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Apple iPad vs iPad Air: What’s the difference?


Apple’s iPad collection is split across four product lines, but it’s not always clear how they differ.

The standard iPad and the iPad Air represent two of those tablet families, although the ‘Air’ moniker can be confusing to those without in-depth knowledge of Apple’s products.

We’ve created this guide to explain the key differences between the iPad and iPad Air families. We won’t be focusing on individual products (you can check out our iPad 10th gen vs iPad Air 2024 guide for that) but rather the ranges as a whole.

We’ve tested all of the latest models of the iPad and iPad Air families (except the new Air 6, for now!) so we’re well-equipped to provide all the buying advice required to get you the best value for money. And if you need more help, make sure to visit our Best iPad and Best Tablet guides for even more options.

Price

The first thing to note is that the iPad Air is generally more expensive than the base iPad, ignoring pre-owned and refurbished models.

The basic Apple iPad has acted as the go-to for those in need of a cheap iPad experience for years, while more specific variants of iPad – the Mini, Air and Pro – are much higher in price. Though the price has fluctuated and grown in line with inflation, the 10th-gen iPad will set you back around £349/$349, dropping down from its initial £499/$449 RRP in mid-2024.

The iPad Air, on the other hand, has always been a more premium option compared to the basic iPad, with the latest model costing as much as £599/$599.

Generally speaking, the iPad is seen as the entry-level iPad and the price reflects this, while the iPad Air is positioned as a more premium, powerful option that bridges the gap between regular iPads and the top-end iPad Pro collection.

Design

The design is usually a key differentiator between these two tablets, with the word ‘Air’ representing a sleeker and lighter design. The latest iPad Air is 6.1mm thick and 462g, while the iPad (10th Gen) is chunkier by 0.9mm and heavier by 15 grams.

There used to be a larger difference between the two iPad ranges, but the arrival of the iPad 10 has closed the gap, and therefore complicated things.

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Up until the iPad 10, the design of the tablet had changed very little. Though it got a little flatter and bigger in recent years, all iPads until the iPad 9 are quite reminiscent of the original iPad with thick bezels and a now-ageing Home button. 

It does have a largely premium build with an aluminium rear, but its budget nature is notable in a few ways, lacking a laminated display that makes taps on the display’s tablet feel more hollow than the laminated iPad Air display. It’s also more limited in terms of accessory support, lacking the smart connectors present on most other recent models of iPad.

However, the latest generation of iPad confuses things somewhat. The 10th-gen tablet sports a complete redesign that brings it in line with the likes of the iPad Air and iPad Mini with slimmer bezels, an angular body and the introduction of Touch ID within the side-mounted power button. 

That said, while the recent iPad 10 looks pretty similar to its iPad Air brethren, the majority of the entry-level iPad collection doesn’t, and that’s worth bearing in mind if the design is important to you. 

The iPad Air, on the other hand, looks and feels more modern and premium with an angular design reminiscent of the iPad Pro and recent models of iPhone. It ditches the Home button completely to expand screen space with much smaller bezels than the entry-level tablet, sports smart connector support for advanced accessory use and, as the name suggests, it’s pretty damn lightweight too.

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Performance

With the Apple iPad framed as the entry-level option in Apple’s tablet range, it shouldn’t come as much surprise to find out that the iPad Air is generally the more powerful of the two with the inclusion of newer chipsets.

The Apple iPad is very much an entry-level tablet in terms of processing power. Though the exact chipset depends on the generation of iPad you opt for, generally speaking, it’s usually a year or two behind what you’ll find on more premium models of iPad. 

Take the iPad 10 as an example; it sports the same A14 Bionic as the previous-gen iPad Air 4 and iPhone 12, both released two years before the iPad. That means that, while still powerful enough to be used on a flagship phone, it’s not the best processing power available right now. 

That’s a stark difference to the iPad Air, which since its renaissance in 2020, has seen it act as a bridge between Apple’s standard and Pro tablet lines, sauntering between casual and pro device. 

That said, the processing power of the iPad Air is usually equal to – or greater than – what’s available on the equivalent flagship iPhone of the time. That means that the iPad Air 4 shared the same A14 Bionic chipset as the iPhone 12, both of which appeared in September 2020. 

However, the 2022 iPad Air took it even further with the inclusion of the Apple M1 chipset – the same as that on Apple’s laptop and desktop range, as well as previous iterations of Apple’s top-end iPad Pro. That’s a significantly more powerful chip compared to the A14 Bionic inside the vanilla iPad.

That trend continues with the latest iPad Air, sporting the same M2 chipset as the 2022 iPad Pro range, making it the second most powerful iPad in Apple’s current collection.

More broadly speaking, the iPad Air range is more capable than the entry-level iPad range, though if you’re opting for a fairly recent iPad, you’re unlikely to notice much of a difference in day-to-day tasks. Where the iPad Air will shine, however, is with more processor-hungry apps like LumaFusion Pro and Procreate and console-level games. 

Accessory support

As with processing power, the iPad Air has been seen as a bridge between the regular iPads and the iPad Pro, and accessory support reflects this. 

Rather than supporting the older first-gen Apple Pencil and basic folio keyboard, the past few generations of iPad Air boast support for the second-gen Apple Pencil and premium Magic Keyboard, while the latest has made the jump to the Apple Pencil Pro and second-gen Magic Keyboard. This makes them a tempting option for those who want a tablet for both work and play without forking out for an iPad Pro. 

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The entry-level iPad, on the other hand, has traditionally been more limited in terms of accessory support. This means only being able to use the first-gen Apple Pencil and more basic Bluetooth keyboard folios. They’d still get the job done on a budget, but it wasn’t the ideal experience.

However, as with other elements, the iPad 10 confuses this somewhat. The latest iPad offers support for the second-gen Apple Pencil and even gets its own dedicated Magic Keyboard, making the gap in differences in accessories much smaller than before.

Verdict

The standard iPad is the more affordable option, with the iPad Air occupying the mid-range zone in Apple’s tablet family. However, with the latest iPad 10 seeing a design refresh, there isn’t much separating the two tablets these days.

The most noticeable difference can be found in the performance department. The iPad Air is generally far more powerful than the normal iPad, and that’s especially true of the latest generation and its M2 chipset. But you’ll likely only notice that performance difference if you engage in heavy-duty tasks such as video editing – the iPad 10 is perfectly fast enough for day-to-day jobs.

Elsewhere the iPad Air boasts an advantage with the addition of a fully laminated display, support for the second-generation Apple Pencil (and, more recently, the Apple Pencil Pro), and a marginally slender design. If you think those features are worth paying the extra cash for, then the iPad Air is your go-to tablet. Otherwise, the standard iPad is a fantastic alternative that will save you a decent amount of money.

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