- Fantastic battery life
- No Touch ID sensor
The new Apple iPad Air aims to refocus the company’s tablet family after a few shaky missteps and at the same time, take the fight to the its leading rivals with a slick new design, powerful new innards and the latest version of iOS.
Bringing the family together
It’s clear to see that the design of the iPad Air unifies Apple’s mobile portfolio better than the 4th-generation iPad ever could. Originally due to hardware limitations, the original iPad and iPhone 3GS, which was around at the iPad’s launch, were both distinctly Apple, but didn’t really look or feel like they were truly part of the same family, with the Air there’s no mistaking it.
The body of the Air is significantly lighter, thinner (7.5mm thin to be precise) and comes with smaller bezels than its predecessor, all of which help justify the new name, which emulates the values of the company’s highly popular featherweight laptop powerhouse, the MacBook Air.
The new proportions and lighter weight (469 grams for the WiFi-only model) make it one of the most comfortable larger-screened tablets to handle, even in one-handed use, and in any orientation. Apple has once again given its new tablet all the polish we’ve come to expect from the company’s mobile line, with an aluminium body, diamond cut chamfer around the bezel and extremely sturdy overall build quality that easily out-classes offerings from the likes of Samsung and even Sony.
The overall aesthetic of the Air looks as though the design team simply pinch-zoomed an iPad Mini to wrap around that larger 9.7-inch screen, and that’s a good thing. With less bezel, the iPad Air fits in a bag more easily and viewing content feels more immersive than ever. Continuing the theme of inspiration from the iPad Mini, the Smart Cover has also been redesigned to a three-segment layout that helps keep things looking clean and actual angles the Air in a better position for viewing content.
Whilst the overall design is new, the screen itself is the same 9.7-inch Retina Display as on last year’s model. Sure it doesn’t pack as many pixels as the likes of the Google Nexus 7 or Nexus 10, but the 2048×1536 resolution still offers a respectable 264ppi, which in most scenarios is more than ample at the distances you’d be holding such a display. What’s more, the IPS technology ensures great viewing angles, colours are vivid, overall brightness is strong and on the whole this new slate still totes one of the best displays around.
iOS 7: Is bigger, better?
It’s safe to say that on the iPhone and the iPad, iOS 7 looks great. Not everyone is a fan of the more vibrant colour palette Apple has opted for this time around, but it’s hard to deny the fact, that it’s one of the cleanest, most elegant user interfaces on the market, particularly for tablets.
That being said, the experience isn’t quite as refined as we’d like. If there were a way to implement smaller gestures for actions like multitasking rather than scaling up the iPhone motions, it would certainly create better flow throughout navigation. What’s more, elements like Notifications Centre could offer a richer experience with all that extra screen real-estate, but Apple has chosen to keep it as close to the iPhone’s layout as possible.
Singing its praises, it’s no secret that the App Store has some of the best quality apps around and what’s more there are some 475,000 apps, specifically designed for the iPad experience. Apple’s also bundled a number of powerful free apps to really bolster the basic functionality of the iPad and with iCloud implementation, those already invested in the Apple ecosystem reap the benefits of being able to access documents and files from their iPad or their Mac which update in real-time.
Free copies of the new iWork and iLife suites bring helpful productivity and creative apps into the mix. The iWork offerings of Pages, Numbers and Keynote finally make the base iOS office-like experience more comparable with Android’s free Google Drive and Quickoffice apps, whilst the iLife offerings of iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand push the creativity capabilities of the Air beyond that of many rival devices.
On the whole iOS looks great and has a ton of fantastic features, but it doesn’t feel quite as tightly screwed together as we’d like. Gestures on the big screen feel a little clumsy and lag when multitasking or accessing features like Spotlight is noticeable. It still has the edge over Android on fluidity, but some elements don’t live up to the high expectations Apple has set for itself. On the upside, the iOS experience is only going to get better, provided subsequent software updates fix these niggles before moving on to adding new features.
On the whole the fluidity of the user experience between the iPhone 5S and the iPad Air is practically like for like, which is unsurprising when you consider that the fundamental internal hardware is almost identical. Apple’s latest A7 dual-core processor lies at the heart of the Air and it offers some pretty fantastic performance (we’re putting that lag we mentioned earlier primarily down to software issues). The best looking 3D games for iOS, such as Asphalt 8 and Infinity Blade 3, look and feel fantastic on that 9.7-inch screen.
The A7 chip paired to iOS allows the Air to be the first tablet to join the likes of the 5S with 64-bit architecture, an impressive feature on paper, but one that doesn’t really hold any clout just yet, as developers haven’t really spent any time creating apps to make use of the extra leg room.
Another aspect of the Air that’s more relevant than its 64-bit architecture right now is the 10-hour battery life that Apple’s Phil Schiller promised when the company’s new slate was first announced, and we can vouch for its longevity. We managed several days of general use, streaming YouTube videos over WiFi, working on Google Drive documents over 4G and playing 3D games frequently before hitting battery warning signs. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that the Air actually uses a smaller 8820mAh cell than that of the 11560mAh battery found in last year’s model.
We like the camera on the iPad Air, the smartphone market still has a significant edge in this department, but in the world of tablets it’s one of the best shooters out there. The 5-megapixel iSight camera on the back of the Air appears unchanged from last year’s model but even that was a great general purpose shooter.
In natural light there’s a good level of detail and HDR mode helps balance out high-contrast environments. Get up close and you’ll notice some soft edges, as well as noise and grain in darker settings, which can’t be remedied due the absence of any camera flash, but we didn’t expect anything else, particularly as Apple didn’t dwell on it during the Air’s unveiling.
Full HD video is pleasing too, tracking movement without too much trouble and preserving colour nicely, but although the presence of the A7 chip would suggest as such, the Air loses out on the slow-motion recording available to iPhone 5S users.
Best of the bunch?
Those looking for a first-class tablet experience won’t be disappointed with the iPad Air. Sure we’d make a couple of tweaks and Apple needs to tighten up a few things, but these are minor issues at best. We’d go as far to say that the iPad Air offers the most refined tablet experience to date and the balance it holds between its elegant design and great performance is hard to beat.
As ever price is a big factor that may push people away, but those familiar with Apple’s previous tablets shouldn’t wince at how much an Air will set you back. Prices start at £399 for the 16GB, WiFi-only model, with the flagship version clocking in at £739 and boasting 128GB of internal storage and 4G connectivity too.
Should the entry-level price still make you feel uncomfortable, trading down to the new iPad Mini with give you the same A7 chip, iOS 7 and a Retina Display (albeit 1.8-inches smaller) from £319, otherwise a look at what Android might offer something different that’s worth considering.
The Google Nexus 10 is a little older, but boasts a higher resolution 2560×1600 display and a price tag of £319 for the 16GB model, whilst the powerful new Asus Transformer TF701T might entice you with its Nvidia Tegra 4 processor, WQXGA resolution display and detachable keyboard dock.