Apple's new iPad Air arrived later than we thought an iPad 5 would. Last summer, the jackpot question was, what will make the next Apple 10-inch iPad special? Now I know.
It's an amazing experience when little things in a product can make a huge difference in the human reaction. I recall watching a Top Gear episode in which Jeremy Clarkson described a few cars, a certain Ferrari model and, in another episode, an early McLaren 12C that just seemed to be missing something that was hard to define.
Some cars are able to telegraph a subliminal feeling of responsiveness, road feel and a human connection. Some other cars can have high performance, but feel sterile -- in an automotive sense. (I should add that McLaren later fixed the problem, hard to define as it was.)
Wait, There's no Weight
Apple has done something similar with the iPad Air. It feels like a completely new product. It's so different in its look and heft that I am tempted to believe that it's made by a different company, even though I know better. (For a complete reference, see Jeff Gamet's review of the iPad Air.)
Of course, that raises an important question. Was the delay worth it? On a table of specifications, I can look at the weights of various tablets, and they don't mean much -- except perhaps when put into perspective against a MacBook Air. But when I lift an iPad Air, it all comes home.
Left: iPad 3, Right: IPad Air
In order to achieve this trim down, Apple had to further lower the power consumption of the A7 SoC compared to previous generations so that the previous 11,666 mAh battery could be replaced by a smaller 8,820 mAh battery. And still maintain the 10 hour battery life. As Phil Schiller has said, innovation my ass!
For a company to take such time and pains to deliver such an astonishingly different feel while suffering the slings and arrows of the critical press takes great courage. It's a special attribute of Apple that the company cares about the man-machine experience so deeply that it is willing to take the time to produce a whole new tablet experience. Personally, I feel annoyed and dismayed when some critics say, "OK, it weighs a few ounces less. We waited how long for that?"
That kind of comment is just a testimony to a fundamental lack of insight and sensitivity. That kind of person probably kicks kittens.
Once again, the width of the side bezel, 18 mm vs 10 mm, wouldn't seem to make much difference on paper, but it makes a huge difference when actually using the iPad Air. It's like the difference between a dinner steak knife from Walmart and a German Wüsthof steak knife. Take one look, and the difference is obvious. It's just better. Technology, care and insight were part of the design process.
Another factor to consider here is the essence of a tablet. Bezels are crutches. They are a symptom of limits to the manufacturing process. Bezels are something that gets in the way and distracts from the fundamental function of a tablet. Form, then, follows function, and to the extent that the bezel gets smaller, half the size, the tablet approaches its essence. When I look at an iPad Air, that's what I realize.
iPad Air on top. Image credit: Jeff Gamet
In just about everything I do on my iPad Air, it snaps. Slide to unlock is faster, pleasing. Launching apps takes abut half the time. Again, that's not important until I realize that I'm waiting for the app to launch on my wife's iPad 3 I'm talking about 3-4 seconds here for Kindle, iBooks or PCalc to load on a an iPad 3 versus 1-2 seconds on the iPad Air. When I no longer notice that I'm waiting for an app to launch, the experience changes. The difference is even more pronounced with Twitterrific.
The 64-bit SoC is an innovation that truly translates into a better user experience. That's why Apple went there. A Qualcomm executive was demoted for not understanding that.
Apple, unlike Amazon, stubbornly continues to believe that the essence of a modern tablet doesn't include a good audio experience with speakers. As the iPad gets thinner and thinner, good speakers are harder and harder to implement. Plus, defacing the edges of the display with speakers is not part of a great tablet experience.
All I know is that if headphones aren't handy, and you want to watch a quick video, even the two stereo speakers on the bottom of the Air don't provide great sound. In the end, the ultimate tablet experience is defined by Apple by virtue of the iPad Air design: use headphones.
The Sum of the Parts
The iPad Air, in several ways, moves closer to the essence of what a tablet should be. While other companies think about USB ports and keyboards, Apple thinks about how an iPad should, eventually, shimmer and float in midair, revealing its true essence as a 21st century tablet, a window into the Internet.
One can't size this up by looking at pictures or perusing specification charts, helpful as they are. Go into an Apple retail store this weekend and hold one in your hands. At that point, you'll realize that this iPad is not just, according to rumor nomenclature, an iPad 5. It's a completely new product with a new experience, and that's why Apple gave it a different name.
Time, patience, engineering, innovation, and technical wizardry have brought forth an iPad whose essence better approaches the tablet ideal. If you don't believe that, please don't be kicking any kittens.