The iPad Air is Apple’s latest tablet and represents the biggest design overhaul to the 9.7-inch slate since it was introduced in 2010. The Air earns its name by being both lighter and thinner than any iPad before, excluding the iPad mini. Is it Apple’s best tablet to date? Should you upgrade? Find out in our full review.
With the iPad Air, the discussion will largely hinge on the major design overhaul that Apple’s fifth-generation slate underwent. It’s the biggest change to the look and feel of the 9.7-inch tablet since its introduction in 2010, borrowing design and construction cues from the iPad mini. The results is a tablet that is thinner, lighter, and carries an overall smaller footprint that preceding models.
The changes, which result in a 24 percent reduction in overall volume (according to Apple), more than justify the addition of “Air” to the new iPad’s name. The iPad Air measures in at only 7.5mm thick and weighs only a pound.
Highlights of the new design? Diamond-cut chamfered edges are one. It’s a touch that adds to the premium feel, but, if the iPhone 5S is any indication, also a magnet for dings and scratches. The bezel surrounding the display has also shrunk drastically since previous iPad models, perhaps the biggest change to the devices overall footprint (aside from the thickness).
These adjustments in design are where the attentions should be given when the iPad Air is under the microscope. Though at times subtle, the tablet is easier to manipulate when holding and feels less cumbersome. You still won’t find the iPad easy to operate with one hand, but the experience is far more comfortable.
At first glance, there is no major difference between the Retina display of the iPad Air and last generation’s model, which is or more or less true when considering they both measure 9.7 inches and boast a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels. You could say the Air offers no major improvements in this area but duplicates the impressive image and color reproduction of previous Retina displays.
It is a great a looking display, and it certainly won’t disappoint. Apple probably made the right call by not outwardly upgrading this spec for their latest iPad. A higher resolution might have made for better marketing jargon, but, as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
On a deeper level, the display in the iPad Air borrows from technology used in the iPad mini, deploying thinner optical film layers and fewer LED backlights to reduce thickness and weight. While this change doesn’t produce noticeable differences in display performance, it is a large contributor to how Apple was able to keep the iPad Air’s footprint at a minimum.
Hardware & A7 processor
For the most part, Apple has chosen to stick with a similar hardware compliment to previous iPad models. It is upgraded, however, in a few very significant areas.
The biggest change is the addition of Apple’s 64-bit A7 processor. This is the new bit of silicon that launched with the iPhone 5S and the first “desktop-grade” CPU to make its way to mobile devices. The processor doubles down on performance, offering number crunching and graphics processing that is twice that of the previous generation. The A7 also comes with Apple’s M7 coprocessor, which offers more robust, efficient processing of motion sensor input data.
While it carries plenty of extra zip, the true benefits of the 64-bit architecture won’t be felt immediately. As we stated in our iPhone 5S reviews, the iOS ecosystem likely won’t catch up to native 64-bit for at least a year or so down the road. But when that happens, the iPad Air will be ready.
The other major addition to the iPad Air is dual-band 802.11n MIMO (multiple-input multiple-outpue) WiFi, which utilizes two antennas to provide data transfer rates of up to 300Mbps. Throw in an all-in-one cellular chip (on models supporting mobile data) with an even greater range of LTE bands supported and you’re looking at the best connectivity on an iPad to date.
The iPad Air is the first Apple tablet to feature a native 64-bit build of iOS 7, which, in conjunction with the A7 CPU, makes for a seamless user experience. While iOS 7 itself has received mixed reviews, there is no denying how smoothly it runs on the Air.
iOS 7 is known as the platform update that introduced a major rethinking of design to Apple’s mobile ecosystem. For many familiar with the iOS of older iPad models, the difference can be shocking. While the appearance might be an acquired taste, once accustomed to it the user experience is quite familiar.
iOS 7 puts an even more minimalist spin on Apple already simple and intuitive user interface, but it adds quite a few enhanced features. These include multitasking with live app previews, a revamped Notification Center featuring a new “Today” view listing calendar events, and Control Center.
Control Center is by far one of our favorite additions, providing quick access to a number of setting and shortcuts with a simple swipe up from the bottom of the display. These shortcuts include AirDrop, Apple’s wireless file sharing protocol gone mobile with iOS 7.
Apple went a bit heavy on animations and effects in their latest OS update, and that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Parallax motion effects and zooming animations when opening folders and apps can, thankfully, be turned off.
Apple did not go out of their way to upgrade the camera found on the iPad Air. It’s the same 5MP sensor that came built into the fourth-model. The results are adequate, but we wouldn’t recommend the tablet as a replacement for your phone or point-and-shoot (despite how popular the option is becoming).
Pictures have a tendency to turn out grainy, especially in poor lighting, and the lack of a flash doesn’t lend itself to these conditions. The iPad Air is more than suitable for snapping a quick photo or conducting a video chat, but you probably won’t be setting up any award winning shots with its hardware.
Additionally, despite the capable A7 processor, the Air lacks certain camera enhancements present in the iPhone 5S. For starters, don’t expect to take any slow motion video with the slate. A more primitive version of bust shot exists (simply hold down the shutter button), but the ability snap 10 shots in a second with a best shot automatically recommended is absent.
We have no complaints in regard to battery life when it comes to the iPad Air. With the tablet power on for almost a full week, we have yet to plug in the device for a charge once. After six days of moderate use (a few hours each day), the Air was sitting at just under 20 percent battery.
Apple promises about 10 hours of battery life for typical use on WiFi connectivity, a number which seems to ring more than true based on our usage. Obviously, light use will carry you much further, but expect to get ample battery life even when viewing streaming video content.
The results are more or less on par with the previous iPad models, which could be seen as slightly disappointing. If there is one area you would like to see improved every generation, it might be device up time. But as a portable media machine, the iPad Air will get you a full day’s worth of use.
The iPad Air is beautifully designed tablet with some pretty premium features, and it does not lack power with an 64-bit A7 processor and tailored build of iOS 7. Overall, it is quite easy to call it Apple’s best tablet yet simply on those merits, but does that make it a tablet worth dropping $499 (for a base WiFi model) on?
The iPad Air might not be a big enough upgrade to justify a purchase if you already own an Apple tablet released in the last year or two. As a first tablet purchase or an upgrade from a platform like Android or Windows, it’s a no brainer (especially when considered against the iPad 2, which is available for a couple hundred bucks cheaper). Those looking for a tablet with an even smaller footprint — one that puts a smaller dent in the waller, as well — might want to hold off until Apple launches its iPad mini with Retina display later this month.