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iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: Which should you buy?

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4
(Image credit: Apple)

Deciding between the iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4 can be a tricky proposition. Now that the iPad Pro 2021 has been released you can read our full iPad Pro 2021 (12.9-inch) review for an in-depth analysis of Apple's new tablet, and you have to ask yourself whether the extra power and screen quality it delivers is worth paying for. 

In our iPad Air 4 review from 2020, we proclaimed 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 Apple's tablet with a Magic Keyboard). Our iPad Pro 2020 review was similarly effusive, noting that the 12.9-inch version of last year's iPad Pro was best in class in terms of performance and battery life.

But now there's a new iPad Pro on the market, and it's packing Apple's powerful M1 chip, a very promising new Liquid Retina XDR display, better cameras and support for 5G.

The iPad Pro 2021 is the latest and most powerful Apple tablet on the block, but is it a better choice for your needs? Read on for some helpful insights!

iPad Pro 2021 vs iPad Air 4: Specs

iPad Air 4 (2020)11-inch iPad Pro 202112.9-inch iPad Pro 2021
Starting price$599$799$1,099
Display10.9 inches (2360 x 1640)11 inches (2388 x 1668 pixels)12.9 inches (2732 x 2048 pixels) mini-LED
ProcessorA14 BionicM1 (16-core)M1 (16-core)
Storage64GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
Rear Cameras12MP wide (f/1.8)12MP wide (f/1.8), 10-MP ultra-wide (f/2.4)12MP wide (f/1.8), 10-MP ultra-wide (f/2.4)
Front Cameras7MP TrueDepth12MP TrueDepth12MP TrueDepth
Dimensions9.7 x 7 x 0.24 inches9.74 x 7.02 x 0.23 inches11.04 x 8.46 x 0.25 inches
Weight1 pound1.04 pounds1.51 pounds
PortUSB-CUSB-C with Thunderbolt, USB-4USB-C with Thunderbolt, USB-4
AccessoriesMagic Keyboard, Apple Pencil (gen 2)Magic Keyboard, Apple Pencil (gen 1 & 2)Magic Keyboard, Apple Pencil (gen 1 & 2)
ConnectivityWi-Fi 6, optional 4GWi-Fi 6, optional 5GWi-Fi 6, optional 5G

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: Price

Apple's new iPad Pro 2021 starts at $799 for the 11-inch model, while the 12.9-inch version has a starting price of $1,099. 

That's notably more expensive than the iPad Air 4's $599 starting price, especially if you're considering shelling out for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. So if budget is a serious concern you should consider choosing the iPad Air 4, especially given that you can probably find a decent discount on the iPad Air 4 now that it's been on the market for months. (Check out the best iPad deals to see what you can save.)

One important caveat: the cheapest iPad Air 4 ships with only 64GB of storage, which sounds larger than it feels once you load your new iPad up with apps and media. The cheapest iPad Pro 2021 ($799) comes with 128GB of storage, which is a much more reasonable amount of space for a modern tablet.

The iPad Air is widely available now. Pre-orders for the new iPad Pro opened April 30, and that tablet started arriving in stores in the second half of May.

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: Display

The iPad Air 4's 10.9-inch (2360 x 1640 pixels) Liquid Retina display is plenty bright and beautiful enough to let you enjoy watching your favorite shows and movies on the go. It has a respectable pixel density of 264ppi, the nice thin bezels of the iPad Pro, and good color reproduction.

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: Video on the iPad Air 4 display

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey/Tom's Guide)

But as good as that display is, the iPad Air was outshone by the old iPad Pro (2020) in terms of brightness and color reproduction. The iPad Air 4 also doesn't offer the smooth 120Hz refresh rate of the iPad Pro, which can be noticeable when you're scrolling through a document.

The new iPad Pro 2021 has two different screens depending on which size you buy, and both seem like an improvement over the iPad Air 4's display. The smaller, cheaper iPad Pro 2021 will have a Liquid Retina display with more than 4 million pixels, while the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro will sport a new mini-LED display that Apple claims will display more than 5.6 million pixels. 

This new mini-LED display on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2021 draws on tech learnings from Apple's desktop XDR display, packing 10,000 mini-LEDs into the tablet that allow it to display XDR (extreme dynamic range) content with what Apple claims are peak brightness levels of between 1,000 - 1,600 nits. If true, that makes it a significant improvement over the previous iPad Pro and the iPad Air 4, the latter of which maxed out at 440 nits of brightness in our lab testing.

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: Promo image of the iPad Pro 2021 display

(Image credit: Apple)

So if you prize display quality and are willing to pay for the privilege, the new iPad Pro 2021 seems like the clear choice. If you're curious to learn more, we've got all the info about why Mini-LED on the iPad Pro is a big deal.

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: Performance

One of the big selling points of the new iPad Pro 2021 is the inclusion of Apple's new M1 chip, which first debuted last year. The iPad Pro 2021 is the first iPad to incorporate the M1, and Apple claims the octa-core chip will offer 50% faster CPU performance and 40% better graphics performance over the already-powerful iPad Pro 2020, which relied on Apple's A12Z Bionic processor.

Apple also claims we'll see as much as a 2x improvement in storage access speed over the iPad Pro 2020, which was already plenty fast. The new iPad Pro 2021 supports USB-4 and Thunderbolt 4, which means better-than-ever bandwidth for for external devices and displays.

