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Review: iPad Air

By

November 4, 2013

Gizmag reviews the iPad Air, the lightest full-sized tablet you can buy today

Gizmag reviews the iPad Air, the lightest full-sized tablet you can buy today

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Thanks to the trusty rumor mill, we knew long ago that Apple's new full-sized iPad would borrow heavily from the iPad mini. But now that it's here, does the iPad Air live up to the hype? And is it worth the upgrade from an older iPad? Let Gizmag help out, as we review the new lighter and thinner iPad Air.

Filling its own shoes

Is the iPad Air the best personal computer ever made?

When Steve Jobs pitched the first iPad back in 2010, he described it as a new product category. It was much more personal than a laptop, but also much bigger than a smartphone. It was the perfect computer for surfing the web, reading, watching movies, or catching up on email. The iPad would be the ultimate casual consumption device.

Nearly four years later, the iPad is still, at its core, that same product. Sure, it now offers many more apps, covering just about any kind of software you could imagine. And since that first model, we've seen Apple's tablet get lighter, thinner, and faster. It's added cameras, quadrupled its screen's pixels, and it even got its own little brother. But as far as the iPad's function, purpose, and essence? Those haven't really changed.

The iPad Air does nothing to change that either. But what it does do is fulfill that original vision far better than any previous iPad. After putting it through the paces, we can say the iPad Air combines "personal" and "computer" to near perfection. If you take those words literally, then you might say the iPad Air is the best PC ever made.

Full-sized and mini, rolled into one

iPad Air (left), with the 3rd-gen iPad

The biggest reason – and maybe the only reason – to upgrade to the iPad Air from the last couple of iPads is its combination of size, weight, and build. Yes, it's basically a big iPad mini. But we think that's a very, very good thing.

Pick up an older iPad, then pick up the iPad Air, and the difference is immediately noticeable. The Air is 28 percent lighter than the last two full-sized iPads. To put that in perspective, the iPhone 5s is only 17 percent lighter than the first-generation iPhone, from way back in 2007. Yet Apple just shaved nearly 30 percent off of the iPad's weight in one year. Impressive.

The iPad Air is 28 percent lighter than the iPads 3 and 4

You feel the difference in your hands ... or should I say hand. Older 9.7-in iPads were always two-handed devices. Sure, many of us could hold them with one hand, but they were too big, thick, and heavy to comfortably wield that way for extended periods. Lie in bed with one, and you feel like you're balancing a slab of plywood on your chest. You could even say that older iPads were, physically speaking, just a couple of steps removed from being MacBook Airs.

Like the iPad mini, the iPad Air feels like it severs all ties to the laptop. I can hold it very comfortably with one hand for just about as long as I want. It isn't nearly as light as the mini (the Air is 42 percent heavier than the new Retina iPad mini), but among 10-in tablets, it's in a league of its own.

The iPad's thin build is one of its killer features

The Air's construction and overall design scheme are also now in line with the iPad mini. Same tight aluminum construction, same narrow bezels, and the same 7.5 mm thickness as the Retina iPad mini.

Also like the iPad mini, Apple threw some touch rejection software onto the Air. This lets you grip the tablet with your thumb across the edge of the screen, without the device registering that touch as input.

Still Retina

We're still looking at a 264 PPI Retina Display

The iPad Air gives you the same big, beautiful screen that the previous two Retina Display-equipped iPads gave you. If you've used either the iPad 3 or iPad 4, then the iPad Air's screen is going to be a spitting image.

But there's also nothing to complain about there. We're still looking at 9.7 inches (measured diagonally), with a razor-sharp 264 pixels per inch. There are now sharper 10-in tablets on the market, but even when holding the iPad Air at a closer than normal distance, my eyes couldn't discern any individual pixels.

I also prefer the iPad's 4:3 aspect ratio over most other tablets' 16:9 or 16:10 screens. Those widescreen displays effectively lock those tablets into landscape use. I find the 4:3 ratio to be more versatile. The iPad's screen is just about ideal in portrait mode, but it works equally well for landcape use.

All day long (and then some)

The iPad Air has terrific battery life, and should easily last a full day for most people

Part of the reason the iPad Air is so light and thin is because it has a smaller battery than previous iPads. It actually holds 24 percent less juice than the last two iPads. But rest assured, the new model's battery life is as good as ever ... if not a little better.

