Here's the most important thing to know about the M1 iPad Air that Apple introduced last week: it didn't raise the price. It still has the same $599 price tag for the base model (though you should spring for the upgrade to the 256GB model). So what, you might ask? Well, the iPad Air is now powered by the M1 system on a chip--the same processor in the MacBook Air, iMac, and Mac mini.
It's also the same processor found in the 2021 iPad Pro lineup. That's a big deal because it means you can save about $150 on a similarly equipped iPad Air that will give you virtually the same experience as the 11-inch iPad Pro. I've written in the past that the iPad Pro is easily the best tablet on the market--no question. Now, the iPad Air has the same performance, making it easily the best value.
Apple Silicon is so far ahead of its competition that the A14 Bionic in the previous iPad Air was already more powerful than any other mobile chip. The M1 is based on the same processing cores but with a lot more of them. Putting that much performance in the iPad Air is--in some ways--Apple just showing off. It didn't need to do it. Apple did it because it can.
This brings us to an interesting point--the M1 iPad Air is one of the most confusing products Apple has ever introduced. That's because it lives in a space so close to the iPad Pro. It can be hard, at first, to figure out what Apple's strategy is in making the Air so much like its flagship sibling. What even does "Air" mean on an iPad?
In addition to the M1, it also shares a similar overall design. It has the same Apple Pencil support, and any case that fits the M1 iPad Pro (including the Magic Keyboard), will also fit the iPad Air.
At the same time, it lacks several features you can get on Apple's flagship model, the iPad Pro. You don't get ProMotion or FaceID. The Air also has only two stereo speakers, a single rear camera, and slightly lower overall brightness. Of course, even with those features missing, I have a hard time imagining that anyone who would buy an iPad Air will care.
The iPad Air is for people who want something better and more modern than the ninth-generation iPad, which still sports basically the same design as it did when it was introduced. Compared with that model, the iPad Air is significantly faster.
It's also for people who are looking for something to be their only device--maybe not for intense work, but definitely for personal use. If the thing you use a computer for most of the time is navigating the internet, replying to email, and sending messages, the iPad Air does all of those things. As Apple likes to point out, it does them "faster than the vast majority of PC notebooks."
This gets to the reason I think Apple is showing off. It's not just that the iPad Air is a legitimate option for those people--especially when paired with a keyboard. It's that Apple already had a device that was capable of that: the iPad. The iPad Air is even more than what they'll ever need--in a good way--without paying the price for the iPad Pro.
It's basically Apple saying "we're so far ahead of the competition that we can make this less expensive version of the best tablet ever made. We'll take away a few things you don't care about anyway and just give you all the performance you could ever want." Apple is making it this good, simply because it can.
That's actually a powerful strategy in and of itself. Many of Apple's latest products seem as though the company is trying to answer the question "what do people really want?" That isn't always how the company approached product design, or at least, that's not how it appeared from the outside.
Now, however, Apple Silicon makes it possible because the company is even better able to control every aspect of its hardware. The result is that it's designing products like the iPad Air, which are the best version of what it is meant to do. In fact, for most people, the iPad Air is the very best tablet any company has ever made. It's so good, in fact, at this point it's just showing off.