Should you buy the iPad Air or the 11-inch iPad Pro?

The 2020 iPad Air is a compelling tablet and will be the top pick for a lot of users. However, while it matches and even surpasses the 2020 11-inch iPad Pro in a variety of aspects, the latter still holds the upper hand when it comes to certain use cases. And now the 2021 iPad Pro with M1 chip outperforms both. Let’s break down the similarities and differences to help you decide if you should buy the iPad Air or the 11-inch iPad Pro.

Update 5/14: We’ve updated the full comparison to include the 2021 iPad Pro.

The new iPad Pro features the powerful M1 chip, Thunderbolt connectivity, 5G for cellular models, new camera features like Center Stage, and more. However, depending on your needs, it may be overkill.

If you’re set on the 11-inch form factor, read on below. Or for a closer look at the 2021 11- and 12.9-inch iPad Pro vs the 2020 models, check out our detailed comparison here.


The latest iPad Air will be the go-to option for many looking to pick up a new tablet. That’s because the 2020 iPad Air (4th gen) has received most of the iPad Pro’s premium features at an appealing starting price $200 below the $799 11-inch iPad Pro. However, that doesn’t mean the iPad Pro won’t be the better fit for those that need the best overall performance. Let’s dive into what to consider when thinking about whether to buy the iPad Air or iPad Pro.

Should you buy the iPad Air or iPad Pro?

Hardware and specs comparison

CPU/GPU, RAM, more

Very notably, the 2020 iPad Air had the newest processor in Apple’s tablet lineup with the A14 until the 2021 iPad Pro launched with the M1.

And even with the 2020 iPad Pro having an older chip than the 2020 iPad Air, the A14 won’t blow the A12Z away or even beat it in all scenarios. Apple’s senior director of Mac and iPad product marketing, Tom Boger tempered expectations in an interview:

Because the A14 has our latest-generation CPU cores, you may see a few things here and there that the A14 could potentially outperform the A12Z in.

As we’ll discuss below, both the 2020 and 2021 iPad Pro still have the edge for intense workflows because of a higher CPU and GPU core count and more RAM. But with the A14 being a new chip, iPad Air users are guaranteed to get iPadOS updates for years to come.

2020 iPad Air 2021 iPad Pro 2020 iPad Pro
Chip A14 M1 A12Z
CPU cores 6 8 8
GPU cores 4 8 8
Storage 64 or 256GB 128GB – 2TB 128GB – 1TB
RAM 4GB 8 or 16GB 6GB
Thunderbolt
Cellular 4G 5G 4G

Display, Apple Pencil, I/O

iPad Air features shared with the iPad Pro include an all-screen design (no home button) flat-edge chassis, USB-C, Apple Pencil (gen 2) and Magic Keyboard support, as well as Wi-Fi 6.

It’s great to see support for the second generation Apple Pencil with the iPad Air. This marks the first time the most capable writing and illustration tool works beyond the iPad Pro line. The latest Apple Pencil has a more ergonomic design, uses wireless charging when attached to your iPad, comes with tap gestures to do things like quickly change writing instruments, and provides an all-around improved experience.

With the iPad Air’s screen, you’re getting a 10.9-inch Liquid Retina display with True Tone and P3 wide color with the same Liquid Retina display as the 11-inch iPad Pro (ok, technically 0.1″ smaller 😅). Both displays are fully laminated and have Apple’s anti-reflective coating.

2020 iPad Air 2021 iPad Pro 2020 iPad Pro
Display 10.9″ 11″ 11″
Resolution 2360 x 1640 2388 x 1668 2388 x 1668
PPI (pixels per inch) 264 264 264
Display brightness 500 600 nits 600 nits
True Tone
P3 wide color
ProMotion (120Hz)
Anti-reflective coating
Liquid Retina Display

As it has ditched the home button for the great new display, Touch ID has been implemented into the top button of the iPad Air. This one will vary with personal preference whether it’s a pro or con compared to Face ID that comes with the iPad Pro.

Splash of color

If the color of your next iPad is an important factor, it’s good to keep in mind you’ve got more choices with the 2020 iPad Air with space gray, silver, rose gold, green, and sky blue. The iPad Pro only comes in space gray and silver.

Price

Here’s a detailed breakdown of the price differences (MSRP) between the iPad Air and 11-inch iPad Pro. It’s not exactly apples to apples since the two iPads have different storage options, but you can save some significant cash with the iPad Air.

