Like many other Apple commentators, I decided long ago not to use the interminable words, ‘well, if Steve was around…’.

The only problem is that Apple is increasingly giving me reasons to lean on that rhetoric.

The latest is the decision to launch a 10th-generation ‘standard’ iPad (which no one, including Apple, knows how to define within the product lineup) and make it ludicrously similar to the iPad Air.

This feels like one of the silliest Apple product comparison guides I’ve written, so forgive me if much of what you’re about to read feels obvious.

Pricing and colours

The 10th generation iPad comes in four colours. They have regular colour names (i.e. ‘blue’ rather than ‘Epic Ocean View Blue Extreme Ultra’) and I think they’re rather lovely. I’ve opted for the yellow one, in case you’re interested.

The iPad Air comes in five colours and they’re all a bit muted and boring. They have silly names, too.

In the UK, the 10th generation iPad starts at £499 for the WiFi version and £679 for the cellular version. The iPad Air’s starting prices are £669 and £849, respectively. The most you’ll spend on these devices is £859 and £1,029, respectively, if you increase the storage to 256GB (at which they both max out).

So, another £170 will net you an iPad Air over the new 10th generation iPad, whatever spec you choose. That’s not exactly a seismic leap, is it?

Which begs the question: how are these two iPads positioned?

Positioning

I think the best way to suss out the market positioning for an Apple product is to see what’s included above the fold on said product’s landing page.

For the 10th generation iPad, we’re immediately hit with the colour options and the coupling of the iPad and its Magic Keyboard Folio. This is accompanied by the words, “Loveable. Drawable. Magical”, although, curiously, the Apple Pencil is absent from the image. Interesting.

Moving onto the iPad Air, we’re actually shown very little of the device, and there’s certainly no place above the fold for accessories. There’s just a side angle of the iPad Air sitting in front of the word ‘air’ accompanied by the words, “Light. Bright. Full of might.”.

Scroll further and the pages for these two iPads continue a vastly different journey. The 10th generation iPad is all about “taking it with you”, jotting down notes, and doing cool creative stuff.

The iPad Air webpage hits you with speed, power, and immense capabilities, all thanks to the inclusion of the M1 chip. “Extraordinary” graphics performance, and neural engine-powered abilities to do “amazing things” are accompanied by imagery of the iPad flashing past at lightspeed.

Taken at face value, the iPad Air provides you with an absolute beast of a tablet for just £170 extra. Believe everything you read on Apple’s website, and that thing can, seemingly, do anything, compared to the tuned-for-homework 10th generation iPad.

The problem is that the M1 chip in that iPad Air means absolutely nothing to virtually everyone who will buy that device. Both of these iPads are just as capable as each other within the current restrictions of iPadOS and the apps available. They’ll feel identical. The differences amount to the colour options, the fact the 10th generation iPad is only compatible with the shit version of the Apple Pencil, and some other stuff I’ll dig into quickly now.

10th generation iPad vs iPad Air: display and biometrics

A quick note on biometrics. Both of these iPads have Touch ID integrated into the power button on the top of the device. It’s a slightly inconvenient placement, but you get used to it.

The display is usually one of the key areas of differentiation for Apple products. The quality, brightness and speed of a display typically reveal how much better your iPad is than the person who opted to spend less.

Bad news, I’m afraid. There’s not much in it.

Both of these iPads have 10.9-inch Liquid Retina LED displays. They have the exact same resolution (2360 x 1640), pixel density (264 ppi), and brightness (500 nits). They both possess the brilliant True Tone technology and have fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coatings (which, as we all know, do nothing to stop the build-up of fingerprints).

The iPad Air has three display upgrades over the 10th generation iPad:

  • full lamination (this all but removes any noticeable gap between the glass and display, resulting in a less recessed screen);
  • anti-reflective coating (useful if you work in bright rooms or outdoors a lot); and
  • P3 colour (more vibrancy, more accurate colour reproduction – that kinda thing).

However, both displays are 60Hz panels, which means there’s no silky-smooth ProMotion to enjoy while scrolling web pages and flicking between your Home Screens.

Winner: iPad Air, although you’re unlikely to spot the differences.

10th generation iPad vs iPad Air: chip

The 10th generation iPad is powered by the A14 Bionic. This has six CPU cores and four GPU cores. It’s very fast.

