Apple iPad Air review: the same as before, only better

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It was three and a half years ago when Apple kick-started the modern tablet market we all know and (well, at least some of us) love today.

The original iPad upended the space, proving that 10-inch devices did in fact have a place in this world.

And to this day, Apple has held and proven its dominance over all those who have taken a stab at the tablet sector, though it’s market share has been steadily slipping over the last year, give or take. The competition has been heating up, and Apple was in need of a refresh to its aging iPad lineup.

ipad-air-review-18Enter the iPad Air.

Apple boasts that the iPad Air is lighter, thinner, and up to two times faster than the previous iPad. That’s all well and good, but is it enough to stave the onslaught of tablet manufacturers in the coming year? Better yet, is the iPad Air worth your time and money?

We’ve spent one whole week with the iPad Air, putting it through the wringer. Below are our thoughts.

Video Review · Specs & Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance · Pros and Cons · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me

Video Review

Specs & Hardware

ipad-air-review-2ipad-air-review-23As the name suggests, this refresh is all about the hardware – the internals, the design, and most importantly, the size and weight.

The first thing you will notice about the Air is how incredibly light it is. We’ve harped on that very aspect throughout our comparisons, in the video review (found above, in case you’ve scrolled right past it), and on this week’s Pocketnow Weekly with Brad Molen of Engadget. We’ve run the topic into the ground, and for good reason.

The iPad Air’s weight – or lack thereof – can’t be overstated. Last year’s iPad 3 and 4 hit the scales at 1.4lbs. And while that may not sound like a lot, side by side with a like-sized device which weighs only 1lb, the difference is staggering. That’s 652g compared to 469g, and trust us, after you hold the Air, you won’t want to pick up an older iPad ever again.

Apple also managed to significantly slim the iPad in two dimensions: thickness and width. Though only 1.4mm shorter than its predecessor, at 169.5mm wide, it’s about 10 percent narrower than before. And it’s 1.9mm thinner, as well – only 7.5mm thick.

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Along with these changes, Apple slightly redesigned the full-sized iPad, tossing the tapered edges and rear-facing speaker for edges rounded around the backside, and with a chamfered edge along the front. The speakers are now split along the bottom edge, one on each side of the Lighting port. And the volume rocker has been replaced with dedicated buttons, just like on the iPad mini.

ipad-air-review-4In fact, the iPad Air looks … exactly like an iPad mini, only a good bit larger. This means once the iPad 2 is finally discontinued, there will once again be unity in the iPad chassis design, regardless of size or model.

The interesting part? None of the size and weight reduction came at the expense of quality. If fact, we wager that this iPad feels better – more premium – than all previous models, as if there were far more time and care put into the design and putting every cubic millimeter to use.

The insides of this tablet, for the most part, are the same as before, however. It comes with 1GB RAM, a 5-megapixel camera, and a 32.4Wh battery. Four capacity options are available: 16, 32, 64, and 128GB.

And the 9.7-inch Retina Display is the same 2,048 by 1,536 pixel resolution. Like the two Retina iPads before it, the display is beautiful. Color gamut and contrast are fantastic, viewing angles are great, and black levels are passable. The display errs a tad on the cool side, but it’s super sharp and looks as great as ever.

The major difference, on the inside anyway, is the A7 chipset – a dual-core Cyclone CPU with a quad-core PowerVR G6430 GPU. Clocked at 1.4GHz, the CPU is actually 100MHz faster than the A7 found in the iPhone 5S.

ipad-air-review-9Inside and out, this tablet is a more well-rounded option than its predecessors. It’s lighter, thinner, narrower, and more powerful. It feels utterly premium and it’s quaint yet … beautiful.

Simply put, it’s the best iPad hardware yet.

Index

Software

ipad-air-review-10The software story is about the same as we’ve heard a million times over already.

Apple released the iOS 7 update back in September, with a UI refresh in tow. All the 3D and gradient UI was traded for a flat UI. It was given an established hierarchy, a vibrant color palette, and some very useful interface updates and features.

control-centernotification-centeripad-air-review-homeFor one, the new Control Center, a pull-up settings toggle menu accessed from the bottom of the display, makes switching various settings much easier. Notification Center was given a new, transparent appearance. And Siri was given more options, such as the ability to toggle settings via voice command.

