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iPad Air (2020), Magic Keyboard, and Apple Pencil 2 Review


The iPad Air got a huge upgrade in late 2020, with an all-screen design reminiscent of the current iPad Pro lineup, the new Apple A14 Bionic processor which promises exceptional performance, and a bunch of other features that set it apart. This model is positioned below the iPad Pro models but now offers quite a lot of their capabilities at lower prices. I’ve spent over a month with the new 2020 iPad Air, plus Apple’s Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil 2, to see how the combination of products work together. Can this package replace an equivalently priced laptop? Is the iPad Air all you need for productivity and entertainment? We’re going to find out.

The iPad Air (2020) and Magic Keyboard together aren’t much slimmer or lighter than today’s ultraportable laptops

 

iPad Air (2020) prices and accessories

You have quite a few choices when it comes to buying the new iPad Air, which itself is just one of five iPad models currently available. If you’ve narrowed your selection down to this device, you have five colour options – Space Grey, Silver, Rose Gold, Sky Blue, and Green.

The iPad Air (2020) starts at Rs. 54,900 for the 64GB and Rs. 68,900 for the 256GB options with Wi-Fi, while the cellular-enabled equivalents cost Rs. Rs. 66,900 and Rs. 80,900 respectively.

The 2nd Gen Apple Pencil will set you back another Rs. 10,900 (and this iPad isn’t compatible with the 1st Gen Pencil). The Magic Keyboard will cost a whopping Rs. 27,900, though there’s also a less elaborate Smart Keyboard Folio case for Rs. 15,900 and a plain Smart Folio in multiple colours for Rs. 7,500.

You could also pick up Apple’s Magic Mouse 2, Magic Trackpad 2, and a variety of USB Type-C dongles and accessories, though third-party equivalents should work just fine as well. Thankfully, a 20W charging adapter is included in the box – unlike what Apple has started doing with iPhones and Apple Watches.

ipad air 2020 rear ndtv ipad

The new iPad Air is available in five metallic colours

 

iPad Air (2020) design and usability

The iPad Pro models got a huge makeover in 2018, and now that same aesthetic has come to the iPad Air, which is positioned lower in the hierarchy. The 2020 iPad Air (4th Gen) has a screen that fills up nearly its entire front face, and no physical Home button, which makes using it a bit different for those who might be used to older models. However, you don’t get Face ID – instead, Apple has moved the Touch ID fingerprint sensor from the Home button which is on the top (as long as you hold the iPad in portrait orientation).

The borders around the screen are still fairly thick so you don’t really get an edge-to-edge feeling, but that’s not a bad thing. It means you can hold the iPad Air (2020) with one hand and not worry about your palm covering the screen or triggering actions inadvertently. It takes a while to get used to using iPhone-style swipe gestures rather than hitting a Home button.

The fingerprint sensor, on the other hand, is very awkward. There are on-screen prompts reminding you where it is when you wake the screen, but reaching for it isn’t as convenient as the Home button on older iPads. There’s a tap-to-wake gesture now (though no raise-to-wake), and tapping with the Apple Pencil 2 will take you straight to a new Notes page where you can scribble or sketch immediately. If the iPad Air (2020) is attached to one of Apple’s own keyboard accessories, the fingerprint sensor will be on the left, which I as a right-handed user found extremely inconvenient. Apple touts the narrow Touch ID sensor as a huge achievement but it isn’t exactly new technology and it does create some ergonomic problems.

On its own, the iPad Air (2020) weighs 458g (460g for the cellular-enabled version) and measures 6.1mm thick. It’s easy enough to walk around with, and can be used while holding it in one hand. I quite like the dull matte look of my Green review unit. This is the first iPad model to be offered in such colours, and incidentally they match the new AirPods Max lineup.

The aluminium frame has flat sides now, but given the overall shape and proportions, this isn’t less uncomfortable than using any previous model. The Apple Pencil 2 can snap magnetically to the right side (which becomes the top when docked) and charges wirelessly when attached.

