iPad 9 vs iPad Air 4: Which iPad is right for you?

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020)
(Image credit: Future)

Comparing the iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020) can be tricky given how similar they are, at least at first glance. Now that Apple has revealed the new iPad 9 at its September 2021 event (read our Apple event recap for all the big news), you have to ask yourself whether the older, more expensive iPad Air 4 is worth the extra money.

Our iPad Air 4 review named it one of the best tablets you can buy, in large part because of its elegant design, great hardware, and capacity to stand in as a laptop replacement — provided you pair it with a Magic Keyboard

When it comes time to choosing between the iPad 9 (2021) and the iPad Air 4 (2020), you see the former has a somewhat dated design and less powerful processor. That said, it's nearly half the price of the iPad Air 4, and has a better front-facing camera with support for Apple's new Center Stage video chat feature.

So which iPad is right for your needs? This article will help you answer that question with an in-depth comparison of the two tablets' strengths and weaknesses.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020): Specs

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Header Cell - Column 0 iPad Air 4 (2020)iPad 9 (2021)
Starting price$599 $329 ($299 for schools)
Display10.9 inches (2360 x 1640) 10.2 inches (2160 x 1620)
ProcessorA14 BionicA13 Bionic
Storage64GB, 256GB64GB, 256GB
Rear Cameras12MP wide (f/1.8)8MP (f/2.4)
Front Cameras7MP TrueDepth (f/2.2)12MP TrueDepth (f/2.4)
Dimensions9.7 x 7 x 0.24 inches 9.8 x 6.8 x 0.29 inches
Weight1 pound 1.07 pounds
PortUSB-CLightning, headphones
AccessoriesMagic Keyboard, Smart Keyboard Folio, Apple Pencil (gen 2)Smart Keyboard, Apple Pencil (gen 1)
ConnectivityWi-Fi 6, optional 4GWi-Fi 6, optional 4G

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020): Price

The entry-level iPad has always been Apple's cheapest tablet, and the company did nothing to change that up in 2021. Like its predecessor, the new iPad 9 (2021) has a starting price of $329, though Apple will bump that down to $299 for students and teachers.

However, there is one notable change in what you get for that price: storage. Apple has finally upgraded the entry-level iPad's storage capacity to 64 GB, double the paltry 32 GB that earlier iPad models shipped with by default. 32 GB is, quite frankly, an insultingly small amount of space if you plan on using your iPad to use apps, play games, and watch videos, all of which demand meaningful storage space. 

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020) - iPad 9 2021 Price

(Image credit: Apple)

The fact that the new iPad 9 (2021) ships with 64 GB at minimum is a welcome change — though you might still think about paying an extra $150 for the 256 GB model, since even 64 GB can get filled up quick if you download a lot of media.

With its starting price of $599, the iPad Air 4 (2020) costs nearly twice as much as the iPad 9. It also ships with 64 GB of storage by default, with an option to get 256 GB for $150 extra. However, that $600+ price tag comes with some significant benefits: the iPad Air 4 is more powerful, smaller, and lighter than the iPad 9, with a slightly better screen.

iPad 9 vs iPad Air 4 (2020): Design

There are some big differences between the iPad 9 and iPad Air 4, design-wise: the iPad 9 cleaves to Apple's classic iPad design, with rounded edges and thick bezels around the screen. It comes in the same two colors as its predecessor (Silver and Space Gray), and has the same 9.8 x 6.8 x 0.29-inch measurements. If you picture an iPad in your mind, chances are you'll be looking at something like the new iPad 9.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020) - iPad 9 in action

The new iPad 9 (2021) sports the classic iPad design (Image credit: Apple)

The iPad Air 4 looks a little different: it's a bit smaller and lighter, weighing just 1 pound and measuring 9.7 x 7 x 0.24 inches. More notably, it has thinner bezels than the classic iPad (thanks to its edge-to-edge display) and flat edges. It's effectively the same design and size as Apple's 11-inch iPad Pro (2021), though the iPad Air 4 is a bit lighter. It also comes in five different colors (green, silver, Space Gray, Sky Blue and or Rose Gold), a significant improvement over the stolid iPad 9's choice of silver or Space Gray.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020): Ports

As we compare the design and ports of these two tablets, it's clear they represent the two remaining iPad input/output philosophies. 