Front to back, top to bottom, the new iOS looks better and cleaner than ever before. The problem, however, is that despite the new appearance, the operating system really isn’t any more functional. It relies almost entirely on its app ecosystem for all functionality and utility. Granted, iOS still has the most elaborate and expansive support for tablet apps and other tablet-optimized content. Between iTunes and the App Store, there is a virtually endless selection of digital content – movies, television, games, music, productivity apps, etc.

numbersSpeaking of productivity apps, Apple revealed during its iPad announcement a few weeks back that the iWork software suite is now entirely free. Keynote, Numbers, and Pages are all free, which is great for on-the-go productivity.

But after coming from a tablet like the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, we feel the iPad’s display could certainly be used more effectively. There is no possible way to run two applications simultaneously – no floating apps, and no split-pane view to allow two applications to run side by side. While some may see this as a non-issue, we certainly miss the ability to keep a YouTube video playing atop other applications, such as a Twitter client, chat apps, and other apps we regularly used while browsing the ‘Tube on the Note 10.1

ipad-air-review-settings

Something worth nothing, however, is that Apple has brought more attention to its multitasking gestures. They’ve been there for some time now, but in the iOS 7 update, the settings toggle is presented – loud and clear – in the General submenu: five-finger pinch to return home, four-finger swipe left or right to switch between recent apps, and four-finger swipe up to enter the task switching menu. These definitely aid in speed when switching tasks, but it’s still not the same as true multitasking – something we’re positive this tablet and its beefy chipset are capable of handling.

Is the software bad? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s a pleasure (albeit somewhat boring over time) to use. Is it still long in the tooth? You bet.

But we certainly feel that particular shortcoming is more than made up for in the vast selection of content available for this tablet. Apple’s ecosystem is still top-notch, and the software is certainly better, but only marginally so.

Index

Camera

ipad-air-review-14The camera is something we don’t weigh too heavily when it comes to tablets, but we’re happy to report that the image sensor on the iPad Air isn’t all that bad. Don’t get us wrong, it isn’t great. It isn’t very likely it will take better pictures than your smartphone. But it’ll certainly do in a pinch, if you don’t feel self conscious about snapping photos with a 10-inch device.

The camera software looks like the software found on the iPhone version of iOS, but it’s a bit more feature-light. It sports the same UI, but it’s missing the built-in filters and panorama.

We’ve been (embarrassingly) snapping photos with the iPad Air left and right for a week now, and we’re fairly impressed with the images. Color reproduction is great, and the level of detail is passable for a five megapixel sensor. Contrast could be better, as well as auto white balance and exposure. The camera had the tendency to over-expose, and it was quick to err on the warm side.

Photo Nov 06, 10 33 32 AMPhoto Nov 07, 7 05 24 PMPhoto Nov 02, 6 16 28 PMPhoto Nov 04, 4 10 57 PMPhoto Nov 04, 4 10 27 PMPhoto Nov 01, 1 45 49 PMPhoto Nov 07, 5 04 53 PM (HDR)Photo Nov 07, 5 03 57 PMPhoto Nov 01, 1 45 38 PMPhoto Nov 04, 4 09 08 PMPhoto Nov 04, 4 06 12 PMPhoto Nov 07, 5 03 29 PMPhoto Nov 07, 5 03 10 PMPhoto Nov 04, 4 05 15 PMPhoto Nov 01, 1 45 33 PMPhoto Nov 04, 4 05 50 PMPhoto Nov 07, 12 56 16 PMPhoto Nov 04, 4 03 52 PMPhoto Nov 07, 12 55 38 PMPhoto Nov 06, 10 34 23 AMPhoto Nov 07, 5 02 57 PMPhoto Nov 05, 4 55 50 PMPhoto Nov 04, 7 54 36 PMPhoto Nov 06, 10 33 08 AM

In perfect lighting, the Air is actually capable of taking some impressive shots. But the low-light mode is admittedly terrible – full of noise and artifacts, and seriously lacking on detail.

Likewise, the 1080p video quality is passable, especially for a 10-inch tablet. Colors are nice and balanced, the level detail is great, and the audio isn’t bad.

2013-11-08 11.18.34The front-facing camera isn’t terrible either. At 1.2 megapixels, you can only expect so much for it. But it will suffice for video calls, which is what it’s there for anyway.

Index

Performance

ipad-air-review-gamingipad-air-review-19The 64-bit A7 chipset inside the iPad Air is monstrous. The 1.4GHz dual-core CPU paired with the quad-core GPU slices through everyday tasks like butter. Applications open instantly; returning home happens immediately; and even switching applications occurs the instant you four-finger swipe between them.