One big change is the USB Type-C port on the bottom, in place of Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector. This is a feature previously reserved for the iPad Pro siblings, and it allows for faster charging and data transfers as well as better compatibility with accessories such as SSDs and external monitors. Cellular-enabled models will have a Nano-SIM tray on the lower right.

You’ll find two speaker cutouts each at the top and bottom. You’ll get stereo sound in landscape orientation, but the new iPad Air doesn’t reroute sound to different speakers to match how you’re holding it like the iPad Pro models do. There’s no 3.5mm audio socket, which again is common with the current iPad Pro design – this is not just inconvenient, but also makes it impossible to get wired audio output when something like a MIDI instrument is plugged into the Type-C port, unless you buy a dock. It seems like an unnecessary frustration for a device aimed at content creators – and no, you don’t get a Type-C to 3.5mm dongle in the box either.

ipad air 2020 usb ndtv ipad

The iPad Air (2020) gets a USB Type-C port at the bottom just like the iPad Pro models

 

iPad Air (2020) specifications

At the time of its launch, the iPad Air’s A14 Bionic processor was a huge talking point, and we’ve since seen it power the entire iPhone 12 lineup. The more powerful Apple M1 processor, which debuted with the latest MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and Mac mini also shares a lot of the same engineering. The A14 Bionic is a 5nm chip designed in-house by Apple using the licensed ARM architecture, with two high-performance and four power-efficient CPU cores plus an integrated four-core GPU. The big news is the updated “Neural Engine” logic which accelerates machine learning and is said to offer over twice the performance of the previous-gen iPad Air’s A12 Bionic SoC.

The 2020 iPad Air has a 10.9-inch screen which is larger than the 10.5-inch one on the previous model, but also very slightly narrower and taller. This is only notable because iPads have pretty consistently stuck to a 4:3 aspect ratio, and most people won’t even notice the difference. Apple has used what it calls a Liquid Retina Display, which means this is an LCD panel and not an AMOLED one. It supports the P3 wide colour gamut and Apple’s True Tone feature which adjusts the white point dynamically based on ambient light.

Apple doesn’t disclose battery capacities but third-party teardowns reveal that the iPad Air (2020) has a 7,606mAh battery. As per official specifications, you should expect up to 10 hours of Web surfing or video streaming. There’s a single 12-megapixel f/1.8 rear autofocus camera which can record 4K 60fps video if you ever need it to, and a 7-megapixel front camera for video calls. There’s also Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5. If you buy a cellular model, you can use a Nano-SIM or eSIM.

The overall style and screen size of the iPad Air (2020) make it very similar to the current-gen 11-inch iPad Pro – the two are just a few millimetres apart in size. You don’t get the 120Hz ProMotion feature and the maximum brightness is a little lower at 500nits compared to 600nits, but little else is different. The iPad Pro lineup does give you superior cameras including a LiDAR sensor and a flash, plus the 3D-sensing TrueDepth camera array on the front, but the new iPad Air (2020) has the far superior A14 Bionic SoC. The lower-priced model also works with all the same accessories including the Apple Pencil 2 and Magic Keyboard. This creates an interesting conflict in Apple’s lineup, which will remain until the iPad Pros receive their inevitable 2021 refresh.

ipad air 2020 keyboard ndtv ipad

The keyboard layout is a little cramped, but tactile feel is surprisingly good

 

iPad Air (2020) and Magic Keyboard

You’ll notice three dots in a row on the back of the new iPad Air, which are contact points for connected accessories. The entire back of the tablet is magnetic so it can be snapped right on to docks and cases. The most interesting of Apple’s own accessories is its Magic Keyboard, which promises to turn your iPad into a clamshell with a keyboard and trackpad for productivity. It costs a staggering Rs. 27,900, which is the kind of money that could get you an entire, fully functioning laptop.

