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iPad Pro vs iPad Air: Which Apple tablet is right for you?

iPad Pro vs iPad Air
(Image credit: Apple)

Deciding between an iPad Pro vs iPad Air means you're probably looking for a new iPad for work – these are Apple's most powerful tablet options, after all, with the largest screen sizes available.

The iPad Air is comfortably the more affordable of the two, while the iPad Pro is the more powerful and feature-packed model… and also, let's face it, the cooler option thanks to its fancier new design.

Both are extremely capable, so is the Air all the tablet you'll need, or should you spend the extra to get the features and quality-of-life improvements that the iPad Pro brings?

We'll go through everything you need to know about both tablets, picking out all the differences that have a real impact, and helping you to know that you're buying the best iPad for you.

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: Price & release date

The current generation of iPad Pro was released in March 2020, as a small upgrade on a model released in late 2018. It comes in versions with 11-inch and 12.9-inch screen sizes, and prices for the 11-inch model start from £769/$799 for a model with 128GB of storage, £869/$899 for 256GB, £1069/$1099 for 512GB, and £1269/$1299 for 1TB.

The 12.9-inch model starts from £969/$999 for 128GB, £1069/$1099 for 256GB, £1269/$1299 for 512GB, and £1469/$1499 for 1TB.

Those prices are for the Wi-Fi-only models; if you want 4G connectivity as well, and of those models is available with it, for an additional £150/$150.

The current iPad Air was released in March 2019. It starts from £479/$499 for 64GB of storage, or you can get 256GB for £629/$649.

Again, that’s for Wi-Fi-only, but you can add 4G potential for an extra £120/$130.

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: iPad Pro AR

The iPad Pro includes the first dual-lens camera system on iPad, plus a LiDAR 3D scanner for amazingly accurate AR. (Image credit: Apple)

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: Design & features

The current iPad Pro design was the first major change to the look of the iPad since the very first model (though obviously it had been heavily refined over the years). It’s what immediately sets the iPad Pro and iPad Air apart from each other, because the Air retains the more classic look.

While the iPad Pro has a nearly edge-to-edge screen and no buttons at all on the front, the iPad Air still has sizeable bezels on the top and bottom of the screen (when held in portrait), and a Home button with Touch ID fingerprint recognition for security. The iPad Pro uses Face ID facial recognition instead, and uses gestures instead of a Home button.

On a tablet device, it’s our experience that fingerprint recognition is actually more reliable than face recognition, because you’re less likely to have a tablet at the right angle to scan your visage – it might be in your lap, or lying flat on a table – than a phone when unlocking it. You’re also more likely to accidentally cover the camera when holding the tablet. However, if you have the iPad Pro angled well using a keyboard case or similar option, then it works perfectly.

Both iPad models have a single open physical data connection, but the difference here is important: the iPad Pro has a USB Type-C port, which means you can connect accessories to it easily, either directly or via a USB-C adapter (or even a hub): microphones, USB storage, 4K monitors, cameras for importing photos – it’s usefully flexible.

The iPad Air uses Apple’s Lightning port, which actually still supports most of what we’ve mentioned, but you’ll definitely need an adapter, and you’re more likely to encounter compatibility foibles. If you research ahead for accessories you’ll use, you’ll be fine, but it’s more likely to have issues on days when you have to improvise.

Both iPad models also have an nearly unnoticeable connector for Apple’s keyboard case accessories, with specific options available that suit both devices.

The iPad Pro has better speakers than the iPad Air, with a tweeter and woofer configuration in all four corners, so however you hold it, it can create a sound balance with convincing stereo and good balance – the quality of these speakers is kind of mind-blowing, actually, given the size of device the sound is coming from. The iPad Air’s speakers are still really solid, though, and do a great job for watching movies and so on.

Of course, if you're using them for music production, you'll probably want to connect wired speakers or headphones – this is actually easier on the Air, which still has a 3.5mm jack. The iPad Pro doesn't, which we consider to be a significant oversight on Apple's part. You can get an adapter, of course, or even connect to an external DAC/amp to then connect headphones to.

