iPad Air 4 Review

Before the 2015 debut of the iPad Pro, the iPad Air represented the best of what the iPad had to offer. It was thin, it was light, but most importantly, it was blazing fast, all while offering the same great battery life you’d come to expect from an iPad.

When the iPad Air launched, it was all about being “thin and light”. Apple noted it was “20 percent thinner and 28 percent lighter” than the iPad 4, with some claims about its performance thrown in for good measure. However, it was its successor — the iPad Air 2 — that became the pinnacle of the series.

At 437g, the iPad Air 2 is the lightest iPad Air to date, and it brought “40 percent improvement in CPU performance and 2.5 times the graphics performance” compared to the iPad Air, underlying its claim of being the fastest iPad at the time.

I was excited enough to pick up an iPad Air 2 at launch, and it lived up to the promise, and more. Unsurprisingly, that particular iPad is still going strong in our family — we also continue to find a use for an iPad 2 that just refuses to die — and I’d go as far as to say that it’s my favourite non-Pro iPad till date.

Sadly, that’s as good as the iPad Air line got for a while. The iPad Air 2 was unveiled in October 2014, and for the next five years, the line didn’t see any updates at all.

In part, this was down to the fact that during its later years, the iPad Air 2 was fast enough for everyday use. However, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that the main reason was neglect. A little over a year after the launch of iPad Air 2, Apple introduced the first iPad Pro, and the line saw constant refreshes over the next half-a-decade.

Last year, Apple took a break from releasing new iPad Pro models to unveil the iPad Air 3, which bridged the gap between the two lines by adding support for the Apple Pencil, Smart Keyboard, as well as other features that had hitherto been exclusive to the ‘Pro’ line.

2020 has been another solid year for nearly the entire iPad lineup, with the release of new iPad Pro models — as well as Magic Keyboard with a trackpad — in March, and the launch of a ‘regular’ iPad in September. However, it was the iPad Air 4, which was also announced at the September event, that caught my eye, and much like the iPad Air 2 six years ago, I was excited enough to order one at launch.

Ipad air 4 colours

The iPad Air 4 is available in new Green and Sky Blue options, in addition to the Silver, Space Grey, and (Rose) Gold colours of its predecessors. The Sky Blue variant I ordered has a very understated finish — even more than the Midnight Green finish on the iPhone 11 Pro models — and I struggled to see the “blue” from which it derives its name.

Having said that, I didn’t spend any time using this iPad outdoors or in the sun — which makes limited appearances in this part of the world, especially at this time of the year — and I expect the blue to seem a bit more pronounced when light bounces off it. Of course, all this is moot if you plan to cover the iPad’s body with a case or a keyboard.

The iPad Air 4 takes its design cues from the iPad Pro, getting rid of the home button, which allows for thinner bezels at the top and bottom. That change, coupled with a slightly wider body (7-inches, compared to 6.8-inches on the iPad Air 3), means Apple was able to ship a larger 10.9-inch display on the iPad Air 4, compared to 10.5-inches on its predecessor.

Visually, the iPad Air 4 looks identical to the 2018 iPad Pro that has been a near-constant companion of mine for the last couple of years. Apart from the smaller display — I use a 12.9-inch Pro — and as a result, the slightly cramped keyboard (more on that later), the main thing that took some time getting used to was the lack of Face ID.

Face ID is great on the iPhone, and despite my initial reservations, it’s safe to say that the best implementation of Face ID is on the iPad, not least because it works in both portrait and landscape orientations, something the iPhone lacks to date. However, it’s not until you go back to using a fingerprint scanner that makes you appreciate the speed and convenience you take for granted on a device with Face ID.

The first couple of days were a bit rough, but pretty soon I got used to putting my index finger down on the power button while sitting down to work on the iPad. What I continue to find annoying to this day is that Touch ID on the iPad Air 4 is a tad slower than the last time I used it on an iPhone.