While Apple sells different cases for the 2020 MacBook Air and 11-inch iPad Pro, the Magic Keyboard accessory is exactly the same for both. Older boxes will not be marked as compatible with the new iPad Air, but they’ll work. You’ll just have to live with an oversized square camera cutout, which is a bit contrary to the usual attention to detail you pay for with Apple products.

The magnetic lid of the Magic Keyboard has an additional hinge about one-third the way up so that you can angle your iPad which is magnetically attached to it. This brings the screen closer to your face and makes it easier to touch with a finger or Apple Pencil. The iPad looks like it’s floating, which is the signature look Apple was going for. It also lets the iPad stay suspended without a kickstand, so you can actually use this tablet and dock combination on your lap.

The Magic Keyboard has a somewhat cramped key layout, but the keys have decent travel and the action is crisp without being loud. There’s also uniform white backlighting. The trackpad is generously sized and the wrist rests have a soft-touch finish just like the exterior.

One big quirk is the lack of a Fn row which also means there’s no Esc key. iPadOS 14 does have keyboard and trackpad optimisations but there are times that you’ll have to move your hands to use the touchscreen. There are also no shortcuts for things like media playback or even adjusting the keyboard backlight – you’ll find a brightness slider buried in the Settings app but at least something in the Control Center would have been nice.

The Magic Keyboard for the 2020 iPad Air and 11-inch iPad Pro is relatively heavy at 600g, which is more than what your iPad itself weighs. That puts the total weight within striking distance of today’s ultraportables. When closed, it also makes for a relatively thick package. It takes both hands to open and close the docked iPad, and you can’t fold the keyboard over to use the iPad on your lap, or for note-taking in portrait orientation.

You get a USB Type-C port on the left side of the hinge barrel for convenience. It works for charging the iPad, leaving its own Type-C port free for use with accessories. There’s very little clearance so you’ll need a narrow Type-C plug like the ones on Apple’s official accessories.

ipad air 2020 suspended ndtv ipad

The Magic Keyboard doesn’t need a kickstand, but the hinge has a limited range of motion

 

iPad Air (2020) and Apple Pencil 2

Steve Jobs famously dissed styli when he introduced the iPhone for the very first time, and some people love mocking the Apple Pencil for that reason. However, he was talking about a stylus being required for core UI navigation and hunt-and-peck typing, which some smartphones of that era required – the Apple Pencil is primarily for sketching and writing, and is an entirely optional accessory.

The new iPad Air works only with the Apple Pencil 2; another feature previously exclusive to the iPad Pro line. The Pencil 2 is quite large, like a real-world writing implement. Some might find that comfortable but I found it top-heavy and slightly unwieldy. Apple doesn’t publicise information like the number of pressure sensitivity levels it can apply, but does say that there is support for tilt detection and that lag is imperceptible.

In use, the Apple Pencil is definitely integrated well with the iPad’s hardware and software. Writing feels quite natural, and you can set up a forefinger double-tap shortcut. The main issue I had is that the tip is quite hard and makes a loud sound every time you tap the screen with it. This can be a bit annoying when writing cursive notes by hand, and would definitely be distracting in a classroom or professional environment. No other types of tips or even replacements are provided in the box.

Artists and other creative professionals could definitely get a lot out of using an iPad with an Apple Pencil. It’s very responsive and feels a lot slicker than Windows-based tablets and styli, in my experience. It does feel like you’re drawing directly on the glass surface of the iPad’s screen, but that also means it isn’t as natural as a real pencil on paper.

ipad air 2020 pencil ndtv ipad

The Apple Pencil 2 is more useful now thanks to improvements in iPadOS 14

 

iPad Air (2020) software and usage

iPadOS 14 introduced better homescreen widgets, lots of UI and usability refinements, and redesigned default apps that take better advantage of available screen space. However, the biggest improvements are only seen when you use the Magic Keyboard and the Apple Pencil 2. Trackpad support with an on-screen cursor is game-changing even for long-time iPad users, and takes productivity to a new level. Scribbling text input in any field makes the Pencil way more useful than before.

