It’s been a long time since Apple delivered unto us a proper redesign of the iPad. The original, boxy, first-gen tablet lived for about 11 months, replaced in 2011 by a far slinkier version. The tapered design language survived, more or less unchanged, for a further 2.5 years -- a lifetime in the consumer electronics world. That period was punctuated by two updates, bringing faster chips and a better display, but it’s a full refresh we’ve all been waiting for, something to make the good ol' iPad look and feel truly new.
And here it is: the iPad Air. With this, the fifth generation of the iPad line, Apple has delivered a proper exterior redesign, crafting a substantially thinner and lighter tablet that finally eliminates the chunky bezels handed down since the first generation -- at least on the left and right. But, despite this significant exterior reduction, the iPad Air maintains the battery life of its predecessor and offers significantly better performance.
The Air is a tangible upgrade over the previous, fourth-generation iPad, no longer in production and so banished to the annals of history. The new iPad slots right in where its predecessor left off, priced at $499 for a lowly 16GB, $599 for 32GB, $699 for 64GB, and $799 for the maximum 128GB configuration. Cellular models -- with LTE and support for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon in the United States -- cost an additional $130 beyond the above prices.
So, yes, it’s still very much the premium-priced choice, just as it’s always been. However, the market continues to shift, offering more and increasingly sophisticated alternatives at far cheaper prices, tablets like the Kindle Fire HDX and Google Nexus 10. That, plus strong competition from within Apple’s own ranks with the upcoming iPad Mini with Retina Display, means the iPad Air has to be better than ever. Thankfully, it is.
Last year’s iPad Mini introduced a fresh new design, taking cues from the latest iPod Touch to create a high-end tablet in an impossibly slender form factor. You could think of the iPad Air as a 20 percent scaled-up version of the Mini, as the two tablets feature near-identical styling details, the bigger one differing only by having more speaker holes on the bottom (80 vs. 56 on the Mini).
Impressively, though, the iPad Air isn’t 20 percent thicker than the Mini. In fact, at 7.5mm, it’s only 0.3mm deeper -- a massive 1.9mm thinner than the previous full-size iPad. Despite that, the tablet feels just as sturdy and rigid as before, not flexing a bit even under rather aggressive attempts at twisting.
It’s light, too, weighing just 1 pound in Wi-Fi-only guise. That’s 0.4 pound lighter than the previous generation and 0.3 pound heavier than the Mini. In other words, the iPad Air’s weight is actually closer to the Mini than to its fourth-gen predecessor. Indeed, pick up an Air and you’ll be reminded of the first time you held a Mini. It’s a "wow" moment.
We were big fans of the Mini last year, and we’re big fans of how the Air looks and feels now. The more rounded profile and chamfered edges give it a modern presence, while the new shape means the buttons and toggle switch situated around the upper-right corner are much easier to find than before.
Stereo speakers flank the Lightning connector on the bottom, placement that makes them far less likely to be obscured by your hand than the previous-gen iPad’s famously mediocre single output. They’re also far louder. However, we can’t help but wish Apple had positioned the left channel speaker on the top, to allow for proper stereo separation when held in portrait orientation while watching a movie. As it is, you’ll hear everything on the right.
Our only other design complaint is the missing Touch ID. This is Apple’s term for the fingerprint scanner built into the Home button on the iPhone 5S. It allows you to unlock your device without typing in a numeric code, also making iTunes purchases password-free and, therefore, infinitely less annoying.
The goal of Touch ID is to make unlocking your phone so easy that everyone enables proper security. Most iPhone 5S users will agree that it succeeds in that regard, so much so that many will find themselves trying to unlock the iPad Air by holding a finger on the Home button and waiting impatiently. That, of course, doesn’t work. We appreciate that most iPads rarely leave the home, so security is less of a concern, but the convenience of not having to type in your iTunes password with every app download is more than enough to leave you longing for Touch ID here. It is a frustrating omission, reminiscent of Siri’s initial iPhone 4S exclusivity. Future iPad generations will surely make this right, perhaps beginning with an iPad Pro.
When the fourth-generation iPad rolled out, it contained a custom version of the iPhone 5’s A6 processor called the A6X, offering far greater performance than the phone's version. For the new generation, Apple seemingly decided to leave X off, and so what we have here is the same dual-core, 64-bit A7 CPU found in the iPhone 5S. Disappointed? Don’t be. The iPad Air is ridiculously fast. Interestingly, it’s slightly faster even than the latest iPhone, which also has the same amount of RAM (1GB). Apple seemingly turned the wick up a bit here, with Geekbench indicating a processor speed of 1.39GHz, versus the 1.29GHz on the iPhone 5S.
We coached the iPad Air through some of our favorite benchmarks, along with a fourth-gen iPad running the most recent version of iOS (7.0.3). The results were quite compelling. In Sunspider 1.0.1, the old iPad took 661ms on average to complete the tests, whereas the new Air blasted through in 402ms average. That’s a greater than 50 percent improvement in Web rendering speed. (The iPhone 5S scored 417ms.) Geekbench 2 was similarly improved, 1,797 vs. 2,382 (higher is better here), and on Geekbench 3 the gap widened, 1,429 vs. 2,688. In fact, the iPad Air’s single-core score of 1,475 is higher than the dual-core score of the fourth-generation iPad.
In case you’re wondering, yes, the iPad Air does get quite warm when doing this sort of number crunching. The back of the tablet feels slightly cooler at full-tilt than its finger-toasting predecessor, but there’s still plenty of heat coming off the back, reinforcement that your slinky new tablet is, indeed, working hard.
