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.
Depending on the iPad you’re upgrading from — or whether you’re a first-time iPad buyer — the iPad Air may or may not require all-new accessories. More likely than not, you’ll need to get a new cable or two, a new car charger, and a new case, though your need for a new stand or speaker will depend on the specific accessory you previously purchased.
In late 2012, Apple introduced Lightning, the replacement for its nine-year-old Dock Connector accessory standard. Lightning first rolled out in the iPhone 5 and fifth-generation iPod touch, followed soon thereafter by the iPad mini and fourth-generation iPad. The Lightning connector is a small silver and white plug with eight visible gold pins on each side, and unlike its predecessor can be inserted forward or backward into any Lightning port; both sides work. Apple rapidly released a bunch of Lightning accessories, including $19-$29 charging cables, $29-$39 Dock Connector adapters, and camera accessories such as the $29 Lightning to SD Card Reader. It has not released Lightning docks for iPads, but has allowed other developers to do so.
Third-party developers have had a full year to develop Lightning accessories, but due to high prices and stringent manufacturing rules, very few Lightning speakers and docks have been released, particularly for iPads. As we noted in a mid-year Editorial on Lightning accessories, some developers have been waiting for Apple to address compatibility problems between Apple-approved Lightning docks and cases, a standoff that may not be remedied any time soon. Consequently, many speaker developers have shifted over to the broadly-compatible Bluetooth streaming audio standard — supported by all iOS devices — and sometimes include USB ports on their speakers so users can charge devices with self-supplied cables. Apple’s overpriced Lightning to 30-Pin Adapters offer a makeshift way to make some Dock Connector accessories work with the Lightning port, but they’re somewhat ill-suited to full-sized iPads due to size and support considerations.
As noted in the battery test section above, previously-released battery packs and car chargers will behave a little differently with the iPad Air than with the last two full-sized iPads. Any car charger with at least 2.1-Amp output will recharge the iPad Air at full speed, as the faster 2.4-Amp speed isn’t supported. Similarly, regardless of whether they’re generic USB port- or Lightning plug-equipped, batteries with iPad-ready 2.1-Amp output will offer a more substantial recharge for the iPad Air than the third- or fourth-generation iPads. Just Mobile’s 11,200mAh Gum Max Duo was able to recharge the fourth-generation iPad to 75-76% when we tested it back in March, but hit 95% with the iPad Air. Its smaller 6,000mAh battery Gum++ refueled an empty iPad Air to 47%, versus 33% on the fourth-generation iPad.
Bluetooth accessories we tested ranged from speakers to headphones to digital styluses, and we had no issues with pairing or using any of them — like its predecessors, the iPad Air has Bluetooth 4 inside, and is as strong at both broadcasting and receiving as we’d expected.
Using AirPlay screen mirroring to send the iPad Air’s content to the Apple TV was also unchanged relative to the prior iPad: the latency is low enough to stream music and even twitch action games to the Apple TV, but the streamed frame rate is low and doesn’t match the iPad’s screen, even during UI interactions. iPad video is also presented on the Apple TV within a significantly cropped window regardless of whether you’re in landscape or portrait orientation, and whether you’re using a 720p or 1080p Apple TV. This is likely because Apple doesn’t want to upscale the 1024x768 images it’s sending to the TV, or downsample 2048x1536 video to fit a lower-resolution HDTV. The result isn’t fantastic, but it generally works.
Due to the iPad Air’s significant changes in form factor, this is the first full-sized iPad in two years that will require entirely new cases. As of today, only a handful of iPad Air cases are actually available, notably including options from sister companies Hard Candy Cases and Gumdrop Cases, as well as an official but very expensive iPad Air Smart Case from Apple. Developers who began work on cases early in 2013 based on leaked specifications discovered relatively late that Apple had slightly increased the iPad Air’s size, rendering form-fitting designs physically incompatible. We expect that more options will become available over the next three months.
Since the iPad Air works really well as a video device when held upright, we’d strongly advise owners to consider desktop stands previously developed for iPads, as there are some excellent metal options such as Belkin’s FlipBlade Adjust and Cooler Master’s JAS mini at affordable prices. Some of our editors like Apple’s iPad Air Smart Covers, which double as screen covers and simple stands, though you’ll pay a premium over all-metal stands and get less angle adjustability.