Of course, it would be unfair to compare Touch ID on the iPhone — where it’s embedded in front-facing home buttons where your entire finger can be scanned — to the one on iPad Air 4 where only part of your finger can be scanned at any given time. This means you need to rest your finger on the button a little bit longer for it to get a good-enough scan.

That’s hardly a surprise given this is effectively a first-generation Touch ID sensor and Apple has done a good job with the software, with little touches like the “Rest to Open” message that pops up on the screen to remind you to take it a bit slow when trying to unlock the device.

TouchIDRestToOpen

There are some tweaks to the Touch ID setup process as well, with a reminder to rotate the iPad and register another finger to account for the different orientations in which you’ll end picking up the iPad.

I’d be curious to hear from someone making the move from an iPad Air 3 to this one on what they make of the placement and performance of the new Touch ID sensor. In the absence of that information, I have a feeling that at least some of the things that I’ve mentioned might be limited to those moving from an iPad with Face ID to this one.

Apart from the increase in size (and the additional pixels that it brings), the display is virtually identical to one of the iPad Air 3. This means you get True Tone and support for the P3 colour gamut, but no ProMotion and a slightly lower peak brightness compared to the iPad Pro models (500 nits, as opposed to 600 nits). I like having ProMotion on the iPad Pro, but I didn’t particularly miss it on the iPad Air 4, and I imagine that’d be the experience of most (but definitely not all) users.

What I did notice is that just like the iPad Pro models, the additional pixels on the iPad Air 4 mean you get small black bands on either side when using certain (read unoptimised) apps in landscape mode.

The iPad Air 4 brings support for the second-generation Apple Pencil — its predecessor supported the original Pencil — and there are a bunch of software enhancements to make the Pencil a bit more useful in certain contexts.

IPadOS Scribble small

With that said, I’m frustrated that you still can’t use the Pencil as a replacement for simple finger-based gestures to, say, swipe up to go back to the home screen, which I find a bit baffling. Overall, as I’ve said before, the Pencil is a nice add-on for artists as well as those who prefer taking handwritten notes but — strictly in my opinion — it isn’t a “must-have” to go with your iPad Air/ Pro, unlike a keyboard which I can’t recommend enough.

Which brings us to the Magic Keyboard with its “floating design” and built-in trackpad. Apple introduced this accessory in March with new iPad Pro models, but I hadn’t used one for an extended amount of time until I got my hands on the one I ordered to go with the iPad Air 4.

The keyboard is the same model that works with the 11-inch iPad Pro — I imagine maintaining this compatibility was a big part of the reason Apple increased the size of the iPad Air 4’s display — and the first thing I noticed was how heavy it is. I remember reading reviews of the Magic Keyboard earlier this year and all of them made references to the weight (and the magnets that are almost entirely the reason behind it) but I was still surprised when I first held it in my hands.

I received the iPad Air 4 and the Magic Keyboard as two different shipments on different days, and the second I held the box containing the keyboard, I realised how heavy it was compared even to the iPad box I received a day earlier.

By itself, the iPad Air 4 weighs 464 grams, while the keyboard weighs 608 grams. Combined, the two weigh a bit more than the combination of 12.9-inch iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard Folio that’s been my daily driver for a while. The difference isn’t much, but it was definitely noticeable.

Device Weight
12.9-inch iPad Pro (2018) 636g
12.9-inch Smart Keyboard Folio 407g
iPad Air 4 464g
Magic Keyboard for iPad Air 4 608g
Apple Pencil (2nd gen.) 17g

Of course, the design of the Magic Keyboard is meant to alleviate this a bit by making it easier to quickly detach the iPad when you don’t need the keyboard, which means you are carrying around less weight in certain situations. In practice, though, that action didn’t come naturally to me at all, possibly because I’m set in my ways as a Smart Keyboard Folio user.

The Magic Keyboard is backlit, and since it draws power from the iPad, Apple is pretty aggressive in terms of managing when the lights comes on, and how quickly they are turned off. Without a dedicated row of function keys, there are no hardware controls to quickly increase/ decrease the brightness manually, though it can be controlled via Settings.

