iPad Air Fourth Generation
Jacob Krol/CNN

Apple’s iPad lineup has never looked better. The ninth-generation iPad is a solid all-around tablet for most, while the newly revamped iPad Mini offers a mixture of portability with power. Then there’s the iPad Air and iPad Pro, which look virtually the same, especially when you’re pitting the 11-inch iPad Pro up against the Air.

If you’re in the market for an iPad that has more than what the base model offers, don’t overthink the decision. The iPad Air and iPad Pro are both stellar tablets, but they have a few key differences that differentiate them. Below we’ll walk you through those differences in an effort to help you make an educated buying decision.

Best for those who want to juggle work and play

The iPad Air brings solid performance to the table, combining it with a more affordable price and smaller footprint.

Best for power users

The iPad Pro is Apple's best tablet, on paper at least, and it's sure to be powerful enough to replace your laptop.

Get the iPad Air if…

Jacob Krol/CNN
iPad Air Fourth Generation

You’re looking to save some cash

The iPad Air is in the middle of Apple’s tablet lineup when it comes to features and price. The Air’s starting price is $599 for the Wi-Fi-only model, or $729 for Wi-Fi and cellular. For that, you’ll get a 10.9-inch tablet with slim bezels, 64GB of storage, a Touch ID sensor in the sleep/wake button and an A14 processor inside.

Apple’s iPad Pro starts at $799 for the 11-inch model, or $1,099 for the 12.9-inch model. Both of those prices are for the base models that include 128GB of storage but lack any sort of cellular connectivity.

Take into account the fact that a lot of iPad owners add one of Apple’s iPad keyboard accessories and an Apple Pencil, and saving some cash upfront will surely help.

Power and performance aren’t a necessity

The iPad Air isn’t a slouch when it comes to performance and power, but the A14 processor that powers it just can’t keep up with the M1 processor that’s used in the iPad Pro. Heck, not even Intel processors can keep pace with Apple’s first Apple Silicon processor.

If you don’t really care how long it takes for your iPad Air to render and export a video, or apply edits to a photo in Adobe Lightroom, then the iPad Air is going to have more than enough power and performance for your use.

We had no issues with how fast the iPad Air opened apps or how it handled split-screen apps with a third app open on top while streaming Twitch videos in Picture in Picture mode. Yes, an iPad really can do all of that. And the Air handles it all really well.

You don’t need the latest and greatest

When Apple released the iPad Air, it signaled Apple’s design approach for its tablets was also changing. Gone was the iconic home button and thick bezels. Instead, the border around the screen was shrunk down, and the sleep/wake button started pulling double duty, thanks to the addition of a Touch ID sensor that reads your fingerprint and unlocks the tablet as you press the button to wake the device.

It also ushered in Apple’s new approach of using bright color options instead of the standard black, silver and gold options iPads had used for the last few years.

But now the iPad Air’s design has trickled down to the iPad Mini. In addition to the design no longer being an iPad Air specific feature, the iPad Pro, iPad Mini and iPad Pro all have Center Stage, a front-facing camera feature that keeps you in the shot at all times, even if more people join the call.

The only tablet in Apple’s lineup that doesn’t have the feature? The iPad Air.

Get the iPad Pro if…

Jacob Krol/CNN
iPad Pro

You have to have the best

The 2021 iPad Pro is by far the best iPad Apple has ever made, both on paper and in daily use. From using the same M1 processor that the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro use, to two different display sizes, to full support for Thunderbolt 4 and faster data transfer speeds, the iPad Pro is more like a true computer than it is a tablet. That said, it still runs iPadOS, just like the iPad Air does, and has its share of software limitations.

The iPad Pro maxes out at 16GB of memory and 2TB of storage for $2,199, and that doesn’t include the extra $200 if you want to add 5G connectivity to it.

It’s going to replace your laptop

The argument is as old as the iPad — can Apple’s tablet replace your laptop? Fact: For many, it can. And if you’re going to replace your laptop with a tablet, what better tablet to do it with than the iPad Pro? You get a fast processor and your pick of the two biggest displays Apple offers in its iPad lineup.

You’ll want to pick up a keyboard (our favorite is Apple’s Magic Keyboard) and the Apple Pencil to complete the experience.

Between the desktop-class browser experience in Safari on the iPad and the availability of apps like Word and Excel, there’s not much you can’t do on the iPad. But it means you might have to spend some time researching and reconfiguring your workflow.

You need a bigger screen

The iPad Pro is available in two different sizes. There’s an 11-inch model and a 12.9-inch model. The only difference between the two designs is the display size, meaning you get all of the same internal specifications and have the same accessories available for them.

Of course, you won’t be able to use the Magic Keyboard that’s made for the 11-inch iPad Pro on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but outside of that small (but understandable) difference in accessories, the two devices offer the same experience, just with bigger screens than you’ll find on the iPad Air.

We’re big fans of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The extra screen real estate gives us more space to take advantage of split-screen apps, and the broad multitasking included in iPadOS 15.

Bottom line

Regardless of which model you end up buying, you’re sure to be happy with your decision. The iPad Air brings solid performance to the table, combining it with a more affordable price and smaller footprint. The iPad Pro is Apple’s best tablet, on paper at least, and it’s sure to be powerful enough to replace your laptop. But that performance comes with a price tag. A big price tag that you’ll need to be willing to pay for.