The iPad Air is thinner, faster and lighter than previous full-sized iPads. If you’re after a content consumption tablet, this is the one to buy.
iPad Air: On the plus side
OK, hands up anyone out there that doesn’t know what an iPad looks like.
The iPad Air looks like an iPad, but, as the hype surrounding its launch demonstrated, it’s an iPad with less.
To be specific, less weight, less thickness, less bezel around its display screen. The “Air” suffix is meant to convey the sense of weightlessness, but quite how much you actually appreciate this will depend largely on your exposure to previous generation iPads and tablets generally.
Is the iPad Air very light for a tablet of its size? Undoubtedly, but you’d need to lift it next to a previous generation full sized iPad to really appreciate the difference. It’s enough to make the iPad Air comfortable for single handed use over a longer period of time than its predecessors, which is a benefit that’s not just about aesthetics.
Underneath its trimmed down frame lies the same A7 ARM processor and M7 motion co-processor found inside the iPhone 5s, and the same storage options found in previous generations of iPad. The Wi-Fi antennas are now MIMO compliant — for what it’s worth in my testing I kept strong signal within my own Wi-Fi network, but I’ve rarely had problems in that regard with previous iPads either .
The “Cellular” version of the iPad supports a wider range of LTE bands, meaning that there’s a single model for the entire world. Previous generations had a variety of 4G configurations, meaning that travellers couldn’t be sure if they’d actually get a 4G (a variable term, to be sure) connectivity when landing on foreign shores. That’s a thing of the past now.
The iPad Air has a “retina” (eugh, horrid marketing term begone!) display, which is to say a 9.7″ 2048×1536 264ppi LCD screen. It’s crisp and very pleasant for all sorts of consumption activities, and for that matter productivity ones as well.
Apple’s big pitch right now is to sell the iPad as a productivity machine, what with making its iWork suite free for all new iOS device buyers. It’s an appreciated step, but this still isn’t a laptop, and if you’re after something like that, a more tablet-ified device such as the Asus T100 might be a better fit for your needs.
In pure speed/benchmark terms the iPad Air hit a high water mark, scoring a Geekbench multi-core score of 2683. To give that some context, an iPhone 5s, running the same processor scores a 2234. An 3rd generation iPad manages a score of 757.
The iPad Air though, shows how benchmark scores, and the chasing of just numbers can be a bit pointless. It’s undeniably fast, but right now there’s not a lot that actively takes its extra processing power into consideration. As such, it’ll load apps more quickly, and multitask with aplomb, but then if you’re only a generation or so behind it, you wouldn’t notice that immediately. More on that thought in the conclusions.
The iPad Air’s design means that’s it’s a little smaller than the previous generation, and this means less space to pack in batteries. Here, after a week’s heavy use I’m happy to say that the iPad Air performs admirably. Apple’s estimates suggest “up to” 10 hours of battery use, and I’d largely agree with that. There’s many usage cases you can put a device through, and if you hammer it it’s possible to drain the battery, but it’s also capable of lasting a solid length of time.
It’s also the first iOS device where the Lightning cable makes sense to me. Not that the Lightning cable was a mystery beforehand, but previous devices were thick enough that I was always left thinking that Apple could have stuck with the 30-pin Dock Connector. Not so with the iPad Air; I can clearly see how the Dock Connector wouldn’t have worked.
iPad Air: On the minus side
The iPad Air is quite the refinement of the basic iPad design, but there are still things that could be improved.
I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle to get people not to use their tablets as cameras, largely because it’s both intrusive and you get lousy framing, but it doesn’t help when the cameras in tablets are just so ordinary. The iPad Air is no exception.
Apple likes to pretend that it’s got the iPad locked down tight in terms of storage. That’s a fallacy — there’s any number of apps that will allow you to dig around in the innards of an iPad’s storage without jailbreaking — but it does mean that there’s no expandability across the entire iPad line. Would it really hurt Apple that much to allow you to throw in an extra microSD slot on the side of an iPad?
Like much of Apple’s recent output, such as the 2013 Macbook Pro, the iPad Air is solidly sealed and glued together. Once again, I’m not so fussed about the self-repairability, because that’s a fraction of the market, but it does rather lock you into Apple’s own repair system if you need things fixed, rather than opening it up to a lot of competition.
The one thing I’d point out there is that while Apple’s official warranty in Australia is 12 months, if something goes wrong that isn’t your fault, Australian consumer law has rather wide definitions that generally favour the consumer, not the vendor
A device — especially one sold as such a “premium” device, which is a description I’m sure Apple would embrace — should last for a “reasonable” amount of time based on its cost. Personally, I don’t feel that only twelve months is a “reasonable” amount of time, and I’d certainly debate that point with Apple if I had an iPad Air that needed repairing in 13 months.
iPad Air: Pricing
As with previous generations of iPad, you can have the iPad either with a SIM card slot for 4G LTE access, or in Wi-Fi only modes. The Wi-Fi only models come in at $598/$699/$799/$899 (16/32/64/128GB), while the Wi-Fi+Cellular model costs $749/$849/$949/$1049.
A quick tip to Apple; nobody in Australia refers to them as “Cellular” devices, although again I’m sure that’s branding that’s dictated Cupertino-side anyway.
iPad Air: Fat Duck verdict
Those firmly entrenched in the Android/Windows tablet camps are unlikely to care much about the iPad Air, but what about those already invested in an iPad?
I’d say, much like with iPhones, that it’s a generational matter. If you’re bumping up from a first or second generation iPad, then the differences will be stark and well worth your while. That diminishes as you jump into the 3rd or 4th generation iPad, however; those devices aren’t that old, and are still perfectly supported by current iOS apps as to make the upgrade less valuable.
Still, the iPad Air is easily the best iPad Apple’s developed — at least yet. For absolutely new tablet buyers, the iPad remains the one to beat; Microsoft has Windows and Office but hasn’t yet cracked the casual/consumption/apps market yet, and while Android is more promising in that arena, the tablet approaches of multiple vendors mean that app development still lags behind that of Apple.
The complicating factor here is the upcoming iPad Mini with Retina Display, due to appear before the end of the month. It’s got a smaller screen, but it’s otherwise hardware-identical to the iPad Air, and even lighter and cheaper. At this point if you haven’t dived into buying an iPad Air, unless you actively need the larger screen, I’d suggest waiting to see how the iPad Mini with Retina Display stacks up.