Apple iPad Pro (2021) vs iPad Air (2020): which to buy?

Apple undoubtedly makes some of the best tablets around; it’s why iPads top the bestseller…

Apple undoubtedly makes some of the best tablets around; it’s why iPads top the bestseller lists time and again. Yet knowing which iPad to choose can be a little tricky, especially when the prices often overlap as you move through the different lines.

For example, the cheapest iPad Air costs £579. The cheapest iPad Pro comes in at £200 dearer. If you want an Air with Wi-Fi and mobile data and want to bump the storage up to 256GB, the lower-spec iPad’s price soars to £859. That’s before you factor in whether or not you want an Apple Pencil or a keyboard. And before you consider that a MacBook Air is only a relatively small amount extra.

With this in mind, we’ve pitted the two high-end iPads head-to-head for this iPad Pro vs iPad Air review. Not only to see which is worth your time and money, but which has the better displays, performance, battery life and portability. Hopefully, to help you determine which is best and which type of users will best suit which model of iPad.

Jump to:

Apple iPad Pro vs iPad Air: key differences at a glance

  • The iPad Air has a 10.9-inch display, while the iPad Pro offers two screen sizes – 11-inch, and 12.9-inch
  • Both the 2020 iPad Air and the 2021 iPad Pro run iPad OS. This is a tablet-friendly version of Apple’s iOS software and, as a result, syncs with any and all existing Apple products. Including MacBooks and iMacs. This means if you’re already an existing Apple customer, you can access all of your apps, settings, purchases and downloads via iCloud on whichever iPad model you choose
  • This also means iPads have access to the full catalogue of Apple apps via the App Store
  • The 11-inch iPad Pro has the same Liquid Retina display as the iPad Air. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a Liquid Retina XDR display. They all have the same PPI (pixel per inch)
  • The iPad Pro models run on Apple’s flagship M1 chip, with 8GB or 16GB RAM. The iPad Air is powered by the lower-spec A14 Bionic chip
  • Both models can be bought with Wi-Fi, or Wi-Fi + cellular, with the iPad Air supporting up to 4G and the iPad Pro supporting up to 5G speeds
  • The iPad Air comes with either 64GB or 256GB built-in storage
  • The iPad Pro is available with 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB or 2TB of storage. Neither tablet can be expanded via microSD
  • All three models ditch the Lightning connector for a USB-C port, with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro support the superfast Thunderbolt 4 protocol
  • The Apple iPad Air is the lighter of the two – 50% lighter in fact – and is also thinner, measuring 6.1mm versus the iPad Pro’s 6.4mm. A small but noticeable difference
  • Both have 12MP Wide cameras on the rear with 5x digital zoom and Smart HDR 3 for photos. The iPad Pro also has a 10MP on the back, and a 12MP on the front while the iPad Air’s front-facing camera is 8MP
  • Apple’s iPad Air is available in silver, grey, rose gold, green, and sky blue. The iPad Pro only comes in silver and grey
  • Both are compatible with the second-generation Apple Pencil, and both are compatible with the Magic Keyboard

Don’t miss our full iPad Pro review and iPad Air review.

Apple iPad Pro vs iPad Air in detail

Specs and features

The iPad Air is the smaller, thinner and cheaper of the two high-end models. There is only one screen size to choose from, measuring 10.9 inches, and this display has an LED Liquid Retina panel with a resolution of 2360 x 1640, which gives it a PPI of 264. PPI stands for pixel per inch, and the higher the number, the more pixels there are in each inch of a display, which typically results in a higher quality image.

The iPad Pro offers two screen sizes – 11-inch and 12.9-inch. The smaller model has the same LED Liquid Retina display seen on the iPad Air. The larger model has a Liquid Retina XDR display that borrows technology seen on Apple’s £4,599 Pro Display XDR monitor.

Like all iPads, both the iPad Air and iPad Pro runs on the latest version of iPad OS – iPad OS 14.5. (This is soon to be replaced by iPadOS 15, due to launch in beta in July). The majority of apps and services have been rendered to work on both the smaller iPad Air screen as well as both iPad Pro displays. However, you may come across some rendering and window size issues on the larger model. This largely applies to apps that don’t need to be optimised for large screens – we noticed it on Stitch Fix, for instance – so it’s likely a minor inconvenience. It will depend on which apps you use on a regular basis.

Both models offer the same setup process, and you can put an existing Apple device near each device to sync your settings, photos, videos, apps, downloads and more, on every device linked to the same ID. If you don’t already have an Apple ID, you’ll need to create one and manually configure the tablet(s).

