iPad Air review: The Best Tablet Ever?
Have Apple's refinements for the fifth-generation iPad, the iPad Air, made it the most compelling iPad to date?
With the iPad Air, Apple is making a bold bid to reclaim the tablet space as its own sovereign territory. People have started to notice there are other tablets around and, visually, the iPad hasn't changed much in the last few generations.
The solution then is a radical re-design. The iPad Air is the result of a serious Boot Camp style workout regime with excess layers of material stripped away for a leaner, meaner machine. Couple this with Apple's brand new iOS 7 software and the usual processor upgrade and it sounds like we're onto a winner.
But the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. So how did it do?
iPad Air review: Design & Build
The iPad Air does not look like any other full size iPad that came before it –– it looks like a blown up iPad Mini. The bezel around the 9.7-inch Retina display is 20% slimmer and the overall weight of the slate has been reduced to 469g, a 28% reduction from the iPad 4, making it the lightest full-size tablet on market. It’s not the thinnest though – that accolade is still retained by the Sony Xperia Tablet Z.
Exact measurements are 240 x 169.5 x 7.5mm and the overall look and feel of the iPad Air is just really bloody slick. Apple has once again outdone itself in the design and finish department. The chamfered edging adds in a lick of class and the reduced weight and narrowed bezel mean it’s actually useable in one hand, and that is something no one else is yet to manage with a 10-inch form factor.
All the buttons and ports are in the same place, so the Air immediately feels familiar. The Home button remains in the same place, as does the volume rocker and mute buttons (right hand side), power/unlock key (top right) and 3.5mm Jack input (top left). On the bottom you have Apple’s Lightning connector.
In the hand the Air feels feather-light, never before has a full-size tablet felt so portable and useable. Nothing else comes close to matching it in this regard. Everyone I showed it to commented on how light it felt. It’s almost as if the powers that be at Apple took the iPhone 5s, shoved it in Jony Ive’s face, and said, “We need to make the iPad more like this – lighter, slimmer and faster.”
Prior to testing the iPad Air I was pretty much convinced that the iPad Mini with Retina would be the slate for me. I loved the first-generation Mini. It was my kind of tablet: light, portable and easy to use while out and about. The display was pants and as time went on and new tablets launched it just seemed worse and worse, sort of like a migraine before it finally dissipates. But I knew Apple would fix that so all was good – my upgrade was sorted. Then the Air happened.
And the Air changes everything because it doesn’t feel like a full-size iPad. It doesn’t even look like one. It looks like a slightly larger iPad Mini and it handles just as you’d expect being exceptionally lightweight making it perfect for use around the house and while out and about. I ditched the iPad 3 for the iPad Mini and now, rather ironically, I’m probably going to ditch the iPad Mini 2 for the iPad Air.
iPad Air review: Display
The display aboard the iPad Air remains unchanged and is the same 9.7-inch IPS setup – a 2048x1536 pixel resolution at 264 pixels per inch (ppi) – we saw aboard the iPad 4. Colours are true-to-life, pixels are imperceptible in normal use and the new design (less bezel more screen) accentuates these attributes profoundly.
The Air’s display wipes the floor with Nokia’s new Lumia 2520 (218ppi), Sony’s Xperia Z Tablet (224ppi) and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 (149ppi). There are other slates on the market which offer as good (if not slightly sharper) picture quality, the 300ppi Nexus 10 and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, spring to mind, but there's not a lot between them and neither is as svelte or stylish as the iPad Air.
Apple has also added a new feature to its touchscreen sensor in order to ensure the iPad Air’s reduced bezel does not hamper the overall user experience. If your thumb is partially resting on the display to support the device, the Air does not register it because it knows which hand you use for business and which you use for support. It also works seamlessly, effortlessly sliding into the background of the iPad Air’s user experience.
iPad Air review: iOS 7 & iLife – The Most Productive iPad Yet?
Whether or not you’re a fan of iOS 7 is beside the point. Apple’s redesigned operating system is now here to stay, and aboard the iPad Air it looks and feels like a very different animal to what we saw on the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c. In fact it’s almost as if Apple isn’t quite done optimizing it for larger displays (see iBooks).
Personally, I like iOS 7. It added in a lot of core functionality sorely missing from Apple’s mobile OS like drop down notifications, the slide up system settings menu and a far superior multitasking UI –– you now double tap the home key and slide through a card-based system. It isn’t perfect and the animations do feel even slower on the iPad’s larger display but it’s still a massive improvement, mainly with regards to usability and features, from iOS 6 in my view.