In terms of the actual typing experience, the Magic Keyboard reminded me of third-party keyboards from the likes of Logitech that I’ve used in the past. By that, I mean that the keys feel plasticky (without feeling cheap) and the scissor mechanism has more travel (1mm to be precise) than what you get with the fabric-finished Smart Keyboard Folio.

The new keyboard hasn’t significantly improved my typing experience, though I’m willing to concede this could well be down to years of living with the Smart Folio Keyboard as well as other keyboards with low travel (my work laptop is still a 2019 MacBook Air with the old Butterfly keyboard) and having accepted them at this point (Also see: death and taxes).

Fine

Apple introduced native mouse and trackpad support in iPadOS 13.4, complete with snapping the pointer to nearby controls to help you find your way around. The idea is to minimise — if not completely eliminate — the number of times you have to reach out and touch the screen.

Additionally, the trackpad can also be used for gesture-based navigation. For example, you can swipe up with three fingers in any app to go back to the home screen, or use the three-finger swipe left/ right to move between apps. Of course, these gestures are also available if you have an external trackpad like the Magic Trackpad 2.

The trackpad is especially helpful if you are using the iPad with a monitor, something I do quite often at work. With the Smart Folio Keyboard alone — or even if you throw a mouse into the mix — you still need to keep tapping the screen to accomplish certain tasks.

This means you need to switch between the monitor and the iPad regularly, and ever so often I find myself focusing on just the iPad and forget that I have a bigger display attached, just because it’s simpler. The Magic Keyboard for iPad managed to change that.

Once I trained myself to use gestures and the on-screen pointer instead of reaching out to touch the iPad for every little thing — which admittedly took a couple of days of conscious effort — I found myself being a lot more productive when working with an external screen. In that sense — and I know I’m a few months late on to this — the iPad and Magic Keyboard offer a “true laptop experience” that wasn’t possible earlier.

The trackpad — or more specifically the pointer — also came in handy when finding my way around data points on graphs, and when using apps like Remoter Pro to VNC into a Mac Mini, something I find myself doing very often.

However, when I balance these conveniences with the extra weight that the Magic Keyboard adds to the package — and its eye-watering $299 (Rs. 27,900/ SEK 3,695) price tag — I don’t consider it to be an essential upgrade for my needs, and I’m quite happy sticking with the Smart Keyboard Folio instead.

Though I haven’t used the iPad Air 4 with a Smart Keyboard Folio yet, the experience wouldn’t be any different than using it with an iPad Pro, and that’s something I have covered in-depth earlier. One thing you need to keep in mind regardless of the type of keyboard you choose is that due to their smaller size, the keyboards that get paired with an iPad Air 4 (or the 11-inch iPad Pro) will always feel a bit cramped.

This is something most people get used to pretty quickly if the iPad is the only device they use, but if your workflow involves juggling between an 11-inch table and a 15-inch laptop, for example, it gets harder to transfer your muscle memory between the two devices.

The Magic Keyboard, of course, also includes a USB Type-C port. While it can only be used for charging, at least that leaves the one on the iPad free for other tasks. That’s right, the iPad Air 4 is the first non-Pro iPad to pack a Type-C port. I connected a 27-inch Dell 4K monitor with the iPad — both via the Type-C port, and with an HDMI port connected via a Type-C dongle — and it had no trouble driving the display at full resolution.

The iPad Air 4 is powered by the A14 Bionic, which also appears in the iPhone 12 line. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t notice any performance issues with the iPad Air 4, but in day-to-day tasks, I didn’t spot any significant gains compared to my 2018 iPad Pro, though that’s more to do with the latter’s competence than a slight on the newest chips.

When it came to benchmarks, the iPad Air 4 comfortably outscored the two-year-old iPad Pro in single-core tests, which was hardly a surprise given the year-on-year improvements Apple’s amazing silicon team continues to deliver. In multi-core benchmarks though, the iPad Pro more than held its own thanks to the four high-performance cores inside the A12X, as opposed to two on the A14 Bionic.