Since the launch of the 2020 iPad Air and iPadOS 14, plenty of apps have added trackpad support, including Microsoft Office. The iPad UI is still completely touch-first, but now you see a circular cursor whenever you touch the trackpad, and can move it around and tap to interact with UI elements. If you touch the screen or don’t do anything for a few moments, the cursor simply disappears. It also changes to the familiar bar when you’re working with text, and so there’s really no learning curve.

The trackpad on Apple’s Magic Keyboard supports multi-touch gestures. Just like on any Mac, you can tap and hold or tap with two fingers to show context menus, swipe with two fingers to scroll, and swipe side-to-side with three fingers to switch between full-screen apps. Sliding up with three fingers will show the homescreen, or if you stop and hold before completing the gesture, you’ll see the app switcher. Flicking to the top left and right corners will show the notifications pane and Control Center.

iPadOS 14 now lets you use the pencil to write freehand in any text field so you don’t have to put it down when filling forms or even entering a URL in Safari’s address field. It makes using the iPad a little more seamless, and it makes a lot of sense. You don’t have to write exactly within fields – the software recognises text even if you overlap them or continue to write way outside. Character recognition is quick and it’s very good, but can’t compensate for very shaky handwriting. It also works only in English and Chinese at present, but we can expect broader language support over time.

So with all of this in mind, can the iPad Air (2020) replace a laptop, and can it be your primary work machine? First of all, you have to decide if you even want that. The combination of iPad Air (2020), Magic Keyboard, and Apple Pencil would wind up costing you at least as much as a good premium laptop, and wouldn’t necessarily be lighter or more portable. On the other hand, you could separate the iPad and move around with it, use it for reading comfortably, and use interactive touch-first apps for content creation.

I tried using the iPad Air and Magic Keyboard as my primary work machine. I loaded up Office 365, Slack, Google Docs, and various other apps for productivity. A lot of tools work within any Web browser, and I had over 20 tabs open in Safari in no time. After just about half a day though, I was already finding the Magic Keyboard a bit too cramped for comfort. Simple things like copy-pasting blocks of text between apps, managing multiple open documents, and multitasking would slow me down, compared to how they just feel like second nature on a PC or Mac without even distracting from my work.

Microsoft’s Office apps gained trackpad support shortly after the release of iOS 14. The experience is pretty well integrated, and doesn’t feel tacked on just for the sake of it. Selecting and manipulating text is fairly natural. The apps themselves, however, are not quite as flexible as their traditional desktop counterparts.

I was also routinely frustrated by iPadOS’s limited USB connectivity and obscured file system. I used a variety of pen drives, hard drives, and portable SSDs. Only Apple’s file systems, ExFAT and FAT32 partitions are recognised – NTFS volumes aren’t even readable. There’s no way to safely eject a disk, and of course only one can be plugged in at a time unless you have a dock or hub. The lack of a 3.5mm headphone socket was also routinely annoying.

In addition to software, do remember that Apple now offers a wide range of bundled services. You get free trials of Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade with every purchase, plus integration with the iCloud ecosystem. If you use an iPhone, Mac, AirPods, and/or Apple Watch, you’ll encounter lots of little conveniences that make life easier.

ipad air 2020 screen ndtv ipad

Videos and games look good on the bright, crisp Liquid Retina Display panel

 

iPad Air (2020) performance

Apple has had quite a successful run so far with its in-house ARM-based processors. The iPad Air (2020) with its A14 Bionic SoC is more than capable of handling heavy apps and games. I did feel the upper left corner of the rear panel get warm when playing some graphically intensive games. Alto’s Odyssey, Lara Croft Go, and Monument Valley 2 all ran well but it was the relatively old Fieldrunners 2 that made the iPad Air run the hottest.