Despite being released in 2021, when it seems like every device (including iPads) charges via USB-C, the iPad 9 still sports a Lightning port. This is disappointing, since it means you'll have to keep a Lightning cable with you if you want to keep your iPad charged (that iPhone charging cable gets to work overtime) . However, there's a silver lining to the dated design of the iPad 9: it also still has a headphone jack, making it the only contemporary iPad to offer such a luxury. If wired headphones are important to you, that's a big deal.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020) - iPad Air 4

The iPad Air 4's USB-C port gives it a bit more versatility (Image credit: Henry T. Casey/Tom's Guide)

The iPad Air 4 offers no such luxury, of course: you'll have to use Bluetooth headphones if you want to want to do some private listening on this tablet. However, it does offer the more convenient USB-C port for charging, and the rear-mounted Smart Connector port for Apple's excellent Magic Keyboard (which offers pass-through USB-C charging).

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020): Display

Despite being a bit smaller than the new iPad 9, the iPad Air 4 actually offers a slightly bigger, better screen thanks to its edge-to-edge display. 

The iPad Air 4's 10.9-inch display has a resolution of 2360x1640 pixels, for an approximate pixel density of 264 ppi. It also has support for the P3 color gamut, as well as Apple's True Tone tech that adjusts the display to complement ambient lighting.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020) - iPad 9 display

The new iPad 9 has a slightly smaller display than the tinier iPad Air 4, with unsightly thick black bezels (Image credit: Apple)

The new iPad 9 has a slightly smaller display with a similar pixel density. Its 10.2-inch screen has a display resolution of 2160x1620, meaning it also has an approximate pixel density of 264 PPI. It doesn't have the same P3 color gamut support as the iPad Air 4, but it does support True Tone.

Both tablets are advertised as achieving up to 500 nits of brightness, though in our lab testing we measured the iPad Air 4's screen as topping out at an average brightness of 440 nits. Both also offer a fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating, though the iPad Air 4 includes a fully-laminated display with anti-reflective coating on top of that. 

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020): Performance

There's a small but significant difference in the performance capabilities of the iPad 9 vs. the iPad Air 4. Despite being the newer tablet, the iPad 9 (2021) runs on Apple's older A13 Bionic chip, whereas the iPad Air 4 (2020) packs the more powerful A14 Bionic.

The Apple A13 Bionic chip driving the iPad 9 is an improvement over the A12 Bionic chip found in its predecessor, and Apple's claiming it gives the iPad 9 20% faster performance in CPU, GPU and Neural Engine activities. However, we can't verify those claims until we get one in for testing.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020) - iPad Air 4 in action

The iPad Air 4's A14 Bionic chip gives it plenty of power for demanding tasks like photo retouching (Image credit: Henry T. Casey/Tom's Guide)

We have tested the iPad Air 4, however, and we can say definitively that its A14 Bionic chip gives it enough power to speed through most day-to-day tasks. The iPad Air 4 earned a 4,262 on the Geekbench 5 performance benchmark, easily beating the 2,685 earned by the iPad 2020 with its A12 Bionic chip.

While we can safely assume the iPad 9 will offer better performance than its predecessor thanks to the A13 Bionic, which also powers the iPhone 11 lineup, it probably won't outclass the iPad Air 4 and its zippy A14 Bionic chip.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020): Cameras

If there's one big new notable addition to the iPad 9 (2021) which helps it stand above the iPad Air 4, it's the front-facing camera. 