Apple’s App Store on iPad OS comes with the same range of apps seen on iOS, and the tablet and both tablets have a number of Apple apps installed by default. These include Music, Apple TV, Podcasts, Books, GarageBand, News, Clips, iMovie, Fitness, Health, Voice Memos, Reminders, Notes, Pages, Keynote, Numbers, Files, and a university app called iTunes U.

Security-wise, the iPad Air has a Touch ID sensor embedded into the Power button on the side, which can be used alongside a PIN or passcode. The iPad Pro, instead, uses FaceID technology alongside a six-digit PIN or passcode.

Cameras on tablets tend to fall down the ranks of importance when we discuss specs and features in reviews because, aside from video calls, they’re not used all that much. With the improvements made to phone cameras in recent years, fewer of us now use large tablets to take photos or film videos. Unless, of course, you’re in one of those industries.

To make sure they cover both casual and these pro users, Apple remains committed to offering great camera technology across its tablet range. On the iPad Air, this includes a wide 12MP camera on the rear, joined by an 8MP front-facing snapper. On the iPad Pro models, Apple goes a step further. Both sizes have 12MP Wide and 10MP ultra-wide cameras on the rear, with 12MP TrueDepth cameras on the front. To add to this professional setup further, the iPad Pro additionally comes with five studio‑quality microphones.

The camera setup on the iPad Air and the iPad Pro is designed to increase the versatility of these sensors as well as work more effectively with AR technologies and apps. This is particularly true with the iPad Pro, which additionally has a LiDAR Scanner. This measures how long it takes light to reflect back from objects to make AR experiences more accurate and lifelike.

One major difference between the iPad Air and iPad Pro – and one which explains the addition of the ultra-wide camera on the latter tablet models – is the addition of Centre Stage. This feature, seen only on the iPad Pro, works akin to the moving cameras seen on the Facebook Portal or Echo Show devices by always keeping you in the shot and in focus during video calls. This means the iPad Pro can follow you around a room, even if you’re writing on a whiteboard, moving around the kitchen, or are switching between sitting and standing.

iPad Air vs iPad Pro face-on

To power all of these various hardware and software features, the iPad Air runs on the 64-bit A14 Bionic chip with Apple’s neural engine. The neural engine is what powers the machine learning capabilities of Apple’s devices. This is particularly useful for Siri commands, biometric technologies (like FaceID), and AR. Both iPad Pro models run on the flagship 64-bit M1 chip, borrowed from Apple’s Macs. This comes with an 8-core CPU, an 8-core GPU, an advanced neural engine and comes with either 8GB or 16GB RAM.

Although you have to pay extra for them, both tablets support the Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil. These elevate them above the entry-level iPad Mini and the regular iPad further into the realm of laptop replacements. The second-generation Pencil comes with some standout features, including gesture controls as well as the ability to handwrite in any type box, known as Scribble to iPad. Another small but useful feature of the Apple Pencil is that it can be stored magnetically on the tablet’s side (or top), depending on whether it’s in portrait or landscape mode. The Magic Keyboard, in both instances, doubles up as a case and features a full keyboard with a trackpad.

Price and storage

The iPad Air starts at £579 and rises to £859, depending on the specification you choose. It’s available with Wi-Fi or with Wi-Fi and cellular and offers two storage sizes – 64GB or 256GB.

The 11-inch iPad Pro starts at £749, rising to £1,899, and the 12.9-inch model starts at £999 and increases to £2,149. Both iPad Pro models come with the choice of 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB or 2TB of storage. This not only represents the first time it’s been possible to get 2TB of built-in storage on an iPad, but it’s the widest selection of storage options seen on a single Apple tablet.

None of Apple’s tablets can be physically expanded. Instead, Apple sells iCloud storage. The first 5GB is free, or you can increase this up to 2TB for £6.99 a month.

The prices for the different combinations of each iPad Pro and iPad Air models are as follows. Bear in mind that if you opt for a cellular model, you’ll also need to pay separately for a mobile data contract. The iPad Pro is the first and only tablet in the range to support 5G.

iPad Air 

You can also buy the iPad Air from the following places:

iPad Pro 11-inch

You can also buy the iPad Pro 11-inch from the following places:

iPad Pro 12.9-inch

You can also buy the iPad Pro 12.9-inch from the following places:

Battery life

In the battle of the batteries, the iPad Pro snatched the crown, lasting for four hours longer than what Apple promises. During our looping video test, in which we play an HD video on repeat at 70% brightness and with aeroplane mode enabled, the iPad Pro lasted 14 hours. Apple promises it will last 10 hours streaming video on Wi-Fi and nine hours on mobile data.

