When will the iPad Air 3 come out? And what new features should we expect from Apple's next 9.7-inch iPad? Is Apple discontinuing the iPad Air brand?
Apple recently announced the latest addition to the iPad line-up, but it wasn't the new iPad Air 3 we were expecting. Instead, Apple has added a 9.7-inch iPad Pro to the mix, with improved specs, design tweaks and more. Does this mean Apple has finished with the iPad Air line, sticking to Pro branding for both 9.7- and 12.9-inch iPads in future? Or will it carry on releasing 9.7-inch iPads in both Pro and Air configurations, much as it does with the 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro? It could go either way.
In this article we look at rumours about the the iPad Air 3's release date, and talk about possible new features and design changes to expect in Apple's mid-size iPad range. Bookmark this page and check back regularly for the latest information: as rumours circulate and news leaks out, we will update it with everything you need to know about the new iPad Air 3: design, features, size and specifications, the differences between the next-gen iPad Air 3 and the current iPad Air 2, the iPad Air 3's UK launch date and UK price, and much, much more.
If you're more interested in the current crop of iPads, read our 12.9-inch iPad Pro review, 9.7-inch iPad Pro review and iPad Air 2 review, and our iPad mini 4 review and iPad mini 2 review. And remember to check our iPad buyers' guide for 2016.
Last updated to include a rumour suggesting that the iPad Air 3 release date is imminent, and why we believe this isn't true.
iPad Air 3 release date rumours: When will the iPad Air 3 come out?
We originally predicted an October 2015 launch for the iPad Air 3, based on past behaviour from Apple. The iPad Air 2 was unveiled to journalists on 16 October 2014; The iPad Air 1 was announced on 22 October 2013, and released at the start of November. This is Apple's standard iPad release schedule, and the announcement of iOS 9 at WWDC 2015 on 8 June, same as every year, suggested that things were proceeding as usual.
But 2015 was a surprising year for iPad announcements. At Apple's September press briefing, where we would traditionally expect to hear about iPhones, iPhones and more iPhones, the company risked overshadowing the first sighting of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus by unveiling the iPad Pro (and then slipping out the iPad mini 4, which is actually a far more valuable and appealing update than last year's iPad mini 3). But there was no sign of the next mid-size iPad Air. Apple instead refreshed its mid-size iPad range the following March, when it unveiled the iPad Pro 9.7in.
We think it's likely that Apple will launch new iPads of some kind in autumn 2016, quite possibly alongside the iPhone 7. But whether this will include new 9.7-inch models is harder to call: Apple may choose to split its tablet refreshes into two yearly events, just as we expect it to update the 4-inch iPhone in spring and the 4.7 and 5.5-inch iPhones in autumn. September 2016 is the earliest we'd expect the iPad Air 3 to appear, but right now March 2017 seems likelier.
We thought that the appearance of the iPad Air 3 could've been possible at WWDC 2016 which took place recently, as even though WWDC is a software-led conference, it has happened in the past. Plus, if the iPad Air 3 had a strong software tie-in with iOS 10, why not show it off at the same time? Of course, the event has come and gone and Apple chose not to unveil the iPad Air 3, which leaves us with one more possible window - autumn 2016.
On the other hand, some leftfield rumours suggest that Apple may have brought the Air line to an end, and will in future focus on the mini and Pro ranges. Now that the Pro brand encompasses 9.7-inch iPads, this previously crazy-sounding theory could just be right.
In June 2016, rumours started circulating the Internet claiming that the release of an iPad Air 3 was "imminent" due to the fact that some US-based sellers are offering the almost two-year-old iPad Air 2 with a $250 discount. More specifically, Quick Shop Electronics, an eBay Seller in the US is offering the discontinued 128GB iPad Air 2 in Space Grey for $449.99, down from $699.99.
What we at Macworld UK can't quite understand is why this points towards the release of an iPad Air 3. The eBay seller only sells electronics and has nothing to do with Apple itself, and there could be a number of reasons for the discount. We believe that it makes sense for Quick Shop Electronics to apply the $250 discount to attract customers to a tablet that has been on the market for nearly 2 years, especially now that a faster, more advanced iPad is now on the market.
Plus, Apple doesn't really discount products prior to the release of the successor - if Apple is planning to release a new product and kill off the existing one entirely, the company generally stops production of the gadget until stock starts to dry up, then introduces a more impressive model.
iPad Air 3 UK onsale date rumours
When will the iPad Air 3 go on sale in the UK? There's usually a delay of around 10 days between the announcement and the devices going on sale. If the Air 3 launches in mid-September 2016, for example, then expect it to hit UK shops in late September.