Benchmark/ Score iPad Air 4 12.9″ iPad Pro (2018)
Geekbench single-core 1598 1129
Geekbench multi-core 4289 4482
Geekbench Metal 12182 10915

Though the iPad Air 3 had stereo speakers, both the drivers were near the home button, while with its successor Apple has positioned them on opposite sides, giving you clearer left-right separation when you hold the iPad in landscape mode. The resultant sound isn’t quite as room-filling as you get with an iPad Pro, but it’s an upgrade nonetheless.

As far as battery life is concerned, well, it’s an iPad, which is to say you won’t have any complaints. The iPad Air comes with a 1m Type-C to Type-C cable and a 20W Type-C charger in the box, which should make for a faster charging experience.

Apple has made a bunch of improvements in the rear camera — including a 12-megapixel ƒ/1.8 wide camera and 4K 60 fps recording, both significant improvements — but I have no interest in being the guy who takes pictures and shoots videos with his iPad so I haven’t tested the cameras at all. Improvements in the front camera department — which would’ve surely had broader appeal — are minimal, with the iPad Air 4 adding support for 60fps recording and Smart HDR.

iPadOS 14 brings a host of features, big and small, most significant of which seem to be the Pencil-related improvements mentioned earlier.

Ipad air 4 screenshot

I did run into a few minor bugs though — one time the trackpad pointer disappeared, and in the other instance the iPad stopped responding to Apple Pencil’s input. On both occasions, I had to restart the iPad for things to go back to normal.

By themselves they don’t seem like issues worth bringing up here, but I don’t recall facing anything similar with the iPad Pro at any time during the last couple of years, so these instances stuck out more than they probably should have. On the face of it, they definitely sound like early bugs that future software updates should fix.

Another change I would like to see is the evolution of multitasking on the iPad. What I miss, for example, is the ability to keep an app pinned on the right fourth of the screen, while using Command-Tab to cycle through other apps on the left. Apple offers Slide Over to achieve a similar effect, but it isn’t quite the same since it ends up covering parts of the “main” app.

Even as we wait for the software to evolve, it’s clear that the iPad Air 4 blurs the line between the iPad Air and iPad Pro. With the inclusion of a bigger display, a Type-C port, as well as the A14 Bionic — which puts the iPad Air 4 ahead of the iPad Pro line in terms of single-core and GPU performance, at least until the Pro line is updated — the iPad Air 4 has the 11-inch iPad Pro within its sights.

With a $200 (Rs. 17,000 in India, and nearly 3,000 SEK in Sweden) price difference between their starting prices, you would think the iPad Air 4 would be a no brainer. So let’s recap everything you’d miss out on if you picked up the more affordable offering — you’d lose Face ID, ProMotion display, LiDAR scanner, and will have to settle for worse cameras and speakers, as well as 64GB of storage.

That’s right, while the iPad Pro base model packs 128GB of storage, the iPad Air 4 starts at a meagre 64GB. While some believe that’s too little for any meaningful work — and I agree that it isn’t ideal — I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker either, especially if you don’t typically use more than a handful of apps.

If, however, you are a gamer, or you like keeping a ton of media available on your device for offline use, you might want to consider spending a little extra to get the 256GB variant of the iPad Air 4. At that price point though, you’re nearly in the iPad Pro territory and save for the A14 Bionic, the iPad Air 4 doesn’t look as appealing in comparison.

If you are okay with the base model, you can pick up an iPad Air 4 and a Smart Folio Keyboard for roughly the price of a 10.9-inch iPad Pro. The only other thing you need to keep in mind — especially if you are looking at this as a “laptop replacement” — is if you’d be okay with the size.

