- Review Date: 11/04/2013
- Bottom line: The iPad Air is Apple's attempt to make the tablet disappear. The result is an unusually slim, well-built platform for the best array of apps in the business.
- Pros: Impressively slim and light. Fast. Very good camera. Top-notch app selection. LTE version works with every U.S. carrier.
- Cons: Expensive. Pages and Numbers, while free, don't measure up to Microsoft Office for productivity.
Slimmer, lighter, and faster than last year's model, Apple's iPad Air ($499-$929) is the best tablet for the most people. It's a full-fledged computer that's now so thin and light that you won't even notice it's in your bag. Like every iPad before it, it's striving to become the magic book with eternally rewriting pages that seers and science fiction writers have predicted for millennia.
The iPad Air isn't a radical break from the iPads before it. It doesn't watch your gestures or read your fingerprint. But its slimmer build gets it that much closer to the dream of the sheet-of-paper-thin form factor where the hardware disappears, and all that's left is magic. The Air isn't magic, of course, but pair it up with some of the many spectacular third-party apps available for iOS, and it's a step on the path. And like its predecessor, it's our Editors' Choice for large-screen tablets.
Physical Design and Wi-Fi
Considerably smaller and lighter than any previous iPad, the Air measures 9.4 by 6.6 by a razor-thin .29 inches (HWD), with a much slimmer bezel on the sides of the screen. (That doesn't affect usage; the iPad's touch screen still has excellent thumb rejection.) Tuck the Air into the corner of last year's model, for instance, and the fourth-generation iPad shows 3/4-inch of bezel off the right side. This iPad also has a flat back, not a convex one like previous models. It comes in Silver (with a white front) or Space Gray (with a black front).
At almost exactly a pound for the Wi-Fi model and a hair heavier (1.05 pounds) for the LTE version, the Air isn't feather-light. There are lighter large tablets; the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 weighs more than two ounces less, for instance. But it's airy enough that throwing it into your bag and carrying it all day doesn't faze you, when it might have with older iPads.
Otherwise, this tablet looks a lot like an iPad. Pretty much all the buttons and features are in the same place as on last year's model, although the volume rocker has been cracked into separate up and down buttons. I have mixed feelings about the bottom-ported stereo speakers. If you're listening to music with the iPad flat on a table, it's much louder than competing tablets with back-ported speakers. But if you're playing a game or video while holding the tablet in landscape mode, all of the sound pumps out of one side.
The 9.7-inch 2,048-by-1,536 IPS LCD touch screen is bright, but rather reflective. At 264 ppi, it's at the limit of my eyes' ability to distinguish the pixels. It doesn't quite match 2,560-by-1,600 super-sharp tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, but I don't think anyone will be dissatisfied with the sharpness here.
The new MIMO antenna improves Wi-Fi reception with the right router. (Yes, Apple's Airport Extreme fills the bill.) Against an 802.11n Meraki MR16 router connected to our corporate line, I was able to get 30-33Mbps down on the iPad Air versus only 17-18Mbps down on last year's iPad. That will make a big difference when downloading movies or large files; many high-end games are now over a gigabyte.
Both the Wi-Fi and cellular iPads pack Bluetooth 4.0; only the cellular model includes a GPS radio.
Apple says the iPad Air should last up to 10 hours on Wi-Fi. That's on a 32.4 watt-hour battery as compared with the previous iPad's 42 watt-hour cell. In our battery test, which plays a stored video with the screen turned to max brightness, the Air got 6 hours, 14 minutes. (The difference between our result and Apple's estimate is the screen brightness setting; halve the brightness, and you'll easily hit that 10 hour mark.) That's 37 minutes longer than the third and fourth-generation iPads, which had a larger battery, but not as long as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, which scored 7 hours, 37 minutes on the same test.
The A7 Processor, Performance, and iOS
Apple's A7 processor, running at 1.4GHz here, is the most efficient on the market, although it isn't quite the fastest. If you want a true deep dive into Apple's unique chip architecture, which ARM has said is at least six months ahead of its competitors, check out AnandTech's review of the A7. I'm going to focus more on real-life performance.