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: iPad Pro with Apple Pencil

The magnetic docking and charging of the Apple Pencil (2nd gen) is such an improvement over the old system, it might justify the price on its own. (Image credit: Apple)

The iPad Air has a single-lens camera on the rear, and the same on the front. It’s a thoroughly mid-range affair – it takes photos, but it’s nothing special. The iPad Pro has a front camera too (with a depth-sensor for Portrait Mode shots), plus the first dual-lens rear camera system on an iPad, with an ultra-wide-angle lens and a regular wide-angle. This gives you more flexibility when shooting, and can be useful for a range of extra needs, including scanning documents. 

There’s also a LiDAR scanner as part of the rear camera array on the iPad Pro, which can accurately measure the distance from the iPad to objects in physical space, which makes for much more advanced and stable augmented reality applications. This has a lot of potential, depending on how apps can use it – decent motion capture and 3D scanning could be possible without any other equipment, for example. This could be a big deal, but it very much depends on your line of work!

The iPad Pro is also capable of taking 4K video at 60fps, while the iPad Air is limited to Full HP 1080p video.

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: Screen & Apple Pencil

As we mentioned, the iPad Pro comes in two screen sizes: 11 inches and 12.9 inches. The 11-inch model has a display resolution of 2388x1668 pixels, while the 12.9-inch model 2472x2048 – both are 264 pixels per inch. Beyond the size, there’s essentially no difference between them: they’re both rated for 600 nits of brightness (Apple doesn’t list any HDR compatibility for the screen, however, though the iPad can play back Dolby Vision and HDR10 video formats); both support the P3 colour gamut; and both include Apple’s ProMotion tech for a maximum refresh rate of 120Hz.

The advantage of 120Hz here is the combination with the Apple Pencil (2nd gen), which is only supported on the iPad Pro. With the screen updating twice as quickly as on 60Hz screens, you see the results of what you draw instantly, so it’s easier to draw consistent lines, or to write with extra accuracy. It feels as close as possible to using real drawing equipment, basically. 

The Apple Pencil (2nd gen) supports tilt detection and multiple pressure levels (Apple doesn’t specify how many, but it offers lots of granularity for sure), and magnetically attaches to the side of the iPad to charge wirelessly – we love this. It means the Pencil is always a) charged and b) to hand, so even if your primary use isn't drawing, you're more likely to reach for it and use it. And if you are primarily using it for drawing, it's even better, since it guarantees no delays while you hunt for it or need to charge it.

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: iPad Air gaming

The Air is less powerful than the Pro but it can still hold its own for 3D gaming and other tasks that tax the processor. (Image credit: Apple)

The iPad Air has a 10.5-inch 2224x1668 display, which is again 264 pixels per inch. In terms of size and sharpness, it’s so close to the 11-inch Pro that it makes effectively no odds which you choose in that regard. It also supports the P3 colour gamut, but is slightly less bright at 500 nits – but that’s still easily bright enough for most work. However, it doesn’t support ProMotion, and is a regular 60Hz screen, so when using Apple Pencil on it, you still get a really strong experience, but not quite the pro response that the Pro appropriately gives you. If you’re looking to do concept sketches and note-taking that don’t require the best possible precision, it’s still more than capable.

The Apple Pencil supported by the iPad Air is the first-gen model, which offers the same accuracy, tilt and pressure features as the later model, but charges by plugging into the iPad’s Lightning port, which is awkward. It also has a glossier finish than the matte 2nd-gen Pencil, which again fits with the general theme that the Air and its Pencil are great for drawing, but the Pro and the 2nd-gen Pencil are the connoisseur’s choice.

A couple of final details that apply to both the Pro and Air: they’re all rated by Apple at 1.8% reflectivity, so there’s no advantage either way on that front; and they all include Apple True Tone technology.

True Tone is a system that analyses the ambient light in the room, and adjusts the white balance of the screen so that a white document on the iPad matches what a piece of white paper in the room looks like to the eye. It’s designed to help with eye comfort, especially in the evenings, and we absolutely love it for reading or just generally using the iPad. However, when working on something with precise colours, you may want to disable it – you can do this easily in the Settings app.

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: Performance & battery

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: Files app

The Files app on both iPads brings desktop-level file management to iPad, an gets more option in iPadOS 14. (Image credit: Apple)

The iPad Pro is a phenomenally powerful computer – for sheer processing power, it can match a MacBook Pro in benchmarks, thanks to its custom Apple A12Z eight-core processor. 

