AIR TIME! Our expert cosies up with the new top-end iPad
The original fondleslab - now even slabbier. How old's yours?
Review The reception that greeted the launch of the iPad Air was rather more muted than the gangbusting opening weekend of the iPhone 5S. Sure, it was slimmer and lighter than its predecessor, and had a faster processor, but that’s the sort of thing you take for granted with any update.
Apple’s iPad Air: it’s the (smaller) size that impresses
On paper it all looks rather dry. The Air is 20 per cent slimmer than last year’s iPad 4 – down from 9.4mm to 7.5mm – while the weight of the 16GB Wi-Fi only model reviewed here drops by almost a third, from 652g to 469g. The 4G/LTE version weighs in at 478g. And while the 9.7-inch display with its 2048 x 1536 resolution remains essentially unchanged, the bezels on either side of the screen have been trimmed, reducing the width of the unit from 186mm to 169.5mm.
The numbers aren’t terribly exciting, but when you get your hands on the iPad Air, its more compact, lightweight design does impress. I’m the happy owner of a third-generation iPad. It hasn’t replaced my laptop for work, but when I’m at home the darn thing is pretty much grafted onto the end of my arm.
But I didn’t feel any great need to upgrade to the iPad 4 last year, as that was essentially just a speed bump and added a new connector, Lightning. The iPad Air, however, does have the lust factor that sets my credit card a-quivering in my pocket.
New case, same screen specification?
In actual fact, it was the size rather than the weight that took me by surprise. The iPad Air is noticeably narrower than my iPad 3, and I had to whip out a ruler to convince myself that the Retina screen was still the same size as before.
The anti-scratch screen overlay on my iPad 3 is too big to fit onto the iPad Air, and the sleeve that I carry my iPad 3 around in is far too loose to hold the iPad Air securely, so that’s another bunch of accessories you’ll have to pay for if you upgrade.
The reduced weight is clearly noticeable too. I can hold my iPad 3 in one hand quite comfortably when I’m browsing the web or reading an ebook, but there are times – those long sessions with Plants vs Zombies, say – when I need to shift the weight from one hand to another. That’s no longer the case, and the weight of the iPad Air now seems to have passed some sort of threshold that makes it feel completely natural to hold and use for extended periods of time.
Great build quality
The best Apple products have always had a tactile quality that makes you want to pick them up and admire the elegance of the design, and the iPad Air has got it in spades. You can feel the cleanness and precision of the aluminium casing, and the metal buttons that lie almost but not quite flush with the surrounding panel. There are cheaper Android tablets by the score, but few that match the build quality and classy elegance of the iPad Air.
And while it’s hard to quantify, I got the impression that the already excellent “Retina” display was just a little brighter and sharper than that of my iPad 3, with better contrast that produced crisper blacks on text. DisplayMate Technologies analyst Ray Soneira reckons the Air uses Sharp’s IGZO screen tech for a thinner, more power-efficient panel, but Apple has yet to confirm this.
The touchscreen seems more sensitive too, reacting to the lightest of finger-flicks when I want to see notifications or the iOS 7 control centre.
Design cues come from the popular iPad Mini
My only concern is that the thinner casing might not be as sturdy as that of its predecessors. It feels rigid in your hand but I’d worry more about dropping the iPad Air than my iPad 3. A protective cover would seem like an essential accessory for this model.
Walking on Air
The other main change, of course, is the new 64-bit A7 processor. This has the same 1.4GHz clock speed as the A6 processor used in the Pad 4, but a quick check with GeekBench 3 registered a score of 2683.
The older GeekBench 2 rated the Air at 2378, compared to 1766 for the iPad 4. That’s certainly not the 2x increase claimed by Apple, but it’s still a healthy step up. Having said that, my iPad 3 has always seemed snappy enough to handle every app or game that I’ve ever thrown at it, so the extra performance on offer in the iPad Air isn’t noticeable most of the time.
Skinniest iPad yet - but not the thinnest tablet ever made
It does, however, give the iPad Air scope to flex its muscles with new games and apps in the future. I was somewhat flabbergasted when Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was released for the iPad a few months ago, so it’s mouth-watering to imagine what the iPad Air will be able to do with the extra performance provided by the A7 processor.
One thing that Apple didn’t make a big fuss about was the battery life of the iPad Air – the company is merely commenting that the Air stays at around 10 hours. In fact, the iPad Air gave me a full 10 hours of streaming video using BBC iPlayer, compared to about eight for my iPad 3. You could probably squeeze another hour out of it if you’re not hammering the Wi-Fi non-stop.
One other minor change I also appreciated was the addition of twin-aerial MIMO for the iPad’s 802.11n Wi-Fi. One result: the iPad Air didn’t keep dropping the signal in the Wi-Fi deadspot in my office, as my iPad 3 does on a regular basis.
The new iPad is as tall as the old one, but rather less wide
It’s annoying, though, that Apple hasn’t upgraded the iPad’s Wi-Fi to 802.11ac as it has done with the latest Mac models. There’s no change to the 5MP rear camera or 1.2MP front camera, either, adding to the impression that Apple is holding back on a number of features for use in future upgrades.
But at least it didn’t increase the price, so I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. The 16GB Wi-Fi model still starts at £399, with the 32GB, 64GB and 128GB models priced at 32GB, 64GB and 128GB models priced at £479, £559 and £639. As before, the cellular models simply add £100 to those prices.
Those prices have been fairly constant for a few years now, and by now I’d have expected the £399 model to provide 32GB of storage – which would allow me to cram my entire iTunes library onto it at last.
Geekbench 3 results: 52 per cent higher than 2012’s iPad 4
I’m also rather unimpressed to see that the iPad 2, which remains on sale as Apple’s "low-cost" option, still starts at £329 – £70 less than the Air. The iPad 2 is approaching its third birthday and its pre-Retina, 1024 x 768 display just isn’t up to scratch at that price.
And, of course, there are those perennial little iPad niggles that we all like to complain about: the lack of built-in HDMI, USB or memory card slots, and the expensive adaptors that Apple sells to overcome the connectivity limitations that it imposed in the first place. Those limitations haven’t stopped Apple selling 170 million iPads so far, so they’re probably not going to make any difference this time either.
The Reg Verdict
Apple always likes to talk about the “magical” experience of using the iPad, and holding the iPad Air in my hands does remind me of what it was like when the very first iPad was launched. I can understand why the fanbois who already own the iPad 4 weren’t tempted to queue overnight to buy the iPad Air, but people like me who have an older iPad may well find the urge to upgrade hard to resist this Christmas. ®
Thanks to the Square Group for lending us a review unit