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.
As much as we’d prefer not to focus on numbers and physical traits in our reviews, the iPad Air story is best understood in your choice of two ways: relative to the iPad mini, or relative to last year’s fourth-generation iPad. If you know what the iPad mini looks like, the iPad Air looks exactly the same, only taller and wider. Should the mini have escaped your notice, you’ll find that the Air’s less profoundly tapered edges look and feel noticeably different than full-sized iPads.
Whereas the original iPad mini measures 7.87” tall by 5.3” wide with a depth of 0.28”, the iPad Air measures 9.4” tall by 6.6” wide with a depth of 0.29” — virtually imperceptible added thickness, but a markedly larger footprint. The mini is still so comparatively small that nearly its entire body fits within the area of the iPad Air’s screen, however, Apple has kept their ports and controls nearly identical in size. For instance, the polished chamfered edges look the same between models, the Air’s Home Button has shrunk just a little from past iPads to match the mini’s smaller-sized control, and even the edge-mounted buttons and switch look the same. The Air has more holes on the bottom to ventilate its speakers — 40 holes per Air speaker versus 28 on the mini, for trivia fans — but that’s the sort of seriously minor difference we’re talking about here. Apple even reduced the sizes of the front and rear camera lenses to bring the Air and mini into conformity, a point discussed further later in this review.
It says something that the other obvious physical differences between the Air and original mini are really small. As previously noted, there’s a second pill-shaped microphone hole on the back, roughly 0.45” below the first, used for an echo-canceling mic system. This second microphone is also being added to the Retina mini, further reducing the differences between it and the Air. Additionally, on the Wi-Fi + Cellular iPad Air, the nano-SIM card slot has shifted downwards by around 0.95” relative to the mini’s location, now coming very close to the bottom edge of the device. The plastic cellular antenna compartment is the same depth and height as the mini’s, but wider. Finally, if you’ve noted in our photos that the iPad mini appears to be darker, that’s true, but that earlier “Slate” color has been discontinued. Apple is now offering both the original and Retina mini in the same Space Gray color as the iPad Air, so they’ll all look virtually identical apart from size.
As all of the above should make clear, the people who are most likely to be impressed by the iPad Air’s size and weight aren’t iPad mini owners, but first-time iPad buyers, as well as full-sized iPad owners making a transition to the Air from an older 9.7” model. Now weighing only 1 pound (Wi-Fi-only) or 1.05 pounds (Wi-Fi + Cellular), the iPad Air has dropped nearly a third of its weight relative to the last two iPads (1.44/1.46 pounds), which were up modestly over the iPad 2 (1.33/1.35 pounds). The Air has shed only 0.1” of height and under 0.1” of thickness versus those models, but a very obvious 0.71” of width — enough to cut the side bezels to roughly half their prior size. Consequently, the iPad Air looks from the front just like a more slender 2011-2012-vintage iPad.
As small as most of the dimensional changes are relative to recent models, the differences are profoundly noticeable relative to the original iPad, which measured 9.56” tall by 7.47” wide and 0.5” thick, around 1/4” taller, 0.87” wider, and 0.21” thicker than the Air, as well as at least a half-pound heavier. If you’re one of the relatively few people who have been holding out for years to upgrade from the first model to something better, and you haven’t even considered buying an iPad mini, the iPad Air’s new chassis will knock your socks off.
Like the iPad mini, the iPad Air’s front glass feels thin, “plinking” with a tap versus the “plunk” of earlier iPads’ heavier glass. Similarly, the fancy chamfered metal edges seem to warn against tossing the Air around like a toy — unless you have it inside of a very resilient case. Just as we noted with prior-generation iPads, the iPad Air isn’t difficult to carry around, but despite initial hype to the contrary, you probably won’t want to hand-hold it for the full length of a movie or TV show; it’s still in need of lap, leg, or stand support. Picking up any full-sized iPad with one hand has always been a wrist-flexing exercise, and that hasn’t changed with the iPad Air, but it’s certainly less taxing than before. Additionally, thumb-typing in portrait mode with two hands at once is easier than any prior full-sized iPad, but the smaller iPad mini is far better-suited to this purpose, even when it’s being held with both hands as you’re walking. If you’re concerned about absolute size and weight, the mini is still the right choice, but the iPad Air is close enough to be a nice compromise.
On the packaging front, the iPad Air’s box is noticeably smaller than its immediate predecessors — at least, in width. Once again, Apple is using predominantly white cardboard boxes for both the white/silver and black/gray models, keeping the height and thickness of the package the same as before. However, like the Air itself, the box is narrower, and once the tablet is removed, you’ll realize why the packaging isn’t thinner: the 12W USB Power Adapter inside has become the only impediment to shrinking the rest of the box. Given Apple’s obsession with reducing the volume of its boxes to lower bulk package shipment costs, we’d have to imagine that it’s already working on a smaller charger.
All of the other pack-ins are predictable. Every iPad Air comes with a Lightning to USB Cable identical to ones shipped with other Apple devices, a very basic instruction card, warranty information, and two Apple logo stickers. Cellular versions of the Air generally also include a nano-SIM card and SIM tray removal tool, the latter inside the instruction packet.
One small but interesting little detail is that the side of the iPad Air box actually says “iPad Air.” While that shouldn’t be surprising, Apple never actually changed the iPad moniker on the boxes of the iPad 2, the “new iPad,” or the “iPad with Retina display,” a point we found curious given its marketing of those devices. We’d guess this means that the iPad Air name will be in use for some time to come.