2020 iPad Air 2021 iPad Pro 2020 iPad Pro
64GB WiFi $599
64GB + cell $729
128GB WiFi $799 $799
128GB + cell $999 $949
256GB WiFi $749 $899 $899
256GB + cell $879 $1,099 $1,049
512GB WiFi $1,099 $1,199
512GB + cell $1,299 $1,249
1TB WiFi $1,499 $1,299
1TB + cell $1,699 $1,449
2TB WiFi $1,899
2TB + cell $2,099

Battery life

The 2020 iPad Air has the battery life as the 11-inch iPad Pro (both 2021 and 2020) at 10 hours of web on Wi-Fi or video use. And both are rated for 9 hours of use on cellular.

Where iPad Pro outperforms iPad Air

CPU/GPU and RAM

While even Apple has confirmed the iPad Air will outperform the 2020 iPad Pro in some use cases with the A14 chip, the iPad Pro still includes a more powerful GPU and more RAM (and more CPU and GPU cores).

The 2020 iPad Pro with A12Z has 8 CPU and GPU cores compared to 6 CPU and 4 GPU cores with the A14.

And the 2021 iPad Pro with the M1 chip is even more powerful with its 8 CPU and 8 CPU cores and the 16-core Neural Engine. Apple says the M1 chip offers 50% faster CPU performance and 40% faster GPU performance than the A12Z in the 2020 iPad Pro.

That means the iPad Pro will offer the best performance for things like graphic intense work and apps/processes that use multiple cores. Another edge for the iPad Pro is more RAM. The 2020 iPad Pro has 6GB and the 2021 models have up to 16GB while the iPad Air has 4GB (unified RAM on the M1 chip comes in 8GB or 16GB – latter for the 1/2TB storage models).

Display

As discussed above, the iPad Air’s new Liquid Retina display features almost all of the features found on the iPad Pro’s screen. But there is one notable difference, the iPad Pro features Apple’s 120Hz ProMotion display tech. This may not be a deal-breaker for many (especially if you haven’t had a 120Hz display before), but is important to note. As described by Apple, ProMotion offers “fluid scrolling, greater responsiveness and smoother motion content.”

Likely a minor difference, but one more is that the 11-inch iPad Pro display maxes out at 600 nits brightness, while the iPad Air is 500 nits.

Keep in mind the new Liquid Retina Display XDR with HDR brightness up to 1600 nits is only available on the 12.9-inch 2021 iPad Pro.

2020 iPad Pro rear-facing cameras

Cameras

If taking photos with your iPad is an important factor, it’s worth thinking about the camera system differences between the iPad Air and Pro.

You get a solid single-camera setup with the iPad Air that includes the same 12 MP wide lens that is found on the iPad Pro. It shoots 4K video as the same fps as the pro too.

However, with the iPad Pro you’ve got a 10MP ultra wide lens plus the LiDAR Scanner, and the True Tone flash.

2020 iPad Air 2021 iPad Pro 2020 iPad Pro
12 MP wide lens
10 MP ultra wide lens
LiDAR
4K video
Extended dynamic range
Slo-mo video
Rear camera flash
Face ID
TrueDepth 7 MP camera
TrueDepth 12 MP ultra wide
TrueDepth 2x optical zoom out
Center Stage auto tracking

And when it comes to speakers, you’re getting four speaker audio with the 2020 and 2021 iPad Pro while the iPad Air has a two speaker system.

Storage

Along with the higher prices of the iPad Pro, you get greater storage options that go up to 2TB. The base is also 128GB. Meanwhile, the iPad Air base model offers 64GB and maxes out at 256GB.

Storage is up to 2x faster with capacities now up to 2TB on the 2021 iPad Pro.

Keep in mind USB-C comes on both the iPad Air and Pro models so it’s easier than ever to use external storage. But with the 2021 iPad Pro, you’re getting Thunderbolt connectivity as well.

Conclusion

Why buy the iPad Air?

When you consider all the similarities and differences, the iPad Air is likely going to be the best choice for most people with a price around $200 less than the iPad Pro.

Why buy the iPad Pro?

However, if you know you’ll be pushing your tablet to the limit regularly, the iPad Pro still delivers the top-performing package with 8 CPU and 8 GPU cores and 6-16GB RAM.

And of course, if other factors like 5G, Thunderbolt, Face ID, 120Hz ProMotion display, more capable camera system, and the bigger storage options are important, the iPad Pro will stand out as the best fit.

If you’re set on the iPad Pro now and not sure between the 11- and 12.9-inch models, check out our 2021 iPad Pro vs 2020 iPad Pro comparison:

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