iPad Air review: The best tablet gets better

iPad Air

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At a Glance
  • Apple iPad Air (Wi-Fi)

  • Apple iPad Air (Wi-Fi + Cellular)

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.

iPad AirImage: Michael Homnick

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-size 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.

iPad AirImage: Michael Homnick

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-size 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 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.

The iPad Air also aced the two Web-browsing tests we tried: the Peacekeeper HTML5 test and the SunSpider JavaScript test. Results were similar to the Geekbench test results—in the vicinity of double the speed of the previous iPad, and slightly faster than the iPhone 5s.

The question is what to do with that kind of power. Benchmarks can tap that power, of course, 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 tablet. 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; but 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 fourth-gen iPad, even if it lost to the iPhone 5s on three of our four tests.

iPad Air speed tests

iPad Air 1480 2683 1844 375
iPad 4th gen 780 1425 995 670
iPad mini 262 493 536 1296
iPhone 5s 1416 2562 1794 405.6
iPhone 5c 709 1279 907 752
iPhone 5 722 1295 928 742.8

Higher score is better in all but SunSpider. Best results in bold.

At a Glance
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