• Bruce Burke

The Real Debate: iPad or iPad Air?

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

On September 15th Apple introduced two new iPads - The 8th Generation iPad and the all new iPad Air. But, which model should you choose? Let's debate and see who wins.

The 8th Gen iPad and new iPad Air round out the iPad lineup which includes (l to r), the 2020 - 12.9" iPad Pro, 2020 - 10.9" iPad Pro, 2020 iPad Air, 2020 iPad and the 2019 iPad mini. But for this debate we'll only compare the new iPad Air, and latest iteration of Steve Job's iconic iPad.

Similar - But Not The Same

Collectively these devices form the most advanced iPad lineup ever. Whether customers prioritize portability, power, or price, there’s an iPad for everyone. Let's find out which one is for you.

Both of the new iPad and iPad Air have the same basic dimensions, but the similarities stop there.

They are different devices, aimed at specific users - each having distinctive features. First let's start at price, and then we'll discuss value.

The 8th generation iPad will be available with a starting price of $329 (US) for the Wi-Fi model and $459 (US) for the Wi-Fi + Cellular model, and comes in silver, space gray, and gold finishes in 32GB and 128GB configurations.

Wi-Fi models of iPad Air will be available with a starting price of $599 (US) and Wi-Fi + Cellular models start at $729 (US). The new iPad Air, in 64GB and 256GB configurations, will be available in five beautiful finishes including silver, space gray, rose gold, green, and sky blue.

Without taking into consideration upgraded storage options, Apple Care, or must-have accessories like the Apple Pencil you have a $200 difference in starting price which means after you add the rest of the stuff you're also looking at the same or more difference for your final purchase price. I'll point out the reasons why without making it all about pricing - both models have accessories that add value to whichever iPad you choose. There are nuances that aren't immediately apparent ...

Price Vs Performance

New iPads feature the powerful A12 Bionic chip that brings the Neural Engine to the entry-level iPad with 40 percent faster CPU performance than the previous model. The redesigned and far more powerful iPad Air is debuting Apple’s most powerful chip ever made, the A14 Bionic.

But what's the difference between the two chips? That's complicated but I'll try to streamline it ...

Frequency (processor speed) for the A12 Bionic is 1.59GHz while the new A14 runs at 1.8GHz, each core can turbo up to 2.49 and 3.10GHz, respectively - with both chipsets having 6 cores. GPU's run at the same speed as the CPU but with distinct differences between the two models.


The A12 has a 9th generation GPU, whereas the A14 has an 11th generation Graphic Processing Unit. Differentiations also occur in the chipset's manufacturing process with the A12 having the older 7 nanometer process, versus the 5 nanometer process of the new A14 Bionic powerhouse.

Other differences between these two System on a Chip processors are the amount of displays the chip can drive and the maximum memory that can be addressed. The A12 maxes out at 4 GB and can drive a single display, while the A14 can be configured with up to 8 GB of ram and push signal for up to 4 displays. The iPad will have LPDDR4X-4266 ram and is restricted to a single channel. While the Air will feature faster LPDDR5-5500 memory with two memory channels.

The A12 Bionic first appeared in the iPhone X, XS Max and XR models while the A14 Bionic is expected to be used in the forthcoming iPhone 12 release in October. This is backward and forward repurposing of Apple Silicon design progression, also being employed in Apple Watch.

Dueling Displays

The $329 iPad looks similar to the previous model, with new color options. It has a 10.2" LED screen with 2,160 x 1,620 resolution - the same pixel density as the iPad Air, though it lacks the same wide color gamut and True Tone display aspects.

In addition to its updated design, the iPad Air sports a larger 10.9" laminated IPS LCD in the same footprint as the iPad thanks thinner bezels. This True Tone capable display has a P3 wide color gamut with a resolution of 2,360-by-1,640, for 264 pixels per inch. However it doesn’t have the super-smooth ProMotion display thats featured on the more expensive 10.9" and 12.9" iPad Pros.

So there's trade-offs, again price versus performance - do you need the enhanced display size, better color and the laminated screen that brings the image right to the surface? These may be technical requirements if you are a photographer or graphic artist, a side by side comparison of the same image and how the machine works with that image are a good method for judgement - but it's mostly subjective - I'll leave you to do your own side-by-side comparisons before buying.

