Apple’s iPad Air 2019 is a good way for creators to get an expansive 10.5-inch tablet screen and the support of both the first-gen Apple Pencil and 2-in-1 keyboard cover – without completely blowing their budget.
It’s the middle-of-the-pack iPad that fits nicely between four other iPads: the entry-level iPad and smaller iPad mini (2019), and the more serious (but seriously more expensive) iPad Pro 11 and iPad Pro 12.9.
Digital illustrators will miss the extra perks that come with the unsupported second-gen Apple Pencil, though, and it's outshone by the 2020 iPad Air with its redesigned chassis and better performance. But if you can score a bargain (perhaps found on our round-up of the best iPad deals), it's worth a look.
iPad Air (2019): Price
The iPad Air price is going to be the key selling point for some people and an absolute deal breaker for others. That’s because, for the first group, it’s a considerable bargain next to the iPad Pro 11 and iPad Pro 12.9. It’s the cheapest iPad with a large fully-laminated screen and compatibility with the Apple Smart Keyboard cover. So its almost-Pro-level compromises come down to a lack of a bezel-reduced display and second-generation Apple Pencil support.
As we mentioned above, the 2019 iPad Air is no longer the latest in the Air range, but its cost has dropped as a result. You can get an Apple-refurbished 2019 iPad Air for $419/£409, which is a good deal cheaper than the $599/£579 price of the current iPad Air.
The Air does cost a premium over the value-priced iPad 9.7, which is often on sale for dirt cheap and also has first-generation Apple Pencil support. But anyone using these iPads for serious illustration or photo editing via the Apple Pencil will appreciate the superior iPad Air 2019 screen.
iPad Air (2019): Display
The main draw for creators is the iPad Air 2019’s 10.5-inch screen, not just because it’s slightly bigger than the iPad 9.7 thanks to a reduced screen bezel, but also because Apple built it to have a fully-laminated display.
From a technical standpoint, this means the LCD panel is pressed up against thinner glass without the noticeable gap seen on the entry-level iPad. From an illustrators’ standpoint, this means that when the Apple Pencil tip touches the iPad Air glass, it feels as if you’re sketching illustrations and editing photos directly on the digital screen.
The Air also benefits from the wide P3 colour gamut, a Pro-level boon for serious photographers and artists, as well as Apple’s True Tone display technology. True Tone helped when we were staring at screens for hours on end – it shifted the blue light to a more yellow tint to match the lighting in our office. But we had to remember to turn it off when sketching for the sake of colour accuracy.
The only missing display element is ProMotion, which is Apple’s adaptive refresh rate technology. It further reduces Apple Pencil latency and makes video more fluid at 120Hz, but only when needed as to not strain the battery life.
On the 2019 model, you also miss out on the reduced bezels and larger 10.9-inch display of the 2020 iPad Air. That model also eliminates the Home button in favour of Face ID. The combination of thinner bezels and smaller chassis makes quite a difference to how immersive drawing on the tablet feels.
But aside from ProMotion and the thinner bezels, the 2019 iPad Air is not missing much in terms of Pro-level display perks.
iPad Air (2019): Apple Pencil
The first-gen Apple Pencil is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. It’s an invaluable tool with varying pressure and tilt sensitivity, fantastic palm rejection and no discernible lag, just like the Pro-only second-generation Apple Pencil. The adjustable pressure curve in popular apps like ProCreate make it a useful everyday sketching tool.
Our biggest pain points with the Apple Pencil occurred when we weren’t using it. Where do you put it when you’re carrying around the iPad Air? It doesn’t magnetically stick to the frame like the second-gen Pencil does on the iPad Pro, instead having to charge by poking awkwardly out of the Lightning port like a fragile antenna. Did you leave it on a table? Plot twist: it’s on the floor thanks to its barrel-shaped design that lends itself to constantly rolling.
We’re also missing the helpful gestures that come with the second-gen Pencil. Double tapping the flat side of the newer Pencil can change brushes in certain apps, for example, and double tapping the display with the Pencil acts as a shortcut that brings the screen to life.
None of these extras are a part of the iPad Air 2019, and the second-generation Apple Pencil remains the a big reason to think about splurging for the newest iPad Pro models.
iPad Air (2019): Power and performance
Compared to what today's iPads offer, the 2019 iPad Air feels a little light on performance – perhaps accurately reflecting its 'Air' name. It has thinness, yes. But raw power? Not so much.
Today, we have more heavy-duty apps compared to when the first- and second-gen Air tablets launched. Photo and illustration apps like Affinity Designer, Adobe Lightroom and and Linea require serious horsepower for their multi-layer canvases. Now that Adobe Photoshop is available on iPads the bar has raised further.
That's not to say that Apple’s A12 chipset inside this iPad Air is slow. It lacks the laptop-threatening X-factor of the A12X used by the 2018 iPad Pro, and can't hold a candle to the desktop-class M1 in the latest iPad Pro models. But the 2019 Air’s Geekbench multi-score is 11,575, and, yes, it’s shy of the Pro’s benchmark score of 18,104, but it’s nearly double the score of the iPad 9.7 at 5,786. There’s more than enough power here to run current and future heavy-duty apps.
iPad Air (2019): Key features
Versatility at a fair price is the iPad Air 2019's best hidden talent. Its compatibility with Apple’s official Smart Keyboard Cover makes it the cheapest way to get that 2-in-1 form factor without having to struggle with a Bluetooth keyboard (although it won't work with Apple's trackpad-enabled Magic Keyboard case). The iPad Air contains the Smart Connector pins previously limited to the Pro tablets, and for that instant pairing action, we’re thankful.
The iPad Air becomes a more handy read-and-write tablet thanks to the Smart Keyboard Cover. It’s one that you can do real work on, not just read Apple News and consume Netflix. We’re also a fan of the fact that this new iPad can fast charge – if you spend more money by buying the lightning-to-USB cable and a compatible USB-C plug. It can take forever to recharge without it.
The one multimedia feature you’re not going to find on the iPad Air that was found in the older (and now retired) iPad Pro 10.5 is the four speakers. This version is limited to two, which is an unfortunate, but not a deal-breaking downgrade.
iPad Air (2019): Should you buy it?
The 2019 iPad Air feels a little left behind today, but that's mainly thanks to the incredible strides Apple has made in its latest iPad generations. It’s still a very capable tablet though, and is a good choice if you want a decent tablet for creative and photo-editing work with an Apple Pencil. That’s why our main disappointment was that it uses the older first-generation Apple Pencil.
If you can find a good discount, the 2019 iPad Air is worth considering. But the 2020 iPad Air offers more power and a better display, albeit at a higher price. Which one you go for depends on whether you deem price or performance to be your priority.