OH WOW! I couldn’t believe when my younger brother bought me an 2020 iPad Air 4 A14 for his wedding – right? – but was more than pleased, just the same. (Yeah, don’t ask about my family dynamics: we are who we are.) But this new device replaced the 2016 iPad Pro 9.7 A9X as my main computing device. Comparing the two has availed me of the opportunity to check the sea change at Apple: wheres’t thou, Sir Ive?
Yet before we leap into that, please indulge my enthusiasm of tech.
I love technology. I love everything that we are able to accomplish. I love the evidence that we as a species are capable of growing, adapting and evolving. Perhaps the original World Trade Centre did not exactly embody Art Nouveau in terms of aesthetics, but it was a monument to myriad advances in engineering. The Burj Khalifa excels even more so.
Back to the topic of Apple design with a little history…
Twenty years ago, way back in 2000, mobile devices were ghastly compared to what we have today. The nasty screens accompanied by surfaces festooned with plastic buttons, incredibly slow, ugly plastics and no such thing as updates or apps or usability. Apple ruined the plans of many erstwhile leaders in the market: Motorola, Samsung, RIM, Sony-Erickson and Microsoft have all either been greatly impacted or destroyed by Multi-Touch.
Ten years ago, Apple focussed on internally-designed SoCs and screen refinement, providing a hardware platform for the booming world of the App Store. Back then, Apple was still a tiny player in an enormous handheld device market yet was already drawing new customers to it faster than, well, anything previously.
The combined numbers of Android-based smartphones was surely far greater than iPhone but those various companies were not working cooperatively. Google was determined to use people as the product and Android as its advertising space. The resulting total lack of security, privacy, and conformity in software resulted in such amazing disasters as the Google Marketplace and significant or terminal delays in updates. This all provided people’s personal details to whomever paid or hacked for them.
I always recommend ascertaining where a company gets most of its money from – it is then very easy to know that company’s priorities.
But! Just when non-Apple devices seemed to be getting ahead, and Apple was still selling an old phone in a plastic case (even though it out-sold almost all Android devices in every market!), the iPhone 6 ended the phablet race for even Samsung. The 6 also was first to ship with an SoC not made by Samsung but TSMC.
By removing SoC production to TSMC, and releasing larger phones, Apple effectively removed the advantages it had been granting to its key competitor – strange that Apple would be in this position, never happened before (yes, Microsoft) – and moving to 64bit, iPhones immediately provided Apple with perhaps its most impressive advancement ever. It was at this point that iPad also began to get the power it needed.
The iSlate tablet for Working and Playing…
The derision met by iPad ini 2010 seems to have not really subsided over the past ten years. There are still bloggers intimating that this device isn’t ‘real’ or does not facilitate every possible task imaginable. If we consider the iPad’s intended market – the lower 80% of laptops – it is easy to see why there are no other tablets with a notable market- or mind-share.
Successive generations of the Ax SoC has provided the power, through multiple types of processing cores, for iPad to go from strength to strength. LiDAR being the latest edition, this device easily out-performs the vast majority of computing devices not just in its price and performance range, but now everything including an integrated GPU.
There are no fans in iPad, so no idiotic whirring sounds. There have never been any spinning hard drives to be bumped and damaged, and they have always all had touch screens. All of them now have the best in on disk encryption, and even the smallest and cheapest has machine learning capabilities. But very few of them have more than one port as wireless has become the new standard. At least USB-C is being implemented, at long last.
iPad has more processing power than all but top-spec gaming laptops, and has had for several years. Apple’s SoC’s have outpaced Huawei, Qualcomm, Samsung, and basic Intel processors for years. iPadOS is vastly more efficient than Windows or Android. The App Store has gradually advanced from losing money, to breaking even, to now delivering a profit – and not just for Apple, but millions of developers. iPad stands alone.
Apples to Apples!
So now I descend upon the topic at hand: comparing what was to what is. The 9.7 was built with, basically, tech from 2015, so this five-year period may give us a glimpse at the trajectory of iPad’s future, if not an opportunity to obsess over the specs. Hehe!
There are so many differences: the Air has no Home Button, so the screen curves equidistant from the bezels, the Magic Keyboard is much nicer to type on, and there are a lot more magnets being used. And the screen hovers over the keyboard. The all-black bezels and keyboard provide a lovely, inviting feel, with the light blue edge of the iPad barely registering as I go through my day.
Under the screen, A14 is notably faster than A9X, but the older model is no slouch at all. Touch ID works about the same on both, and downloads rarely reach maximum WiFi capabilities of either models here. But both devices have fairly similar footprints and dimensions. All these differences result in the Air feeling so much more impressive, and the Pro now feels rather cute and retro.
