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.
Although every Apple product goes through a well-established four-stage life cycle — introduction, growth, maturity and decline — the same is also true of its product families, which begin by building awareness (introduction), begin to increase in sales through advertising (growth), rocket upwards in sales before stabilizing (maturity), then eventually fall as better options emerge (decline). Unlike the iPod family, which is clearly in decline, the iPad family is clearly somewhere within the growth and maturity phases: overall iPad sales continue to increase every year, and the only time they slow down is ahead of anticipated major new product introductions.
The key question is where Apple’s full-sized tablets fit into this growth story, as the company typically doesn’t disclose model-specific sales figures. Before the iPad mini debuted last year, demand was building for smaller, 7”-screened tablets, and Apple’s release of the 7.9”-screened iPad mini met with virtually universal praise and strong sales. All that was conspicuously missing to make the mini a “perfect” tablet was a Retina display — an omission Apple is remedying late this year. Until that happens, the full-sized iPad has a window to win more fans on the strength of its added horsepower, and with only weeks remaining until the Retina mini’s release, there’s an argument to be made that the window is about to close.
But it won’t. Just like the 15” MacBook Pro and its 15” PowerBook G4 predecessor, some people demand bigger-screened computers solely because they’re bigger-screened — watching videos, emulating a full-sized keyboard, and reading certain types of publications all work better on a 9.7” tablet. Improvements in screen size and resolution are consistently major factors in driving demand for new devices, and the 9.7”-screened iPad Air has effectively become the equivalent of Apple’s 15”-screened laptops — not its easiest tablet to carry around, or the most cutting-edge in design, but a very good compromise of power and size for many users.
The iPad Air also benefits from a couple of major improvements under the hood. We were thrilled to see its extended battery life, which brings the iPad Air back to the “do I really need to charge this” usage model of the first two iPads, versus the close-but-not-quite-there performance of the last two models. Less critical today but likely to matter later is the new 1.4GHz A7 processor. Undeniably faster and cooler-running than the A6X it replaces, it offers hard-to-spot but very real performance improvements that — surprise — will be particularly appreciated by people who hope to use the Air for computer-like purposes. No iPad is faster at importing and sharing photos, rendering videos, or churning out 3-D graphics than this model. Though the iPhone 5s has a nearly identical chip with a less powerful screen to worry about, the iPad Air has enough horsepower to hold its own. It will be interesting to see if Apple lets the iPhone/iPad performance gap feel as small next year.
From our perspective, the only lingering issue with the iPad Air is the one Apple isn’t yet letting customers answer for themselves: namely, the role of the Retina iPad mini in this equation. Will the considerably smaller iPad mini be literally identical to the iPad Air in horsepower, with roughly the same battery life due to its smaller screen, or will it be held back in performance or battery life to encourage purchases of the larger model? Until that model is released and properly tested, we won’t know, and that ambiguity does somewhat impact what would otherwise be an unreserved high recommendation. Familiar though it may be, the iPad Air is an excellent new iPad in almost every way that matters, and worthy of our A- rating. The internationally compatible cellular model also rises to our A- rating for the first time, thanks to its unrivaled network compatibility for travelers. There’s no question that users would benefit from more storage capacity at the iPad Air’s current price points, but apart from that, these tablets are easy to love and fun to use.