And that performance is excellent. On the iPad 2 and 3, iMovie in iOS 7 feels genuinely gummy. On the Air, it feels effortless. High-end games like Asphalt 8 and Infinity Blade III render beautifully. Augmented-reality apps update their screens in real time. Yes, there's only 1GB of RAM on board here, but iOS doesn't tend to need a lot of RAM because it doesn't do a lot of multitasking.
We ran a range of cross-platform benchmarks and some iOS apps to illustrate how the Air compares with other top tablets. For Web browsing, the combination of the A7 and Apple's Safari browser is killer: The iPad outmatched every other tablet we've tested on the Browsermark Web browsing benchmark. When I say that, I'm also including the Intel Bay Trail-based Asus Transformer Book T100, which didn't score as high.
On the GFXMark benchmark, which gauges gaming performance, the A7 pulled 49 frames per second onscreen, which competes well with, but doesn't top Nvidia Tegra 4 and Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 tablets. On the Geekbench processor benchmark, quad-core processors like Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 beat the dual-core A7, but that's to be expected. Geekbench scales more smoothly with more cores.
If you're just comparing the Air with other iPads, of course, there's no contest. I got 13 percent higher Browsermark results than the fourth-generation iPad, and 35 percent better than both the iPad 2 and 3. Graphics frame rates were more than double the iPad 2 and 3. A short 720p movie exported from iMovie in 41 seconds, which is 50 percent faster than on the fourth-gen iPad and three times as fast as on the earlier models.
iOS is still a simple grid of icons that is passionately focused on touch. Read our in-depth iOS 7 review if you want the full details.
Apple's obsession with touch has resulted in some amazing apps and new ways of doing things, from interactive textbooks to Square's credit-card processing app. It falls flat for me in only one area, but an important one: traditional productivity. Apple's Pages and Numbers, while now free with new Apple hardware, are just too visually oriented for a procedural thinker like me, and none of the third-party alternatives measure up to Microsoft Office on Windows tablets.
Camera and Multimedia
As you may know, I am no fan of people who take snapshots with their tablets. I think they look like idiots. But as Apple reminded me, that doesn't mean there are no good uses for tablet cameras. The iPad's 1.2-megapixel, 720p front camera works well for video calls, and the 5-megapixel, 1080p rear camera plays a role in scanning, shopping, and augmented reality apps. The Camera app is notoriously simple, with your options limited to HDR, Panorama, Square, or Standard. Samsung's Galaxy-device kitchen sink camera this ain't.
The main camera is quite sharp, with a super-quick shutter and good low light performance. It blows out bright skies, which the HDR mode didn't fix, and shutter speeds flirted with blurring moving objects on a cloudy day in my tests. But take it out of the realm of snapshots and into computer vision, and it'll be able to recognize things well, especially with an excellent, fast-focusing macro mode that excels at reading text. Video shot in 1080p ratcheted its frame rates down a bit in lower light, from 30 fps outdoors to 27fps inside.
The front camera takes 1.2-MP still shots and records 720p video at 30 frames per second in good light and a very grainy 24 frames per second in low light. Most notably, like all iPad cameras (but unlike, say, the Kindle Fire's) it's designed to work with the iPad in portrait mode, and the angle and focal length are perfect for video calling in that orientation. If you hold your iPad in landscape mode, you have to angle it oddly to get your face in the picture.
The iPad Air comes in 16, 32, 64, and 128GB models, starting at $499 and adding $100 each time your double your capacity. The 128GB tablet has 115GB free for your files. Multimedia playback is the same here as with other Apple mobile devices. Natively, the tablet plays anything you sync over from iTunes, whether via USB cable or Wi-Fi; there are (paid) third-party apps to handle music and video formats that the integrated players don't support. You can throw your video over to a TV using a Lightning to HDMI adapter cable ($49) or wirelessly with Apple TV.
The Wi-Fi vs. Cellular iPad
The cellular iPad costs $130 more than the Wi-Fi model, as usual, but this time around, it has a superpower: It will work with every U.S. carrier, interchangeably. That means you can swap in and out SIM cards from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, or even virtual carriers like Simple Mobile, H2O, or those lesser-known prepaid ones sold at corner stores.
So you don't need to sign up for a monthly plan, or even pick a single carrier. You can try them all on for size. That gives you a lot of options.