There are occasionally shortages when a major Apple product launches, so those who are desperate to get their hands on the Air 3 would be wise to place a pre-order if possible. (Pre-ordering using Apple's own Apple Store app rather than on the website often appears to give you a head start that could make all the difference.)
Macworld poll: How often do you update your iPad?
The iPad Air 3 may arrive in autumn 2016, but by no means every iPad owner will make the upgrade. How often do you buy a new iPad?
iPad Air 3 release date rumours: What will the iPad Air 3 look like?
Let's look next at the iPad Air 3's physical design. What will the iPad Air 3 look like (and feel like)?
iPad Air 3 design rumours: Smart Connector for Smart Keyboard...
It's an obvious logical progression from the 12.9- and 9.7-inch iPad Pro models, but it seems likely that the iPad Air 3 will have a Smart Connector on the lefthand edge for attaching a Smart Keyboard Cover.
Most iPad accessories are dependent on their own battery power - even the Apple Pencil has to be recharged, albeit very quickly, when it runs out of charge - but the Smart Connector allows a connected keyboard cover to draw power from the iPad's battery. In the larger iPad Pro's case, that means a very long usage time, since it has a monster battery; hopefully the iPad Air 3 will be able to offer something impressive in that department too.
iPad Air 3 design rumours: ...and Apple Pencil compatibility
When Apple launched the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, it was the only tablet that was compatible with the Apple Pencil. That made sense at the time - it was a unique selling point for Apple's most expensive tablet. But plenty of iPad Air owners have told us they would dearly love to be able to use the Pencil, one of the best styluses on the market, with their device, and it would be reasonable to add compatibility to a wider range of devices over the coming year.
Apple started that process with the 9.7-inch Pro, and we expect Pencil capabilities to diffuse downwards through the range.
iPad Air 3 design rumours: Thinner than the iPad Air 2
Physically, it's rumoured that the next iPad Air will be… wait for it… thinner than its predecessor.
It's generally a sound prediction to make, given that the iPad Air 1 was thinner than the iPad 4 and the iPad Air 2 was thinner than the iPad Air 1. The iPad Air 2 is already really thin, mind you, and we do sometimes wonder how much thinner tablets need to get before the compromises start to outweigh the benefits. The Air 2 is sturdy and has stood up to more than a year's heavy and frequent use, but we still recall the nervousness with which we handled it in the early days: it's hard to see an even more slender iPad Air 3 inspiring a great deal of confidence in its ability to withstand bending, chucking on a sofa, holding by one edge etc.
(Note that the iPad Pro 9.7in, which improves on the iPad Air 2 in most other respects, is the same thickness.)
If batteries are getting smaller, couldn't they just keep it the same size and incorporate a higher-capacity battery unit, and give us a few more hours away from the charger?
Indeed, one rumour suggests that the Air 3's thinner chassis will actually mean it has a lower-capacity battery unit than the Air, which seems crazy to us. (Even though improvements in battery technology could mean that this lower-capacity unit actually lasts for a comparable length of time in practice, it seems barmy to consciously choose not to improve battery life when simply keeping the same capacity unit would achieve this.)
iPad Air 3 design rumours: 7000-series aluminium body
We mentioned above our general nervousness that a thinner iPad Air 3 would also be less robust. But one other change to its physical design could help with that.
The Tampa Bay Review thinks the iPad Air 3 is likely to be made of 7000-series aluminium, like the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. There's a certain logic to this: spending the extra cash on stronger materials to make the newest iPhones more bend-proof than their predecessors was a popular move after the (possibly overstated) traumas of Bendgate. But it does raise the question of why the iPad Pro (which is more valuable) and the iPad mini 4 (which is more portable, and therefore more likely to get crammed into a pocket) missed out on this upgrade.
If the Air 3 is thinner than either of those devices then we have an answer, but that only poses another: what is it about the Air lineup in particular that makes it more deserving of a super-thin body than those other Apple tablets?
iPad Air 3 design rumours: iPad Air 3 colour options
Like the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, we'd expect the iPad Air 3 to be available in four colours: silver, gold, Space Grey and Rose Gold.
Every year someone suggests that the next iPad will come in the bright primary colours of the iPhone 5c and every year that person is disappointed. We don't expect the iPad Air 3 to be particularly colourful (except for the two fairly muted gold finishes).
