Apple iPad Air review

The iPad Air is the latest tablet to arrive in Apple's range. It's adopted the Air name, just like the MacBook Air, to show off its thin and light stature. No Apple iPad 5 branding to be found here even though, in essence, the Air is the fifth full-size tablet release from the Cupertino-based company.

The Air is completely redesigned from what has previously been the norm from Apple. It's built to tackle the most common complains about the standard iPad: size and weight. It's shaved the pounds, it's upped the performance, but in a world where other companies are outing decent slate alternatives, and where Apple's own iPad mini Retina is on the horizon, is the Air the answer?

Walking in the Air

The name gives it away, really, doesn't it? The Air is considerably lighter than the previous iPad devices that came before it, weighing in at between 496-478g depending on which model you opt for - 4G connectivity and larger storage capacities add a couple of grams.

It's also a lot smaller, at 241.2 x 185.7mm, as Apple has reduced the bezel that runs down the side of the screen, but the Air has the same 9.7-inch screen size as the earlier iPad adorned across its front. So although you don't lose any screen real estate, you gain in the device's downsizing.

It's a thinner device, too, measuring 7.5mm, not the 9.4mm of the earlier iPad. That slim down is thanks to a thinner battery, so you won't need to find a spare leg to rest it on. That, as the advert will tell you, makes it thinner than a pencil.

To look at, the Air looks like Apple has pinched the iPad mini's design, albeit with a larger screen. Now that's no bad thing at all.

READ: Apple iPad mini review

The similarities spill into the design too. On the right side of the Air is a screen lock key and individual volume up and volume down keys that are identical to the iPad mini. A headphone jack and power button sit to the top, the Lightning connector socket and the two speakers that pump out stereo sound live at the base of the device.

The 4G version we had in for review features a thinnish plastic band, the same as the mini, at the top to allow for the signal to penetrate the otherwise impenetrable metal casing.

Screen-ingly good

The screen in the Air is as good as ever. It's the same as that used in the iPad 4, so it's not a brand new, higher resolution offering, but the 2,048 x 1536 pixel resolution is sharp at 264ppi.

If you're worried that the thinner frame will be harder to hold without affecting the screen with fingers in the way, then don't be. Apple iPad mini users will tell you there is no problem here and the Air feels similar in this respect.

However, in the hand it seems physically smaller because of the reduced bezel. The screen also feels hollow to tap on, more so than the original iPad models and more akin to the feeling we get tapping on the iPad mini. It's not bad, it's just different.

Beneath the 9.7-inch display is Apple's standard physical home button - no Touch ID fingerprint sensor here, though, which may come as a surprise if you were expecting it, but remember the iPad is for the family to use and pass around - while above the screen you get a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera with 720p HD video support and the option to make FaceTime and Skype video calls.

Flip it over and the Air offers a 5-megapixel f/2.4 camera, with the ability to capture 1080p HD video. We've been snapping away and there's change here at all from the previous iPad 4 outing. Except now you don't look quite as stupid holding up the Air to take a shot as you would have done with the iPad 4.

Strangely, and even though the processor specs are now the same as the iPhone 5S, the Air lacks the new 120 fps Slow-Mo video feature. Must be to do with the older generation imaging sensor. That same sensor produces picture quality that's ok, but not amazing - we still wouldn't recommend using this as a main camera, but one for "in case of emergencies".

READ: Apple iPhone 5S review

All those features, design tweaks, and implementations create a design that keeps us very happy indeed; it's incredibly easy to handle and even more portable than previous iPad devices we've spent many hours using.

Some will say that the new iPad is just Apple's marketing working its hardest to tell you that it's lighter than, well, need we spell it out? But we think there's a outside chance that the Air's name could have been drafted in because Apple is positioning itself to launch an iPad Pro in 2014. It's a long shot, but brings the iPad in the same naming convention as the company's laptop range. Think bigger, heavier but more powerful. How about that for giddy excitement?

Still, let's not get ahead of ourselves, as this review is all about the Air. A device that not only looks rather like an upscaled iPad mini, but carries through an essence of iPhone 5S in its finish too. It now comes in silver and white or space grey and black, although there's no gold option available like the iPhone. Whatever you choose there's the usual silver-colour polished Apple logo that adorns the back.

Gas and Air

We've alluded to an iPad Pro rumour, but given how powerful the Air is we're sure you'll be kept content with what it offers. In short the iPad Air now has the same power as the iPhone 5S.

That means an Apple A7 64-bit processor and an M7 processor for better motion handling, Wi-Fi b/g/n and optional 4G support (for all the spectrum bands for UK and US operators) depending on which device you pick, and the same 10-hour battery life.

We did wonder if that last point about battery life could ring true, but we've found it has in our tests. The Air goes on and on for what seems like forever - especially if you turn off the 4G. Even though the battery is physically smaller this time around, performance savings within iOS 7 - Apple's installed as standard mobile operating system - and the new processors really does mean you'll see the same 10 hours of life per charge.

READ: Apple iOS 7 review

Wireless speed freaks will also note that there is no 802.11ac for the fastest, longest-range connections. Disappointing to a point, but we think it's because the company hasn't worked out how to address the additional power ac needs. A longer battery life as always is key in a tablet of this type.

The iPad Air does have twice the CPU and graphic performance as the fourth-gen iPad and is eight times faster than the original iPad - an interesting nugget of info if you are still using the first-gen tablet and don't find it powerful enough for your current needs any more.

All that power has a ceiling at the moment though. But one only limited by time. The new A7 processor, just like that in the iPhone 5S, doesn't harness the full potential of its power because hardly any apps plug into that power just yet. But in terms of potential, there's stacks of it.

