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.
Ever since 2010, Apple has largely avoided engaging in number games with its rivals. Rather than treating iPads as computers with conspicuously advertised clock speeds or differing quantities of RAM, Apple merely describes the iPads’ processors as “A4,” “A5,” “A5X,” “A6X,” and “A7,” occasionally calling out a processor’s number of cores (“single-core,” “dual-core,” “quad-core”) and similar improvements in their graphics features. So after Apple noted that the 64-bit A7 processor found inside the iPhone 5s was also inside the iPad Air, it left others to figure out the specifics — namely how similar the processors actually were, how much RAM was inside, and what the iPad Air’s A7 could do that the iPhone 5s’s could not. Notably, this task will need to be repeated for the Retina iPad mini when it’s released later this month.
Depending on whom you ask, Apple’s introduction of the 1.3GHz A7 processor was either a huge deal or a small but welcome change for the iPhone 5s. People in the “huge deal” camp pointed to the iPhone 5s’s dramatic benchmarking jumps over the 1.3GHz A6 in the iPhone 5, the inherent advantages of 64-bit processing relative to the A6’s 32-bit processor, and the shift of accelerometer and motion tracking to a dedicated M7 motion co-processor. This camp will likely be excited to see that the jump from the fourth-generation iPad’s 1.4GHz A6X to iPad Air’s 1.4GHz A7 nearly mirrors the iPhone’s: whereas the iPhone 5s leaped a full 2X from a Geekbench 3 multi-core score of 1269 to 2560, the iPad Air jumps 1.89X from 1423 to 2693. It’s not quite as big of a leap in percentage terms, but the Air’s raw number is higher, which is great if you like big numbers.
Snarky as that might sound, other people — including us —are less concerned with theoretical improvements than practical ones; the same engine that’s insanely powerful in a motorcycle won’t fare as well in a car or truck. To that point, while the iPad Air’s 1.4GHz A7 scored 5% higher than the iPhone 5s’s 1.3GHz A7 in raw benchmarks, the iPad’s screen has over four times as many pixels to fill as the iPhone’s, which means that a similar processor has to work harder to keep things moving smoothly on the iPad. This is why Apple previously went with upgraded A5X/A6X processors for Retina iPads, giving them an extra computer-like edge over pocket-sized iPhones. Extra RAM typically helps, too, but the iPad Air has the same 1GB of RAM as the iPhone 5s, a point that we expect will cause some consternation with game developers.
For the reasons explained above, we weren’t surprised to find that screen and photo rotation animations that stuttered on the fourth iPad are smoother on the iPad Air, but they’re still not quite as quick as on the iPhone 5s. Similarly, games such as Vector Unit’s impressive 3-D jetski-racing game Riptide GP2 perform at faster frame rates on the iPad Air than on the fourth iPad, but they’re not as smooth as on the iPhone 5s.
As we noted in our iPhone 5s review, Epic’s Infinity Blade III was supposedly specifically optimized for the A7, but looked virtually identical between the iPhone 5 and 5s. It has nearly the same issue between the fourth iPad and the iPad Air. If you look very closely at characters’ armor in screenshots, you can see small differences in their reflections, but when the games are in motion, you can barely tell them apart. More than a month after the iPhone 5s’s release, there’s still a conspicuous lack of software to really demonstrate the A7’s superiority, and the iPad Air suffers from the same issue. On a more positive note, the iPad Air’s A7 doesn’t get as warm to the touch as the last iPad’s A6X; we only noticed a small increase in the otherwise cool rear shell’s temperature during taxing games such as Infinity Blade III, and if you’re playing games like this, your hands are as likely to warm the iPad as the A7.
That said, there are some concrete examples of the A7’s improved performance if you know where to look for them. For instance, importing 50 photos using Apple’s Lightning to SD Card Reader takes 15 seconds rather than 25 on the prior iPad, and using iPhoto to prepare five photos for Facebook sharing is almost instantaneous on the iPad Air while requiring 10 or more seconds on the fourth iPad. Rendering out an edited movie in iMovie goes faster on the iPad Air than on its predecessor, too. Similarly, third-party apps such as Algoriddim’s djay 2 have already been updated for the iPad Air, adding the A7-specific Harmonic Match key detection/matching feature that was previously exclusive to the iPhone 5s. History suggests that we’ll see more of these examples over time, but for now, there are scattered small but welcome improvements without a single huge “wow” demonstration of the new hardware’s capabilities.
As a footnote, the iPad Air’s A7 is bundled with an M7 coprocessor, which is capable of frequently measuring accelerometer, compass, and gyroscope data without demanding the A7’s resources. On the iPhone 5s, M7 was touted as a way to improve fitness apps, turn-by-turn walking navigation, and even battery life, reducing wireless activity when the device hasn’t been moved for some period of time.
Apple provides no examples of what M7 does inside the iPad Air, save for giving users “a better experience” based on the device’s movement. We didn’t see any obvious benefit when testing the iPad Air with Apple’s Maps as a GPS device for turn-by-turn navigation; note that as before, only Wi-Fi + Cellular iPads contain GPS hardware, and the enhanced battery drain was still fairly obvious. Unless someone’s planning to develop an iPad Air-specific armband — please, no —or new apps are released to exploit M7, you can expect the coprocessor’s real-world impact on your iPad experience to be minimal.