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.
One of the most critical changes in the iPad Air is something that Apple is loathe to underscore due to its potential for current and future confusion: after jumping from a 6,930mAh battery in the iPad 2 to a whopping 11,560mAh cell in the third- and fourth-generation iPads, Apple has cut the iPad Air’s battery down to roughly 8,820mAh — the exact number is ambiguous based on differences between Apple’s stated battery size and parts found during iPad Air teardowns. If those raw numbers don’t confuse you, consider the logical answer to this question: “what happens when you pair a more powerful processor with a smaller battery, holding everything else equal?” The run time should drop, right?
Well, that’s not what’s happened with the iPad Air. While the A7 is nearly twice as fast as the A6X, it’s considerably smaller and more power efficient — as much a reflection of the A6X’s oversized, hot-running design as what the A7 has achieved in miniaturization. Collectively, the iPad Air’s components demand less power than the ones in the prior two iPads — so much so that Apple was able to shave nearly 1/4 of the prior iPad’s battery capacity off while still delivering more than the promised 9-10 hour run times. In fact, our test results demonstrated that the iPad Air often outperforms its predecessor by an hour or more.
Wi-Fi Web Browsing. Apple always promises 10 hours of battery life of web browsing on an iPad at 50% brightness. The third-generation iPad ran for 10 hours and 6 minutes on this test, versus 9 hours and 54 minutes for the fourth-gen model. iPad Air hit a new high of 11 hours and 34 minutes, eclipsing the 2011-vintage result we saw for the iPad 2 by one minute — a fantastic result given what we’d seen over the past two generations.
Cellular Web Browsing. Apple’s claim of a 9-hour run time has remained unchanged for this test from model to model, as well. The third-gen iPad ran for between 9 hours and 8 minutes and 9 hours and 21 minutes depending on the cellular network we tested, while the fourth-generation AT&T model hit 10 hours and 5 minutes of LTE browsing. By comparison, the iPad Air hit 10 hours and 28 minutes on Verizon LTE, and 11 hours and 8 minutes on AT&T LTE. Once again, these were the best results we’ve ever seen on this test, this time by a wide margin.
Video. With screen brightness and speaker output both set to 50%, the third-generation iPad ran for 12 hours and 56 minutes of video playback with Wi-Fi on, and 13 hours and 26 minutes with Wi-Fi off; the fourth-generation iPad ran for 13 hours and 52 minutes with Wi-Fi off. The iPad Air beat both of those results, running for 13 hours and 57 minutes of video playback time with Wi-Fi on; the number should only increase with Wi-Fi off.
Gaming and Mixed-Use Testing. Although Apple’s battery estimates always combine a relatively low-impact measure — web browsing — with video playback, which was historically demanding but has become less so over time, we always like to run a few other tests to see how an iPad can do when pushed harder. Continuous game-playing tends to exhaust an iOS device’s battery quickly — for instance, the roughly 10-hour video playback of an iPhone 5s was sliced down to a mere 3 hours and 42 minutes when playing Epic Games’ 3-D-intense fighting game Infinity Blade III. On the iPad Air, however, the run time was longer. With the screen and speaker both at 50%, the Air played the same game for 7 hours and 23 minutes, almost double the iPhone 5s’s time and up a full hour from the fourth-gen iPad’s 6 hour and 21-minute result with the less advanced game Infinity Blade II.
We also conducted a mixed-use test, during which we try everything from playing games such as the just-released Anomaly 2 to running various apps, browsing the web, watching videos, and reading periodicals at various app-specific brightness and volume levels, most commonly at 50%. As we noted last year, the third- and fourth-gen iPads in real-world mixed use tended to underperform the benchmark run time numbers we saw, hitting the 40-50% battery marks after only three or four hours of continuous activity. Unless you’re performing the most processor-intensive tasks such as gaming or video rendering, you can expect the iPad Air to get the same legitimately 10- or 11-hour run times as we saw with the iPad 2, a feat that we’d be astounded to see matched by the upcoming Retina iPad mini.
FaceTime Video Calling. The only test where the iPad Air fell short relative to the fourth-generation iPad was continuous FaceTime video calling. Last year, the fourth-gen model ran for 8 hours and 56 minutes, up a full hour from the third-gen iPad’s 7 hours and 55 minutes. At 7 hours and 45 minutes, the iPad Air is a little under those marks, but also modestly better than what we saw from the iPad 2.
Battery Recharging Time
After needing around 4 hours to recharge the first two iPads using Apple’s original 10-Watt USB Power Adapter, Apple quietly changed the third-generation iPad’s battery to a gigantic cell, yet shipped it with the same wall adapter, turning recharging into an “overnight”-worthy 6.5-hour ordeal. For the fourth-generation model, Apple released a 12W USB Power Adapter that cut that model’s recharging time down to a more acceptable but still less than ideal 5 hours and 6 minutes.
