Thanks to the trusty rumor mill, we knew long ago that Apple's new full-sized iPad would borrow heavily from the iPad mini. But now that it's here, does the iPad Air live up to the hype? And is it worth the upgrade from an older iPad? Let Gizmag help out, as we review the new lighter and thinner iPad Air.
Filling its own shoes
When Steve Jobs pitched the first iPad back in 2010, he described it as a new product category. It was much more personal than a laptop, but also much bigger than a smartphone. It was the perfect computer for surfing the web, reading, watching movies, or catching up on email. The iPad would be the ultimate casual consumption device.
Nearly four years later, the iPad is still, at its core, that same product. Sure, it now offers many more apps, covering just about any kind of software you could imagine. And since that first model, we've seen Apple's tablet get lighter, thinner, and faster. It's added cameras, quadrupled its screen's pixels, and it even got its own little brother. But as far as the iPad's function, purpose, and essence? Those haven't really changed.
The iPad Air does nothing to change that either. But what it does do is fulfill that original vision far better than any previous iPad. After putting it through the paces, we can say the iPad Air combines "personal" and "computer" to near perfection. If you take those words literally, then you might say the iPad Air is the best PC ever made.
Full-sized and mini, rolled into one
The biggest reason – and maybe the only reason – to upgrade to the iPad Air from the last couple of iPads is its combination of size, weight, and build. Yes, it's basically a big iPad mini. But we think that's a very, very good thing.
Pick up an older iPad, then pick up the iPad Air, and the difference is immediately noticeable. The Air is 28 percent lighter than the last two full-sized iPads. To put that in perspective, the iPhone 5s is only 17 percent lighter than the first-generation iPhone, from way back in 2007. Yet Apple just shaved nearly 30 percent off of the iPad's weight in one year. Impressive.
You feel the difference in your hands ... or should I say hand. Older 9.7-in iPads were always two-handed devices. Sure, many of us could hold them with one hand, but they were too big, thick, and heavy to comfortably wield that way for extended periods. Lie in bed with one, and you feel like you're balancing a slab of plywood on your chest. You could even say that older iPads were, physically speaking, just a couple of steps removed from being MacBook Airs.
Like the iPad mini, the iPad Air feels like it severs all ties to the laptop. I can hold it very comfortably with one hand for just about as long as I want. It isn't nearly as light as the mini (the Air is 42 percent heavier than the new Retina iPad mini), but among 10-in tablets, it's in a league of its own.
The Air's construction and overall design scheme are also now in line with the iPad mini. Same tight aluminum construction, same narrow bezels, and the same 7.5 mm thickness as the Retina iPad mini.
Also like the iPad mini, Apple threw some touch rejection software onto the Air. This lets you grip the tablet with your thumb across the edge of the screen, without the device registering that touch as input.
But there's also nothing to complain about there. We're still looking at 9.7 inches (measured diagonally), with a razor-sharp 264 pixels per inch. There are now sharper 10-in tablets on the market, but even when holding the iPad Air at a closer than normal distance, my eyes couldn't discern any individual pixels.
I also prefer the iPad's 4:3 aspect ratio over most other tablets' 16:9 or 16:10 screens. Those widescreen displays effectively lock those tablets into landscape use. I find the 4:3 ratio to be more versatile. The iPad's screen is just about ideal in portrait mode, but it works equally well for landcape use.
All day long (and then some)
Part of the reason the iPad Air is so light and thin is because it has a smaller battery than previous iPads. It actually holds 24 percent less juice than the last two iPads. But rest assured, the new model's battery life is as good as ever ... if not a little better.
In our test, where we streamed video continuously with brightness set at 75 percent, the iPad Air lasted eight hours and 40 minutes. Those are terrific results, longer than any other mobile device we've tested.
In regular use, with lots of reading, web surfing, emailing, and video streaming, I never drained it below 55 percent remaining at the end of the day.
The bottom line: the iPad Air has excellent battery life. Unless you're gaming or streaming video for hours on end, there's a fat chance you'll ever have to worry about this thing conking out before the day is over.
Apps and iWork
There are many arguments you can make for buying an iPad over a rival Android- or Windows-powered tablet. But one of the biggest reasons is still the App Store's selection of tablet apps. Google Play's tablet app selection has improved, but it still relies too much on stretched-out smartphone apps. If you want the best selection, it's still all about the iPad.
