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iPad Air: The best tablet gets better

iPad Air: The best tablet gets better

At the same time that the iPad got thinner and lighter, it also got more powerful

It's right there in the name: The most important trait of the iPad Air is that it weighs only a pound. For a company that obsesses over making devices thinner and lighter, it must have been torture for Apple to spend nearly three years making a series of iPads that were better than their predecessors, but not smaller. Now it has.

Nearly every aspect of the iPad Air is thinner and lighter than the previous model (the fourth-generation iPad). That includes the battery, which is smaller--and less capacious--than before. Battery life, on the other hand, is pretty much the same, thanks to the improved power efficiency of the iPad Air's A7 processor.

At the same time that the iPad got thinner and lighter, it also got more powerful. That A7 processor allows the iPad Air to run roughly twice as fast as the previous-generation iPad, opening the door for new apps that can bring power traditionally reserved for "real computers" to the tablet.

A familiar look

It's fair to say that the iPad Air takes its design cues from the iPad mini, which was introduced a year ago. The bezel around the new iPad's screen has been reduced in height and (more dramatically) in width. Like the mini, the Air comes in two color choices: a white front with a silver back, or a black front with a dark gray back. Also like the mini, software makes sure that stray thumb touches on the display next to the narrow bezel are ignored. I've never have a problem with holding the iPad mini by the narrow bezel and never noticed any trouble on the iPad Air either.

The iPad's display itself is unchanged from those of the previous two models: It's a 2048-by-1536-pixel display, with a density of 264 pixels per inch. That's what Apple calls a Retina display, with resolution so high that most people can't perceive the individual dots that make up the image. The iPad Air also features the same 4:3 aspect ratio used by all iPad models (and old-fashioned TV sets), giving it a less extreme rectangular shape than many competing tablets, which tend to use the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio.

The Air's got the usual collection of ports: a headphone jack, Apple's Lightning connector port, and (on cellular models only) a SIM slot. There are now two microphones on the device, rather than one, which Apple says improves audio when you're shooting videos or video-chatting via FaceTime. The rear-facing camera remains a 5-megapixel model that won't win any awards but will do in a pinch, and the front-facing camera has been slightly upgraded, with a backside-illuminated sensor that should improve image quality in low-light FaceTime sessions.

At the bottom of the iPad Air, on either side of the Lightning connector, are stereo speakers. I found that they produced sound of roughly the same volume as the previous-model iPad, but it seemed fuller to my ears. The two speakers are placed so close together that it's difficult to really notice much stereo effect from them.

Two hands are better than one

A year ago, I stopped using the full-sized iPad and switched to the iPad mini, entirely because of its small size and light weight. The iPad Air, with its reduced size and weight, changes the variables quite a bit. But in the end, I don't foresee a mass exodus of iPad mini users switching to the iPad Air. Not only will the forthcoming iPad mini with Retina display offer a substantial upgrade in terms of that smaller model's display and internals, but it'll still beat the iPad Air as a one-handed device.

If you want an iPad you can hold in one hand while you read for hours, the iPad Air isn't for you. I could hold mine in one hand for a while--especially in portrait orientation, which really benefits from the device's decreased width--but it was never as comfortable as reading on an iPad mini. Though it's a much more comfortable device to use than the previous full-sized iPads, it's probably still best when being held in two hands, propped up by another part of your body, or laying flat on your lap.

The decreased width of the iPad Air also makes it easier to thumb type in portrait orientation than it was in previous models. I could type with my thumbs on the normal iPad software keyboard without any ungainly stretching, and with a decent amount of speed. Still, for top speed I prefer to put the iPad Air on my lap and use the larger software keyboard that's available in landscape orientation.

The iPad Air's screen is large and gorgeous, as you'd expect. I read a lot of comic-books on the iPad, and the iPad Air's screen shows them in all their glory, while on the iPad mini they all feel just a bit too small. Scanning an issue of Hawkeye in the Comixology app showed off numerous artwork details, and the comic's colors popped.

Fastest iPad ever? Of course

The iPad Air is powered by the A7 processor, the same chip used in the brand-new iPhone 5s. It's a fast 64-bit processor that does indeed blow previous iPads out of the water.