By comparison, Apple similarly promises up to ten hours of surfing the web or watching video over Wi-Fi on the iPad Air, which drops to nine hours when connected to a mobile network. In our looping video test, the iPad Air went from full to flat in nine hours 57 minutes.

When using both tablets for more every day, less power-hungry tasks – playing SimCity, watching TikTok, making Zoom calls and working with the Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard attached – both lasted for days. The iPad Air died mid-way through the third day; the iPad Pro held out until the afternoon of the fourth day.

Display

While many of the features and more general specs on the iPad Air vs the iPad Pro have been similar, up till now, the displays and performance are where the devices begin to pull away from each other.

The displays on the iPad Air and the iPad Pro 11-inch are almost identical. They share the same Liquid Retina technology, the same resolution and the same PPI. The only difference is that the latter is 0.1-inch bigger than the former, but for all intents and purposes, they’re the same screen. This means they offer the same bright, vibrant and detailed content when looked at with the naked eye.

iPad Air on top of iPad Pro

Retina is an Apple display technology that works to cram a greater number of pixels into a smaller frame compared to regular ISP/OLED panels. The result is that pixels are less visible, and this makes colours brighter and text sharper. Liquid Retina offers the same benefits as Retina but does so via an LCD panel rather than an OLED one. This enhances the brightness further, but contrast is sometimes a tad lacking on these Liquid Retina models.

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro advances things again by being the first iPad display to use an XDR version of Liquid Retina XDR. This display panel borrows from the display technology seen on Apple’s Pro Display XDR – the tech giant’s £4,599 desktop monitor. It offers true-to-life detail, great for viewing and editing HDR photos and videos or watching movies and TV shows, and colour and contrast are superb.  It’s hard to discern the difference between a standard panel, a Liquid Retina one, and the Liquid Retina XDR seen on the larger iPad Pro when viewed on their own. Especially not for everyday tasks, websites and apps. It’s not until you place them side-by-side and then open HDR photos on Photoshop, for instance, that the differences really make themselves clear.

This is because the panel includes 10,000 mini‑LEDs grouped together into more than 2,500 local dimming zones. Depending on the content, the brightness in each zone can be individually adjusted to vastly improve the contrast ratio. Even the most detailed HDR content – like galaxies and action movie explosions — are immersive and more true-to-life than ever.

iPad Air vs iPad Pro screens compared

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s display is absolutely superb. The only screen we’ve ever seen that marginally surpasses the quality of Apple’s flagship model is the one on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 Plus. Yet Apple gets credit for the fact its displays are anti-glare, and they don’t pick up smudges and fingerprints in the way Samsungs’ do.

All three displays, on the Air and the two Pro tablets, use Apple’s TrueTone technology and a P3 colour gamut. TrueTone adjusts the on-screen colours and brightness based on ambient light, and this adds to make content look true-to-life. The iPad Pro’s additionally add ProMotion technology with a 120Hz refresh rate. This comes into its own when gaming but helps improve how well the screen can handle any fast-moving content.

The three displays are also bright – measuring 500 nits on the Air, 600 nits on the 11-inch Pro, and up to a staggering 1,600 nits on the 12.9 model in peak brightness for HDR. This makes a substantial difference to how colours appear, the level of contrast seen on images and videos, and how sharp text is. It also makes it easier to view in direct sunlight.

Performance

Apple tablets have a long history of being powerful and highly efficient machines. The hardware and software typically work in the most optimal way possible, and we’re always impressed with how well any mobile device – iPhone or iPad – works. This now includes the iPad Air and both iPad Pro models. Apple claims the iPad Air is the fastest Air model ever made, and the iPad Pro’s M1 chip setup is said to be 50% faster, with 40% faster graphics.

We saw either zero or minimal lags when making Zoom calls, sharing screens, attaching external monitors, switching between apps and collaborating on Google Docs across the devices. These tasks barely made a dent in the speed or efficiency of any of the tablets tested for this head-to-head.

For more power-hungry tasks, however, such as rendering Full HD videos or editing large photos on Photoshop, the iPad Air did tend to slow down ever so slightly in comparison to the 12.9-inch Pro. This isn’t something you’d likely notice if using the iPad Air on its own, but side-by-side, the difference is noticeable. Small but noticeable.

We pushed both the iPad Air and the iPad Pro as far as we could, power-wise, and have very few complaints. We’d imagine that the Air may start to lag a little among creatives who carry out much more intense activities that require large amounts of power, but we have no doubt the iPad Pro would handle these with ease. Based on just how effortlessly it manages mid-range tasks.