Although we've not seen many leaks for the iPad Air 3, the latest concept video to hit the Internet showcases everything that the unannounced tablet should feature - Smart connector, a flush camera and, more importantly, 3D Touch support. Apart from that, the concept tablet looks similar to the iPad Pro 9.7in but with smaller bezels at the sides of the display. Take a look at the concept video below:
iPad Air 3 rumours: What will the iPad Air 3 feature?
It's time to look deeper into the iPad Air 3. What do the latest rumours say about the iPad Air 3's specs?
iPad Air 3 specs rumours: Processor and speed
The iPad Air 2 got a new processor chip, the A8X - a souped-up version of the iPhone 6's A8. This has three billion transistors and offers (Apple says) 40 percent faster performance than the iPad Air 1's A7 chip in most apps and up to 2.5x graphics performance.
It would be a big shock if Apple didn't upgrade the processor again when it launches the iPad Air 3, and it doesn't take a genius to predict that the iPad Air 3's chip will be an A9 or an A9X, and very speedy indeed. The iPad Pro 9.7in has an A9X.
One other thought based on the iOS 9 announcements: new multitasking capabilities are likely to be extremely demanding on processor power so a powerful chip wouldn't be wasted in the iPad Air 3.
iPad Air 3 specs rumours: Rear-facing camera gains LED flash
The iPad Pro 9.7in is the first iPad in history to feature a flash. This is attached to the rear-facing camera, but the front-facing camera also gets the Retina Flash feature, whereby the entire screen is induced to light up as a sort of substitute flash. We feel that the iPad Air 3 is likely to get one or both of these upgrades too.
The genie is clearly out of the bottle when it comes to iPad photography: as annoying as you find it when someone holds up their iPad to video a concert, the iPad range are being used as cameras, and Apple knows this. Just look at the hyperbole and feature list here. And a flash is a big gap to have in a device's photographic armour.
iPad Air 3 specs rumours: No 3D Touch
Ming-Chi Kuo, one of the most famous Apple pundits out there, predicted that 3D Touch wouldn't make an appearance in the iPad Pro 9.7in, and this proved correct.
In a research paper, Kuo predicted that the Pro (although referred to under another name) would launch in the first half of 2016 but wouldn't get the marquee feature from the flagship iPhones.
In the past, Apple has frequently introduced a new feature on the iPhone line and then dispersed it through other products - Retina displays, Siri, Touch ID - and plenty of analysts have made the obvious logical leap of assuming that 3D Touch will migrate to iPad at some point. Ming-Chi Kuo was the most authoritative voice to doubt this. It would seem strange to allow this popular if niche feature to appear on the iPad Air 3 if it isn't on the iPad Pro, so we assume 3D on iPad will have to wait for a while longer.
iPad Air 3 specs rumours: Screen resolution
Back in 2014, we wondered if the iPad Air 2 might get a screen upgrade from the Air 1, possibly gaining the Retina HD designation given to the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. But its display is largely the same, with the same resolution and size. (One screen modification Apple did talk about was an anti-reflective coating: a nice - if unglamorous - upgrade.) And this idea has been floated again this year.
Back in September 2015 the Chinese-language site MyDrivers (link to translation) made some grand claims about the iPad Air 3's specifications. Most eye-catching among these is the unexpected prediction that Apple will increase the resolution and therefore pixel density of the screen on its next mid-size iPad.
MyDrivers reckons the Air 3 will get a bump up to 401 pixels per inch (matching the iPhone 6s Plus), which translates on a 9.7-inch screen into a resolution of 3112x2334. (This compares to 2048x1536 at 264ppi on both the Air 1 and Air 2.) We confirmed this figure using the handy PixelDensityCalculator website.
Pixel density is a measure of how tightly pixels are packed on a screen, and increasing it so much would result in an appreciably sharper screen - even though Apple used to maintain that 264ppi was more than enough on devices of this form factor.
Moving up to 401ppi on the Air 3 would be a major step forward for Apple, which has previously applied its Retina marketing label to 9.7-inch tablets rated at 264ppi on the basis that they are held further away from the eye than smartphones or even mini tablets (the Retina-rated mini 2 and mini 4 both have a pixel density of 326ppi, matching the non-Plus iPhones).
There is a simple reason why we don't think this is likely to happen. As well as smashing past the pixel density of half of Apple's smartphones, including the just-released and Retina HD-rated iPhone 6s (326ppi), all of which would be held far closer to the face than the iPad Air 3, it would also show up the iPad Pro, which has a pixel density of 264ppi. And the iPad Pro is a very expensive top-end device that is clearly positioned as Apple's flagship tablet. It's hard to imagine anyone happily paying top dollar for a 264ppi Pro when there's a 401ppi Air 3 for, presumably, about £200 less.