We used our iPad on the Verizon Wireless LTE network. Performance was fine, although it didn't quite match the speeds we saw on the Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. Using the Ookla Speedtest.net app, we consistently pulled faster speeds on the S4 in both weak and strong signal areas. But in testing, signal strength mattered much more than the device used: Where we got 7Mbps on the iPad and 12Mbps on the S4, for instance, you'll see both as broadband speeds.
That said, I've always had trouble justifying the extra $130, especially when most iPad owners have smartphones that could work as Wi-Fi hotspots. If you're willing to stick with one carrier, that $130 could also buy you a dedicated hotspot which you could use to connect all of your gadgets, not just the iPad. I think that's a better option.
The iPad vs. the iPad Mini
AOL exec Ryan Block tweeted: "Impressively light, but still very much a full-sized iPad. I think I'm sticking with the iPad Mini."
To which I tweeted back, "Y'see, I'd say, "impressively light, and a full-sized iPad. A lot less reason to go with the Mini."
The iPad Air and the new Retina iPad Mini look identical in many ways. They use the same processor, the same screen resolution, the same networking options, and the same camera. (Though we haven't tested them side-by-side since the Retina Mini doesn't come out until later this month.)
This means that the decision between the two comes down to form-factor preference and your budget (the Mini will cost you $100 less for each storage-space iteration). I think the 10-inch form is better for general purpose computing; it gives you enough room to move. I've also never loved the width of the iPad Mini when held in one hand; I feel like it's weighted a little too far towards the outside, especially compared with narrower 7-inch tablets like the Google Nexus 7.
I think the full-size iPad is a better platform for gorgeous, high-end games and high-def video, and it makes Apple's productivity software more usable. But I won't disagree too vehemently if you feel otherwise. It's purely a matter of taste.
The iPad vs. Other Tablets
Because of Apple's simple interface and its devotion to its developer community, the iPad does most of the things most people want. Overall, the iPad is America's default tablet.
There are three big niches, and a few small ones, and if you fall into one of them, you might want a different tablet. Windows Bay Trail tablets like the Asus T100 will serve you better for getting work done in Microsoft Office and other PC apps. But you pay a real price in complexity, stability, and speed over the iPad. Just now, I had to shepherd my T100 through the Windows Wi-Fi troubleshooter.
If you want some assistance, Amazon's Kindle Fire should be your choice. Its Mayday feature gives you live, 24-hour on-demand tech support from an endless array of chipper, patient people. It's also excellent for handling media from Amazon, of course.
The iPad's also expensive, which leaves room for much less pricey tablets. The 9-inch Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ can get you online, surfing the Web, reading books, and playing games for $149 right now. But it's nowhere near as smooth or speedy an experience as the iPad Air.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 may get a cult following of artists and architects who like to draw with its pressure-sensitive pen, and the Sony Xperia Tablet Z's IR blaster lets it function as a universal remote for your HDTV and Blu-ray player.
See what's happening here? Every other tablet has a specific place. The iPad is everywhere else.
Should You Upgrade?
If you have an iPad 1 or 2, yes, definitely. The Retina display makes the original iPads' screens look leaden, heavy-handed, and grainy. The iPad 3, meanwhile, was underpowered for its screen, and apps can really drag, plus it's still got the old 30-pin connector. The Air is a lighter experience in every way, not just physically, things finally zip around in a way they don't on the 3.
If you have the last-gen iPad, it's a tougher call. Yes, this iPad is lighter and up to twice as fast than last year's model. But it's not like the iPad 4 is a bad tablet by any stretch. It probably does what you need to do. We haven't seen any apps that really require the A7 processor yet, and iOS 7 doesn't drag on the iPad 4 like it does on earlier models. Only buy the Air if you feel like your existing iPad is weighing you down.
In any case, make sure to sell your existing iPad for the best price before you buy the new one.
The iPad Air isn't going to please everyone, but it'll please most people. Just as there's more than one great computer, there can be more than one great tablet: The slender iPad Air lifting its touch-centric apps up on a pedestal, the simple Kindle Fire helping everyone along, and the businesslike Windows tablets shuttling their Office documents and Photoshop files.
As with the iPhone 5S, Apple is trying to make both the hardware and the OS step into the background here, so you can better enjoy the apps. The best iPad, Apple implies, is one that disappears.