By Michael Fisher | October 22, 2013 6:26 PM
Not content to let the folks at Nokia and Microsoft claim the entirety of today’s mobile news cycle, Apple this afternoon announced two new tablets for 2014: the iPad mini and the iPad Air. And we were there (in virtual spirit) to cover it.
With few exceptions, we’re big tablet fans here at Pocketnow. From stock-Android slabs like the Nexus 10 to skinned specialty slates like the Galaxy Note 10.1, we do an awful lot of work and play in the space between the smartphone and the notebook – including the strange crossover zone where Microsoft’s Surface Pro lives.
But though tablets existed before Apple’s entrance into the market (we should know; we reviewed a few of them), it’s hard for even the most zealous anti-iOS fanatic to deny that the company played a central role in popularizing tablets for the consumer market. I was one of the ones jeering the company’s original iPad back in 2010, in fact, labeling the product an “0versized iPod Touch” like so many of my snarky companions – a belief I held deeply until I walked into an Apple store one day to confirm my prejudice, and ended up instead walking out with an iPad of my very own. Such is the power of a simple concept, executed well.
Apple has since continued its philosophy of gradually honed simplicity with the iPad line, and for those who value a simple, reliable, understated experience, today’s new products represent the ultimate in tablet computing. While the lineup isn’t perfect, there’s a lot to love in the new iPad Air and iPad mini. Here’s five of our favorites.
One of our least-favorite aspects of the fourth-generation iPad was its size. The ten-inch Retina display was excellent in terms of sheer acreage, but the battery required to power it was massive, pushing the unit to a max of 1.46lb (660g) on the 4G models. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot of mass to hold above your face when you’re trying to read in bed – and it feels even heavier when you invariably drop it on your nose as you start to fall asleep.
The new full-size iPad doesn’t just port the “Air” naming convention from Apple’s MacBook line; it’s backed up by a significant slimming-down of the hardware. The iPad Air comes in at just 7.5mm thick (1.5mm thinner than the previous model, the same thickness as the new iPad mini) and weighs just one pound (469g). That’s lighter than Samsung’s new Note 10.1 (547g) and Nexus 10 (602g), and it even bests one of our favorite lightweight Android tablets, Sony’s Xperia Tablet Z (495g).
Though the iPad isn’t as thin and certainly isn’t as waterproof as the latter product, Apple has achieved a real breakthrough here in keeping the weight and thickness down while incorporating a unibody design. And it’s accomplished the same feat with the new (331g) iPad mini. In this new era of plastic iPhones, it’s wonderful to see the company sticking to its industrial-design guns with the new iPads.
Apple hasn’t been skimping on beefy internals recently, either. For its latest iPhone refresh, the company integrated its new A7 chip with dedicated M7 coprocessor for contextual motion-sensing, and those improvements have made it into both of the new iPads as well. According to Apple, the new SoC offers CPU performance “up to four times faster” and GPU performance “up to 8 times faster” than the previous generation.
More importantly, the new hardware allows the newest tablets to stand on even ground with the latest iPhone, offering developers all the room in the world to leverage that new 64-bit architecture. (If you don’t know what that means, not to worry: Joe Levi does, and he’s willing to share his knowledge right here.)
Power (the other kind)
None of that hardware is worth anything, though, if you need to keep your iPad tethered to a wall charger all day just to use the thing. Fortunately, Apple has seldom disappointed in terms of battery life – and if the company’s latest claims are to be believed, the new iPads are no different. The introduction of the more-efficient A7/M7 chipset means the new tablets should offer endurance similar to the previous generation.
The iPad Air packs a 32.4-watt-hour LiPo battery, while its youngling counterpart offers a predictably smaller 23.8-Wh pack. That gives the new iPad mini a pretty sizable boost over its predecessor, but the iPad Air’s power plant is actually smaller than its forerunner. With the more efficient A7/M7 hardware, though, all of this results in a wash: Apple’s claiming the same 10 hours of mixed use for each that it did for the last generation of iPads – a figure that the company has had little trouble living up to in the past.
You should feel free to inject a bit more variety into that “mixed use” time on the new iPads, too. The tablets share the same 2048 x 1536 resolution across their Retina displays – a figure that results in only a passable pixel density of 264ppi on the 9.7-inch iPad Air, but an excellent 326ppi density on the revised 7.9-inch iPad mini (roughly on par with the new Nexus 7). Considering the amount of flack we gave the original iPad mini for its fairly grainy display -just listen to the latest episode of the Pocketnow Weekly for an example- this is an overdue improvement we’re very glad to see.
The media enhancements continue with new, BSI-based front-facing cameras on each iPad. That means your smug mug should show up better on FaceTime calls, especially in low light – and the dual noise-cancelling microphones will make you sound better too, even with more background noise. (But seriously, don’t make FaceTime calls in noisy coffee shops. Who do you think you are, Taylor Martin?)
And whether you use your tablets for FaceTime, watching Netflix, streaming Spotify, or what-have-you, expect faster data speeds than you’re used to seeing from iPads of yore. Apple’s new devices still lack 802.11ac support, sticking instead to the familiar a/b/g/n, but the company says its integration of dual antennas and MIMO technology should result in a 2x jump in available WiFi data speeds. That’s a pretty heady claim – one we’re looking forward to testing in our full review.
But look, dude(tte)s. Life ain’t all Netflix and Skittles. Sometimes you need to buckle down and do some work – and whether that work is building spreadsheets for your demonic Wall Street superiors or cutting together vacation video of your angelic children on water skis, Apple’s software suite pretty much has you covered. From iMovie to iPhoto to GarageBand, the new iPads stand ready to fuel your creative endeavors – and they’re also capable of running Pages, Numbers, and Keynote to keep those endeavors fueled with dollars from the day-job.
Importantly, you won’t have to spend any of those dollars on the software – because all of those titles, formerly between five and ten bucks a pop, are now free. That’s not a huge surprise, really -Apple made the announcement of the price drop back at the new iPhone announcement and we mentioned it in our iPhone 5C review- but it’s big enough news that it bears repeating here. The new iPad lineup isn’t just capable of content creation; it’s practically begging you to build something with it, because of the iWork suite’s freshly minted free-ness.
What won’t be free, though, is the price tag on the new iPads: the mini will debut “later in November” starting at $399, while the larger Air goes on sale November 1 starting at $499. We’ll be reviewing both units upon their release, and we’re confident we’ll find more than a few points to complain about during that review process. Until then, though, we’re content to take in the above list and salivate with the rest of the world. Because there’s an awful lot to like about the new iPads, and we’re genuinely excited to get our hands on them.