Oh, and we dread to think what such a large bump in resolution would do to battery life. The iPhone 6 Plus got round that because its larger size allowed it to include a bigger battery, but we're hearing that the Air 3 will be thinner than the Air 2.
We expect it to cost pretty much what the iPad Air 2 cost when it launched. The iPad Air 2's UK price starts at £399 for the 16GB model in Wi-Fi only, moving up to £479 for 64GB Wi-Fi (as with the recent iPhones, Apple removed the popular 32GB storage option) and £559 for 128GB Wi-Fi.
The 3G/cellular models cost £100 more at each configuration: £499 for the 16GB model, moving up to £579 for 64GB and £659 for 128GB.
With the iPad Air 3 filling in these price points, the iPad Air 2 will drop in price, most likely by around £80. The iPad Air 1 could get yet another price cut and remain on sale - much as Apple currently sells three versions of the iPad mini - but it's more likely to be discontinued. Apple usually tries to keep its range simple, and the main reason we can see for it keeping the iPad mini 1 around is that the iPad mini 2 and 3 are so similar.
iPad Air 3 features wish list
So much for the rumours concerning the iPad Air 3's design changes, specs and new features. But what new features would we add to the device if we were in Jony Ive's shoes?
Here's our iPad Air 3 feature wish list. Some are brand-new wishes: perhaps ideas triggered by issues with Apple's latest line of iPads. Others are features we've been asking for since before the iPad Air 2 but weren't included in that device.
Let us know what features you want to see in the iPad Air 3 in the comments, or let us know on Twitter.
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Larger screen
You can never be too rich, or too thin, or have too much screen space.
In fact, there would be plenty of negatives attached to increasing the iPad Air 2's screen size from its current 9.7in diagonal: mainly increasing the bulk of the device (and having to incorporate a bigger and heavier battery to power the screen for as long), thereby reducing its fantastic portability. But a bigger screen would make the iPad Air more adaptable as a work device, and more immersive for entertainment, so who cares about practicalities?
In fact, since we wrote this wishlist, Apple has unveiled an iPad with a bigger screen; it just isn't called the iPad Air 3. Go and read our 12.9-inch iPad Pro review for more on that one. We think the iPad Air line will continue to be based around a 9.7in screen.
Chances of happening (on the Air line at any rate): low
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Faster processor
This too is an obvious one, and something that has happened in essentially every iOS device update: a new, faster processor chip. But is it actually something to be wishing for?
The iPad Air 2 is fast enough to run every current app with ease, and on most apps you won't notice any different in performance between it and the iPad Air 1 (iPad Air 1 vs iPad Air 2 comparison). The iPad Air is effectively faster than it needs to be, and apps are trying their best to catch up.
The iPad Air 3 (or iPad 7) doesn't need to be any faster. It'll probably get a new chip, and there's a good chance it'll be a bit faster, but maybe Apple will go for greater power-efficiency instead?
Yeah, who are we kidding? You've got to be able to boast about processing speeds at the launch announcement.
Chances of happening: nailed on
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Improved camera
The last of our recurring requests that crop up every time. Of course an improved camera would be nice, but we wouldn't cite it as an essential, since the iPad is used less for its camera than Apple's smartphones (less, although tablet camera use is growing all the time), and it's got pretty good anyway. A smartphone needs a great camera; a tablet doesn't.
Chances of happening: mid to low
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Face recognition
Ah, something more interesting! What if the iPad Air 3 uses facial recognition to unlock the device?
Face-recognition is already available in the Camera app, but that's facial recognition only in the sense of recognising that something is a face, rather than recognising which one it is - which makes this one a long shot. It does also seem a bit unnecessary, given that Apple has the Touch ID technology, and so does the iPad Air 2. If it wants to do convenient, biometric authentication it can use that.
Chances of happening: low
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Full Apple Pay
This one is slightly complicated.
The iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 gained Touch ID fingerprint scanners - one of the components required to use the new Apple Pay online/instore payment service, which allows you to pay for things in shops by scanning your iPhone 6 or 6 Plus and touching the fingerprint scanner. And indeed both models can use Apple Pay in the US. (Apple Pay hasn't launched in the UK at time of writing, but it will make its UK launch in July.)