The same 12W USB Power Adapter is in the iPad Air’s package, and this time, the battery has only 76% of the prior model’s capacity to worry about — facts that led us to expect a very fast recharge time of around 3 hours and 45 minutes. We knew something was amiss when a complete recharge with the 12W Adapter required 4 hours and 23 minutes, so we ran the same test again with an older 10W Adapter. It took a nearly identical 4 hours and 22 minutes — an insignificant one minute faster. In other words, the 2.4-Amp power adapters and car chargers some companies have been selling for the last year are officially… well, not worthless, but in no way different with the iPad Air than with the iPad mini. Apple appears to have capped the Air at a 2.1-Amp recharging speed, just like the original iPads.
Wi-Fi + Cellular Performance, Plus Cellular Plan Changes
Two under-the-hood changes to the iPad Air fall into the “welcome but likely not earthshaking” category. One is the addition of additional multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) Wi-Fi antennas to every iPad Air — a feature which, when paired with an 802.11n MIMO-compatible router, is capable of simultaneously receiving on two antennas and broadcasting on two antennas for a theoretical improvement in Wi-Fi speed. Given typical home broadband data caps of 15-20Mb/second downloading and 1-2Mb/second uploading, most users have already achieved those numbers with prior iOS devices, and will see no difference with the iPad Air.
Another change to the iPad Air is specific to the Wi-Fi + Cellular models. After years of offering separate cellular versions of the iPad for different domestic and international wireless networks, Apple finally united all of its cellular antennas within a single model. The result is a single iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular that can be used pretty much anywhere internationally with whatever the best local network may be: LTE, UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, DC-HSDPA, GSM/EDGE, and CDMA EV-DO Rev. A/Rev. B. Every LTE network Apple has previously supported with different iPhone or iPad models now works with the iPad Air — as well as the upcoming Retina iPad mini — so if you’re planning to travel overseas, or switch domestic carriers at will, one of these models is a fantastic choice. Since iPads aren’t typically locked to one carrier, all you need to do is pop the nano-SIM card out, replace it, and sign up for another account. Most carriers have no annual contracts for iPads, making switching relatively painless.
Actual cellular speeds, however, are basically unchanged from the fourth-generation iPad, and the iPhone 5/5c/5s for that matter. In our standard LTE speed testing site, a place that has 4-5 bars/dots of signal strength for both AT&T and Verizon, we saw roughly the same pattern we’ve noticed since LTE first hit iPads and iPhones: the AT&T iPad Air clearly outperformed the Verizon iPad Air, though as we’ve noticed in recent LTE testing, the speeds we’ve obtained at given bar/dot signal strength levels have dropped due to increased saturation of both companies’ cellular networks. When there are fewer people around, speeds go up, and when more devices are sharing a given cellular tower, the slower your speed is likely to be.
Showing 4-5 dots of strength, the AT&T iPad Air mostly reached download speeds ranging from 10-16Mbps with upload speeds in the 10-12Mbps range, while the Verizon iPad Air had 7-8Mbps downloads and 6-8Mbps uploads. However, at another location with fewer bars of strength, the same iPads hit different speeds: the AT&T model at 3 dots hit 18-20Mbps for downloads and 6Mbps for uploads, while the Verizon model at 3 dots got 10-12Mbps downloads and 4Mbps uploads. To demonstrate the impact lower network saturation can have on speed levels, we revisited the original testing site the next day, early in the morning when very few people were around, and saw the AT&T iPad Air hit over 28Mbps for downloads and 17Mbps for uploads. Regardless, all of these speeds are far below LTE’s theoretical (75Mbps) and even real-world (60Mbps) peaks, the latter of which we’ve seen only in areas with very close and relatively underused cellular towers. If that doesn’t sound great, bear in mind that weak LTE performance tends to be two or three times better than the typical 3G/4G speeds we’ve seen, particularly on Verizon’s old CDMA network; your mileage will vary depending on your carrier and location.
It’s also worth mentioning that the cellular data plan options for iPads are in the midst of changing, as well. In addition to “data sharing” options that rolled out over the past year, enabling contract-bound iPhone customers to pay an extra fee each month to keep an iPad on the same data plan and split limited data between them, U.S. cellular companies have recently changed their contract-free standalone data plan options.
In addition to its prior $15/$30/$50 “auto-renew” but cancelable monthly plans, AT&T is now offering a $5 24-hour/250MB plan and $25 3-month/1GB plan, neither automatically renewing. Sprint has $5 25MB, $10 100MB, and $15 2GB plans, Verizon is offering an entry-level $20 plan with 1GB of data, and T-Mobile has an incredible deal to try and win customers — 200MB of free data each month for the life of the iPad Air. While the carriers vary wildly in network coverage and data speeds, these new packages are certainly appealing for infrequent or low-bandwidth cellular data users.