The Written Word

An iPad is mostly a display, so lets dive into what accessories work with each display. This is another important point of comparison, which may ultimately sway which model you choose. The iPad works with the original Apple Pencil, while iPad Air works exclusively with the newer model which features magnetic inductive charging allowing the instrument to cling to the Air's flat-edge design. It's important to note that the original Apple Pencil doesn't cling to, or charge on the iPad.

While the Apple Pencil models work similarly with a few nuanced differences. While the first Apple Pencil was round and seems to want to roll off flat surfaces, the new Apple Pencil has a flat side for a flush connection with the iPad - which prevents it from rolling away. In addition to these changes, the Apple Pencil 2 introduces support for gestures. Double tapping the Apple Pencil 2 toggles two different tools, such as a pencil and an eraser.

The 2nd gen Pencil costs $129, and the original is priced at $99. For users who have a new iPad Air model, the Apple Pencil 2 is the only available choice as the original Apple Pencil does not work with the new iPads and vice versa due to differences in pairing, storing and charging.

Magnetic Attraction

The clinginess continues in the optional keyboards for each model - again each different model has a specific keyboard/case that it works with. The new iPad Air is compatible with the much acclaimed Magic Keyboard that features a floating display design, and a built-in trackpad.

It also work seamlessly with the Smart Keyboard Folio, and new Smart Folio covers. The $299 Magic Keyboard features backlit keys, trackpad and has pass-through charging which makes your iPad suddenly feel very much like a MacBook.


The $179 Smart Keyboard Folio for iPad Air (4th generation) is a full-size keyboard that provides elegant front and back protection. There is no trackpad or backlit keys and no charging or pairing required, the Air powers the keyboard. Magnetically attach the Keyboard Folio and start typing.

The $159 Apple Smart Keyboard for the 8th generation iPad is available with layouts for over 30 languages. While the $49 Smart Covers for iPad are available in black, white, and three new seasonal colors including deep navy, cyprus green, and pink citrus.

Sound Off

So far we have just covered the basics specs and accessories - we haven't gotten into things like cameras or audio quality of the two units. While we find ourselves at this juncture I'd like to talk about another accessory you'll want to splurge for if you don't have them already and that's Apple's most beloved new product AirPods & AirPods Pro.

Here's where the road diverts a bit from the accessories discussed above, both AirPod models work seamlessly with either iPad. Moreover the difference is how the AirPods interact with your iPad, other Apple devices, and the world around you.


The AirPods Pro, are an exciting new addition to the AirPods family that features Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) and superior, immersive sound in an all-new lightweight, in-ear design. AirPods Pro join the existing AirPods line in delivering an unparalleled wireless audio experience. Each model uses advanced technology to reinvent how people listen to music, make phone calls, enjoy TV, play games and call upon with Siri. However these $249 have some features that just aren't available on Apple's original AirPods.

AirPod Pros are lightweight, in-ear headphones engineered for comfort and fit. They come with three different sizes of flexible silicone ear tips that provide both a comfortable fit and a superior seal — a critical factor in delivering immersive sound. To further maximize comfort, AirPods Pro use an innovative vent system to equalize pressure, minimizing the discomfort common in other in-ear designs. But active noise cancellation and spatial audio available in iPadOS 14 are where these wireless headphones really shine.

The short video clip above from Apple's recent announcement share how AirPods Pro use technology on both the device and the headphones to track device and head movements. This combined with the ability to adjust how much ambient noise from surroundings and you have an immersive audio experience. If you plan on videoconferencing, watching video content or playing games on your iPad - you'll want a paid of AirPods - which one you choose is up to you.

Conversely the original $149 AirPods don't have ANC or spatial audio as it takes the in-ear design to create this virtual sound experience. But the AirPods did get an update with iOS and iPadOS 14. Gaining the ability to automatically and seamlessly switch between Apple devices and some enhanced accessibility audio features have made AirPods the world's favorite headphones. In addition to these two choices of AirPods there is a new rumored pair of over-the-ear AirPods Studio headphones being released shortly from Apple. There is no confirmed information from Apple so I'll let you search Google and find the rumors for yourself.

As good as they are you may want to use your iPad without headphones. So let's take a minute and talk about the audio quality built into the different iPad models. The new design of iPad Air features stereo speakers in landscape mode, elevating the audio experience so users can enjoy wider stereo sound while watching video. Dual microphones are also included for recording.

"There is no other computer manufacturer doing a better job with audio technology than Apple. From iPads to MacBooks, no one provides a more pleasing and consistent audio experience."

