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.
The iPad Air is currently Apple’s largest tablet computer — the sixth device in the iPad family, and the fifth with a 9.7” screen. It has the same basic collection of features, controls, and ports as an iPhone 5, 5c, or 5s, but they’re in somewhat different positions within a larger, thinner chassis. Made from durable, scratch-resistant glass, the iPad Air’s slate-like face contains a tiny FaceTime camera, a 4:3 aspect ratio display, and a single circular Home Button, notably without the Touch ID fingerprint authentication feature introduced in the iPhone 5s. Like most prior iPads, the glass front comes with your choice of a white or black bezel, this time paired with either a bright silver or gunmetal-like “Space Gray” aluminum chassis, respectively. The metal edge around the screen is gloss-polished on an angle, a jewelry-like process called chamfering.
Just like prior iPads, the Air’s top edge includes a 3.5mm headphone port, a tiny pill-shaped microphone hole, and a larger pill-shaped Sleep/Wake button. Separate pill-shaped, chamfered volume buttons and a circular two-position switch are found on its right side, rather than the iPhone’s traditional left, while dot-shaped speaker ventilation holes are on both sides of a Lightning port on the bottom.
The back is made almost entirely from matte metal, interrupted by a glass camera lens at the top, a reflective Apple logo in the middle, and an iPad name mark on the bottom alongside tiny regulatory information. You won’t find a camera-assisting LED flash or additional microphone hole immediately next to the camera, but a second pill-shaped hole centered below the one on the top edge serves as an echo-canceling second microphone, a familiar iPhone feature that’s new to iPads.
Apple continues to sell the iPad Air in Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi + Cellular versions. The former is $130 less expensive at each of four storage capacities ($499/16GB, $599/32GB, $699/64GB, $799/128GB), while the latter ($629/16GB, $729/32GB, $829/64GB, $929/128GB) adds a collection of globally-compatible GSM, CDMA, and LTE antennas for use on cellular data networks. This year, there’s only one cellular iPad Air across carriers rather than separate cellular models for different carriers, so they vary only in the nano-SIM card that comes pre-installed. You can easily tell a cellular iPad Air apart from the Wi-Fi-only version by the presence of a large plastic antenna compartment on the top edge; it’s bright white on the silver iPad Air, and jet black on the Space Gray iPad Air, matching the color of the glass bezel. A nano-SIM tray is found on the bottom right corner of the cellular iPad Air when viewed from the front, and absent on the Wi-Fi-only version.
As of the date of release, the iPad Air ships with iOS 7.0.3, a bug-fixed update to the September 2013 release of Apple’s iOS 7 operating system, reviewed here. Without diving into details, iOS 7 completely changed the look of iOS’s user interface, eliminating shadowed and detailed graphics in favor of flat colors, gradients, translucency effects, and heavy-handed animations. Public response to iOS 7 has been polarized: some users have refused to install it because of its looks, and others have embraced the numerous other improvements Apple made along with the visual tweaks. One of those improvements is full support for the new 64-bit A7 processor found in the iPhone 5s, iPad Air, and upcoming Retina display-equipped iPad mini, a change that can’t be seen but results in faster app performance.
iOS 7 was released for the iPad before it was completely stable, and even today exhibits occasional crashes of the built-in applications and less than completely smooth animations, amongst other small issues. During our testing of the iPad Air, we continued to note instabilities in Safari, ambiguities in the battery meter, and other hiccups in performance. While we expect that a much-improved version 7.1 will address the problems (and possibly introduce new functionality), Apple has set no timetable for such a release. Until then, the issues will be annoying but not enough to scare most people away from enjoying their iPads.
One major software asset of the iPad Air goes beyond iOS 7. Over the past two months, Apple make its previously $5-$10 iLife and iWork applications free with the purchase of all new iOS devices. As a result, the latest versions of the photo editor iPhoto, video editor iMovie, music production suite GarageBand, word processor Pages, spreadsheet app Numbers, and presentation creator Keynote can all be downloaded at no charge when you’re setting up the iPad Air. While many users have expressed disappointment over significant iOS 7-inspired changes Apple made to these apps, the fact that they’re free at least offsets the criticism, and gives every iPad Air user a nice initial set of tools for creating and editing content.