Benchmarks show that the iPad Air (2020) can perform very well. Geekbench 5 managed scores of 1,581 and 4,182 in its single-core and multi-core tests, and AnTuTu produced a result of 631,340 points. The new 3DMark Wild Life Unlimited test averaged 50fps, and GFXBench’s Car Chase and Aztec Ruins (Normal Tier) tests ran at 39.87fps and 40.49fps respectively.

App developers are still rolling out updates that will leverage the A14 Bionic’s machine learning capabilities – some examples include photo and video manipulation, media production, and even secure on-device face and handwriting recognition. One thing the iPad Air might not be ideal for is augmented reality applications – LiDAR sensors are still exclusive to the more expensive models.

Some apps and games such as Audiokit’s Synth One ran letterboxed and had garbled or cropped UI elements. This indicates an issue with scaling to the new screen resolution, since they appear perfectly fine on other devices including a previous-gen 12.9-inch iPad Pro. This is something developers will have to sort out with updates.

Speaking of the screen, it’s very crisp and sharp. Widescreen video will run letterboxed, but that’s okay considering the aspect ratio has to strike a balance somewhere between a variety of use cases in both portrait and landscape. Videos look great, especially since there’s no notch or camera hole obscuring content. If you want HDR though, you’re out of luck. The screen gets bright enough for use outdoors, and it’s impossible to avoid fingerprint smudges on the glossy surface. The speakers are quite loud and produce a relatively full sound, but bass is expectedly weak.

iPad Air (2020) camera sample (tap to see full size)

 

The rear camera is quite decent, capturing crisp details in the daytime. Any tablet would be awkward to use as a camera, and this one is no exception. The front-facing camera worked well too, even in dim indoor lighting, which is good news for video chats. However, if you’re using the iPad Air (2020) in landscape while its attached to the Magic Keyboard, the angle you appear at to callers will be awkward since the camera will be in the middle of the left screen border.

Battery life is one of the strengths of the iPad line. Even with the Magic Keyboard connected and its backlight set to automatic, I got at least two full days of nearly continuous use per charge. I used the iPad Air (2020) to type and edit documents, streamed a bit of video, and played some games. Our HD video loop test ran for 11 hours, 32 minutes which is roughly consistent with Apple’s claims. Heavy games will of course drain the battery quicker. While battery life really does work in favour of the iPad, keep in mind that Apple’s own M1-based Macs now boast the same advantage.

Using a universal 60W Type-C charger, the iPad Air managed to go from zero to 34 percent in 30 minutes and 64 percent in an hour. After that, charging slowed a bit and it took another hour to get to 95 percent. This is quite good, and the Type-C port makes charging on the go more convenient.

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The Touch ID sensor is awkwardly positioned, but on-screen prompts help you find it

 

Verdict

The iPad Air (2020) looks modern and offers a lot of power and functionality. It’s very similar to the 11-inch iPad Pro, and will actually be the more sensible option for many people. If you don’t need a high-refresh-rate HDR screen, better speakers and cameras, LiDAR scanner, or higher storage options, the new iPad Air will do just fine. It has a newer processor plus the same style, USB Type-C port, and compatibility with the Magic Keyboard and Pencil 2. Rumours suggest that the iPad Pro lineup is about to get a major refresh with Mini-LED or OLED screens, 5G, and an even more powerful processor, which will return some order to Apple’s hierarchy.

If you’re thinking of replacing your laptop, just consider that the iPad life isn’t for everyone. Your style and type of work might be perfectly suited to it, but you’ll also be spending a lot of money for an iPad itself plus the Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil – money that could buy you a high-end ultrabook. The relatively small iPad screen and cramped keyboard might have been easier to live with if the combined package had been significantly lighter and less expensive than, say, the current-gen MacBook Air. For me, the tradeoffs weren’t worth it but your mileage will vary depending on your style of work, what apps you use, and even which model of iPad and keyboard you buy.

Hopefully, the design and features of the new iPad Air will trickle down to the mainstream iPad price tier at some point. For now, this is a solid though expensive all-rounder that will work for entertainment, content creation, and even some productivity.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)



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