apps due to the lack of a touchscreen. In truth, the only differentiator between a MacBook Air and an iPad Air is available software and slight differences in the chipset, RAM, and battery capacity. Whether or not an iPad is a laptop is no longer a debate, but whether an iPad could replace a MacBook comes down to what software you run. Additionally, the MacBook Air comes with four times the storage of the iPad Air by default. If you don’t need to store a ton of media or apps on your device, then the 64 GB in the entry model iPad Air is plenty fine. I’ve admittedly never filled up 256 GB on an iPad—but I’ve always had storage issues on a Mac. Regardless, if you want to use the iPad Air as your primary computer, you should consider getting the 256 GB model, as the 64 GB may not be enough on for long-term storage needs.

Does it replace your MacBook? For me, I think if Apple is willing to improve on display output with iPadOS and you don’t need apps like Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, or the full-fledged Adobe suite (although, much of it is currently available with more to come), you should be pleasantly surprised with what an iPad Air could do as an everyday machine. With it’s powerful A14 SoC, iPad Pro-like design and compatibility, and an affordable price of entry, the iPad Air 4 is a wonderful way to be productive, creative, and have fun. If you’re looking for a great tablet that feels premium but doesn’t break the bank, the iPad Air 4 is the best option on the market today.

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