Just as the original MacBook Air redefined laptop design, Apple is hoping to do the same thing for tablets with the iPad Air. This 1-pound slate attempts to combine a big-screen experience with a design so compact you can easily use it with one hand. The iPad Air (starting at $499, $929 as configured with 128GB and LTE) also sports the faster new A7 chip and runs Apple's more modern iOS 7 software. And to drive home the point that the iPad is for creating content, the device comes with the iWork and iLife suites for free. Then again, other tablets either offer richer features or lower prices. Is the new iPad Air really a fresh breath of you-know-what?
Apart from its light weight, the first thing you'll notice about the iPad Air is that its screen takes up much more of the front than previous versions. The side bezels of the iPad Air are just 3/8ths of an inch thick, half that of the 4th generation iPad. Its aluminum back remains as stylish as ever; the LTE version has a plastic cutout to allow for better reception.
The Air looks like a larger iPad mini; the sides don't curve back as severely as on the 4th-gen iPad. We especially like the chamfered edge around the front, which not only adds a touch of flair, but makes it feel comfortable to hold. At the top of the screen (when held in portrait mode) is an iSight camera, and at the bottom is the traditional Home button. That's right, no Touch ID fingerprint sensor, as on the iPhone 5s.
Click to EnlargeOn the top edge of the Air is a headphone jack and power button, and along the upper right are volume controls and a rotation lock/mute switch. The bottom of the Air houses its lightning port, flanked by two speakers. The LTE version of the Air also has a small microSIM card slot on the lower right.
At 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.29 inches and 1.05 pounds, the Air is nearly a third of a pound lighter than the 4th generation iPad (1.44 pounds), and is the lightest 10-inch tablet on the market. The Sony Xperia Z comes close, at 1.1 pounds, and is slightly thinner at 0.27 inches, but has a larger 10.47 x 6.77 inch footprint. The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is heavier and thicker (9.57 x 6.75 x 0.31 inches, 1.23 pounds), followed by the Microsoft Surface 2 (10.8 x 6.8 x 0.35 inches, 1.4 pounds) and the Toshiba Excite Pro (10.3 x 7.0 x 0.4 inches, 1.4 pounds).
Bottom line: While we wouldn't necessarily do it for extended periods of time, the iPad Air is thin and light enough to hold comfortably in one hand, such as when riding the subway. You couldn't say that about the last iPad.
Click to EnlargeApple pioneered the Retina display with the third generation iPad, and the Air continues that tradition with a 9.7-inch, 2048 x 1536-pixel screen with a density of 264 pixels per inch. Other tablet makers are catching up, though. The Galaxy Note 10.1 has a 2560 x 1600 pixel display (300 ppi), as does the Toshiba Excite Pro.
We could make out every wrinkle in Patrick Stewart's face in the trailer for "X-Men: Days of Future Past," and colors across the spectrum were rich and deep. When playing "Infinity Blade III," the lens flares and details in armor added a real cinematic quality to the game.
The Air's average brightness of 411 lux outshone most of the competition. The Surface 2 (357), Xperia Z Tablet (354) and Excite Pro (323 lux) were all dimmer, but the Note 10.1, at 427 lux, was slightly brighter.
The speakers at the bottom of the Air pumped out loud and accurate sound. The guitar strums in the Lumineers' "Ho Hey" came through clearly, and while bass wasn't overwhelming, it was present and balanced.
However, we wish that the speakers were on either side of the tablet, as on the Note 10.1. Having the speakers on just one side results in a less immersive experience when watching movies or playing games.
Other than the new thinner font of iOS 7, there's no changes here. The iPad Air's on-screen keyboard was comfortable to type on in portrait and landscape mode, but we wish that Apple would include a Swype-like option to trace words, as on Android tablets.
Click to EnlargeThe same chip that powers the iPhone 5s is inside the iPad Air. Apple's A7 chip promises twice the performance of the previous A6x processor. While the Air didn't quite live up to that claim, it certainly is faster than the 4th generation iPad. Most important, the iPad 5 is swifter than other tablets.
On Geekbench 3, the Air scored 2,694 on the multicore test. That's nearly twice that of the 4th generation iPad (1,426), and enough to beat out the 1.9-GHz Samsung Exynos 5420 processor in the Galaxy Note 10.1 (2,516), the Nvidia Tegra 4 processor in the Excite Pro (2,548), and the category average of 1,489.
On 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited, the Air's score of 14,850 once again topped the Note 10.1 (13,539), the Surface 2 (13,777), the Excite Pro (7,239), and the category average of 5,139. It's also about 4,000 points higher than the 4th-gen iPad (10,934).
What does this mean in terms of real-world performance? We opened a 2-minute and 32-second 1080p video in iMovie, added the Neon theme and theme music, and exported it as a 720p movie. It took the iPad Air 41 seconds to complete this task, 20 seconds faster than the 4th generation iPad.
While both the Air and the 4th generation iPad launched "N.O.V.A. 3" in 6 seconds, it took only 7 seconds for the Air to load "Infinity Blade III"; that's three times as fast as the 4th gen iPad.
Closing apps, such as the Camera, took less than a second, and the Air was fast when switching orientations from landscape to portrait. While the Note 10.1 (2014) was equally fast when closing the Camera app, it took a split second longer than the Air when going from portrait to landscape.
After about a half hour of playing "N.O.V.A. 3," "Infinity Blade III" and watching a few YouTube videos, the back of the iPad Air reached 95-98 degrees Fahrenheit, which is above what we consider comfortable. However, while the tablet felt warm, it wasn't too hot to handle.