It’s extraordinarily difficult to make an iPad Pro stumble, and it’s possible to create huge multi-layered canvases in image apps, to edit 4K video (in certain formats) on multiple tracks without issue, and to have as many as four apps on-screen at the same time.

The A12Z includes 6GB of RAM, though the way iPadOS manages RAM is different to a Mac or Windows PC, so it’s not quite a straight comparison to regular computers.

There’s also an eight-core GPU, which Apple’s most powerful so far.

The iPad Air is less powerful, but is certainly no slouch. It has an Apple A12 processor, which is, as the name implies, a slightly less fancy version of what’s in the iPad Pro. The processor is six cores instead of eight, with a reported 3GB of RAM, and the GPU is four cores.

As a simple working computer for documents and sketching, the iPad Air is more than capable. It’s only when you get into some quite demanding needs that the iPad Pro may become a necessary option, though it can crop up in some unexpected ways: for example, popular Photoshop rival Pixelmator on iPad limits the maximum megapixel size of your file depending on the machine you’re using, and this will change depending on the number of layers you’re using as well as the size of the canvas. 

You clearly get a lot more headroom on the iPad Pro than the iPad Air – the issue when using the Air is that it’s hard to tell what balance of canvas size and layer use will turn out to be the upper limit for you. The Pro is the safer option if you plan to use it for demanding creative purposes.

When it comes to battery life, Apple rates all of its tablets for 10 hours of light use, and it’s easy to get this from both the Pro and the Air for web browsing, movie watching and similar. But you can expect high-res image editing, or prolonged 3D rendering, to reduce this pretty severely, just as it is with any laptop. Exactly how much depends on the app, but something that taxes both processor and GPU, such as high-end games, can bring it down to about half that.

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: Software

This one’s easy: there’s no real difference between these two iPadOS machines, other than the Home button/indicator. On the iPad Pro, you swipe from the bottom of the screen to go to the Home screen, and can quickly switch between apps by swiping left and right at the bottom of the screen. On the iPad Air, you have the Home button instead, so these gestures don’t work, though there are some other multitasking gestures.

Beyond some gestures, they’re the same, both running iPadOS 13, with a free update to iPadOS 14 due later in the year.

You’ve got multitasking of apps in Split View, and/or with one app in Slide Over (so it hovers over other apps). You’ve got drag and drop between apps, you’ve got Apple’s powerful Shortcuts app for automating tasks, you’ve got the Files app for real file storage and transfers, you’ve got the ability to open multiple instances of the same app, you’ve got mouse/trackpad support, keyboard support… it’s all here.

The mouse support is a recent addition, and while both machines support almost any Bluetooth mouse or keyboard, the official options work best, because there are certain gestures for multitasking supported on those that other options won’t give you.

The official options are Apple’s Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro – which is, let us be clear, VERY expensive but very good – or the Logitech Combo Touch Keyboard for iPad Air, which was produced in cahoots with Apple and is a much more reasonable price.

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: comparison

(Image credit: Apple)

iPad Pro vs iPad Air: Verdict

This really comes down to what you need from a tablet, and what you’re willing to spend. The iPad Pro is better than the iPad Air in every meaningful way, but it costs a lot more, so it’s about whether those improvements are a fair investment for you.

When it comes to drawing, the combination of a subtly improved Apple Pencil with much more convenient storage and charging, plus the 120Hz screen response rate, makes the iPad Pro the precision instrument of choice undoubtedly. But the iPad Air is more than good enough if you won’t use your tablet for your finest work.

The iPad Pro can be massively more powerful, but will you use apps that take advantage of it? If so, then obviously you should get the Pro, but for anything more middle of the road, the Air is really just as fast – if you’ll mostly use it for viewing and some admin work on the go, there will be no meaningful performance difference.

However, as we mentioned, the ways that the Air might hold you back are not always predictable, so the Pro is definitely the futureproof option.

You could get an iPad Air, keyboard/trackpad and Pencil for around half the price of the equivalent iPad Pro bundle, so it’s all about the cost/benefit analysis, and our walkthrough above should point you in the right direction.