In our test, where we streamed video continuously with brightness set at 75 percent, the iPad Air lasted eight hours and 40 minutes. Those are terrific results, longer than any other mobile device we've tested.

In regular use, with lots of reading, web surfing, emailing, and video streaming, I never drained it below 55 percent remaining at the end of the day.

The bottom line: the iPad Air has excellent battery life. Unless you're gaming or streaming video for hours on end, there's a fat chance you'll ever have to worry about this thing conking out before the day is over.

Apps and iWork

The App Store is still the iPad's bread and butter

There are many arguments you can make for buying an iPad over a rival Android- or Windows-powered tablet. But one of the biggest reasons is still the App Store's selection of tablet apps. Google Play's tablet app selection has improved, but it still relies too much on stretched-out smartphone apps. If you want the best selection, it's still all about the iPad.

Buying a new iPad Air does offer one new software perk. Apple recently changed its policy so that every new iOS or Mac device purchase includes free copies of Apple's iWork suite. So Pages (Apple's Microsoft Word alternative), Numbers (Excel rival) and Keynote (Powerpoint rival) are all on the house. They still, however, cost US$10 each to download onto an existing or used iPad.

Pages is a solid and simple mobile word processor

We can't say whether this will make a big difference to you, but I use Pages and Numbers regularly, and prefer them over other mobile office suites that I've tried. And though they save by default in Apple's proprietary file formats, you can easily export them as Office-compatible files.

Combine these free apps with a third-party wireless keyboard or keyboard cover, and you have a potential laptop replacement ... and maybe one less reason to consider Microsoft's productivity-focused Surface 2.

Camera samples

The iPad Air's 5 MP rear camera has the same resolution as last year's model

We rarely snap pictures with tablets, and we're guessing you're probably in the same boat. But if you do like to wield your iPad for some awkward tablet photography, here are a few sample shots from the Air's rear camera:

Sample outdoor shot with rear camera
Sample outdoor shot with rear camera
Sample outdoor shot with rear camera
Sample indoor shot with rear camera

Not too shabby, and probably about what you'd expect from an iPad. Solid enough for snapping photos in a pinch, but you're better off with a high-end smartphone for more serious point-and-shoot action.

Performance

The iPad's A7 chip has a dual core processor, clocked at 1.4 GHz, along with 1 GB of RAM

The iPad Air is much faster than any other iPad ... and pretty much any other ARM-based mobile device. That's a good thing, but we also don't necessarily think it's reason enough to upgrade from last year's model.

If you own the late 2012 4th-gen iPad, then you know it's already a very fast tablet. On a technical level, the iPad Air is much faster than the iPad 4, but when you're comparing "plenty fast" to "ridiculously fast," you probably aren't looking at a must-have killer feature.

Another thing to consider is that most iOS developers tailor their apps to run on several generations of hardware. You'll see the occasional game optimized for the latest model, but that's pretty rare. Developers like making money, and there's a lot more to be made from an app that runs smoothly on the last three or four iPads, than one that's custom-made for the newest model.

So although you'll hear a lot about the amazing benchmarks coming out of the iPad Air, we don't think you'll see many apps that take full advantage of those capabilities – at least not for a while. But at least it plants some seeds for next-gen iOS gaming (and perhaps other hardware-intensive apps) further down the road.

iPad Air or Retina iPad mini?

Do you snag the iPad Air, or take your chances on the iPad mini with Retina Display?

If you're thinking about buying your first iPad, or if you're upgrading from an older iPad, then the iPad Air is a big step forward from its predecessors. But its stiffest competition is likely to come from its own baby brother, the iPad mini with Retina Display.

The Retina mini launches sometime later this month, so we'll have to wait to put it through its paces. But your decision boils down to whether you'd rather have the iPad Air's 53 percent bigger display, or the iPad mini's 29 percent lighter build. You also save $100 by getting the mini. Otherwise the two tablets' hardware and specs are virtually identical.

Tough call? You bet. But Apple's supply chain is here to make your decision easier. The Retina iPad mini will reportedly be in extremely short supply until 2014, while the iPad Air is already widely available. If you're eying the new mini, then you might want to snag it the moment it goes on sale (likely around the end of November), or risk waiting another month or two.