It’s the same iOS 7 you find on iPhones. Nothing has changed visually or in terms of core functionality, but that’s not surprising – uniformity of experience has been Apple’s modus operandi since day one. What is surprising is Apple’s decision to throw in a bunch of productivity applications for free. You now get full access to Apple’s iLife suite of productivity applications, which includes Pages, Numbers, Garage Band, iPhoto, Keynote and iMovie.
Apple wants to make the iPad as useful a work tool as possible, and with apps like Google Docs and Microsoft Office now available in the App Store it’s easy to see why. iLife is fully optimised for touch and Apple’s 64-bit A7 processor, and performance inside the apps – notably Garage Band and iMovie – is superb. No matter how intensive the task, everything flies along without a hint of lag.
The type of “work” you can do on an iPad is casual at best and while it is great for jotting down ideas and beginning spreadsheets, the real work, which always requires a mouse and keyboard, will always take place on a laptop or desktop computer (whether Mac or PC); such are the limitations of touchscreen interfaces.
iPhoto is fantastic, offering an absolute raft of photo-editing features, as is Garage Band and the extremely useful iMovie. It is here where Apple’s iLife proposition feels strongest. These apps are unique and powerful and are perfectly suited for touchscreen-only input. But I can’t help feeling that most of the “core Office” apps inside the suite – Pages, Keynote, Numbers – are only there to draw users’ attention and time away from things like Drive, Evernote and Microsoft Office.
Apple understands that people use iPad for note taking and the like, and has inevitably come round to the idea that people using iPad should be using their software to do this –– not Google’s or some cheeky third party offering like Evernote. Logically this makes sense. But what if you’re already entrenched inside Drive or Evernote or Office? In that case, iLife’s core applications become nothing more than a nice aside, something you’ll try but invariably drop in favour of something more familiar.
Case in point: I use Google Drive a lot and the iPad application is pretty robust. I use it for work, note taking and pretty much everything else in between, and I’ve been using it for so long now that switching, even for a better solution, isn’t really an option unless moving things across is made seamless - which it invariably isn't. I used iLife’s core Office applications a lot during testing – parts of this review were written in Pages – but I could not see myself switching allegiance this late in the game. Not without the ability to port my accumulated 18GB of Google Drive data over to iLife.
However, if you’re not yet committed to one of these “other” productivity suites and are looking for a solution that enables excellent cross-device syncing and powerful editing and creation tools, then iLife’s core productivity apps are just what the doctor ordered. They do everything Drive does and more. My only wish is that Apple had made them all free a couple of years ago…
iPhoto, iMovie and Garage Band are just awesome though. The latter two are incredibly useful and the more you use them the more you’ll start to wonder how you ever lived without them. Garage Band is also a pretty big USP to iPad. No other platform has anything quite like it. It’s powerful, easy to use, and is great for getting ideas down on the fly. You can also use it to create podcasts.
Processor & Performance
Apple’s 64-bit A7 chipset has already been shown to be something of a monster. Benchmarks for the iPhone 5s were off the charts and the A7 chipset inside the iPad Air is even faster, offering up the slickest iPad experience seen to date. Touches register a millisecond faster, apps load quicker and CPU/GPU-intensive apps and games like Garage Band, Infinity Blade 3 and Dead Trigger 2 run effortlessly without a hint of lag or stutter.
In our GeekBench 3 tests the iPad Air scored 1470 on the single-core test and 2697 on the multi-core test. In the same test the iPad with Retina (AKA the iPad 3) scored 263 and 498 respectively which is quite an uplift, even more so when you consider there’s only one generation – the iPad 4 – between the two tablets.
Performance has never been an issue with iPads, or iPhones for that matter, thanks to the way Apple optimises its software to work in near-perfect harmony with its hardware. Microsoft and BlackBerry achieve similar results with their platforms which, unlike Android, are also closed-source and require less processing grunt to achieve silky smooth performance.
The iPad Air still only uses 1GB of RAM, however, and that’s rather odd seeing that Apple has now made the switch to 64-bit chipsets. It doesn’t affect performance in any way that 99.9% of users will notice, but as developers start to take advantage of the A7’s new architecture in the coming months and years, Apple will have to follow suit with more RAM inside its mobile products.
With the iPad Air, performance – even over last year’s iPad 4 – is noticeably better across the board. The iPad in all its guises has never been a slouch but with Apple’s latest outing it’s so incredibly quick at everything – image processing, loading apps, transitioning around the UI – that picking up an iPad 4 and using it shortly thereafter feels like a regression back to the dark ages.
