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.
It’s time to shift from the abstract performance of the iPad Air’s processors to the concrete performance of other key input and output elements: the screen, cameras, microphones, and speakers. Two of these items are all but unchanged from the fourth-generation iPad, but the other two are different enough that some users might care. We also discuss the headphone and Lightning port audio below.
Sometimes, the lack of conspicuous change is a good thing, and we’re mostly glad to report that’s the case with the iPad Air’s screen. Apple’s original iPad-ready Retina display was nearly perfect, sporting a 2048x1536 resolution and 264ppi pixel density that left individual dots virtually impossible to see with the human eye, more importantly with a very high degree of color accuracy and extremely wide viewing angles. Photographs and 3-D graphics can look utterly realistic at normal viewing distances, while text is smooth enough that jagged edges effectively disappear. Apple’s 9.7” Retina displays are clearly superior in every way save size to the screens in its MacBook Airs; for now, only the Retina MacBook Pros outperform the iPad Air.
Very little has changed in the iPad Air’s screen: despite the tablet’s reductions in size, it’s not softer, dimmer, or poorly lit. If anything, the screen’s peak brightness level looked around 5% higher than its predecessor’s, such that the Air at 95% was about the same as a fourth-generation iPad at 100%. We noted that the color rendition was just a little different — the prior iPad’s screen tended to be a little cooler/bluer, which might just be attributable to Apple’s different sources of screens — but neither was better than the other. This is still a gorgeous display.
Apple didn’t make a big deal about changes to the iPad Air’s cameras, but there are tiny differences to report here. The 1280x720 front camera has switched from what OS X Aperture reports as a 2.18mm f/2.4 camera to a barely smaller 2.15mm f/2.4 camera. We noticed that the new camera appears to present images more neutrally in color, but with a little less brightness, so the same face with both cameras has a lower chance of looking blown out in daylight but also a lower chance of looking really bright in dim light.
The 5-Megapixel still/1080p 30fps video back camera is reported by OS X Aperture as having shifted from a 4.28mm f/2.4 lens to a smaller 3.3mm f/2.4 lens, seemingly identical to the rear camera in the iPad mini. Despite the smaller size, images snapped with the new camera had more saturated colors than the old one and tended to look a little sharper near the edges of the frame, as well. However, images snapped in moderate to low light continue to be very grainy, resembling the still photography capabilities of recent standalone camcorders.
From a bigger picture perspective, Apple has left the iPad Air’s rear camera noticeably under-equipped relative to the iPhone 5s and even the iPhone 5c. Beyond continuing to omit the panorama recording mode and realtime filters found on most iPhones and iPod touches, the iPad Air doesn’t have the low-light performance, Slo-Mo camera or Burst Mode recording of the iPhone 5s, and continues to snap images at 1-2 frames per second. The resolution is lower than the 8-Megapixel iPhone 5s camera, and pixel-level detail leans toward grainy; only when photos are resized and viewed from a distance do they look comparable. It’s a shame that Apple treats its tablets as second-class citizens for photography and videography, as they’re clearly its most powerful tools for processing photos and videos; users shouldn’t need a recent-model smartphone to take advantage of these powers.
Apple has made several changes to the iPad Air’s speakers, beginning with the fact that there are actually two speakers now rather than the single monaural drivers found in the first four full-sized iPads. When the iPad Air is held in portrait orientation with its Lightning connector facing the bottom, you can now clearly hear true left- and right-channel stereo separation that appears to expand just past the tablet’s 6.6” width. Just like the iPad mini, which also included stereo speakers, if you turn the iPad Air to landscape orientation, the apparent separation will disappear; the left and right channels also don’t reverse when the Air is held upside down.
Despite the on-paper advantages of two speakers versus one, the change doesn’t actually make the iPad Air louder or more dynamic-sounding than its predecessors. Since the iPad Air is thinner than before, it’s not a huge surprise that the speakers don’t sound quite as bassy this time, shifting to more treble-heavy output, though your perception will depend on the angle and bounce that the speakers are getting. The last three iPads had a back-mounted speaker that sounded better and louder when it was turned around or bouncing off of a flat surface; iPad Air instead takes after the first-generation iPad in mounting the speakers on the bottom edge, but you can also really feel them radiating through the rest of the aluminum chassis — less than ideal when hand-holding the iPad Air for video viewing. iPad Air’s peak volume level is roughly the same as in previous iPads, though again, your perception may vary based on the device’s position.
Noted only briefly during the iPad Air’s introduction, what used to be a single top-mounted microphone on every prior iPad has evolved into a proper dual-microphone system — as mentioned earlier in this review, the iPad 2/3rd-gen/4th-gen tiny pill-shaped hole remains on top, centered between the left side headphone port and right side Sleep/Wake button, but now there’s a second pill-shaped hole immediately below the first one on the back. Rumors and leaked prototype parts had suggested Apple was scoping out this location for a second microphone in earlier iPads, but the feature never materialized until now.
There were two places that we expected the new microphone system might excel: in Siri/dictation, and during FaceTime calls. In reality, Siri performance was basically identical between the devices under normal usage conditions — the iPad Air did no better than the fourth-generation iPad, which we’ve noted previously does a very impressive job with transcription accuracy even without the assistance of a second mic. However, when there was significant ambient noise, such as music playing behind the iPad Air at the same distance as we were dictating in front of it, the Air’s dictation continued to be strong.
During FaceTime calls, callers told us that the sonic difference between the iPad Air and fourth-gen iPad was like night and day. The iPad Air isolates a voice and makes it sound clear compared with the prior iPad’s intelligible but echo-filled rendition, which in our testing contained the ambient reflections of the small room we were in. On a separate FaceTime call, another caller noted that there was no major difference in overall sound quality even when the second microphone was temporarily blocked, which is good news for cases that don’t quite get the hole’s alignment right. As always, results may vary from app to app.
Headphone Port + Lightning Port Audio
Even when testing with premium-quality headphones, audio from the iPad Air’s headphone port is very similar to the fourth-generation iPad’s. Under very narrow circumstances, we noticed a very small difference between them — the prior iPad sounded just a tiny bit more inclined to mid-bass with some songs, and the iPad Air similarly seems to favor treble just a hint more — but they’re so close to one another that you’d need seriously high-end earphones and close to golden ears to notice the changes. As was the case before, headphone port audio remains so clean that white noise is basically imperceptible, and the output is powerful enough to support larger headphones.
Lightning port audio reflected the same treble/mid-bass differences we noted in the headphone port, though without the need for expensive headphones — we could hear them through Soundfreaq’s Sound Step Lightning. If we had to choose the sound of just one iPad, we’d probably go with the fourth-generation model, but the differences are so trivial that most people won’t notice, and won’t care if they do.