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: Apple's specs for the iPad Pro 2021's M1 chip

(Image credit: Apple)

The iPad Air 4 is no slouch in the performance department either, though its 2020 hardware pales in comparison to what's coming in the iPad Pro 2021. Specifically, the iPad Air 4 packs an A14 Bionic chip with a hexa-core CPU and a quad-core GPU that makes it speedier than most tablets on the market. 

However, the iPad Air 4 was just a bit slower than last year's iPad Pro in our benchmark testing, so we expect the new iPad Pro 2021 will be a significantly faster and more capable device. 

If you're willing to pay for performance the new iPad Pro is unquestionably the better choice, but that doesn't mean the iPad Air 4 is a bad choice; with great gaming and multi-tasking performance, the iPad Air 4 should still deliver enough power to satisfy your needs in nearly any situation.

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: Battery life

The iPad Air 4's battery is robust enough to get you through a full workday and then some, lasting 10 hours and 29 minutes in our web browsing-based battery test. That's a little more than two hours less than the standard 10.2-inch iPad, but about 15 minutes longer than the 2020 iPad Pro, which Apple claimed could last up to 10 hours on a single charge.

The new iPad Pro 2021 is similarly rated for up to 10 hours of surfing the web or watching videos on Wi-Fi, though that promise drops to 9 hours if you're using a cellular connection. If the iPad Pro performs as well or worse than its predecessor, the iPad Air 4 may still be the better choice for battery life, though the difference will likely be measured in tens of minutes.

iPad Pro 2021 vs iPad Air 4: Design

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: The iPad Air 4's design is one of the slimmest on the market

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey/Tom's Guide)

One of the reasons we love the iPad Air 4 is its slim, elegant design; while all of Apple's tablets are trim and light, the 1-pound iPad Air 4 is the easiest to carry. Dimensions-wise, it's basically identical to the 11-inch iPad Pro, with similarly thin bezels that make the screen pop.

The iPad Air 4 also integrates a Touch ID fingerprint scanner into its lock button, which we appreciate.

By comparison, the 11-inch iPad Pro 2021 is basically the same size and weight, though it may be just a few grams heavier than the iPad Air 4. And of course, the larger 12.9-inch model weighs in a bit heavier at 1.5 pounds. The bezels appear to be as thin as ever, though like their predecessors, the new iPad Pro models appear to lack Touch ID sensors, instead relying on facial recognition via Face ID for biometric authentication.

If quality design is a key factor for you, it's probably a toss-up between the iPad Air 4 and the iPad Pro 2021. Both offer great performance in a thin, light package, though the added weight and size of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2021 may make that tablet a little more unwieldy to use, especially if you have small hands.

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: The iPad Pro 2021 appears as svelte as its predecessor

(Image credit: Apple)

iPad Pro 2021 vs iPad Air 4: Cameras

The cameras on the iPad Air 4 are good enough that you could whip out the tablet to take photos, though some people might look at you funny. In our testing the iPad Air 4's 12MP camera did a decent job of capturing sharp, color-accurate images, as did its 7MP front-facing camera. 

iPad Pro 2021 vs. iPad Air 4: The iPad Air 4's rear-mounted camera is good enough for most photo opps

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey/Tom's Guide)

When we used the tablet to hop on a video conference, the video quality was just as good as (if not better than) that delivered by an external webcam.

The new iPad Pro 2021, by comparison, sports the same 12MP wide and 10MP ultra-wide rear cameras we saw on last year's iPad Pro model. They're quite good, but we're more interested in the changes Apple is making to the big tablet's front-facing camera. 

The iPad Pro 2021 will come with an improved 12MP TrueDepth sensor on the front which supports Apple's Center Stage, a new feature that uses the iPad Pro's ultra-wide camera during video calls to automatically track and zoom in on someone as they move around the frame. Apple claims it can even recognize someone else if they move into the frame, zooming out to fit them in the shot. We're eager to test out Center Stage under real-world conditions.

Apple Center Stage

(Image credit: Apple)

Camera quality usually isn't the top concern for someone in the market for a new tablet, but if you care about what cameras you'll get (or just really see a need to get a tablet which supports Center Stage), the new iPad Pro 2021 is the way to go.

iPad Pro 2021 vs iPad Air 4: Outlook

Thanks to the new M1 chip the new iPad Pro 2021 is shaping up to be one of the most powerful and capable tablets of the year, and we're eager to check out how good that gorgeous-looking mini-LED screen on the 12.9-inch model looks in person. 

It's also looking like the iPad Pro 2021 be one of the most expensive tablets you can buy, especially if you need more storage than the base models or want to splurge for that larger screen size. 

By comparison, the iPad Air 4 does just about everything the iPad Pro 2021 can for potentially hundreds of dollars less, though you won't get the top-of-the-line components and performance promised by the new iPad Pro. If you don't need all those bells and whistles, the iPad Air 4 is still a great tablet to buy; it's more powerful and more stylish than the 2020 iPad, and when you pair it with a Bluetooth keyboard it's still a decent laptop replacement.

But if you're willing to pay a premium for the latest and greatest Apple tablet with what could well be best-in-class performance, the iPad Pro 2021 is shaping up to be one of the best tablets you can buy this year. 

Alex Wawro

Alex Wawro is a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice. Got a hot tip? Get in touch via alex.wawro@futurenet.com.