The new iPad Air 3 is the follow-up to a legendary tablet, the iPad Air 2. The second-generation iPad Air introduced a thinner profile, laminated digitizer, and Touch ID to Apple’s tablet lineup for the very first time. The iPad Air 2 was also well-regarded for its speed — sporting 2GB of RAM for the first time in any iOS device, and a new chip that put an emphasis on GPU performance.
When looking back at the iPad Air 2, it goes without saying that the third-generation model has some big shoes to fill. And as you’ll see from our iPad Air 3 review, it proves to be a worthy, if not a slightly boring follow-up, because it’s essentially an iPad Pro lite.
- Apple A12 chip with Neural Engine
- 3GB RAM
- 10.5-inch Display
- 2224×1668 resolution
- P3 wide color display
- Laminated digitizer
- Antireflective coating
- Smart connector
- Compatible with Smart Keyboard and first-gen Apple Pencil
- Dual stereo speakers
- 8-megapixel f/2.4 rear camera
- 7-megapixel f/2.2 FaceTime HD camera
- Touch ID
- 3.5mm headphone connection
- Lightning connector
- Bluetooth 5.0
- eSIM support
- Several additional Gigabit-class LTE bands
- Silver, space gray, and gold color options
The 3rd-generation iPad Air starts at $499 with 64GB of flash storage, while a 256GB model sells for $649. Cellular versions of the iPad Air 3 can be acquired for a $130 premium, bringing a max-configured iPad Air 3 to $779.00, easily within striking distance of the $799 starting price of the 11-inch 2018 iPad Pro.
Watch: iPad Air 3 review
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Inside the iPad Air 3 box, you’ll find the typical stuff that you normally find in an iPad unboxing. There’s the iPad Air 3 unit itself, a packet with regulatory/legal information, getting started guide, and Apple stickers.
Unlike the new iPad Pro models, which utilize USB-C and come with a new 18W power adapter, Apple includes the typical Lightning to USB-A cable, and a 12W power adapter inside the third-generation iPad Air box.
10.5-inch semi-pro iPad
Apple channeled the 2nd-generation 10.5-inch iPad Pro, released in June 2017, as the inspiration for the iPad Air 3. The most obvious indicator of this is when looking at its form factor. Instead of a 9.7-inch display like the previous generation iPad Air, the new model sports a 10.5-inch display with 2224×1668 resolution like the 2nd-generation iPad Pro.
Another notable enhancement to the iPad Air 3 involves the display, which now supports P3 wide color. The backlight is also brighter (500 nits vs 450 nits) and features a stronger antireflective coating with just 1.8% reflectivity.
The new iPad Air now supports True Tone, the display technology that automatically adjusts the white point of the screen to match the ambient light in your environment. It’s a technology that initially arrived alongside the 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro, and has slowly made its way to other iPads, iPhones, and Macs.
The 3rd-gen iPad Air is barely heavier than the 2nd-gen model (1.00 vs 0.96 pounds), but it features a slightly larger form-factor coupled with a larger display and reduced bezels. This results in a tablet that looks like a more modern take on the iPad Air 2.
The exterior of the new iPad Air 3 looks a lot like the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, but it’s the processor that really pushes it into “iPad Pro Lite” territory. The iPad Air 3 comes with the same six-core A12 Bionic chip with Neural Engine found inside Apple’s flagship iPhone XS smartphone, which means that performance gets a huge upgrade over the A8X found in the iPad Air 2 and also bests the 2017 iPad Pro.
CPU performance on the iPad Air 3 is better than the 2017 10.5-inch iPad Pro
The rear facing 8-megapixel f/2.4 camera appears to be very similar to the hardware found in iPad Air 2, which means photos and video won’t be great, but it also means no camera bump. I don’t shoot many photos or videos with my iPad, so I’ll happily take an outdated camera if it means no camera bump.
The f/2.2 FaceTime HD camera, on the other hand, receives a nice 7-megapixel upgrade from the measly 1.2-megapixel shooter found on the iPad Air 2. And instead of 720p HD video recording, the new FaceTime HD camera supports full HD 1080p capture along with Retina Flash. Both cameras support wide color capture and Live Photos.
Battery life remains the same thanks to a larger 30.2‐watt‐hour-rated rechargeable lithium‑polymer battery. This allows the unit to maintain its 10-hour all-day battery life rating despite a larger display and faster processor.
The release of the iPad Air 3 marks the first time that the Smart Connector, used exclusively for attaching Apple’s Smart Keyboard, appears on an iPad not donning ‘Pro’ branding. Therefore, the same Smart Keyboard that worked with the 10.5-inch 2nd-generation iPad Pro also works with the new 10.5-inch iPad Air 3.
Artists and prolific note-takers will be happy to learn that the iPad Air 3 works with the first-generation Apple Pencil or the more budget-minded Logitech Crayon. Hence, if you’re a student or creative professional who’s looking to transition to a tablet-based workflow, then the iPad Air just became a legitimate option for you.
Where the 10.5-inch iPad Pro remains better
I refer to the new iPad Air 3 as the iPad Pro “Lite”, because although it’s heavily inspired by the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, it lacks some of the pro hardware’s key features.
First and foremost, the iPad Air 3 lacks support for ProMotion, the adaptive display refresh technology that results in smoother screen interactions and enhanced Apple Pencil support. It’s difficult to explain why ProMotion is so nice without seeing it in action, but the best way I can describe it is that it makes scrolling smoother, content on-screen easier to read while scrolling, and reduces Apple Pencil latency.