Of course, nobody cares about numbers if the experience doesn’t back that up, and it does -- though perhaps not to that same degree. Apps load noticeably faster, particularly big games, where you’ll be able to jump into and out of levels far more quickly. Additionally, we noticed slightly higher frame rates in some games, though that was far less prevalent. We’d anticipate this becoming a far more common thing once more titles become optimized for the 64-bit A7 CPU.
Web pages render more snappily, and overall responsiveness of the operating system is improved. The fourth-gen iPad remains a great performer, but the new Air takes that to a new level -- despite not suffering on battery life.
As ever, Apple promises 10 hours of battery life on the iPad Air and, as usual, the tablet more than delivers. On the far-thicker, far-heavier fourth-generation iPad we managed just over 13 hours of battery life on our standard battery rundown test. This new iPad Air managed almost exactly the same, 13 hours and 10 minutes. We were able to use this tablet for a very long time off the charger, easily getting through a full day of heavy usage. More-casual users, who use their iPads for idle Web surfing or eBay browsing, will have no problem going for days and days between charges.
We’re still no fans of tablet photography and perhaps Apple agrees it isn’t an area worthy of focus, as the (already quite competent) 5-megapixel, rear-facing camera of the iPad Air hasn’t changed.
The front-facing, 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD camera has, however, seen an upgrade, and a noticeable one. Yes, that’s the same megapixel count as last year’s if you’re keeping score at home, but it’s a new sensor with backside illumination and bigger pixels. The result is far better low-light performance, which is important if you don’t want to look like you’re FaceTiming from a dungeon.
With the iPad Air, Apple has stepped up to a dual-antenna configuration for Wi-Fi. Called MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output), it theoretically doubles the maximum throughput of data able to be transmitted to or from your tablet, up to 300Mbps with a compatible router. This is far from new (Amazon’s second-generation Kindle Fire offered the same last year), but its presence is certainly welcome here.
However, the absence of 802.11ac is disappointing. Like the iPhone 5S, the latest iPad tops out at 802.11n. Given the lack of adoption elsewhere in Apple’s lineup, it’s not surprising to see ac missing here, and the relative lack of compatible routers and access points means there’s little demand for it now. However, those still using their Airs a few years down the road may find themselves wishing Apple had found room for it this time around.
Those who pay $130 more than the Wi-Fi-only models will have full cellular connectivity built in, including a comprehensive swath of bands and frequencies. Whether you’re connecting over EDGE, HSPA+, CDMA, or LTE, the iPad Air has you covered. And, since there’s just one Air model worldwide, you can change from carrier to carrier on a whim and rest assured that, regardless of where you travel, you’ll be able to get connected. Assuming they have nano-SIMs available.
Finally, all iPad Air models include Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity, just like they did last year. This means you can quickly and easily connect everything from keyboards to speakers, and do so without killing your battery life.
What's in the box?
As with the previous iPad, there’s not a lot inside the box -- other than the tablet itself, of course. In here you’ll find a USB-to-Lightning cable, a 12W power brick, plus a few pages of legal information and a couple of Apple decals. Get the cellular version, and you’ll also get a tool to open the SIM tray.
The iPad Air has managed to launch in a window with relatively few 10-inch tablet launches, likely caused by others hoping to avoid comparison to Apple’s slate. The Surface 2 is the main exception, freshly released and starting at $449 for the 32GB model -- $50 less than the iPad Air. It, too, is a very high-quality tablet, but one that is thicker and heavier than the Air, despite offering a lower-resolution display and (slightly) lesser battery life. Those focused on productivity will likely want to give the Surface 2 a look, if only thanks to the suite of keyboard accessories that make it one of the most typist-friendly tablets on the market, but the limited app selection for Windows RT is still a major mark against.
On the Android side, there’s Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. At $549 for 16GB, it comes in $50 higher than Apple’s latest, a delta offset by the inclusion of a stylus. This makes the Note 10.1 an interesting choice for creative types who want to doodle on the go. Last year’s Nexus 10 is still an interesting alternative, with a great display and priced at $399 for 16GB. But, with lots of talk of a successor looming, we’re not sure it’s a particularly good time to invest in a new Nexus slate.
Finally, there are the alternatives within Apple’s own stable. On the 10-inch side, Apple is keeping the old iPad 2. Yes, it’s getting a little long in the tooth, and at $399 for 16GB, it’s priced a little too high in our book. For that money we’d much prefer to get the upcoming $399 iPad Mini with Retina Display, which should be hitting stores in a few weeks. Indeed, that new 7.9-inch Retina Display, plus inclusion of the A7 processor, could make this the most compelling alternative to the iPad Air.
If you found yourself tuning out the last few generations of iPad thanks to their extreme familiarity, it’s time to get yourself dialed back in. The iPad Air is worth getting excited about. Though it brings no new functionality to the table, and we can’t help being disappointed about the lack of Touch ID, the performance increase and solid battery life show that progress is still being made on the inside. It’s the new exterior design, however, that really impresses. The iPad Air is thinner than any tablet this size deserves to be, and lighter, too. The old iPad always felt surprisingly hefty. This one, compellingly lithe.
However, there is one tablet that’s thinner and lighter still, yet holds the promise of great performance and build quality: the upcoming iPad Mini with Retina Display. At $100 cheaper, that slate could prove the stiffest competition the full-size iPad has yet seen. Time will tell on that front (the new Mini won’t ship for a few weeks), so we’ll withhold judgment for now. If you’re willing to consider a smaller tablet, hold off clicking “buy” for just a little while longer. If you’re looking for a full-size tablet and don’t mind paying a premium to get the best, this is it.
|RAM Memory||1 GB|
|Operating System||iOS 7|