Basically: the iPad Air is super insanely powerful and perfectly suited to nearly every task you can think of whether it’s high-end gaming, image processing, video editing or music composition and arrangement. It really is just incredible.
The camera aboard the iPhone 5s is phenomenal and is testament to just what can be achieved with the right amount of software and attention to detail. It’s an 8-megapixel setup but it shoots like a champ, offering up some of the best smartphone-based photography money can buy.
The same cannot be said for the Air, however, which uses the exact same 5-megapixel iSight camera as its predecessor, the iPad 4. The only real change is iOS 7’s new UX and added effects suite and, of course, iPhoto. You can shoot video in 1080p using it and image quality isn’t appalling but it is a far cry from the level of finesse you get aboard the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s.
HDR Mode Sample
Apple seems sold on the idea that taking images with your tablet is moronic, and in some respects it is –– we’ve all seen tourists in London snapping pictures of Big Ben with their iPads. And while an iPhone 5s grade camera aboard the Air would be a tad overzealous it’d still have been nice to see imaging brought inline with the iPhone 5/5c’s capabilities.
Alas this did not happen. But at least Apple improved the FaceTime camera – that’s the one on the business end of the Air. It’s still a 1.2-megapixel affair but it now features a back illuminated sensor and has gone from 1.75 microns to 1.9. Images are noticeably clearer and more detailed. FaceTimein’ on iPad has never looked so good.
iPad Air review: Connectivity
With connectivity, Apple scores big again with built in global support for every possible LTE band globally and in the UK. Previously this wasn’t the case, but with the iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, iPad Mini with Retina and iPad Air, Apple has implemented a baseband unit that supports 14 LTE bands (1/2/3/4/5/7/8/13/17/18/19/20/25/26), as well as DC-HSPA+, UMTS, GSM/EDGE, and CDMA.
Basically, when it comes to mobile data – you’re covered. And if your LTE band, by some miracle, isn’t supported, the Air will recognise this and download the appropriate settings so as to ensure you can access your network’s 4G services.
There’s no NFC or TouchID, which is a massive shame, particularly the latter, but you do get Bluetooth 4.0 and dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. The Air also supports MIMO (Multiple input, multiple output) connectivity, which allows the iPad to take advantage of more than one antenna, for faster upload and download speeds over Wi-Fi. Apple says the Air can handle Wi-Fi speeds of up to 300mps.
iPad Air review: Battery
With previous iterations of the iPad, Apple has always advertised around 10 hours of battery life and with the iPad Air that hasn’t changed: Apple’s UK team advised us that the iPad Air will on average last around 10 hours a day.
Except that’s not really true… the iPad Air actually lasted a lot longer in our tests, clocking up an impressive 13.5 hours in our standard video test. In the Django Test –– we play Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2.45 hours) in its entirety from 100% charge – results were similarly impressive with 81% battery left once the credits rolled.
With normal usage – browsing, gaming, IM, and a couple of hours of Netflix with plenty of rest in between – you can potentially get around three days of usage before having to re-charge the iPad Air. Heavy use – a couple of hours of Dead Trigger 2, a 30 minute FaceTime call, several episodes of Arrested Development, IM, web browsing and photo and video editing – hits the batter harder and we managed to knock around 60% off the battery inside four hours.
Battery performance across the board is still very good, however, and that’s extremely impressive when you consider the iPad Air uses a smaller battery cell than the iPad 4.
iPad Air review: Conclusion
The iPad Air is perhaps the best tablet ever created, taking everything that made all iPads that came before it great and condensing it down into a smaller, lighter, faster and infinitely more useable package.
With applications you’re spoilt for choice, the App Store boasts some 475,000 dedicated iPad apps, and the inclusion of Apple’s iLife suite of apps, notably iMovie, Garage Band and iPhoto, makes the slate even more useful in day-to-day scenarios.
Battery life is also pretty remarkable and the whole package just looks and feels so damn good it’s difficult after prolonged use to see why you’d go anywhere else for you tablet needs. Put curtly: the iPad Air is by far and away the most advanced and useable tablet we’ve ever tested. Nothing else comes close.
|Screen Size||1536 x 2048 pixels, 9.7 inches (264 ppi pixel density)|
|Operating System||iOS 7|
|Camera Resolution||5-MP iSight, 1.2-MP FaceTime camera|
|Processor||dual-core 1.4GHz 64-bit A7 chip|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth 4.0, dual-band Wi-Fi|
|Built-in Memory||16GB, 32GB, 64GB, 128GB|