How do you make a great tablet even better? In the case of Apple, you make it thinner, lighter, and faster, and the call it the iPad Air. This is the first big redesign for the iPad line since the iPad 2 was introduced in 2011, and it shows. Is the fancy new look worth the cost of upgrading? Read on to see.
The new iPad, dubbed iPad Air, went on sale just days ago but started drawing interest a week earlier when it was unveiled at Apple's fall media event along side the Retina Display iPad mini. The iPad Air looks like a big iPad mini, complete with the tell tale chamfered edges.
Compared to the 3rd and 4th gen iPad, the iPad Air is narrower...
Apple's iPad Air keeps the 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 Retina Display with 264 PPI that's been a part of the third and fourth generation iPad models. It includes Apple's new dual-core A7 processor and M7 motion coprocessor, the A7 GPU for better graphics performance, MIMO WiFi for better wireless network performance, Bluetooth 4.0, a 5MP camera with improved sensor, 1.2MP front-facing camera, dual microphones for improved noise canceling, stereo speakers, and a Lightning connector, just like the iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, and iPod touch.
...and thinner, too
The built-in cameras support capturing 1080p video, and in addition to supporting 1080p video out through an optional Lighting to HDMI adapter, it also offers high resolution video streaming via AirPlay to the Apple TV.
What isn't there is Touch ID. Apple introduced its fingerprint scanner technology with the iPhone 5s, and it really is amazingly cool. It lets you use your fingerprint as a passcode to unlock your iPhone, and to authorize App Store and iTunes Store purchases, but for now that's about it.
I don't see the lack of Touch ID on the iPad Air as a big deal since the feature isn't used for very much yet. Once that changes, however, it'll be time for the iPad to get on the Touch ID bandwagon.
My prediction: Apple will announce at its World Wide Developer Conference in spring 2014 that Touch ID is opening up to third party developers in iOS 8. That'll come out in the fall and shortly after we'll get the iPad Air 2 with Touch ID support.
The iPad air is noticeably smaller than the fourth generation iPad thanks to its narrower and thinner body, and there's a cognitive disconnect when you first pick it up. The iPad Air feels too light for what it does, and it's remarkable solid, too. Add good balance to that, and it's clear Apple spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to design this tablet -- both inside and out.
Apple jammed all that tech into a body that's only 9.4-inches × 6.6-inches × 0.29-inches. That makes it just over a quarter inch thick, or less than a centimeter thick. The iPad Air is so thin it looks like it ought to flex and creak, yet it doesn't.
The weight on the iPad Air is nearly half a pound less than the fourth generation model it replaces. Apple says it weighs just 1 pound, so we popped one onto our über accurate scale to see just how much weight this little tablet really is packing. Turns out it weighs 16.649 ounces, which is barely over a pound.
The new model is available in 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB capacities with WiFi-only, or WiFi plus LTE. You can choose from black with space gray, or white with silver. Pricing starts at US$499 for the WiFi-only 16GB model and tops out at $929 for the 128GB WiFi plus LTE model.
Apple claims a 10 hour battery life, and the iPad Air lives up to that claim despite it's smaller battery. The new model includes a two-cell 3.37V 32.9WHr battery, which is markedly smaller than the 43WHr battery in the fourth generation iPad.
Digging into the Tech Specs
The iPad Air uses Apple's brand new dual-core 64-bit A7 processor running at 1.47GHz with 1GB RAM. It includes the M7 motion coprocessor, just like the iPhone 5s, which can track how active you are, and knows the difference between walking, running, and riding in cars.
If you're trying out an iPad Air after using the fourth generation iPad, you may not notice a big improvement in overall performance, but anyone coming from earlier models will be able to see and feel the difference right away. The iPad Air is just fast, fast, fast, and makes my third generation model feel like a pokey old slab even though only a week ago it seemed to fly through tasks.
Everything feels faster on the Air. Apps launch surprisingly fast, Web pages render in a snap, and iPhoto doesn't feel sluggish any more. That's actually saying a lot. iPhoto on the iPad has always felt slow to me, so it's a pleasant change to finally consider it a truly usable app.