The Geekbench speed-test app showed the iPad Air to be faster even than the the iPhone 5s. (The iPad Air's A7 runs a little faster than the iPhone's, owing to its larger battery and possibly its greater ability to dissipate heat.) And it was almost (but not quite) twice as fast as its predecessor model, the fourth-generation iPad. Essentially, in a year Apple has almost doubled the speed of both the iPad and the iPhone. Not bad.

It handled everything with aplomb. I still haven't run any apps that feel like they're taking true advantage of the processing power of this device

The iPad Air also aced the two Web-browsing tests we tried: The Peacekeeper HTML 5 test and the Sunspider JavaScript test. Results were similar to the Geekbench tests: In the vicinity of double the speed of the previous iPad, and slightly faster than the iPhone 5s.

Of course, what to do with that kind of power? Benchmarks can tap that power, but what about real-world apps? I'm finding the iPad Air fast at launching apps and smooth at scrolling, and I spent some time playing graphics-heavy games on the iPad Air. It handled everything with aplomb. I still haven't run any apps that feel like they're taking true advantage of the processing power of this device; I'm sure there's some mad-scientist developer building an outrageously power-hungry app right now, and we'll see it in the App Store before too long.

We also ran some graphic tests using the GLBench app. On this test, iPads are at a disadvantage against iPhones because of the size of the iPad display; an iPad has four times the pixels to manage as the iPhone 5 series. Still, the iPad Air showed a dramatic improvement (between 9 and 11 frames per second) in frame rates over the iPad 4, even if it lost to the iPhone 5s on three of our four tests.

The iPad Air also includes the M7 coprocessor, which first debuted in the iPhone 5s. This chip allows iOS devices to monitor sensor data without waking up the full A7 processor, saving battery life. iPads are less mobile devices than iPhones, so I'm a bit skeptical about the importance of including the M7. However, iOS 7 does take advantage of the M7 and sensor data to do things like go into low-power modes when the device isn't being moved around, and app developers will be taking advantage of the M7's sensor data, so I suppose it's better to have it than to not have it.

Our preliminary tests of the iPad Air's battery also match Apple's claims. We set an iPad Air to play an HD video in a loop at a standard brightness and volume level, and it lasted more than 10 hours. The iPad 4 lasted about 9:15 in the same test, the (current) iPad mini about 9:30. (The iPhone 5s, on the other hand, lasted more than 11 hours--but, then, it has far fewer pixels to keep lit.)

Working hard, or hardly working?

From the day the original iPad was released, people have debated whether these sorts of devices are capable of doing "real" work. In fact, Apple specifically released iPad versions of Pages, Keynote, and Numbers on day one in order to send the message that the company believed the iPad was not just a toy, but also a productivity tool.

Sure, many iPads are used to play games or watch movies or read magazines. But they're also used to create business documents, build websites, and compose novels. Given the power of the A7 processor, the iPad Air is roughly six times faster than that original iPad. It's got a 64-bit processor and the kind of computing power that only a few years ago we'd have expected from a professional-level laptop.

So is the iPad Air a productivity device? Sure, if you want it to be--and if it's got the tools to do the particular job you need it to do. In the early days of the iPad it was easy to point at the hardware and suggest that these poor li'l underpowered iPads just couldn't do real, hearty work. The A7 makes those excuses moot. But has the software caught up?

Slowly, iPad apps are appearing that provide all the tools that conventional desktop apps provided. The text-editing app Editorial, for example, comes with a set of macros and scripting support that makes it a fair competitor with any Mac text editor out there. The Omni Group's suite of iPad apps is as rich and full-featured as their Mac versions. Apple's iWork and iLife apps are similarly impressive.

But make no mistake, we're still in the early days, and if you rely on a certain kind of workflow that the iPad just can't perform, then it can't be your main system. As a writer, I'm set on the iPad (though I would lean on a Bluetooth keyboard for day-to-day use). As someone who edits a podcast every week, I'm on the fence. There are a few multi-track audio editors out there for the iPad, but how long would it take me to use my fingers to edit a podcast compared to the speed I've got using Logic Pro X on my MacBook Air? When my fingers and an iPad can do the job as well as a keyboard, trackpad, and Mac, then I can make the switch.