Buying a new iPad Air does offer one new software perk. Apple recently changed its policy so that every new iOS or Mac device purchase includes free copies of Apple's iWork suite. So Pages (Apple's Microsoft Word alternative), Numbers (Excel rival) and Keynote (Powerpoint rival) are all on the house. They still, however, cost US$10 each to download onto an existing or used iPad.
We can't say whether this will make a big difference to you, but I use Pages and Numbers regularly, and prefer them over other mobile office suites that I've tried. And though they save by default in Apple's proprietary file formats, you can easily export them as Office-compatible files.
Combine these free apps with a third-party wireless keyboard or keyboard cover, and you have a potential laptop replacement ... and maybe one less reason to consider Microsoft's productivity-focused Surface 2.
We rarely snap pictures with tablets, and we're guessing you're probably in the same boat. But if you do like to wield your iPad for some awkward tablet photography, here are a few sample shots from the Air's rear camera:
Not too shabby, and probably about what you'd expect from an iPad. Solid enough for snapping photos in a pinch, but you're better off with a high-end smartphone for more serious point-and-shoot action.
The iPad Air is much faster than any other iPad ... and pretty much any other ARM-based mobile device. That's a good thing, but we also don't necessarily think it's reason enough to upgrade from last year's model.
If you own the late 2012 4th-gen iPad, then you know it's already a very fast tablet. On a technical level, the iPad Air is much faster than the iPad 4, but when you're comparing "plenty fast" to "ridiculously fast," you probably aren't looking at a must-have killer feature.
Another thing to consider is that most iOS developers tailor their apps to run on several generations of hardware. You'll see the occasional game optimized for the latest model, but that's pretty rare. Developers like making money, and there's a lot more to be made from an app that runs smoothly on the last three or four iPads, than one that's custom-made for the newest model.
So although you'll hear a lot about the amazing benchmarks coming out of the iPad Air, we don't think you'll see many apps that take full advantage of those capabilities – at least not for a while. But at least it plants some seeds for next-gen iOS gaming (and perhaps other hardware-intensive apps) further down the road.
iPad Air or Retina iPad mini?
If you're thinking about buying your first iPad, or if you're upgrading from an older iPad, then the iPad Air is a big step forward from its predecessors. But its stiffest competition is likely to come from its own baby brother, the iPad mini with Retina Display.
The Retina mini launches sometime later this month, so we'll have to wait to put it through its paces. But your decision boils down to whether you'd rather have the iPad Air's 53 percent bigger display, or the iPad mini's 29 percent lighter build. You also save $100 by getting the mini. Otherwise the two tablets' hardware and specs are virtually identical.
Tough call? You bet. But Apple's supply chain is here to make your decision easier. The Retina iPad mini will reportedly be in extremely short supply until 2014, while the iPad Air is already widely available. If you're eying the new mini, then you might want to snag it the moment it goes on sale (likely around the end of November), or risk waiting another month or two.
If you're shopping for a tablet this holiday season, then the iPad Air is an excellent choice. It does all the same things that older iPads do, but that 28 percent lighter build really enhances the experience of using it.
Everything you do on that crystal-clear Retina Display is now more portable, and so much more comfortable to grasp. You can settle in for a long movie or gaming session, and still enjoy holding it after an hour or two. You can read more comfortably in bed, and if you're like me, every time you pick it up, you'll appreciate how a personal computer so fast, versatile, and capable can also be so damn light.
The iPad Air isn't without competitors. Samsung, Amazon, and Microsoft all have high-profile releases in the 9- to 10-in range this holiday season. But again, those devices still have inferior tablet app libraries. Unless you're a fan of – or already invested in – one particular platform, then it's often wise to go where the software is. And right now, that's still the iPad.
We highly recommend the iPad Air to anyone shopping for a new full-sized tablet, and to owners of older iPads who want a lighter build with the same-sized screen. The biggest reason to hesitate may be that Retina iPad mini ... that is, if you can snag one before they fly off the shelves until next year.
The iPad Air is available now, starting at US$500 for the 16 GB Wi-Fi only model.
For more on the new crop of iPads, you can check out our hands-on comparison of the iPad Air to the Retina iPad mini. And to cast your net a bit wider, you can hit up our 2013 Tablet Comparison Guide.
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