The Air ships with iOS 7 preinstalled, and that promptly updates to 7.0.3 once you finish setting up the tablet for the first time. iOS 7 may feel a little rough around the edges on the iPad, but it performs well on the Air and during The Mac Observer's testing it was stable, too.
Considering iPad 2 and third generation iPad owners are probably more likely to consider upgrading to the Air, we compared benchmarks between the three models. The results really didn't feel fair because the iPad Air left its predecessors in the dust.
The raw numbers from GeekBench told a striking story. The iPad Air's numbers where between two and three times better than the third generation iPad, and graphics rendering was markedly better, too. If you've been holding off on upgrading to a new iPad and the 9.7-inch display is the right size for you, it's time to break out your credit card.
The more blunt edge on the side of the iPad Air, compared to the third and fourth generation iPads, offered easy access to the volume buttons as well as the mute/rotation lock switch. While I did occasionally bump my volume up or down by accident, it didn't happen nearly as often compared to my third generation iPad. Bonus: The new edge makes the iPad more comfortable to hold.
For everyone that's been impatiently waiting for the full size iPad to get stereo speakers, rejoice. It's no surprise that the iPad Air sports stereo speakers considering Apple included the feature on the iPad mini last year. The Air's speakers aren't a replacement for your home stereo, or even an OK pair of headphones, but they're an improvement over the single speaker in the third and fourth generation models.
Apple promised better graphics performance with the iPad Air, and the company delivered. Or at least on paper. Comparing benchmark tests between the third gen model and the Air show the difference, and on screen rendering really is better on the Air. Some people may not be able to notice the difference today, but games that let take advantage of the Air's improved rendering capabilities let it show.
My go-to game for comparing graphics performance is Infinity Blade II, and the differences between the third gen iPad and the Air were surprisingly easy to spot. The cut scenes looked the same on both iPads, but when actual game play started the Air was more fluid and it almost felt like I was watching a movie.
After playing IB II on the Air, the game felt choppy and slow on my older iPad. Even though the third generation iPad is a powerful tablet in its own right, it just doesn't hold up to the performance the Air offers in graphics and processor intensive games.
Smart Cover and Smart Case
Apple revamped its covers for the iPad Air by dropping the four panel design in favor of the three panel style is uses for iPad mini covers. The Smart Cover, which only covers the iPad's glass surface is now available only in polyurethane, and the Smart Case that covers the entire iPad is leather only.
The Smart Cover does away with the magnetic metal hinge in favor of a magnetic flap that wraps around the edge of the Air. It's fine, but that's about it. I found that it didn't hold as securely as the older four panel cover and my Air popped free from it more than once when I used it as a typing stand.
This cover is fine at protecting the iPad's glass, but folding it into a stand leaves you with a setup that's less stable than what Apple offered before. As someone that routinely uses their iPad's onscreen keyboard, it was a big disappointment to see Apple take a cover that has served me well ever since the iPad 2 and turn it into something that's just meh.
Apple's new Smart Case is much better than the Smart Cover
The Smart Cover, however, turned out to be a pleasant surprise for me. It adds almost no bulk to the Air, doesn't wrap up over the front bezel, and holds your iPad securely when you're typing. It also holds your iPad at the same angle as the old Smart Cover, so you don't need to worry about learning new hand positions or painful wrist angles when typing.
For now, the Smart Cover is my choice for iPad Air protection. That said, my favorite cover of all time was the leather Smart Cover for the iPad 2, and third and fourth generation iPads. I want that, complete with its metal hinge, for my iPad Air. In dark blue. Someone let me know when that's available.
The Smart Cover is priced at US$39, and the Smart Case costs $79. Both are available in several colors.
The Photo Snapping Slab
The iPad Air sports a 5 megapixel rear-facing camera and a 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera. Both work well and you can even get some nice photos from the rear-facing camera. I don't say that lightly because I'm not a fan of using an iPad as a camera outside of FaceTime chats.
The front-facing camera hasn't really changed and is perfectly fine for video chats, so let's focus on the rear-facing camera. It's still 5MP, but with an improved sensor which really matters.
The new sensor let me take better looking photos compared to the third gen model, and the camera app was far more responsive, too. That's no surprise considering how much faster the iPad is overall.