But they get only a limited, partial version of Apple Pay: one that doesn't work in shops. Instead they use the online and app-based versions of Apple Pay, which use Touch ID but don't require the NFC wireless antenna component used when scanning the iPhone 6 on an instore receiver.
A further complication is the discovery of NFC antennae in both devices when they were disassembled; perhaps these could be activated in future and allow for full Apple Pay. Or perhaps they are intended for some other purpose.
Either way, we'd like to at least have the option of instore Apple Pay with the next generation of iPads. Admittedly the average customer is a lot less likely to whip out a full-size iPad at the till, but we thought something similar about iPad photography.
Chances of happening: medium
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Live multitasking
"The fact that you cannot use multiple applications at the same time is a little annoying," said Product Reviews when discussing potential new features for the iPad Air 2, "and it would definitely be a great feature if Apple could add it in. For example you could update your Twitter feed in a sidebar whilst watching a video or check your emails whilst reading an article."
We didn't get it in the iPad Air 2, and it still makes sense for the iPad Air 3, although you'd probably need a bigger screen to be able to use this practically. And maybe it's more of an iOS 9 thing.
Even as a software update it seems very radical indeed for something that (I think) is a niche requirement. How many people check their emails while continuing to read an article or watch a video?
Chances of happening: low
UPDATE: Scratch that. Chances of happening: definite. Multitasking capabilities have been announced for iOS 9:
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Improved stylus support
"I'd like to see more attention paid to the display sensor technology that allows for the next generation of fine tip electronic styluses to be used more effectively and accurately," wrote MacObserver last year. They didn't get their own way with the iPad Air 2, so presumably are still hoping.
This sounds like a nice option, so it's most likely a question of priorities and compromises. And aside from Apple's consistent commitment to touch input in iOS, doesn't this sound like something Samsung would champion?
Chances of happening: low
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Subwoofer and other audio/speaker improvements
The iPad's audio output could be improved; this is certainly true. (The iPad Air 2 has stereo speaker units, but they are so close together that their output is effectively mono.) Yet there are limits on the richness of the audio a slim and portable unit can produce; I suspect that the average iPad owner would rather buy a separate wireless speaker than add any noticeable weight to the iPad Air's chassis.
A touch more bass output would substantially improve the iPad as a games unit, mind you, and it would be great for film fans.
Chances of happening: mid to low
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Increase the storage baseline
"iPads tend to accumulate a lot of stuff," pointed out MacObserver. "Apps, movies and music that make a 16GB iPad an anachronism. Here's hoping..."
In fact, Apple phased out the popular 32GB model instead, leaving the iPad Air 2 (and the iPad mini 3 and iPhone 6 handsets) with an oddly lopsided line-up of 16GB, 64GB and 128GB.
Will Apple phase out the 16GB iPad? It's going to happen at some point - remember the 8GB iPad? - but maybe not quite yet. Plenty of users store work documents and photos in the cloud, rarely game and use a small number of lightweight apps.
Chances of happening: low (for now)
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Memory card slot
We'll say right away: this would be nice in some respects but is highly unlikely.
Apple's philosophy embraces the closed box: the complete product experience bought ready-to-use and held apart from user tinkering and upgrades. Without mentioning that this would encourage buyers to go for the lower-capacity iPads and fill the shortfall with removable memory. And it would ruin the iPad's clean lines.
Chances of happening: no way
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Bluetooth mouse support
It's been argued that touch is less accurate than mouse (or similar) input, and that Apple's more work-oriented users would enjoy being able to use wireless mice with their iPad Air 3. If we were talking about the Mac OS X-running iPad Pro that some have discussed, this would be a no-brainer, but this would call for a major rethink of how iOS works, and we don't think that's likely.
Chances of appearing: low
iPad Air 3 feature wish list: Wireless charging
At the moment wireless charging is big let-down, offering only minor convenience rather than the quantum leap it appears to promise. The Air Voltage Qi Chargers are an example of a (comparatively) recent take on the concept: you buy a case for your device, and a separate charging mat. Simply laying the cased iPhone on the mat starts up the charging process - but it has to touch the mat, and the mat itself has to be plugged in.
If you could increase the range of the charge transmission so that, for example, you just need to be sitting with a couple of feet of the charger for the device in your pocket to start charging - then we'd be talking. Still, if Apple incorporated the technology in the chassis of the iPad so that you don't have to bother with a particular case then it would a bit more appealing.
Chances of appearing: low
Read page 2 for the rumours and predictions we collected in advance of the iPad Air 2's press event. See for yourself how much we (and the rest of the industry) got right, and how much we got wrong!