Another big difference is that the 2017 iPad Pro sported a far-superior rear-facing camera that supported 4K video capture. The 12-megapixel f/1.8 camera on that iPad Pro model still holds up well today and even came equipped with optical image stabilization, a feature that current iPad Pro models lack.
The last-generation iPad Pro also shipped with 4GB of RAM, while the 2019 iPad Air sports 3GB of RAM. It’s largely assumed that the extra GB of RAM in the iPad Pro is there to support the ProMotion adaptive display technology, which the new iPad Air doesn’t have.
GPU performance on the iPad Air 3 isn’t as good as the 2017 10.5-inch iPad Pro
And although the A12 Bionic chip yields much faster CPU performance than the A10X found in the 2017 iPad Pro, the A10X has better GPU compute performance, which isn’t surprising given that it’s a X-branded chip that places more emphasis on GPU performance. Thus, if you’re a gamer, or someone who works with other GPU-intensive tasks, the 2017 iPad Pro might actually perform better in some areas.
The final standout difference between the two models is the lack of quad-speaker support, which makes possible landscape stereo sound, a staple of iPad Pro models. Instead, there’s a simple stereo speaker setup found on the iPad Air 3. In my opinion that’s not a big deal for a mid-range offering like the Air 3, but it’s a noticeable change when watching movies and listening to music if you’re used to the quad-speaker setup.
Filling the gap
If the iPad Air 3 is basically just a lite version of the iPad Pro, then why does it exist? I was over thinking this at first, but it’s actually very straightforward. Simply put, the iPad Air 3 exists to fill in the mid-range gap of Apple’s lineup. Whereas before there was a huge gulf between the entry-level $329 iPad and the $799 iPad Pro, there’s now an upper-echelon mid-range tablet that gives potential buyers more options.
That said, if price is the most important thing to you, then the entry-level $329 iPad is still the best buy out of the entire iPad lineup. Yet, it’s a device that’s limited in a lot of ways that the iPad Air 3 seeks to address.
A big upgrade over the budget $329 iPad
The most obvious difference between the entry-level iPad and the iPad Air 3 is the size of the screen. The $329 iPad comes with a 9.7-inch display, but thanks to the reduced bezels of the 10.5-inch iPad Air 3, the footprint between the two devices is nearly the same. Even though it sports a screen that’s nearly an inch smaller, the $329 iPad is slightly heavier than the iPad Air 3, and it’s noticeably thicker.
Outside of the physical size, display technology is the biggest differentiator between the two devices. One of my ongoing complaints from the 2017 and the 2018 renditions of the entry-level iPad have to do with screen quality, or lack thereof. The entry-level hardware lacks a laminated digitizer, which results in a noticeable air gap that causes reflections. An antireflective coating, found on more expensive models, is also missing on Apple’s budget-minded iPad.
Couple the aforementioned with the budget iPad’s omission of P3 Wide Color and True Tone, and you have a display that’s decidedly superior in the iPad Air 3. Casual users who only care about checking email and browsing Facebook might not care, but anyone coming from an iPad Air 2 or above will immediately recognize these deficiencies in the entry-level iPad.
Although it gained support for the Apple Pencil last year, the $329 iPad lacks support for a version of the Smart Keyboard, because it doesn’t come with a Smart Connector. If you’re someone who plans on using their iPad to write long-form content, this is something to consider. You can always pair a cheap Bluetooth keyboard, but the Smart Keyboard provides a more seamless experience.
While the Apple A10 chip found in the budget iPad is decent enough for modest tasks, it’s nowhere near the CPU or GPU performance of the A12 Bionic found on the new iPad Air 3. With this in mind, the iPad Air will enjoy a longer shelf-life than the budget-minded iPad.
Other options to consider…
If you decide to configure your iPad Air 3 with cellular connectivity and 256GB of storage, you will have to decide whether it’s worth upgrading to the iPad Pro. The difference between a maxed our iPad Air 3 and a base model 11-inch iPad Pro is only $20, and Apple undoubtedly prices it this way to make buyers consider stepping up to the next tier.
The iPad Pro offers a larger display, a substantially more exciting design, along with enhancements like ProMotion, USB-C, and Face ID. It’s currently severely limited by iOS 12, but it has a higher ceiling when it comes to gaining new features via future iOS updates. Be sure to read our full 2018 iPad Pro review for a hands-on look at what it’s like to use it.
There’s also the 2019 iPad mini 5, which released alongside the new iPad Air 3. The iPad mini 5 is essentially an iPad Air 3 in the body of an iPad mini. It’s the tablet to get if portability is the most important thing to you. It has most of the features of the iPad Air 3, but obviously lacks the bigger display, and it doesn’t come with a Smart Connector for connecting a Smart Keyboard. Again, if portability trumps everything else in your eyes, then the iPad mini is a great option, and you don’t have to make any performance sacrifices.
Let’s not over think it. Apple sorely needed a midrange tablet offering in its lineup, and the iPad Air 3 answers that call nicely. It’s anything but exciting for seasoned iPad users, and it brings nothing to the table that we haven’t seen before, yet it fills an important need in Apple’s lineup.
As compelling as the $329 entry-level iPad may be, $499 gives users a much more polished and better overall tablet experience without stepping foot into laptop pricing territory. If you’re planning on making the iPad your main “computer” then do yourself a favor and spend the extra $179 more to get the iPad Air 3. Not only do you get better performance, and a ridiculously better display, it also supports the Smart Keyboard.
The iPad Air 3 is boring, but in a Toyota Camry, this-is-a solid-everyday-vehicle boring type of way. It’s a mid-range tablet with a mid-range price that makes very few compromises, but it’s also anything but exciting.
What’s your take on the iPad Air 3? Sound off down below in the comments with your thoughts and opinions.
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