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.
Just as is the case with computer hard drives, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all iPad storage capacity. That’s why Apple sells iPads in multiple capacities, enabling you to choose the size that’s right for your needs. An iPad that might seem unimaginably capacious for one person might be the only place another person stores a large music, video, or photo library that once resided on a laptop. Someone who can’t imagine anyone being content with less than a 64GB iPad might forget that some iPads are used as cash registers, interactive kiosks at art galleries, or video streamers, barely holding anything at all. There are certainly still reasons for low-storage iPads to exist.
That having been said, the world has changed since Apple originally introduced the iPad in 2010. Back then, it marketed the tablet as “our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price,” a seemingly hyperbolic pitch that turned out to be pretty close to spot on. Rivals who publicly laughed at the iPad quickly began work on alternatives that were barely competitive in functionality or pricing, and Apple effectively owned the tablet market for two years. It set the entry price of iPads at $499, the entry storage capacity at 16GB, and offered cellular versions at $130 premiums — numbers that weren’t fantastic, but became acceptable to users, particularly those seeking lower-priced alternatives to computers.
More than three years later, the iPad Air’s pricing and capacity matrix has barely changed at all — the entry-level 16GB model is still $499, with a cellular version available for $629, and each doubling of storage capacity increases the price by $100. The only difference is the early 2013-vintage addition of 128GB Wi-Fi ($799) and Wi-Fi + Cellular ($929) versions, each within a stone’s throw of the entry-level $999 128GB MacBook Air in price. While comparing MacBook Airs to iPad Airs isn’t exactly 1:1, the Air has a larger but lower-resolution screen, integrated keyboard, considerable extra RAM, faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi, multiple I/O ports, and full support for OS X applications. Apple initially suggested that the first 128GB iPad would appeal to business users, but apart from its Retina display and optional premium cellular option, there’s not much reason for business users to prefer an $799 iPad to a $999 Mac, particularly considering the additional cost of accessories to make the iPad legitimately business-ready.
Every few years, Apple increases the power of its devices so much that the entry-level storage capacity seems downright insufficient, and the iPad Air is so precariously close to that edge that most people should skip the 16GB model. Between the switch from non-Retina to more detailed Retina graphics in the third iPad, the move from 32-bit to larger 64-bit apps in the iPad Air, and standard feature creep, applications are continuing to grow in size; childrens’ developers who capped early apps at 25 Megabytes are now approaching 50 Megabytes, and it’s not uncommon for top iOS games to hit 1GB (Real Racing 3) or 1.5GB (Infinity Blade III), with rare apps (The Orchestra) tipping the scales at nearly 2GB. Video viewers will note that HD iTunes movies routinely exceed 5GB a piece. Given that the 16GB iPad Air actually has only 12.8GB of formatted storage capacity — 12.4GB usable on a completely fresh device — it’s easy to understand why adults and kids will quickly get frustrated swapping content on and off a low-capacity iPad.
Apple has three main choices: make the 32GB iPad Air its starter $499 model, dropping the 16GB entirely; do the same but keep the 16GB model around at $399; or do nothing. The continued presence of the antiquated 16GB iPad 2 as a $399 model suggests that Apple is inclined to do nothing, but to the extent that users vote with their pocketbooks and opt for rival tablets, used iPads, or iPad minis instead, we wouldn’t be surprised. Apple’s current strategy of focusing on record profitability at the cost of market share has already started to undermine its support with developers who are watching the Android market grow, and the better Android becomes, the less chance Apple will have to win the mass-market back. Improving the iPad value equation through increased storage capacity is the right next step as users continue to transition from laptops to tablets.