Device Price (USD) Price (INR) Price (SEK)
iPad Air 4 (64GB) $599 ₹54,900 SEK 7,075
11″ 2020 iPad Pro (128GB) $799 ₹71,900 SEK 10,088
iPad Air 4 (256GB) $749 ₹68,900 SEK 8,888
11″ 2020 iPad Pro (256GB) $899 ₹80,900 SEK 11,288
11″ Smart Keyboard Folio $179 ₹15,900 SEK 2,095
11″ Magic Keyboard $299 ₹27,900 SEK 3,695
Apple Pencil (2nd gen.) $129 ₹10,900 SEK 1,495

Most people use laptops that are bigger than 11-inches, so switching to a 10.9-inch tablet might feel like a downgrade. Personally, while I appreciate the extra portability of a smaller device in certain situations, I prefer the additional real estate that my 12.9-inch iPad Pro offers, and I wouldn’t be happy using anything smaller on a daily basis.

If you already have an iPad Pro with Face ID, you are better off waiting for future updates to the Pro lineup, but you don’t need to hear that from me. If you have a 10.9-inch iPad Pro, though, you will have an interesting decision to make when it’s time for your next purchase, and I have a feeling that many would opt for an iPad Air instead.

The Tech Upgrade Your Work-From-Home Setup Desperately Needs

Among many other things, 2020 will be remembered as the year working from home went from something some people did once in a while to being the everyday reality for a large chunk of the population. The initial days were a welcome change at least for some, but pretty soon came the realisation that most of us are desperately unprepared for the reality of taking endless Zoom calls from our kitchens.

The “new reality” has been here for between six to eight months now, so I hope you have the basics figured out. That’s to say I hope there’s a dedicated corner of the house that you call your “home office”, though I realise not everyone has the financial means or physical space (often both) to setup a workstation consisting of a(n ergonomic, hopefully) desk and chair at the very least.

Many employers have stepped up to fund or facilitate purchase of different types of equipment to make working from home a more comfortable experience. But the one part of the setup that often gets neglected is one that quite literally enables the work-from-home economy: the humble Wi-Fi router.

Most people continue to use the Wi-Fi router provided by their Internet Service Provider (ISP), which might be good enough for some users, but if you are the guy on Zoom calls whose video is always freezing, or if there are certain parts of your house that are dead zones in terms of Wi-Fi coverage, it might be worthwhile in investing in a better Wi-Fi router.

Yes, I know the last thing you want to do is deal with yet another gadget, and you actually like the fact that your router is hidden away in some corner and it’s something you literally haven’t thought about in months, if not years. But in a world where it’s increasingly common for multiple people to be working and/ or studying from home at the same time — not to mention we are streaming more video than ever before — the router is now (if it wasn’t already) arguably the most important piece of tech in your home, so it’s worth giving your choice a second thought.

Over the years, I have tested and reviewed my fair share of routers, and in a new series of a posts on this blog, I will talk about the things you need to keep in mind while buying a new router; how to know if you even need a new router; as well as share recommendations of my favourite networking gear.

Apple No Longer Ships a Charger With Your iPhone: A ‘Green’ Move?

Apple is a company that’s used to making headlines with its decisions to leave things behind. Headphone jack, optical drive, and — if you go further back — the floppy drive, among others, have found themselves sidelined by Apple’s relentless pursuit of design, technical, and business goals.

The latest to fall by the wayside are the EarPods and humble power adapter that, until recently, came bundled with every new iPhone. While many smartphones — especially those on the budget end of the spectrum — have shipped without any kind of earphones, the iPhone 12 lineup could potentially be the first mainstream phones to ship without a power adapter (aka charger) in the retail box.

For years, I — and countless others — have complained about Apple shipping its most expensive phones with puny 5W chargers, possibly the only “specification” that’s remain unchanged since the original iPhone. This in a world where even the most affordable smartphones — that cost a fraction of an iPhone — ship with a charger that’s at least twice as fast, while manufacturers of more expensive Android phones have been engaged in a “fast charging” race whose heady mix of marketing and actual technological innovation is reminiscent of the “megapixel wars” from a few years ago.

Apple partially addressed this complaint by shipping an 18W charger in the box of last year’s iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, while the $699 (9,195 SEK/ Rs. 64,900) iPhone 11 continued the 5W charger tradition. That, as we now know, was just a temporary relief, as Apple’s long term solution to those complaints has been to drop the charger from the box completely.