In our week with the Air, we were unable to slow the tablet down a single time – that includes intensive gaming, extensive testing and benchmarking, and switching between all possible applications.

Graphic intensive games like Asphalt 8 and Infinity Blade III were no problem for the Air. In fact, it provided one of the best, if not the best, mobile gaming experiences we’ve ever had.

ipad-air-review-sunspider-1ipad-air-review-sunspideripad-air-review-3dmarkipad-air-review-geekbench

The iPad Air also managed to put up one of the most impressive SunSpider JavaScript scores we’ve ever seen from a mobile device, ranging from the mid to upper 300s.

ipad-air-review-15ipad-air-review-5The speakers found along the bottom edge of the iPad Air are decent. In fact, we might go out on a limb and say they’re the disappointing part of this tablet – and they’re still really not all that bad. They’re moderately loud with passable sound. There’s a hint of low-end while the sound is biased towards the mids and highs, as expected.

Our beef with the speakers truly has very little to do with the actual audio output and everything to do with their placement. Instead of being positioned on opposite ends of the tablet, they’re side by side, mere centimeters apart, so you don’t truly get a stereo experience like you do on many other tablets. They’re also perfectly placed to cup with your hand in landscape mode, yet they’re also perfectly placed to accidentally cover up and muffle with your hand. In all, they’re not bad, but this is an area which could use some improvement in future models.

Battery life, however, is an area where we have no complaints. Apple boasts the iPad Air, despite its smaller, 32.4Wh cell, will still survive an impressive 10 hours of usage, just like all previous iPad models.

ipad-air-review-12

To be concise, the Air delivers … with flying colors. We’ve been unable to fully deplete the battery in a single day of use, which includes constant push notifications from Google+, Twitter, and Facebook, three Gmail accounts, watching YouTube videos, Web browsing, benchmarking, gaming, and much more. It’s impressive, to say the least, and the standby time is fantastic, as well, only dropping one to two percent over an eight hour span overnight.

We unplugged the iPad Air this morning around 8:00AM and as of midnight, the iPad has 49 percent left. We’ve been using it all day for YouTube, email, extensive Web browsing and social positing, reading news via Feedly, and, well … writing this review in its entirety … from the iPad’s on-screen keyboard.

Color us impressed.

Index

Pros

+ Gorgeous, crisp display
+ Very lightweight and portable
+ Impressive performance with no notable issues
+ Long battery life
+ An endless amount of available content to consume

Cons

 Moderately expensive
 Questionable speaker placement
 iOS 7 could use further tablet optimization

Index

Pricing and Availability

ipad-air-review-16The iPad Air was released on November 1 with a base price of $499 plus tax for the 16GB model. Each higher-capacity model increases in price by $100, meaning the 32, 64, and 128GB will set you back $599, $699, and $799, respectively.

ipad-air-review-pricingThe iPad Air also comes in an LTE variant for an additional $130 per storage capacity. Pricing, plus tax, is as follows: $629 for 16GB, $729 for 32GB, $829 for 64GB, and $929 for 128GB. This LTE model is available on all four major carriers in the US and in various regions worldwide.

Index

Conclusion

ipad-air-review-20ipad-air-review-6Calling this device lighter, thinner, and more powerful may sound like some buzzwordy, marketing nonsense. We thought so ourselves at first. But after using it for a week and comparing it to last year’s iPad 3, we’re convinced this was exactly what the aging iPad lineup needed more than anything.

Sure, the iPad could use some true multitasking software for the hardcore users, like us here at Pocketnow, who may want to watch a YouTube video and Web browse at the same time, or carry on a text chat while looking up directions.

But the iPad Air tackles one of the more pressing issues of 10-inch tablets to date head-on: weight. And, frankly, it’s unbelievably lightweight. The general reaction from passersby picking up the Air was, “Wow. This is light!” And that was before we took it out of the Apple Smart Case.

Does any of this warrant your hard-earned cash? Without a doubt, $500 (plus tax) is a large amount of cash for a device, especially one you’re not even sure you need. If you already have an iPad from last year, the upgrade may not be worth it. The weight reduction and additional horsepower is nice, but last year’s models aren’t painfully heavy or slow.

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If, instead, you’re not replacing an existing iPad, the Air is one of the best choices currently on the market. It certainly isn’t the cheapest, but it will offer second to none performance and a virtually endless supply of digital content.

Is this a tablet we would buy? Yes it is. In fact, we already did.

Index


Scored For Me

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+