By Nicole Nguyen 

Tablets have struggled to find their footing as mainstream gadgets. The market for the touch-screen slabs was shrinking, according to the International Data Corporation, until the pandemic spurred a boost in purchases from folks looking for more at-home devices.

Budget models did find a niche with YouTube-obsessed youngsters, while high-end, top-of-the-line machines found a home with creative professionals. Most tablets, though, like the one on my bookshelf, essentially serve as Big Phones, for reading and streaming on the couch. And to the chagrin of their makers, they can serve these functions for years and years without needing a shiny new replacement.

Apple's new 10.9-inch iPad Air is looking for a different kind of audience -- those hoping to get some real work done before they iPad-and-chill.

iPad Air vs. iPad Pro: What's different?

The new iPad Air will feel like a significant upgrade for those coming from older iPads, with their thick bezels and conspicuous home buttons. Yes, the $329 iPad is still available, as is the $399 Mini, but despite performance updates they feel increasingly out of date.

Many of the iPad Air's features are borrowed from the higher-end iPad Pro models, with one novel difference: a power button with a convenient Touch ID fingerprint reader built in. I wish Apple had brought that to its new iPhones. (It would be a huge hit with the masked masses, Tim!)

The Air has the 11-inch iPad Pro's smaller-bezel design. It has similar screen resolution and battery life, as well as the more-standard USB-C port and compatibility with the magnetically attachable Apple Pencil 2 and laptop-like Magic Keyboard. The 10.9-inch Air display is slightly smaller than the one on the lower-priced Pro, but they feel roughly the same size.

The $799-and-up Pro is arguably the "better" tablet. It has Face ID, four speakers versus the Air's two, its screen is brighter, it has more cameras, plus a Lidar scanner for depth mapping and a higher refresh rate capable of smoother scrolling and gaming. There's also a thousand-dollar Pro with a bigger 13-inch screen.

But I didn't find myself missing the Pro's features. The biggest difference is the price: Starting at $599, the iPad Air is essentially a budget Pro.

I hardly turned on its speakers. (iPads are fantastic for watching the stuff your partner/roommate/family isn't into.) Same with the extra ultrawide camera -- my phone is camera enough. And the few people who might really notice the slower screen-refresh rate are those who do a lot of sketching with the Apple Pencil.

Also, while the iPad Pro's chip has an eight-core processor better suited for running heavier applications, like editing 4K video and 3-D models, the iPad Air has a newer six-core chip, the A14 Bionic. In multiple benchmark tests, the iPad Air outperformed the Pro.

One of my main concerns is the iPad Air's paltry storage space: The base model is only 64 gigabytes. Upgrading to 256 GB costs $150 more -- and just $50 less than a 128GB iPad Pro. Feel dizzy from the number jumble? I don't blame you. Apple's product pricing is getting more confusing!

The question to consider: Is 64 GB enough? If you use cloud-based apps like Dropbox, Google Photos or Microsoft Word, then yes, it could be. If you want to save a big library of media offline, or be able to offload camera footage to your iPad, then you'll want more storage.

On my iPad Air review unit, Apple's system files take up nearly 11GB, leaving me with about 53 GB to work with. That's equivalent to about 146 standard-definition Netflix movies. Or 94 high-definition HBO Max episodes. Or 62 Peloton rides. Or about 447 thousand-page U.S. history textbooks in PDF form.

For the majority of folks who don't handle multimedia, the iPad Air is plenty sufficient. But there are a few reasons to go Pro: if you require serious graphics and multicore computational might, or you want to spend more for that bigger 12.9-inch screen.

Can the iPad replace my laptop?

The short answer is yes... with caveats. In fact, I wrote and researched this column on the new iPad Air -- and actually scripted some of it by hand using the Apple Pencil.

You can download files locally, look at two windows side by side and use an external monitor. The iPad Air doesn't support Thunderbolt 3 connections, even though the USB-C port is the same shape -- curse you, cable gods! -- but you can use an adapter and an HDMI cable to mirror your screen. One of my favorite purchases this year has been Anker's USB-C hub.

With iPadOS 14, you can even pair a trackpad or mouse with the tablet. Using a mouse to navigate an iPad is really, really nice -- and it works with older iPads going back to the iPad Air 2.

To fully transform your iPad Air into a proper MacBook replacement, you need a good keyboard case. Apple's fancy offering is the Magic Keyboard, which offers adjustable viewing angles, a full-size backlit keyboard and a trackpad. The case is much sturdier than Apple's previous keyboards. And the typing! The typing is satisfying and comfortable.

I have three gripes with the accessory, though. First, you can't fold the keyboard back if you want to hold the iPad like a tablet. Second, the trackpad is a little cramped. (I'm more of a mouse gal, anyway.) And third, there's a steep $299 price tag. The iPad Air and Magic Keyboard together cost about $900, getting close to the price of a new MacBook Air. Add an Apple Pencil into the mix and you're well over a grand.

There are more affordable, but bulkier, keyboard alternatives. The Logitech Folio Touch ($160) doesn't have adjustable viewing angles, but it has more modes than the Magic Keyboard, including one where you flip the keyboard back.

In many ways, working on an iPad is better than a laptop: You don't get fan whirring when too many tabs are open, and you rarely have to restart it. There's little boot-up time. All of your apps are just a finger tap away. With a keyboard case on, the device never gets hot on your lap.

But, in the end, the new iPad is still an iPad, and has all the failings of one. When you're using the tablet as a laptop during video calls, the webcam is on the left side, forcing an unflattering up-the-nose angle (not pictured). Unlike Macs, there's no multi-user support for households sharing devices. In the sun, it's nicer to read on a Kindle's e-ink screen.

I do most of my work in Google Docs, and you can't view two documents from the app at the same time. Sadly, a Google spokeswoman confirmed that capability is not on the road map. Microsoft Word and Apple's Pages do, however, offer simultaneous multi-document editing.

Also, you can't currently use your video in Zoom or Google Meets in Split View mode while taking notes. The Google spokeswoman said support for camera-on while multitasking will be available within the next month. A Zoom spokeswoman said the feature is planned but didn't offer a time line for availability. Cisco Webex already supports this.

You'll also get more battery life from a laptop. In my testing, I got only up to 5.5 hours of active screen time on the iPad Air, while my colleague Joanna Stern was able to squeeze 7 hours out of the MacBook Air.

Tablets are like sporks: part mobile phone, part computer -- not quite crushing either job. But if you want a gadget to help you do a bit of multitasking, a bit of writing and drawing, a bit of reading, a bit of video chatting, just a smidgen of everything, then an iPad's great. Just don't go broke buying all the necessary accessories.

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Write to Nicole Nguyen at nicole.nguyen@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 21, 2020 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)

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