Wrap-up

The iPad is still a great device for browsing the web

If you're shopping for a tablet this holiday season, then the iPad Air is an excellent choice. It does all the same things that older iPads do, but that 28 percent lighter build really enhances the experience of using it.

Everything you do on that crystal-clear Retina Display is now more portable, and so much more comfortable to grasp. You can settle in for a long movie or gaming session, and still enjoy holding it after an hour or two. You can read more comfortably in bed, and if you're like me, every time you pick it up, you'll appreciate how a personal computer so fast, versatile, and capable can also be so damn light.

The iPad Air lives up to its name

The iPad Air isn't without competitors. Samsung, Amazon, and Microsoft all have high-profile releases in the 9- to 10-in range this holiday season. But again, those devices still have inferior tablet app libraries. Unless you're a fan of – or already invested in – one particular platform, then it's often wise to go where the software is. And right now, that's still the iPad.

We highly recommend the iPad Air to anyone shopping for a new full-sized tablet, and to owners of older iPads who want a lighter build with the same-sized screen. The biggest reason to hesitate may be that Retina iPad mini ... that is, if you can snag one before they fly off the shelves until next year.

The iPad Air is available now, starting at US$500 for the 16 GB Wi-Fi only model.

For more on the new crop of iPads, you can check out our hands-on comparison of the iPad Air to the Retina iPad mini. And to cast your net a bit wider, you can hit up our 2013 Tablet Comparison Guide.

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin is Gizmag's Mobile Tech Editor, and has been part of the team since 2012. Will has a Master's degree from U.C. Irvine and a Bachelor's from West Virginia University. He currently lives in New Mexico with his wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
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15 Comments

I am so tired of the following statement: "But again, those devices still have inferior tablet app libraries." it seems all reviewers copies that statement from each other. I have both the iPad and the Google Nexus 7 and I find the apps for the Nexus just as good as the apps for the iPad. In fact I find more useful apps for the Nexus than for the iPad to the point where the iPad has now been relegated to a toy my kids use to play games on.

Anoniem Bly
5th November, 2013 @ 01:50 am PST

I was a little surprised by that picture you used to show it's really a one hand device. For obvious reasons you showed it from the BACK. Have you forgotten that this device has a TOUCH screen and when you would be holding like this all hell would break lose on the screen.

Looking forward to seeing it compared to the Android devices that are on the market already...

willemco
5th November, 2013 @ 02:21 am PST

Just because Apple has a large app store is not a good enough reason to buy an Apple product. For once I wish that the app stores could be rated based on quality not just quantity. Other companies are catching up fast with their app stores so the playing field for the tablet market. Also, the iPad Air is not a computer when it comes to capabilities, it is another consumer product for internet access and media consumption. The Microsoft Surface Pro (2) is a computer hands down, may not be as light but it has the ability to run apps and full applications, as well as consume media.

Greenster
5th November, 2013 @ 06:03 am PST

The only thing my Nexus 7 does not have at $229 delivered is the Apple apps, and I just do not miss them.

Bernie Koppenhofer
5th November, 2013 @ 08:18 am PST

Not saying anything but if your looking for high end pictures why are you going to use your smartphone? Why not use one of those camera thingy's?

Dale Sherritt
5th November, 2013 @ 08:39 am PST

@Anoniem Bly

When the VP of andriod product management says that android tablet apps aren't up to the quality of apple apps, there must be something in it right ? I mean surely he must know what he's talking about wouldn't you think ? Or is he just copying what all the reviews as well ?

The quality of the comments on this site have nosedived recently. You can't get through a single apple review without butthurt comments at the bottom of it. Have you ever wondered why the same butthurt comments aren't at the bottom of other reviews ? I mean really , what is with the mentally of you people.?

Inappropriate Response
5th November, 2013 @ 11:04 am PST

Ugh. This article brings out some of my pet peeves about the iPad in general and about the new Ais model (Ipad 5).

first, when comparing how much they've been able to drop version-to-version, comparing phones and tablets is truly apples to oranges. The reason they can't drop as much weight from the phones is because they're smaller. They're packed in very tightly into a very small package, so dropping overall weight from a device that's 6 or 8 times larger is much, much easier. You can change the internals, but with something the size of a phone, you can only reduce so much packaging, which is where the bulk of the weight is with the phone.