But if the iPad Air isn't suitable as a work device, it won't be because of its lack of computing power. It'll be because the software just isn't there yet, or because fundamentally a tablet and touch interface isn't appropriate for that kind of job. Steve Jobs famously once likened iOS devices to cars and PCs to trucks. Note he said trucks, not horse-drawn carriages: Some jobs still require trucks. But the iPad Air makes it clear that it's a car, and a powerful one at that.

Touch ID? Nope

One feature the iPad Air doesn't offer--but the iPhone 5s does--is the Touch ID fingerprint-sensor technology. I've been using the iPhone 5s since day one, and I've gotten to love Touch ID. I previously locked my iPhone with a four-digit passcode; now I use a more complex password, but almost never have to type it in. But I've never, ever passcode-locked my iPad. The tablet is generally in my house or in another secure location, so I just haven't felt the need.

As a result, I don't find myself missing Touch ID on the iPad Air. It would be nice, sure. And clearly Apple is pushing users toward the direction of passcode locks: The iOS 7 setup strongly encourages users to set up a passcode lock, and iCloud Keychain is disabled entirely if your device doesn't have one. But I don't find the omission of Touch ID to be a major issue.

Covers and cases

With the iPad Air's new size and shape will come a raft of new iPad accessories. Apple's started the ball rolling with its new Smart Cover and Smart Cases.

Our accessories experts will be reviewing them both in detail; I'll just say that I've been a big fan of the Smart Cover for a long time, and I like the new model. It's essentially a scaled-up version of the iPad mini Smart Cover. It's available only in polyurethane (not leather like the older iPad Smart Cover) and it attaches to the iPad via a magnetic spine covered in polyurethane instead of via a magnetic metal hinge. I don't like this new Smart Cover as much as the old model (I loved my leather Smart Cover, which I got with my iPad 2 and had worn incredibly well), but it's solid.

My wife never liked the Smart Cover, because she said she didn't like the feel of the iPad's metallic back. For people like her, there's the Smart Case, which is basically a Smart Cover that wraps around to cover the back of the iPad. It's made out of leather and seems to be well made, though I'm not sure I'd want to bulk up the iPad Air with a full case. That's why I'm a Smart Cover person; obviously, your mileage (like my wife's) may vary.

Options and buying advice

So you've decided you want to buy an iPad Air. Now pick your poison: There are 16 different models to choose from. Once you've chosen white/silver or black/gray, you'll need to settle on storage and networking features.

Apple's offering four different storage options, ranging from 16GB to 128GB. You'll pay an extra $100 for each doubling of the storage space. These days I have a hard time recommending the 16GB model to anyone, really. I bought a 16GB iPad mini last year and almost instantly regretted it; my wife's got a 16GB third-generation iPad and has made me swear that we'll never buy a 16GB model again. It might be enough storage for very light use, but if you're reading this review I suspect you are not a casual-enough user to settle for the 16GB model.

As with all previous models of iPad, Apple's offering a cellular-capable model of the iPad Air for a $130 premium over the Wi-Fi-only model. If you're only ever going to use your iPad at home or in other places where there's readily available Wi-Fi, this is a no-brainer. But otherwise, it's worth seriously considering the cellular model. It supports pretty much every format of cellular service, and the SIM card slot is unlocked, you can switch carriers and even buy a prepaid SIM card when you're roaming internationally.

There's no contract commitment required, and carriers offer aggressively priced pay-as-you-go plans. T-Mobile in the U.S. is even offering 200MB of monthly data for free. And an iPad makes a great wireless hotspot, allowing you to connect other devices (like your laptop or an internationally-roaming smartphone) via Wi-Fi. Since there's no ongoing commitment, you're really paying an extra $130 up front in order to have the freedom to switch on cellular data when you're in need. If you travel with your iPad and have experienced the frustration of not being able to get online, it's worth serious consideration.

Bottom line

The iPad was already the best large tablet out there. If it had any deficiencies, it was really in terms of weight and size, and that's where the iPad Air shines. It's still got a battery that will last for ten hours, and now it's twice as fast as it was before, opening the door for even more apps that can boost personal productivity or just entertain you that much faster.

It's right there in the name: The iPad Air is still an iPad, but it's lighter and thinner and twice as fast to boot. If you want a tablet you can comfortably hold with one hand, look elsewhere. Otherwise, look no further than the iPad Air.

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