2021 was a big year for iPad hardware with almost every line seeing a significant upgrade. We got new M1 iPad Pro models, a totally redesigned iPad mini 6, and a solid entry-level iPad spec bump that will keep it relevant for years to come.
The only model that went untouched was Apple's mid-range iPad Air. With the latest iPad Air having launched in the fall of 2020, Apple didn't see fit to upgrade it last year. The iPad Air 4 is still pretty solid spec-wise so that decision makes sense, but there are a few areas where upgrades are becoming due.
Fortunately, it looks like an iPad Air 5 isn't too far away with a rumored Apple spring event on the horizon. Here's what I want to see the new installment of the device bring to the table in 2022.
One of the most delightful iPad features to launch in 2021 was Center Stage. Using a mixture of machine learning software smarts and Ultra Wide camera hardware, Center Stage keeps you and anyone else with you in the frame on your video calls.
With iPads becoming the go-to FaceTime machines for many people in recent years, it was a pleasant surprise that Apple brought the feature to all of its iPad models launched in 2021, including the entry-level 2021 iPad.
The full list of Center Stage-compatible iPad models looks like this:
- 11-inch iPad Pro (3rd Generation)
- 12.9-inch iPad Pro (5th Generation)
- iPad mini (6th Generation)
- iPad (9th Generation)
Since Center Stage is a 2021 feature and the iPad Air 4 launched in 2020, there's no iPad Air on that list. Apple will surely want to fix that at the next opportunity.
Expect other likely camera upgrades that will bring the iPad Air at least up to the same standard as the iPad mini 6, which recently got a 12MP Ultra Wide FaceTime camera and a quad-LED True Tone flash on the back. I also anticipate 1080p video recording in 25 fps and 30 fps, in addition to 60 fps, in order for the iPad Air 5 to reach parity with the latest mini.
Next on the list of upgrades that will bring the iPad Air 5 in line with other models is the inclusion of 5G in the cellular configurations.
The iPad Pro was first to get 5G in spring 2021, with the iPad mini 6 following suit in late 2021. While the 9th-gen iPad didn't get 5G, Apple has shown it isn't a feature only Pro models will benefit from so I'd expect it to make an appearance on the next iPad Air's spec sheet.
The processor question: A15 or M1?
The current iPad Air runs the A14 Bionic system-on-a-chip, Apple's top-end mobile chip from 2020. At the time, it was a significant upgrade with 40% faster CPU performance and 30% faster graphics than A12, according to Apple. Since late 2020, though, Apple has shipped both A15 Bionic and M1 chips in its iPad models.
The iPad Air's awkward placing in Apple's lineup makes the processor hard to predict.
I expect that the 2022 iPad Air will get the A15 Bionic chip, again bringing it up to parity with the late-2021 iPad mini. It's unlikely that it will get the as-yet-unannounced A16 chip — Apple will save that chip's debut for the iPhone 14 in the fall — and it's also doubtful that Apple would want to move the M1 chip down the iPad line just yet.
Apple has to strike a tough balance between reserving its best features for its top-of-the-line iPad Pro and gradually moving technologies down to its other models. The iPad Air sits at a rather awkward spot in Apple's lineup — just below the iPad Pro in terms of size, specs, and price — so every upgrade the device gets eats into the market for the 11-inch iPad Pro.
Perhaps once M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, or a possible M2 series of chips, start to appear in the iPad Pro, the M1 chip will begin rolling out to future generations of iPad Air models. Not in 2022, though.
Over the last year or so, rumors have flip-flopped on the issue of the iPad Air 5's display technology. At one point, an OLED upgrade looked nailed-on for this year but more recent reports suggest that has been pushed back and we'll instead likely see the iPad Air 4's existing Liquid Retina display feature in the 2022 iPad Air.
The mini-LED display of the 12.9-inch 2021 iPad Pro has still not made its way down to the 11-inch variant so it's unlikely we're going to see a breakthrough technology like OLED hit the 10.9-inch iPad Air before the similarly-sized iPad Pro gets that spec bump.
I'd really love to see OLED come to the iPad Air or any iPad, and I'd love for Apple to surprise us with it this spring. However, it certainly seems like an OLED iPad is a way off for now.
Similarly, Face ID is a feature I'd love to see Apple bring to the iPad Air this year. Though it didn't ship Face ID with the iPad mini 6, instead opting for the button version of Touch ID like the iPad Air 4, it definitely feels like the sort of feature Apple could move down the lineup at this stage.
Apple doesn't restrict which iPhone models get Face ID each year (ignoring the made-to-be-affordable iPhone SE) with both the standard iPhone and iPhone Pro models getting the facial unlock feature, so it's not such a Pro-specific sell.
As I noted in my iPad mini 6 review, I found switching between Face ID-enabled devices and the Touch ID-based iPad mini 6 to be a jarring experience. With more physical space and a higher starting price, Apple could potentially justify its inclusion in the next iPad Air.
Let's face it, the iPad colors on offer at the moment are super boring.
For the entry-level and Pro model, you have just two shades of gray to choose from, and it doesn't get much better with the iPad mini 6 and iPad Air 4 offering a muted color palette across the board.
Apple has a history of using color to great effect and has even shown as recently as 2021 with the M1 iMac that it is willing to let loose with color every once in a while. Since the iPad mini 6's color range is so dull, I'd love to see the iPad Air become a more vibrant product for Apple with some rich, saturated aluminum chassis.
March can't come soon enough
The iPad Air is the Apple product primed for an update next and all signs point to an Apple media event in early March. Even if the iPad Air 5 doesn't get all of the updates I'd like to see, it's still likely to become the de facto recommendation as the best iPad for most people to buy.