Review: Apple iPad Air (16GB/32GB/64GB/128GB)
Pros: A comprehensively superior replacement for 2012’s third- and fourth-generation iPads, packing almost twice as much horsepower and noteworthy extra battery life into a considerably narrower and lighter body. Easier to hold than any prior full-sized iPad, and nearly identical to 2012’s top-rated iPad mini in design. Preserves the high-resolution 9.7” Retina display of its predecessors and outperforms all of them, despite dropping nearly 1/4 of the prior battery capacity. Recharges faster than both prior models. Dual-microphone system offers sonic improvements under some circumstances. Offered in a wide range of capacities, as well as improved cellular models that are more usable internationally. Now bundled with free iLife and iWork applications, and compatible with over 1 million iOS apps, including 450,000 designed specifically for iPads.
Cons: Industrial design is new to full-sized iPad but highly familiar given last year’s iPod touch and iPad mini releases, feeling lighter than past 9.7” iPads but heavier than iPad minis, and still not comfortable for truly extended hand-holding; stands are required yet sold separately. While improved relative to 2012’s iPads, A7 processor is substantially similar in performance to the one inside the iPhone 5s, while lacking the enhanced camera features and Touch ID functionality introduced with the iPhone. Loses support for 2.4-Amp recharging. Rear camera is noticeably inferior in several ways to ones inside the iPhone 5s and 5c. Cellular premium remains steep, and most users will find 16GB models underequipped for their needs. Given increasing competition, entry price points/capacities should be revised.
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Late last year, Apple released two cosmetically and electronically similar iOS devices, the 7.9”-screened iPad mini tablet and 4”-screened fifth-generation iPod touch media player. Sharing the same chamfered aluminum chassis and many similar internal components, the small iPad and tall iPod followed the iPhone 5 in introducing a new, jewelry-inspired Apple design language, making the simultaneously-released 9.7” fourth-generation iPad look plain and gigantic. It was obvious that Apple would bring the same chassis to a full-sized iPad — the only questions were “how” and “when?”
By the time the iPad Air ($499-$929) debuted in October, the only major surprise Apple had left to reveal was the name. Most of the parts leaked months in advance, making the iPad mini-influenced redesign seem even more inevitable, so the company decided to rebrand it in hopes of generating excitement over its smaller size. Initially, the “Air” moniker doesn’t seem fitting: Apple used that word for a MacBook computer that compromised on features and performance to achieve an “impossibly thin” size. By contrast, the iPad Air hasn’t compromised on features or performance, nor is it inconceivably tiny. It’s actually a more powerful and compact version of the fourth-generation iPad, built for customers tempted by the iPad mini and increasingly numerous Android competitors.
Long-time iPad users may see the iPad Air as the Retina display-equipped tablet Apple really wanted to release last year but couldn’t, instead rapidly debuting two thicker, heavier iPad 2 sequels with gigantic batteries and CPUs that ran warm to the touch. Apple’s switch from 1024x768 screens to cutting-edge 2048x1536 Retina displays was famously difficult for the company; as we noted back in January, merely squeezing all the fourth-generation iPad’s parts into a smaller fifth-generation chassis would have been a major challenge. Apple went several steps further, replacing the hot-running A6X processor with the iPhone 5s’s more powerful and power-efficient A7 + M7 chips, then reengineering the wireless hardware for superior performance. But apart from a handful of smaller tweaks, many of which are familiar from the iPad mini, almost everything else is the same.
Based upon testing of five separate units, our comprehensive review of the iPad Air discusses everything you might want to know about Apple’s latest tablet — including some performance-related surprises. For first-time iPad buyers, we begin with a big picture look at the iPad Air, iOS 7, and Apple’s free software. Then, we look at the iPad Air’s new design and internal features, as well as its real-world battery life, performance with apps, wireless test results, and details on iPad Air accessories. In short, while we’d strongly urge prospective customers to wait until they can personally compare the Air with the soon-to-be-released Retina version of the iPad mini, Apple’s latest 9.7” iPad is an excellent tablet in its own right, and likely to thrill people who can’t wait for the mini or don’t want a smaller screen. On the other hand, Apple has missed a golden opportunity to adjust the iPad Air’s storage capacities and pricing — a strategic choice that may increase its profit margins, but likely lose it relative market share during a time of rapidly increasing demand for tablets.
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