Gone is the outdated 1.2MP selfie camera of the iPad 8, replaced by a new 12MP Ultra Wide front-facing camera with a remarkable 122-degree field of view. The new iPad 9's upgraded selfie camera also supports Apple's novel Center Stage feature, which debuted in the iPad Pro (2021). Center Stage uses AI to automatically move and focus the camera on speakers during video calls, and it's a neat feature to have if you plan to use your new tablet for a lot of Zoom calls. On the back of the new iPad you'll find a less impressive 8MP Wide camera, which is still good in a pinch if you want to use your tablet as an impromptu point-and-shoot.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020) - iPad Air 4 rear-facing camera

The iPad Air 4's rear-facing camera is better than that found on the new iPad 9, plus it's capable of capturing 4K video (Image credit: Henry T. Casey/Tom's Guide)

By comparison, the iPad Air 4 has a 12MP Wide camera on the rear and a 7MP camera facing front. The rear camera has more features and better panorama capabilities than the rear-facing camera on the iPad 9 (2021), and it can shoot 4K video while the iPad 9 cannot. However, the iPad Air 4's selfie camera isn't as good as the one found on the new iPad 9, and it doesn't support Center Stage.

When it comes to taking selfies and conducting video calls, the new iPad 9 is clearly better equipped than the older iPad Air 4. However, if you plan to use your new iPad's cameras to primarily to shoot photos and videos, you're probably better off with the iPad Air 4.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020): Battery life

The iPad 9 and iPad Air 4 are both rated for up to 10 hours of web surfing on Wi-Fi, and up to 9 hours if you're on cellular. 

This is pretty standard for Apple, and while we can't say for sure which tablet offers better battery life until we get a new iPad 9 in for testing, we can say that iPads are one of the rare devices which actually seem to meet or exceed the manufacturer's battery life claims under simulated real-world conditions.

Notably, when we set the iPad Air 4 up to continuously browse the web via Wi-Fi with its display set to 150 nits of brightness, the tablet lasted 10 hours and 29 minutes before powering off, beating Apple's advertised 10-hour battery life. We expect to see similar performance out of the iPad 9, but we'll have to wait until we test one for ourselves.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020): Accessories

If you care about accessorizing your new iPad with a stylus or keyboard, you'll have more and better options with an iPad Air 4.

The iPad Air 4's Smart Connector (three small dots on the back of the tablet) and magnets allow allows you to hook it up to the excellent $299 Magic Keyboard or the less expensive $179 Smart Keyboard Folio. The iPad Air 4 also supports the $129 2nd generation Apple Pencil, which is a great stylus that magnetically attaches to the edge of the iPad Air 4 for easy charging and pairing.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020) - apple pencil in action

The iPad Air 4 supports the 2nd gen Apple Pencil, which is an excellent (if pricey) stylus (Image credit: Henry T. Casey/Tom's Guide)

The new iPad 9, by contrast, doesn't support many of Apple's best accessories. It can't work with a Magic Keyboard or the latest Apple Pencil, but it can be connected to a $159 Smart Keyboard if you need to do a little typing on your tablet. 

The iPad 9 also supports the $99 1st gen Apple Pencil, which charges via the Lightning port, as you uncap the pen's bottom and plug it into the iPad.

iPad 9 (2021) vs iPad Air 4 (2020): Outlook

Now that we've taken a deeper look at these two tablets, it's clear that despite being roughly a year older, the iPad Air 4 offers a number of benefits the iPad 9 does not. 

The iPad Air 4 is a smidge smaller and lighter than the new iPad 9, with a slightly better screen and a more powerful chip under the hood. It also has a better rear-facing camera capable of capturing 4K video, which the iPad 9's cameras can't match. And with support for the latest Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil, the iPad Air 4 offers better accessorizing options than the iPad 9.

However, we have to keep in mind that the iPad 9 is nearly as good as the iPad Air 4 yet costs roughly half as much, making it a great choice for iPad shoppers on a budget. And the new iPad 9 even excels in a few specific situations, most notably if you care about using wired headphones or expect to spend a lot of time on video calls and can take advantage of the iPad 9's much-improved 12MP Ultra Wide front-facing camera with Center Stage support.

Stay tuned for our full Apple iPad 9 (2021) review, which will give us a clearer picture of how well it performs and how long it lasts on a full battery.

Alex Wawro
Senior Editor Computing

Alex Wawro is a lifelong tech and games enthusiast with more than a decade of experience covering both for outlets like Game Developer, Black Hat, and PC World magazine. A lifelong PC builder, he currently serves as a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice.