May 18, 2021

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iPad Pro 11-inch (2021) vs. iPad Air (2020)

7 min read

The latest iPad Pro 11-inch (2021) is here, and it brings a number of significant improvements to last year’s edition. Its most notable addition is the very powerful M1 chip, making it as powerful as the latest MacBook Air. It also brings in 5G support (if you buy the cellular model) for the very first time in an iPad, and it improves the selfie camera with a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens.

It certainly looks like one of the best tablets Apple has ever released, and despite being just as powerful as the 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2021), it’s also around $300 cheaper. However, if you’re interested in buying a recent iPad without spending a huge wad of cash, there are other options to consider, with the latest iPad Air (2020) being the most prominent. It carries its own powerful chip, the A14 Bionic, and offers the same great software as well as a similarly vivid Liquid Retina display, all starting at only $599.

Both are great tablets, but to find out which one is best overall, we’ve put them through a head-to-head comparison that should help you decide which is the right iPad for you.

If you’d like to look at some other iPad models, check out our article on the best iPad to buy in 2021.

Specs

iPad Pro 11-inch (2021) iPad Air
Size 247.6 x 178.5 x 5.9mm (9.75 x 7.03 x 0.23 inches) 247.6 x 178.5 x 6.1mm (9.75 x 7.03 x 0.24 inches)
Weight 466 grams (Wi-Fi), 470 grams (5G) (1.03 pounds) 458 grams (Wi-Fi), 460 grams (3G/LTE) (1.01 pounds)
Screen 11-inch Liquid Retina IPS 10.9-inch Liquid Retina IPS LCD
Screen resolution 1668 x 2388 pixels (265 pixels per inch) 1640 x 2360 pixels (264 pixels per inch)
Operating system iPadOS 14 iPadOS 14
Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB 64GB, 256GB
MicroSD card slot No No
Processor Apple M1 Apple A14 Bionic
RAM 8GB, 16GB 4GB
Camera Dual 12MP and 10MP ultrawide, lidar, 12MP ultrawide front 12MP rear, 7MP front
Video 4K at 60fps, 1080p at 240fps 4K at 60fps, 1080p at 240fps
Bluetooth version Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.0
Ports USB-C USB-C
Fingerprint sensor No, Face ID instead Yes
Water resistance No No
Battery 28.65Wh

Fast charging (18W)

28.93 Wh
App marketplace Apple App Store Apple App Store
Network support AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon (cellular models only) AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon (cellular models only)
Colors Silver, Space Gray Silver, Space Gray, Rose Gold, Green, Sky Blue
Price $799+ $599+
Buy from Apple Apple
Review score News 4.5 stars out of 5

Design, display, and durability

Despite belonging to different lines, the iPad Pro 11-inch (2021) and iPad Air (2020) look remarkably similar. Both feature edge-to-edge displays that eschew the Home button of earlier models, and both sport flat, angular sides. They look attractively modern, although the iPad Pro does have slightly narrower bezels around its screen. That said, the iPad Air, as its name would suggest, is a touch lighter than the Pro at 1.01 pounds (compared to 1.03 pounds for the Pro). On the other hand, it’s 0.02mm thicker, so you won’t really find it any more comfortable or easier to handle than the Pro.

There’s more of an appreciable difference when it comes to the displays of each machine. The iPad Pro features an 11-inch Liquid Retina screen that packs 1668 x 2,388 pixels, or 265 pixels per inch. The iPad Air more or less matches this, with its 10.9-inch Liquid Retina display offering 264 pixels per inch. You’ll therefore experience very comparable image quality with both tablets, not least because the 11-inch iPad Pro doesn’t boast the mini-LEDs of the 12.9-inch version. One small difference is that the iPad Pro 11-inch is a little brighter (600 nits maximum versus 500 for the Air), and it supports ProMotion technology, meaning it can deliver refresh rates of up to 120Hz.

As with every other iPad, neither the iPad Pro nor the iPad Air carries an official IP rating, so don’t go scuba diving with either. They are made of aluminum, however, so they do offer some degree of durability.

While you could argue that the inclusion of ProMotion gives the iPad Pro a better screen overall, this difference is so slight that we’re calling this round a tie.

Winner: Tie

Performance, battery life, and charging

ipad-air-4-space-grey-8

Just like the iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2021), the iPad Pro 11-inch (2021) runs using the high-powered M1 chip. This new processor made its first appearance with the MacBook Air in October, and it really does offer a marked improvement over the chip used in previous iPad Pros. It also offers a distinct improvement over the A14 Bionic chip you’ll find in the iPad Air, which, despite being fast enough, can’t quite handle the same workload as the M1. This gap is widened further by the fact that the iPad Pro comes standard with 8GB of RAM, while the iPad Air offers a more modest 4GB.

Another palpable difference is that the base iPad Air model houses only 64GB of internal memory, which is pretty paltry for a tablet released in 2020. By contrast, the iPad Pro offers 128GB as standard but also comes in 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, and 2TB models (the iPad Air offers only a 256GB variant). This will make a big difference for anyone who takes plenty of photos or uses their iPad for work.

Things are more equal in terms of battery capacity. The iPad Air carries a 28.93Wh battery, while the Pro comes with a 28.65Wh cell. This slight inferiority isn’t noticeable in practice, however, so you can expect similar longevity from both tablets. Our review of the iPad Air found that it has great staying power, retaining plenty of life even after you’ve used it for five or six hours.

Despite having a great battery, the smaller storage space and the slightly weaker processor in the Air make this a win for the iPad Pro.

Winner: iPad Pro 11-inch (2021)

Cameras

iPad Pro 2020 Back
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

While the iPad Air provides a single 12MP wide lens, the iPad Pro 11-inch (2021) benefits from a dual-lens setup, with a 12MP wide lens and a 10MP ultrawide lens (and not to mention a lidar sensor for depth and augmented reality applications). As our review of the 2020 model found, these lenses offer a surprisingly versatile camera experience for a tablet, letting users take very usable photos in most conditions. While the 12MP wide lens on the iPad Air is basically the same as the iPad Pro’s, it misses out on an ultrawide lens, while its main lens also lacks the new, brighter True Tone flash you can find on the Pro.

The iPad Pro also brings in a 12MP ultrawide selfie camera in place of the iPad Air’s 7MP normal lens. In theory, this provides for more interesting and picturesque selfies, given that the wide-angled lens lets you capture more than just your face. At the same time, it uses a Center Stage feature that employs A.I. to ensure your face remains in the middle of the shot, making sure a great scene isn’t spoiled by a misaligned head.

Combined with the ultrawide lens, this new selfie lens provides the 11-inch iPad Pro (2021) with another win.

Winner: iPad Pro 11-inch (2021)

Software and updates

iPad Pro 2020 Settings
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

When it comes to Apple devices, software is a great equalizer, and it’s no exception here. Both the iPad Pro (2021) and iPad Air (2020) run using iPadOS 14, which introduces such new features as App Clips, redesigned home screen widgets, and Scribble. This last feature lets you use the Apple Pencil to enter text into message boxes, forms, and other text fields. It’s a great time saver, and while you do have to buy the Apple Pencil separately, it’s a wise investment if you use your iPad frequently.

Needless to say, both tablets will receive updates from Apple at the same rate. Since the iPad Air is only a little older than the iPad Pro, it will also be supported with updates for basically as long as the newer device.

Winner: Tie

Special features

ipad-air-4-space-grey-2

The 11-inch iPad Pro (2021) is the very first iPad to offer 5G support, if you happen to opt for the cellular version. While this entails an extra outlay of $200, you will be able to connect to the fastest mmWave 5G bands in addition to the longer-range sub-6Hz. This isn’t something that can be said for the iPad Air, which is stuck with 4G and 3G.

The iPad Pro also offers the aforementioned lidar sensor, although the range of AR apps you can use it with still remains pretty limited, so it’s hardly groundbreaking. On top of this, the Pro uses Face ID, letting you unlock it and pay for stuff with the power of your face. One thing that the iPad Pro offers that’s also provided by the Air is compatibility with the Magic Keyboard accessory, just in case you want to use either of them for work. They’re also both compatible with the Apple Pencil.

These similarities aside, the inclusion of 5G, lidar, and Face ID give the iPad Pro another slim victory.

Winner: iPad Pro 11-inch (2021)

Price and availability

The iPad Pro 11-inch (2021) is available to pre-order from Apple, starting at $799 and going as high as $2,099 for the 2TB model with added 5G support. It will work on all major networks (if you have the cellular version) and will be sold pretty much everywhere.

The iPad Air (2020) starts at $599 and goes up to $879 for the cellular version with 256GB of storage. It’s also supported by all major carriers and is sold by all major retailers.

Overall winner: iPad Pro 11-inch (2021)

person holding ipad pro
Henry Ascroft/Unsplash

The iPad Air (2020) certainly gives it a run for its money, but the iPad Pro 11-inch (2021) wins this contest. Thanks to the M1 processor and double the amount of RAM, it will handle apps and games much more seamlessly than its rival. If this weren’t enough, its rear and front ultrawide lenses provide photographers with more versatility, while the option of 5G is great for those who will be connected outside their homes.

However, if you don’t need the absolute fastest performance possible, the iPad Air is still a great option. It looks just as attractive as the Pro; has a similarly sharp display, great software, and a decent main camera; and it’s compatible with most of the same accessories as the Pro. It will also save you at least $200, offering a superb way of getting premium iPad features at a reasonable price.

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