Before the iPad Air 3 came out, digital artist who might want to draw on the iPad could only choose between the affordable iPad 6 (2018) and the pricey iPad Pro (2018). The iPad 6 is nice for drawing but the drawing experience isn't the best with its non-laminated display.
To see how the new iPad Air 3 compares with the iPad Pro 10.5 (2017), I bought a unit for this review. I wanted to find out if you can have a pro drawing experience without the iPad Pro price tag
The iPad Air 3 has very similar form factor compared to the iPad Pro 10.5 (2017) which has been discontinued on the same day the Air 3 went on sale. The main differences is the A10X Fusion chip and four way speakers in the iPad Pro 10.5 vs the A12 processor and two way speakers in the Air 3. There are other differences but these are the two that stand out to me. Depending on what you do, the processor upgrade may be difficult to notice, but the audio quality and experience with the four way speakers is significantly better. If you're someone who uses your iPad for media consumption heavily, you will thank yourself everyday for getting the four way speakers.
The physical dimension and weight (456g) of the iPad Air 3 is quite similar to the iPad 6, except it's noticeably thinner at just 6.1mm. Despite how thin it is, the build quality feels solid.
In fact, it's thinner than the Apple Pencil. When you charge the Apple Pencil using the lighting port at the back, the tablet would lift off the table.
The 10.5-inch screen supports a resolution of 2224x1668 resolution at 264 pixels per inch. It's a high resolution screen that makes everything looks sharp. Colours look great out of the box with a wide colour gamut support of Wide colour display (P3). There's also true tone.
Brightness can go up to 500 nits which makes it bright enough for outdoor use. But when using at that brightness, you can expect the tablet to get hot and battery life to drop fast.
Battery life depends on what you do. If you're just watching videos, surfing the web and typing documents, you can expect 8 or more hours. If you're outdoors drawing under sunny conditions, expect 5 hours or so. But seriously, the battery life really varies so I can't give you just one number. All I can say is the battery life is above average and at no time with normal usage did I have to worry about it running out of battery power.
There's anti-reflective coating on the glass but don't expect it to work miracles. It just makes the reflection appear more muted. If you're considering a matte screen protector, note that instead of the hard edge reflections, the anti-glare will produce a white haze instead which will affect the colour saturation and contrast levels.
This is the first time Apple Pencil is supported on the iPad Air and it's such a fantastic move. The laminated display has very minimal or no gap between the glass surface and the actual LCD screen, which means when you're drawing, the lines would appear as if they are directly beneath the pen tip, without any gap.
This is how it looks like on the iPad 6's screen. Notice the gap? Because there's a gap, there's also a hollow sound when you tap on the screen with the Apple Pencil or your finger. It's not a big deal but the on the laminated screen, it feels dense when you're tapping on it.
The iPad Air 3 only supports Apple Pencil first generation which charges from the port at the bottom of the tablet. It's an extra US $99 by the way. The Apple Pencil is still the best stylus for drawing on the iPad ever since it was released with the iPad Pro 9.7 inch years ago. It has fantastic palm rejection, pressure and tilt sensitivity.
The overall drawing experience is fantastic. The lines come out just the way I want. The thin and thick transitions are smooth and lines taper nicely. The Apple Pencil is incredibly sensitive so you can draw with the lightest of pressure, and as long as the pen tip is on the screen, you can get a really thin line.
While the iPad Air 3 doesn't have the 120 Hz ProMotion the iPad Pro has, you probably won't notice any difference in screen refresh rate because I doubt you'll be drawing that fast. There will still be a gap that trails behind the pen tip while you draw, that's input lag, but overall the tablet and Apple Pencil combo is very responsive and feels responsive.
Because 10.5 inch is larger than the 9.7 inch screen, you will be able to see your art larger. And because the resolution is higher, you will be able to see more of your art.
The 9.7 inch screen is around the size of an A5 sketchbook. The 10.5 inch feels like a larger A5 sketchbook and that increase in screen size really does makes it a more enjoyable drawing experience, at least to me since I prefer larger screens.
The model that I bought has 64GD of storage which I feel is sufficient for creating digital art. Should you need more storage, you can always get extra iCloud storage later on. That's the cheaper option. If you need constant access to many files, then I suggest you upgrade to the 256GB model which is US $150 more. By comparison, a 200GB iCloud storage for a month is just US $36.
All iPad Air 3 comes with 3GB of RAM. When I created an A4 300DPI canvas with Procreate, I was only able to get 19 layers. The iPad Pro (2018) with 4GB of RAM gets you three times more layers at 57.
The strange thing is, the iPad 6 (2018) with 2GB of RAM also gives you 19 layers.
Pressure and tilt sensitivity work well together. You can vary the thickness of a single stroke just by changing the angle of the Apple Pencil, or vary how dark the line is using pressure. The Apple Pencil is intuitive to work with.
Large textured brushes can be used without lag. And it goes without saying that note taking and handwriting performance is excellent. Apple Pencil is as accurate as it can be.
Navigating with finger gestures such as zoom, pan and rotate are all smooth even if the file is a 5m by 2m 300DPI canvas.
With the iPad Air 3, you can definitely get a Pro drawing experience without the Pro price tag of the iPad Pro.
Compared to the cheaper iPad 6, you're getting a better drawing experience with the Air 3 mainly because of the laminated screen. That might be worth it to get the US $499 iPad Air 3 instead of the $329 iPad 6 (but usually sells for less on Amazon). The iPad 6 is actually the one I would still recommend for those who are not sure about getting into digital art. It's a more affordable less risky way to find out if you're really into drawing. But if you have the budget, want a larger screen and more satisfying drawing experience, get the iPad Air 3.
Apple is no longer selling the iPad Pro 10.5 inch but you can still find refurbished models (with one year warranty) selling on Apple's website. Those refurbished models are cheaper that the iPad Air 3 and at those pricing I recommend them instead. The A12 vs A10X processor speed difference is not going to be noticeable when it comes to drawing, but the better immersion and stereo of the four way speakers (I know it's not related to drawing) is something you will notice straightaway.
When compared to the iPad Pro (2018) 11 or 12.9 inches, well, of course they are better but they are significantly more expensive and even though I own one, I still don't feel like they are worth that high price tag. The iPad Pro is still an iPad and does iPad things.
So to conclude, yes, the iPad Air 3 is a fantastic portable drawing tablet.