Click to EnlargeWhile iOS 7 has been available for almost every iOS device, the iPad Air is the first tablet to run Apple's latest operating system out of the box. This refreshed interface features a flatter, brighter and more minimalist design. Gone are icons and apps that look like objects you'd find in the real world; they've been replaced with a more functional look.
Also new to iOS 7 is an improved notifications window, as well as a quick settings Control Center menu that you can access by swiping up from the bottom of the screen.
Another new feature of iOS 7 is slightly improved multitasking. Double-clicking the Home button shows thumbnail views of all the open apps; flicking one up lets you close it.
However, now that the Air is more capable than ever of creating content, we wish that Apple would incorporate the ability to run two apps side by side, or in a floating window, as on the Galaxy Note 10.1. The Surface 2 also features a split-screen Snap mode.
Click to EnlargeConsumers who purchase a new iOS device, including the Air, will be able to download for free Apple's iLife and iWork suites, which include Pages, a document-editing app; Numbers, a spreadsheet app; Keynote, used to create presentations; iMovie; iPhoto; and GarageBand.
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The Pages app, for example, comes with a ton of template options and makes it easy to share your finished documents as Word files. And iPhoto includes the ability to order prints -- including panoramas -- in addition to awesome new special effects.
Additionally, there are more than 475,000 iPad apps in Apple's App Store. While there are more than double that in Google Play, a tiny fraction of that number is optimized for tablets, resulting in plenty of wasted space on-screen. Microsoft's App Store is still playing catch-up, with just 100,000 apps.
Battery Life and Connectivity
Click to EnlargeOn the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing over Wi-Fi on 40 percent brightness), the iPad Air lasted 11 hours and 51 minutes. While that's about a half hour less than the 4th generation iPad (12:22), it crushed the competition. The next closest slate, the Xperia Tablet Z, lasted 9:51. The Surface 2 came in next, at 9:19, followed by the Note 10.1 (7:44), and the Excite Pro (6:14). The tablet category average is 7:16.
Using just Verizon's LTE connection, the Air lasted 10:47.
In addition to LTE, the Air also has dual-channel 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi with MIMO technology, as well as Bluetooth 4.0
Click to EnlargeThe Air's rear 5-MP camera, which has an f2.4 aperture, backside illumination, and can record 1080p videos, was good, but not great in our tests. An indoors photo of a bunch of tchotchkes had accurate colors but there was a bit of detail lost in the orange Furby's fur, and there was a large amount of noise. Outdoors, though, the camera did an excellent job of capturing a blue sky, as well as passing cars and green trees.
The rear camera also captured quality 1080p video. Colors were bright and crisp, and the camera quickly adjusted from the bright blue sky to the darker street scenes. The dual microphones were able to pick up our narration over street noises well.
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Click to EnlargeThe front FaceTime HD 1.2-MP camera accurately picked up skin tones, and was detailed enough so that we could easily see the stubble in our beard (as well as that of the person behind us). However, like the rear camera, we noticed a bit of noise speckling the whole image.
Compared to the iPhone 5s, there's a few features missing from the Air's camera. There's no burst mode, filters or panorama mode. There's also no flash. While we find it weird to use a tablet as a camera, considering that the Air and the 5s share the same processor, we would hope that the camera in each share the same capabilities.
The iPad Air comes in either Space Gray (which has a black bezel) or Silver (which has a white bezel), and starts at $499 for the Wi-Fi version, which has 16GB of storage. A 32GB model costs $599, a 64GB model is $699, and a 128GB version costs $799.
Apple also sells versions of the Air with built-in mobile broadband. Those versions cost $629 for 16GB, $729 for 32GB, $829 for 64GB, and $929 for 128GB. While you can opt for data plans from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, monthly rates vary. For example, 5GB of data on AT&T and Verizon costs $50 per month, whereas you can get 6GB on Sprint for the same price.
For the Air, Apple updated its Smart Covers to include a back. These Smart Cases, available in Brown, Beige, Black, Blue, Yellow and Red, now protect both the back and the front of the iPad Air. However, each costs $79, more than twice the cost of the Smart Covers ($39). They also add 5 ounces to the total weight, making the Air a little less airy.
We can't help but feel Apple left a few features on the cutting-room floor. We would have liked a TouchID fingerprint sensor, as on the iPhone 5s, which would add an extra layer of security to the iPad Air. And while Airplay works well with Apple TV, we'd like greater integration with our home entertainment system, such as the remote-control features on the Galaxy Note and Xperia Tablet Z.
Click to EnlargeAt just over 1 pound, not only is the Apple iPad Air lighter than the competition, but it outshines, outperforms and lasts longer than similarly priced tablets. Plus, the Retina display looks as crisp as ever, and you get valuable productivity and content-creation apps for free. Apple's huge tablet app advantage versus Android also shouldn't be overlooked.
In some ways the iPad mini with Retina Display is the Air's biggest competitor. You get the same sharp screen and speedy A7 chip in an even smaller design for $100 less. But if you want a bigger display, the Air is worth the small splurge.
That's not to say there isn't room for improvement. The Galaxy Note 10.1 also offers a built-in stylus and more robust multitasking capabilities, and the Sony Xperia Tablet Z has a built-in TV remote control and is water-resistant. However, the iPad Air's combination of design, performance, app selection and endurance make this tablet a cut above the rest.