The iPad Air is powered by the M1 chip, which boasts an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU. It’s also very fast.

In normal everyday life, they will feel identical, no matter what you’re doing.

Winner: a tie.

10th generation iPad vs iPad Air: power and battery

They’re identical. They also both charge via USB-C. As they should.

Winner: a tie.

10th generation iPad vs iPad Air: accessories

Both of these iPads are compatible with Apple’s Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil accessories. But there are some key differences.

A couple of things to note here. Firstly, the keyboards are not actually magic, so if you’re expecting some Harry Potter wizardry to emerge whenever you flip open your keyboard-encased iPad, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Secondly, the Magic Keyboard Folio that’s compatible with the 10th generation iPad is a far more tempting proposition, thanks to the cool Microsoft Surface-like kickstand and the inclusion of a function row on the keyboard. Apple decided, bizarrely, to leave the existing Magic Keyboard (with which the iPad Air is compatible) untouched during this round of updates. It, therefore, remains function row-less; a cruel decision, in my book.

According to Apple’s website, the iPad Air isn’t compatible with the Magic Keyboard Folio, either. Bummer.

But the big one – no, the huge one – is the Apple Pencil.

If you want a reason to shout, “well, if Steve were here!” this is your golden opportunity.

The iPad Air is compatible with the second-generation Apple Pencil, which is a wonderful thing. It attaches magnetically to the side of the iPad for charging and stowage, it’s just the right length, and it has a flat side to stop it from rolling off everything.

The 10th generation iPad is only compatible with the first-generation Apple Pencil.

This presents two issues.

The first is the fact that the first-generation Apple Pencil charges via Lightning. Now, whether or not Apple forgot about this and only realised when it was too late, I have no idea, but it has left us with the need to buy a £9 USB-C to Apple Pencil Adapter.

For the uninitiated, the first-generation Apple Pencil is charged by removing a cap from one end (which you’ll lose, immediately) and plugging it into the iPad’s Lightning port. This, quite rightly, has encouraged as much internet laughter and derision as the price of the Pro Display XDR stand. But because there is no Lightning port on the 10th generation iPad, you now have to connect that stupid adapter first, before attaching the Apple Pencil, which means your horizontal Apple Pencil will now begin to enter the airspace of the table next to you while charging the accessory in your favourite coffee shop.

The second issue this presents is that the first-generation Apple Pencil is, well, really shit.

Give me strength.

Winner: iPad Air. Obviously.

10th generation iPad vs iPad Air: camera

On the back, the cameras are exactly the same. And you’ll never use them.

On the front, I think they’re the same. Apple refers to the 10th generation iPad’s FaceTime camera as a ‘landscape Ultra Wide camera’, whereas the iPad Air has a ‘12MP Ultra Wide front camera’. If someone could explain the difference (it isn’t the 12 megapixels) I’d be immensely grateful.

More importantly, they both feature Centre Stage support, which is what matters.

Winner: a tie.

Conclusion

If you’re wondering, the 10th generation iPad and iPad Air are pretty much identical when it comes to size and weight, too. The iPad Air is about 1mm thinner and weighs 16 grams less than its cheaper counterpart.

So, there really aren’t any meaningful gains to be had there, either.

Which would I buy? Despite the cool colours, I’d find that additional £170 and buy the iPad Air. Putting my continued confusion over why Apple isn’t doing anything with the M-chips it places into iPads to one side, they are the fastest you can buy, and for the relatively small premium, you might as well ensure you’re future-proofing a purchase you’re unlikely to repeat as often as your iPhone.

The screen is also measurably better on the iPad Air, if not much of a big deal, day-to-day.

But the clincher for me is the Apple Pencil. It remains one of Apple’s best accessories since the introduction of the second generation, and the decision to saddle the 10th generation iPad with the worst version is cruel. It suggests a concerted effort to gimp the new ‘cheaper’ iPad in ways Apple thinks the intended user base will either not notice or not understand.

But the biggest problem with the 10th generation iPad is that it is no longer the entry-level iPad. That role remains with the 9th generation, which can still be purchased for the tempting sum of £369. This makes the 10th generation an extremely weird device which is a very hard sell – unless you desperately want a pink one.

The iPad Air remains the best iPad in this price bracket, and with so few pounds separating the two, it makes sense to search high and low for the extra cash needed to buy Apple’s best non-Pro regular iPad.