I really, really HATE the term "retina display." It's an idiotic term, like the many other idiotic terms Apple comes up with for people who can't think for themselves. "Ooooh! It's a RETINA display. It must be really, really great!" No... It's not. Their display doesn't even come close to the best out there. This is even more true with the phones.

The new Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 absolutely shatters the Air's pixel resolution. "Retina display" is just another rip off marketing ploy by Apple to make their products seem better when they're not, just by coming up with yet another worthless term that simply sounds cool. This is Apple 101.

Apple's one and only real value is that they tend to create a new market. It's never long before many, many others, like Amazon and Samsung pass them up.

dandrews1138
5th November, 2013 @ 01:28 pm PST

Wowser!, Woah! and Whoof!

Never thought I'd see Will ever Praising an Apple Product, thought that he was stuck on Korean plastic stuff.

But it looks like Steve took Werner's teachings to heart and cloned himself perfectly, superbly.

Only thing missing is a great calendar.

Bill

Lewis M. Dickens III
5th November, 2013 @ 03:54 pm PST

Apple stubbornly refuses to add a memory card slot to the iPad, forcing one to make an up-front decision on storage capacity and be stuck with it for the duration. At a time when you can buy a SanDisk 32 GB microSD card for $25, this policy by Apple demonstrates their arrogant disregard and even contempt for their own customers.

Binarko
5th November, 2013 @ 05:16 pm PST

@Inappropriate Response

LOL, so since I do not agree with the fact that the apps for android tablets are inferior to the apps for the iPad I am suddenly "butthurt". I do not care what the "VP of andriod product management" says, my experience is different.

Every time somebody points out the obvious flaw in these kinds of reviews then the iSheep go all bleeting about the "butthurt" android comments.

Shame.

Anoniem Bly
6th November, 2013 @ 05:38 am PST

Great to see Apple failing to innovate as usual. Another ever-so-slightly-different-but-more-shiny toy for all the iClones to spend their disposable income on, allowing them to download the millions of available zombie apps.

PC? come on!

JuMo
6th November, 2013 @ 12:57 pm PST

Wow, I am amazed at the Apple hate. Grow up. I have both Apple and PC and all the other gear and I still prefer my iPad hands down. I, and a whole bunch of us here have had the other tablets and we still go back to the iPad. Apple brings us the iPod, iPhone then the iPad and now there is an about face and Apple have become the devil. I use my computers and laptops for computing and the iPad for everything else when I do not want to be tied to a much larger device. Cry into you comments and bleat on and on about resolutions etc. No one is asking you to change over. I think there is not enough 'Hey that's a great idea' any more, it's all about 'Butthurt' useless comments that fall on deaf ears because at he end of the day, people will buy what they feel fits with them. I am a pro photographer and I have Nikon, Canon and Sony and all of them were bought for reason. I find I am using the Sony nearly all the time. My images are great and no one know what I am using because at the end of the day, it is the results that are important not What I am using. Never seen a hammer build anything without the skill of the user.. just say'n

Michaelangelo
6th November, 2013 @ 03:03 pm PST

iPads just suck. Here is a prime example. There is no reason that iPad is better than the Surface Pro 2 (I have one), Surface, or a Nexus. Before you start talking about there being a lot more apps on the Apple App Store, get Bluestacks for Surface Pro 2 and get you get all the Android apps and the Windows App store. iPads kill choices and freedom. Its camera sucks (and what are you going to do, take a piccture on a tablet?) and iOS 7 (http://mashable.com/2013/09/20/worst-things-about-ios-7/) is prime sh*t. No multitasking (go Windows 8.1 and 8.1 RT), too many movements, battery problems, and NO FILE BROWSER. Another crappy product.

THEcommenter
8th November, 2013 @ 12:59 pm PST

Why is it that the wireless receiver/antennae is so much weaker than most computers? Several times I have trouble connecting to the wireless router and the persons next to me on a laptop or another tablet are connecting just fine? Which tablet has the most range?

David Armour
18th November, 2013 @ 09:46 am PST

Thank you Michealangelo for your sane comments. I also own both Android & Apple devices, prefer Apple but still have a Kindle Fire that I adore! Am getting the iPad Air to solve an immediate computer problem. Again, I really appreciate your comment.

Pam Thomas
29th December, 2013 @ 07:13 am PST
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