Design

If you’ve had or used an iPad Air before, you’ll be instantly familiar with the design of the most recent model. It’s almost identical to its predecessors in terms of size and design. It’s the same thickness, and there are only a handful of millimetres separating their respective width and height. They also weigh a similar amount – 458g for the iPad Air 4 vs 456g for the iPad Air 3. The biggest difference is the addition of a USB-C port rather than a Lightning connector.

By moving the TouchID sensor to the power button, the latest generations of iPad Air take full advantage of the screen real-estate, even if the bezels are a little on the large side. This means it’s easier to hold the iPad Air without knocking the screen, but it detracts a little from the overall elegance of the device.

The tablet itself is well-balanced and easy to hold and feels lightweight enough to be portable but heavy enough to feel like a premium product. In our iPad Air review, we commented on the fact it only really starts to feel overly heavy when it’s in a keyboard folio case.

However, having since trialled the iPad Pro, we now know the Air isn’t all that chunky at all.

The iPad Pro is 50% heavier than the Air and almost three times the weight of the Mini. And it feels it. On paper, it’s not significantly thicker than its two siblings – 6.4mm vs 6.1mm – but in reality, it feels much larger. None of this is a criticism. To get a tablet with this level of power, performance, battery life and display quality, it needs to contain a vast number of components, and this is bound to add weight.

This also plays into the fact the iPad Pro is made for more professional tasks and use cases than for casual use or on-the-go streaming. It’s likely that the iPad Pro will remain in one or two places and won’t be the device of choice when on holiday or travelling. This means it doesn’t need to be as lightweight or as portable as the Air.

The overall design of the iPad Pro is more square and more industrial-looking than the sleeker, rounded design of the iPad Air, and it has also opted for a USB-C port. The main difference in the USB-C port on the Pro versus the Air is that it supports Thunderbolt 4 and USB 4.

iPad Air vs iPad Pro rear

iPad Air vs iPad Pro rear

Thunderbolt is another technology Apple has borrowed from its MacBook range, and Thunderbolt 4 is the most recent, advanced iteration of this technology. This makes the iPad Pro’s USB-C connector “the fastest, most versatile port ever on an iPad,” capable of supporting four times more bandwidth for wired connections, faster external storage, and means the tablet can support higher resolution external displays, up to 6K. This is another nod to its suitability for pro users and helps add to its high-end performance further.

Apple is selling the iPad Air in five colours – silver, space grey, rose gold, green, and sky blue. By comparison, the iPad Pro is only available in silver and grey.

Apple iPad Pro vs iPad Air: which should you buy?

Of all the tablet reviews and head-to-head comparison guides we’ve written over the years, this is the hardest to call.

On the one hand, the iPad Air offers a lot of the same, or similar, features and specs seen on the more expensive iPad Pro. All while being more streamlined, more portable and more consumer-friendly.

On the other hand, the iPad Pro is the best tablet we’ve ever used. Its power, aesthetic, capabilities, and incredible camera setup (and all the benefits that come from this, including Centre Stage) elevate the Pro to a different plane. The iPad Pro supports 5G, whereas the Air doesn’t, which means if you’re looking for a cellular model, you’re futureproofing your device.

The reason it’s difficult to call a clear winner is that the Pro is so expensive and, if you’re not in a creative or professional industry, it’s hard to justify buying it when the iPad Air performs so admirably.

If we had to make a recommendation, all things considered, it would have to be for the iPad Air. The power is more than enough for everyday tasks, plus it can handle more intense activities should you need it to.

What’s more, you can get around the storage limitations by signing up for iCloud storage. To put this into perspective, you’d need to sign up for 2TB iCloud storage for almost 12 years at £6.99 a month before you’d have spent the £1,000 price difference between the cheapest iPad Air (£749) and the cheapest 2TB iPad Pro (£1,749).

If you’re a pro tablet user, of course, buy the iPad Pro, but for everyone else, the iPad Air is a more than worthy alternative.

Where to buy the iPad Air

You can also buy the iPad Air from the following places:

Where to buy iPad Pro

iPad Pro 11-inch

You can also buy the iPad Pro 11-inch from the following places:

iPad Pro 12.9-inch

You can also buy the iPad Pro 12.9-inch from the following places:

Apple fan? Don’t miss our take on the best iPhone to buy and our comparison of the iPhone 12 vs Mini vs Pro vs Pro Max. After a cheaper tablet? Read our best budget tablets guide.