Apple wants you to believe that the move is all about the environment. Here’s what Apple’s press release announcing the iPhone 12 range says on the subject:

Apple is also removing the power adapter and EarPods from iPhone packaging, further reducing carbon emissions and avoiding the mining and use of precious materials, which enables smaller and lighter packaging, and allows for 70 percent more boxes to be shipped on a pallet. Taken altogether, these changes will cut over 2 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually, equivalent to removing nearly 450,000 cars from the road per year.

And here’s what Lisa Jackson, Vice President, Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives at Apple said during her rooftop appearance at this month’s special event:

“And just like we did with Apple Watch, we looked for ways to cut waste and use less material. Customers already have over 700 million Lightning headphones and many customers have moved to a wireless experience with AirPods, Beats, or other wireless headphones. And there are also over 2 billion Apple power adapters out in the world, and that’s not counting the billions of third-party adapters.

So we are removing these items from the iPhone box, which reduces carbon emissions, and avoids the mining and use of precious materials. Removing these items also means a smaller, lighter iPhone box. We can fit up to 70 percent more products on a shipping pallet, reducing carbon emissions in our global logistics chain.”

The message Apple wants you to take home is that the move’s good for the environment (and any financial gains are purely coincidental). But what does Apple gain apart from securing the future of the planet, good PR, and the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from doing the “right thing”?

As many have pointed out, Apple saves on the cost of manufacturing accessories that would’ve otherwise been bundled in each box, but none of these savings have been passed on to consumers. In fact, on average the iPhone 12 range is more expensive than the previous generation, especially in markets like India, though at least part of that is down to higher local taxes and weak INR (the same way that lower Sweden pricing is thanks to a much stronger SEK).

 

Apple will also point to the fact that all models now come with OLED panels, which more than offsets the “next to nothing” (quotes mine) it costs to manufacturer the charger and earphones you no longer get in the box. This is perhaps the only time you’ll (unofficially, of course) get anyone at Apple to admit that the pair actually cost mere cents to manufacture, so there wasn’t much to pass on in the name of savings, all while continuing to sell them for $29 each until recently.

But my main gripe isn’t that Apple hasn’t reduced the price of the new iPhones. It’s that Apple’s move — when seen in its entirety, as explained below — will actually encourage purchase of more chargers, going against Apple’s public claim of doing good for the environment. Sure, not every iPhone buyer will end up purchasing a charger, but my guess is that a substantial percentage will, and Apple is well positioned to profit from that trend.

Apple is bundling a Type-C to Lightning cable in the box, rendering most chargers that majority of the people would have lying around useless. That, of course, means you’ll be in the market for a new, Type-C charger, one that Apple will gladly sell you for $29 $19.

Even if you do that, the charging speeds you get won’t match what chargers bundled with most Android flagships could provide, but that’s probably better for the long-term health of your phone’s battery and is a topic for another day.

Unless you plan to resell it, or hand it over to someone else in the family, you could decide to continue using the charger and cable from an iPhone you currently own. Well, the joke’s on me, because most people can’t keep their iPhone charging cable from getting destroyed within six months, forget about a year or few, so that’s not really an option either.

So, as it turns out, if Apple dropping a charger from the iPhone retail box wasn’t bad enough, bundling a Type-C cable actually makes the move worse, as the said cable will (by lying unused) only add to environmental waste Apple says it wants to avoid. The company points out there are “2 billion Apple power adapters out in the world, and that’s not counting the billions of third-party adapters” but the real question is how many of them are Type-C? My guess is not many. So what will most people need to do to use the cable that came with their shiny new iPhone? Buy another charger of course.

What about the decision to drop EarPods from the box? Annoying as many will find it to be, that’s a move I can understand, not least because it’s one with precedence within the industry (though perhaps not with phones anywhere near the same price point). Regardless, it’s a decision that will add further fuel to the rocket ship that is AirPods sales.