Apple first introduced the “Air” branding scheme in conjunction with its ultra-slim and portable MacBook line back in 2008. The term was meant to connote a laptop that wasn’t just lighter, but also uber thin, and able to achieve epic battery life. Now that moniker has migrated to the company’s full-size tablet line. And it’s a perfect fit.
The iPad Air isn’t just a waifish version of last year’s tablet. Inside, it features the company’s new 64-bit A7 processor — the very same one you’ll find in the iPhone 5s — along with storage capacities of up to 128 GB. It’s an immensely powerful tablet. And while the battery is smaller (32.9 WHr versus the previous generation’s 42.5), it still manages to crank out the same 10-hours plus of battery life.
But first let’s talk about the tablet’s “airiness.” The Wi-Fi-only version weighs exactly one pound (that’s .33 pounds less than the iPad 2), while the Wi-Fi + Cellular model comes in at 1.05 pounds. Even that marginal downgrade in weight makes a big difference, particularly when holding the tablet for any extended period of time. In fact, if the iPad Air’s build quality and materials weren’t so excellent, with its smooth aluminum rear plate and jewel-like chamfered bezel along the front edge, it’d almost feel like a toy.
In pursuit of that lightness, Apple also shaved off some width. The iPad Air now measures 6.6 inches wide versus the fourth-generation’s 7.3. It’s also a tenth of an inch shorter lengthwise than previous iPads. Between the re-styling and this size adjustment, it looks exactly like an embiggened version of an iPad mini. Unfortunately, I actually find the chamfered bezel a little bit too sharp in this larger form factor. It looks gorgeous, sure, but the design works better on Apple’s smaller form factor tablets — particularly if you’re one-handing it. If it’s in a case, this isn’t a problem, though.
The 2048 x 1536 resolution display, the same one we’ve been enjoying since the third-generation iPad, packs in 264 pixels per square inch. High-res images are as detailed and crisp as ever, and the colors are truer to life than on AMOLED displays, the screen type preferred by Apple competitor Samsung. If you don’t own a tablet with an HD screen yet, it’s definitely time to upgrade. The parallax effect on the iOS 7 home screen is much more pronounced on the larger iPad than on the iPhone screen — I think it’s a cool feature, but I know it also makes some folks a bit queasy. And the touch response is snappy, but there’s one spot I wish was more touch sensitive.
After using the iPhone 5s, my biggest gripe with the iPad Air is that the home button does not have TouchID. I’ve grown so used to the feature that I continue to try to unlock the Air by holding my thumb on the home button for a few moments waiting for something to happen. It’s the definition of a first world problem, but not having it on the iPhone’s tablet cousin seems like a puzzling oversight.
Overall performance, however, remains outstanding. High-definition video streams and gaming animations are smooth and stutter free, hampered only if your Wi-Fi or cellular connection necessitates some initial buffering. Websites also load with amazing speed in Safari (and only a hair slower in Chrome), and scrolling feels fluid in both browsers. Apple says it’s twice as fast as the fourth-generation iPad, and from what I can tell, that claim seems absolutely true.
The display is the biggest battery hog of any mobile device, but at 75 percent brightness, two hours of Netflix eats up only around 20 percent of the battery. You can definitely get that 10 hours of battery life Apple promises, and that’s watching HD video streams. If you’re doing lower-intensity tasks like web browsing and reading ebooks, that battery will stretch even further. For those that use their tablets just an hour or two a night, you’ll likely get a week or more of use before needing to recharge.
The iPad Air is also a better device for sharing and recording audio and video now. Apple added a second mic to the top of the tablet, so it can better capture sound whether you’re recording with the front-facing camera or the rear. This doesn’t help if you’re recording from the rear-facing camera and narrating from the front, though. The mics have a habit of picking up the slightest trace of noise in recordings, noticeable if compared to a recording from an iPhone. The rear-facing camera itself is a respectable 5-megapixel shooter — the same one that’s in the fourth-generation iPad. It can capture 1080p video, while the slightly upgraded 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera can shoot 720p at 30 FPS. While it pales in comparison to 8-megapixel or higher cameras on today’s smartphones, the rear camera is definitely better than those on many other leading tablets, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. Still, I was surprised that Apple didn’t up the camera specs on this year’s model.
Like most mobile devices, the iPad’s speakers, while pretty dang loud, are lacking in bass and can come across as slightly muddled. Apple did finally update the Air with stereo speakers (on either side of the lightning connector) although the separation isn’t very good. When in landscape mode you’ll still get sound coming from either the right or left side of the device.
The iPad Air features an impressively slender form factor and, thanks largely to its A7 processor and optimizations in iOS 7, it still manages to perform twice as fast and deliver just as much battery life as its predecessor. In fact, Apple’s latest tablet, as it exists, is definitely one of the best (if not the best) tablet out there right now. However, I can’t help but feel that it could be even better. Where’s my TouchID? How about a bigger, better camera on this late 2013 tablet? I suppose this opens the opportunity for an iPad Pro, with such premium features. Or just next year’s Air. But I can’t help but want them now.
Photos: Josh Valcarcel/get-gadget