Likewise, while the iPad Air features the same coprocessor as the iPhone 5S, the M7. It measures motion data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass features. It's open to third-party developers so the future is bright and the cross-platform - iPhone and iPad - support will be realised better than ever before. If, of course, you buy into both of Apple's latest products. 

iPad Air vs iPad 4

In the future this should make a huge difference in terms of what is possible. Notice "should", because, right now, we just don't know the full extent of what 64-bit processing will really yield. Excluding some native Apple stuff such as photo and video capture and editing we just have to take it for granted.

READ: Apple iPad 4 (late 2012) review

Despite the boost in power, in day-to-day use we've noticed no real speed enhancements compared to the previous full-sized iPad. And that's based on tests using an array of apps and playing all the resource-heavy games we can - Infinity Blade III, Need for Speed Most Wanted, Real Racing 3, Dead Trigger 2 and others. For today, the Air is as fast as any Apple tablet has ever been: we've experienced zero lag and zero performance issues. Not once have we thought anything took too long to load, even if, in most cases, the iPad Air did win out compared to the iPad 4 in load times, but only by a whisker.

The importance of 64-bit is huge, though. It is very much an improvement that you'll see tomorrow rather than today, which makes it really hard to tell you that it's amazing, because on release day you'll look at the iPad Air and say: "this is no different to the iPad 4". Compared to the original iPad, though, and it's light years ahead.

iOS 7, iLife, and iWork

Apple iOS 7 is great, but more exciting still is that you get a bundle of new apps with the iPad Air, including GarageBand, iPhoto, and iMovie, as well as Keynote, Pages, and Numbers.

READ: iOS 7 tips and tricks

A huge advance over what iPad users have had previously - and without paying any extra - these apps add loads of functionality to the tablet straight out of the box. Edit photos, make movies, record a song, write about it, manage your costs in a spreadsheet, and then present it to people ready to lap it all up. It's a creative hub, more so than any iPad before it.

Each app sits in line with iOS 7's redesign. Take iMovie for example, it now gives you much greater control than before and means you can actually edit home movies on your iPad without having to get your laptop out. iPhoto, too, sees improvements and now offers a hub to order prints and books via Apple without getting off the sofa.

The combination of all the software really adds huge value to the tablet device, and while it won't be what everyone is after - power users, we are looking at you - for most it will be more than enough. Embrace the Post-PC era, that's just what the Air will enable you to do.

iPad Air vs iPad mini with Retina

There's a tough question on our minds. It's whether the iPad Air makes total sense with the forthcoming iPad mini Retina just around the corner. And it's one that we think will vex many future customers.

The iPad Air is out from 1 November, the mini with Retina display comes later in November. Where before both iPad and mini devices filled two had vastly different specs and the mini very much played second fiddle to the full-sized iPad, that won't be the case in the near future.

READ: iPad mini Retina pictures and hands-on

The only real difference now is the screen size. With the smaller bezel and lighter design the Air isn't far off compared to the mini Retina. Weight-wise the screen sizes obviously make them different devices, but the Air's 478g weigh-in - far less than the iPad 4's 652g mass - isn't dramatically more than the mini Retina's 341g all things considered. And we suspect many mini owners will struggle to work out which of the two they should go for if they're contemplating an upgrade.

For us, we are still torn, but think having lived with the Air for over a week, we prefer the mini's size overall. But the verdict is still very much out on that one. Next week we'll probably switch our answer. You'll know which one suits you better.

Accessorise

To wrap up, it's well worth knocking on the accessories door, and there are a few standout ones for the iPad Air.

There's a new Smart Cover that ditches the metal strap of earlier designs so it can't scratch the hell out of your iPad if it comes off in your bag - we've been there and it ain't pretty - and a new Smart Case that completely surrounds the Air to keep the back protected as well.

The Smart Case is made from the same materials as the iPhone 5S cases and is soft to touch, both inside and out. It is certainly snug and unlike the previous Smart Case for iPad doesn't add that much bulk to the tablet.

READ: Best iPad Air cases rounded up

Of the two we prefer the Smart Case. We suspect it won't get as dirty as the iPhone 5S version because you won't be packing the Air in your pocket - yes it's smaller, but not that small.

There is no official Apple iPad keyboard, though, but fortunately Logitech has already announced versions in its Folio and Ultrathin keyboard ranges.

Verdict

Apple has done it again: the iPad Air is a tablet better than the last iPad. Simply put the iPad Air is the best iPad the company has ever made. It's light, it's thin, it's fast, it's amazing.

For die-hard Apple fans we can see how you would be disappointed in terms of wow factor, there is no standout feature here that you will want to show your friends the moment they walk through the door in the same way you can with the iPhone 5S and Touch ID, however this is Apple creating the ultimate experience rather than focusing on specs for specs' sake.

That's not to say the iPad Air is lacking. It's not. It is seamless, and you can see that through and through the moment you pick up the new tablet. You aren't left questioning why things work, they just do, and do every time. For millions of future customers that is and will be very much welcomed. 

The potential "but..." comes when you realise how similar the Air is to the iPad mini Retina in terms of design. As much as that's great from a power perspective, it knocks both tablets out of their individual defining spaces and that will trouble many as to which one to go for. No longer is the iPad mini the poorer sibling. 

The problem for Apple, and this is a good thing for us all, is that in creating something so desirable like the iPad Air we suspect that if you buy this model you won't need or want to upgrade for a long, long time. Even iPad 4 owners will likely want one, especially if you're fed up of resting the weightier, larger slab on your leg all the time.

But make no mistake: if you buy the iPad Air you'll be very happy. Apple has created an experience that far outweighs specs on a spec sheet and that will be hard for the competition to match. That in itself makes it the best tablet on the market in terms of performance, apps, and desirability, until the iPad mini with Retina display comes along, and then the fight over which iPad to get really starts.