And now, the Complaints Department…
Diamond-cut chamfered edges were an excellent idea. Having a 90° edge digging directly into my thumb or palm is not comfortable and the nerves are dead way before 10mins are up. Sir Ive certainly had the right idea and I hope Apple eventually brings them back, such as with the iPhone 5.
Touch ID has moved from the Home Button to the Lock Button, but muscle memory and habit formed over a decade does not stop my finger from pressing the Lock Button to go home, especially once said finger just opened the device, locking it again. I’m gradually moving to the track pad’s three-finger-swipe-up to go home, now. First World Problems, ya.
The Pro does not escape criticism, however: the folding/unfolding process of the Smart Keyboard has been ridiculed by others, and origami enthusiasts aside, is too convoluted. The Apple Pencil 1 is also idiotic with its recharge method which I rectified by using an iPhone charging stand and the included adaptor. That’s about it for the Pro. Even in 2020, the 2016 Pro is still a rather impressive device!
But the best point of the Pro, which really side-attack-pinches the Air, are the speakers.
Quadrophonic speakers are just stunning on the Pro, especially on the 12.9 model. Just beautiful! The clarity and resonance is unreasonably resounding coming from such a thin device. The Air, however, just seems like it was designed by white people: where is the bass? After a time, I need to turn the Air down as the upper frequencies start to grate a little. It is rather bothersome that Apple sill hasn’t provided a system-wide equaliser on such a popular device.
Finally, a minor niggle: the keyboards.
I have Japanese keyboards on both, but these keyboards are not the same: the 2016 Pro has an iPad keyboard layout, with Globe Key and um… not much else. The 2020 Air keyboard has a Mac-inspired keyboard, with language change keys either side of the Space Bar and… err… nothing else. Not even an ESC key to get back home. Whatever could this mean?
There are, then, all the punctuation keys which are all in different places, so even as I move between Air and Pro, I have to actually look at the keyboard to check where ‘ and : are, rather than (turn on light to see darkened ‘Smart’ Keyboard) with the keys mapped to : and + respectively. Likewise @ is same as the Mac as on the Air, but @ is “ on the Pro.
Same company, different key layout for the same product in the same language. Erm… indicators of…?
Since OSX Mavericks, the Mac has definitely been assuming many iOS-inspired design choices but with the Magic Keyboard, the iPad is now gravitating toward the Mac. Odd that both systems were not compatible and equivalent from the beginning, but here we are.
Sir Ive leaving the company necessarily resulted in design changes, such as the end to the Noisy Butterflies of Disrepute which are in the Smart Keyboard. While I’ve never had issue with these mostly-sealed keyboards, the Magic Keyboard’s backlights and trackpad are most welcome.
The diamond-cut chamfered edges of the Pro are still beautiful and provide just a little more material than the tiny fraction of aluminium around the Air’s extremely expensive and difficult to replace screen. This also makes the Ive-designed Pro much more comfortable to take in hand.
Further, the Air is awkwardly somewhere set between a primarily landscape-use system and a portrait: the keyboard sets the device as landscape, as do most games and applications, as are the stereo speakers, but the FaceTime camera, logo, and startup screen are all in portrait orientation. The 2020 Air is more portrait-oriented than the 2016 Pro which evinces a gradual shift toward laptop-landscape orientation.
But the Air, and by extension all full screen iPad models, are definitely becoming more a device for using a keyboard with. The implementation of a trackpad is a sure sign that this is a computing device where touch is not necessary for operation. USB-C greatly expands iPad’s usability and the design makes the basic action of folding/unfolding a delight. I am also in love with the floating screen design.
These changes are in opposition to iPad’s introduction, where Jobs specifically and repeatedly presented iPad as portrait-first and hand-held. And I am rather pleased with the Air all except the bitey edges, which stop me from using Air away from the keyboard. iPhone is the hand-held device I use currently, although I would much rather that be a mini iPad Pro with a quad speaker system!
In conclusion, the old Pro is the one I take to bed and it is the one I watch vids on, in-hand, but the Air is the one I love more mostly due to the keyboard- and trackpad-focussed design and where I do the vast majority of my work.
Maybe iPad is almost a computer now?
I love how beautifully designed and presented both of these iPads are, and how lovely both of them are to use. The five years of evolution in both hardware and software certainly indicate a gravitation toward standard laptop-style computing but iPad delivers that experience with far more potential than the MacBook can or will.
The touch-first foundation of iPad ensures an interactivity that systems with no touch, such as macOS, or with touch plastered over the top, such as Windows, will never move past their mouse-pointer foundations. One the other hand, iPadOS is gradually adding pointer functionality while also extending its vast lead in processing and interactive capabilities.
And to end on a personal note, I love having two iPads, side-by-side, allowing me to multitask up to four applications at once, and all with touch, or pencil, or keyboard, or mouse interactivity. Money no object, and despite being more expensive than a Mac, I would get two 12.9 iPad Pros… but only after they get upgraded to A14!