The third gen iPad didn't do as good a job capturing outdoor colors (above) compared to the iPad Air (below)
Taking the same shots with the iPad Air, third gen iPad, and iPhone 5s showed the Air's photos had much more accurate color compared to the older iPad model and came much closer to the shots I captured with the iPhone. For everyone that likes using their iPad as a primary camera, the Air should make them happy not only because it takes better looking pics, but also because it's lighter and easier to manage.
What the iPad still doesn't offer is a flash. Apple still thinks that's a feature better suited for its smaller iOS devices, so don't plan on taking photos in the dark without a supplemental light source.
The iPad 3 (top left) doesn't capture detail and color as well as the iPad Air (top right)
Neither hold their own against the iPhone 5s (below)
I still don't feel comfortable calling the iPad's built-in camera a suitable replacement for a basic point-and-shoot camera. It works in a pinch, but I'd rather carry something smaller with a higher resolution and better sensor and then use Apple's Camera Connection Kit to offload the pics to my iPad.
That said, the best camera is the one you have with you, and for some that will be the iPad.
Apple shrank the battery in the iPad Air and dropped its Watt Hour capacity, too. Instead of sacrificing battery life, however, Apple managed to keep it up at the 10 hour mark just like previous models.
That 10 hour battery life comes from the energy efficient A7 processor Apple tucked inside the new iPad, plus some under the hood coding magic in iOS 7. The good news for anyone not upgrading to the Air is that those same iOS 7 power saving features will help with the battery life in older models, too.
To test the iPad Air's battery I put it through the same use that my previous iPads endured. I started by topping off the charge overnight, and then put it to work right away the next morning.
After checking email, surfing the Web, watching videos, reading books, cranking away at a few games, snapping photos for this review, and listening to iTunes Radio and my own music collection I still had a little over 40 percent of my batter left after 3 and a half days of use. This creates a first world problem: The Air's battery life is so good that I may forget to charge it when I should.
The Bottom Line
The iPad Air is a big step up from previous iPad models, and with its 64-bit A7 processor it lays the foundation for the future of Apple's tablets. It also sends a message that Apple's competition doesn't want to hear: The iPad isn't just a gaming device, ebook reader, and portable movie screen. It has the horsepower to be a serious business tool.
Thanks to the wide range of pro-level apps for the iPad, plus printers that can be set up without connecting to a computer, we're reaching a level where some people can actually start looking at the iPad as an alternative to their laptop computer. Considering the continuing decline in PC sales, that should have Apple's competition very worried.
The iPad Air's performance is head and shoulders above the third generation iPad, and noticeable even compared to the fourth gen model. It offers better wireless network performance, improved graphics rendering, and an overall snappier feel all in a smaller package without sacrificing battery life.
The Air feels great in your hand and balances remarkably well. Its solid design and construction means it won't feel cheap and will hold up to day-to-day use without skipping a beat.
What it doesn't have is Touch ID, and I don't think that's a big deal. If your only reason for upgrading to the new model would've been Touch ID, then what you have today is probably meeting your needs. Wait until next year to upgrade because that's most likely when the feature will come to the iPad line.
Apple did something interesting with the iPad lineup this fall by making the only difference between the iPad Air and the iPad mini the size of the screen. Both run the same A7 processor, sport the same cameras, and include the same wireless networking features. One just happens to ship with a 9.7-inch Retina Display, and the other with a 7.9-inch Retina Display.
The lineup change means your real decision when looking at the new iPad models is screen size and weight. That'll help make shopping decisions easier this holiday season.
Which brings us to the big question: Should you buy the new iPad? The answer is a definite maybe.
If you have a fourth generation iPad and are happy with its performance, then consider waiting to see what Apple introduces next fall. If you're currently using a third generation or older iPad, the upgrade to an Air will be like a welcome breath of fresh air. It's faster and lighter, and your iPad that felt fine last week will seem like a slow motion glass and metal slab today.
The iPad Air is a beautiful machine and I have no doubt will be an important part of my daily productivity, just like the third gen model it's replacing. Yes, I'm retiring my old iPad for an Air, and while I'll miss my tried and true leather smart cover, I won't be looking back.