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iPad Air vs M1 iPad Pro: Which one should you buy?

Picking the right iPad can be tricky

Apple's M1 iPad Pro attached to the white Magic Keyboard. Credit: Reviewed / Matthew S. Smith

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Apple's iPad line has certainly earned its place at the top of the tablet world. Its long battery life, vibrant display, consistently fast performance, and accessories like the Magic Keyboard and Pencil are a tough combo to beat—but picking the right one may not be that simple.

Between the various iPad lines (Pro, Air, Mini, standard), and the different screen sizes and storage options you can choose from, picking the right iPad may not be as effortless as you'd hope. That's especially true when comparing the iPad Pro to the iPad Air, which seems to have pretty similar specs on paper, but offers a few key differences that might make your decision a bit easier.

Buy the M1 iPad Pro from Apple
Buy the iPad Air from Apple

Performance and Battery Life

The star of Apple's 2021 iPad Pro line is the new M1 chip, which debuted in late 2020 with the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Air, offering unmatched battery life and performance on a laptop. The iPad Pro benefits from that same snappy chip, as it's up to 50% faster than the previous Pro according to our testing. We found the M1 iPad Pro lasted up to 10 hours on a single charge, which should be plenty for a day's worth of work, browsing, or casual YouTube watching, with some juice left to spare.

While the iPad Air doesn't have the powerful M1 chip, it's still plenty fast for most people. Its six-core A14 Bionic chip (the same one that's in the iPhone 12 models) is faster than previous-generation iPad Pro models, and Apple claims it can reach up to 10 hours of battery life on a single charge.

For a typical day's worth of usage, whether that's studying or catching up on the news throughout the day, the iPad Air won't disappoint and should remain fast for years to come. You'll probably get a bit more longevity out of the M1 Pro, and it might be slightly better-equipped for heavy workloads like video production, but it costs several hundred dollars more. (More on that in a bit.)

Our Pick: iPad Pro

Display

The iPad Pro's display showcasing a vibrant red shed.
Credit: Reviewed / Matthew S. Smith

The 12.9-inch version of the 2021 Apple iPad Pro has a bright, vibrant display with Mini-LED technology.

The M1 iPad Pro also comes equipped with a new Liquid XDR display that's delightful to look at and responsive enough for creative professionals to do all their work right on-screen. The display, which is Apple’s own take on miniLED, is available only on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro models, and offers a max brightness of up to 600 nits with both screen sizes, though the 12.9-inch model can reach up to 1,600 nits in HDR.

Both models share the same pixel density of 264ppi and 4:3 aspect ratio, while the larger model has a resolution of 2732 x 2048, and the smaller size goes down to a still-impressive 2388 x 1668.

As for the Air, it’s still great. Though the Air has a slightly smaller 10.9-inch display, it looks nearly identical to the 11-inch iPad Pro, sans the FaceID sensor atop the display (more on that later). Like the Pro models, the Air has a pixel density of 264 ppi, though its resolution is slightly lower at 2360 x 1640. It's also not as bright as the Pro's, maxing out at 500 nits of brightness.

It's also worth noting that while both iPad lines support the Apple Pencil, the Pro's display has a notably lower latency, which would make it a more suitable option for professional illustrators and the like, but you probably won't notice the difference if you're just scribbling notes on your screen in class.

Finally, the Air doesn't have the same Liquid XDR display as the Pro line, meaning its blacks won’t be as dark and its max brightness is a bit lower, though you probably won't notice unless you're either next to an iPad Pro or incredibly particular about your displays.

Our Pick: iPad Pro

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Security

Many mourned the departure of the iPhone's TouchID sensor back when the iPhone X debuted in 2017, and it's been sorely missed, though FaceID is a worthy replacement. That same FaceID sensor can be found on the latest iPad Pro models and allows you to quickly log in to your iPad without having to tap any numbers on the screen.

Meanwhile, Apple brought back TouchID for the latest iPad Air. In place of the FaceID sensors found on the Pro, the Air has a fingerprint sensor built right into the power button that's on the top of the tablet. This shouldn't be considered a drawback, though, because TouchID works well as a security measure, and might be faster to unlock than FaceID when you're using it from a funky angle.

Our Pick: Tie

Price

If affordability is your biggest concern, but you don't want to sacrifice too much power, the iPad Air is the right pick for you. It starts at $600 for the 64GB Wi-Fi-only model and $750 to add 5G cellular. Both models can be upgraded to 256GB for an additional $150.

Things get a bit more complicated with the Pro. It starts at $800 for the 128 GB Wi-Fi-only 11-inch model and $1,100 for the 12.9-inch model. You can go all the way up to 2TB of storage, but that will bring the cost all the way up to $1,900 for the 11-inch model and a whopping $2,200 for the larger screen.

That's all before factoring in Apple's pricey Magic Keyboard, which costs $300 for the 11-inch iPad Pro or the iPad Air, and $350 for the 12.9-inch Pro, or the Pencil, which adds an extra $130 to your checkout price.

Our Pick: iPad Air

Accessories

A close-up of the Magic Keyboard's keys.
Credit: Reviewed / Matthew S. Smith

The Magic Keyboard is an excellent addition to either the iPad Air or Pro, and makes typing a breeze.

If the iPad's touch screen alone simply won't cut it, you're in luck: Apple's accessories are excellent additions to the iPad lineup that work well for getting your work done in any form. The best part? Apple's Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil each work with both iPad models, so there’s nothing to worry about there.

Our Pick: Tie

And the winner is ...

There’s a reason we currently hold the iPad Air as our “Best Overall” tablet: it offers the best balance of performance and value in the tablet world right now. Unless you're doing a lot of graphics work or simply prefer the best iPad experience possible, the iPad Air is powerful and versatile enough for most use cases without noteworthy sacrifices.

You may not get the best display around, and the Air's A14 Bionic may show its age faster than the Pro's more recent M1 chip, but you probably won't notice those differences in day-to-day work. The Air also works with all the same accessories as the Pro so the overall experience of using either one won’t vary too much.

If you're still tempted by the allure of the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement, its gorgeous Liquid Display XDR shines brightly while also achieving impressive black levels for a non-OLED display. Its faster refresh rate makes it better for creative professionals than the Air, too. The new M1 chip is wicked fast, which should give you plenty of power to get through years of work or play. Whether that extra oomph is worth the hefty price jump will depend on what you plan to do with it, but if you're able to get over that hump, there's a lot to love about the Pro.

Buy the M1 iPad Pro from Apple
Buy the iPad Air from Apple

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