There I said it and it needs to be said, I have been involved in technology for decades and worked with every type of solution you can imagine. All the devices had this one place drilled out of the housing where they would put some speaker that would tinnily buzz against the housing opening. Yes it's gotten better over the last ten years, mostly due to advances in smartphone technology. But overwhelmingly the majority of tablets, laptops and smartphones sound like a hot mess - they suck.

But as someone who doesn't hear well to begin with, Apple products provide best-in-class audio across the entire range of devices. I have not heard the speakers in either these new iPad models. But I can draw on my experience with my 2017 12.9" iPad Pro. My larger-sized Pro model came with four stereo speakers, one in each of it's four corners in landscape mode. I've had it attached to keyboards, inside folio covers, and an oversized rubber case I use around the house. The sound is phenomenal, regardless of the iPad's environment - it has room-filling sound that never distorts.

Yes both the new iPad, and iPad Air have two less speakers but I think Apple's audio capabilities and quality has accelerated tremendously over the last three years and I think you'll be pleased with either model you choose. With the A14 Bionic chip both these new iPads are up to two times faster than the top-selling Windows laptop, up to three times faster than the top-selling Android tablet and up to six times faster than the top-selling Chromebook, and sound better than all of them!

Bringing It All Home

So there is where I want to push the value over the price, but understanding the increased value you get at each price point is helpful in making decisions - or to help you talk yourself into buying.

First decide what base model you want. Leaving out the Cellular and Storage options the base price is $329 versus $599. Is it worth it for the faster chipset, improved display and ability to work with updated accessories which can make the computing experience more fluid and joyful?

What you think you are going to use it for may change after you begin to experience your new iPad, I have found myself being more creative and trying new things on my iPad versus my laptop.

Are you going to use it to read news, watch video and play a few games? Or do you think the cool features of Apple Pencil will later inspire your creativity? Are you an artist, writer, musician?

While talking about creativity I think its important to get into the cameras, so I'll touch briefly on it as not many use the iPad for photography. The iPad features a 8MP camera with an ƒ/2.4 aperture on the back with support for 1080p HD video recording at 30 fps and Slo‑mo video support for 720p at 120 fps. The HD FaceTime camera on the front produces 1.2MP photos using a ƒ/2.4 aperture and the ability to perform 720p HD video recording.

iPad Air for 2020 features a 12MP Wide camera on the back, with an ƒ/1.8 aperture and five-element lens. It supports 4K video recording at 24 fps, 30 fps, or 60 fps, as well as1080p HD video recording at 30 fps or 60 fps, and Slo‑mo video support for 1080p at 120 fps or 240 fps. The front facing camera takes 7MP photos using an ƒ/2.2 aperture and has support for1080p HD video recording at 60 fps. There is a few differences to note here, again - it depends on you.

Ultimately who you are, and what you do will influence your purchase decision far more than I.

I hope by providing this comparison I have given you some basic questions to ask yourself and enough information to make your own shopping list. Having these crib notes may help you.

One More Thing

One other thing I want to add before I go. If you are buying a new iPad and already have a MacBook you'll want to buy a cable that connects the two together, giving you the use one of Apple's most underused technologies Sidecar.

With Sidecar, your iPad can be used as an extended display for your Mac and as a high-precision drawing tablet across supported Mac apps. For users on the go, Sidecar makes it easy to bring an extended display with them so they can spread their work out over two displays wherever they happen to be.

Although Sidecar works over-the-air, I found that using a cable is the best method for using Sidecar. It facilities connection and performance, especially if you are creating large file sizes and sophisticated images. You can use it in many different ways,

I found using the Smart Keyboard case I was able to prop up my iPad and use the keyboard on both devices as well as using the Apple Pencil on the iPad. There is a million and one ways you can use this setup and it all fits easily in a briefcase or backpack together.


This is the icing on the cake for MacBook owners when considering a new iPad. My 12.9" iPad Pro coupled to my 16" MacBook Pro is a powerful computing environment. Check out the video below for a more detailed look at Sidecar for iPad. There have been some updates since the video was produced and Sidecar is the best way to use a Mac and iPad together to further both machines capabilities, even more so with the forthcoming Apple Silicon based Macs.

So there is a lot to consider - and you thought it was going to be an easy decision. But as with all subjects up for debate there is a lot of different aspects to mull over before making your selection.

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