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.
Debuted alongside the considerably smaller and functionally nearly identical “iPad mini with Retina display,” the iPad Air ($499-$929) is Apple’s fifth-generation full-sized iPad, renamed largely to emphasize its roughly 1/3 weight decrease and modest dimensional reductions relative to the prior 9.7″-screened iPads. While the design and size won’t shock iPad mini users in any way, Apple succeeded in reducing the full-sized iPad’s thickness to near-equivalence with the mini, also achieving similar though not as striking reductions in the front bezel around the screen. The weight is now at or near 1 pound, depending on the model you select; differences relative to the original iPad are, as shown in the pictures below, stark. Also noteworthy are two internal changes: the inclusion of an A7 processor marketed at twice as powerful as the prior-generation A6X — though commonly benchmarked at 40-80% faster, depending on the task — and a little-mentioned reduction in the battery size, which should speed the iPad Air’s refueling, particularly when used with the included 12W USB Power Adapter. Like its predecessor, this model now comes in 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB storage capacities, as well as Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi + Cellular versions. We’re already putting several of the new iPads through our collection of tests, and will have a full review in the very near future.
Late last year, Apple released two cosmetically and electronically similar iOS devices, the 7.9”-screened iPad mini tablet and 4”-screened fifth-generation iPod touch media player. Sharing the same chamfered aluminum chassis and many similar internal components, the small iPad and tall iPod followed the iPhone 5 in introducing a new, jewelry-inspired Apple design language, making the simultaneously-released 9.7” fourth-generation iPad look plain and gigantic. It was obvious that Apple would bring the same chassis to a full-sized iPad — the only questions were “how” and “when?”
By the time the iPad Air ($499-$929) debuted in October, the only major surprise Apple had left to reveal was the name. Most of the parts leaked months in advance, making the iPad mini-influenced redesign seem even more inevitable, so the company decided to rebrand it in hopes of generating excitement over its smaller size. Initially, the “Air” moniker doesn’t seem fitting: Apple used that word for a MacBook computer that compromised on features and performance to achieve an “impossibly thin” size. By contrast, the iPad Air hasn’t compromised on features or performance, nor is it inconceivably tiny. It’s actually a more powerful and compact version of the fourth-generation iPad, built for customers tempted by the iPad mini and increasingly numerous Android competitors.
Long-time iPad users may see the iPad Air as the Retina display-equipped tablet Apple really wanted to release last year but couldn’t, instead rapidly debuting two thicker, heavier iPad 2 sequels with gigantic batteries and CPUs that ran warm to the touch. Apple’s switch from 1024×768 screens to cutting-edge 2048×1536 Retina displays was famously difficult for the company; as we noted back in January, merely squeezing all the fourth-generation iPad’s parts into a smaller fifth-generation chassis would have been a major challenge. Apple went several steps further, replacing the hot-running A6X processor with the iPhone 5s’s more powerful and power-efficient A7 + M7 chips, then reengineering the wireless hardware for superior performance. But apart from a handful of smaller tweaks, many of which are familiar from the iPad mini, almost everything else is the same.
Based upon testing of five separate units, our comprehensive review of the iPad Air discusses everything you might want to know about Apple’s latest tablet — including some performance-related surprises. For first-time iPad buyers, we begin with a big picture look at the iPad Air, iOS 7, and Apple’s free software. Then, we look at the iPad Air’s new design and internal features, as well as its real-world battery life, performance with apps, wireless test results, and details on iPad Air accessories. In short, while we’d strongly urge prospective customers to wait until they can personally compare the Air with the soon-to-be-released Retina version of the iPad mini, Apple’s latest 9.7” iPad is an excellent tablet in its own right, and likely to thrill people who can’t wait for the mini or don’t want a smaller screen. On the other hand, Apple has missed a golden opportunity to adjust the iPad Air’s storage capacities and pricing — a strategic choice that may increase its profit margins, but likely lose it relative market share during a time of rapidly increasing demand for tablets.
Click on the drop-down menu below or above to read the next sections of this review. Enjoy!
Big Picture: The iPad Air With iOS 7, iLife + iWork
The iPad Air is currently Apple’s largest tablet computer — the sixth device in the iPad family, and the fifth with a 9.7” screen. It has the same basic collection of features, controls, and ports as an iPhone 5, 5c, or 5s, but they’re in somewhat different positions within a larger, thinner chassis. Made from durable, scratch-resistant glass, the iPad Air’s slate-like face contains a tiny FaceTime camera, a 4:3 aspect ratio display, and a single circular Home Button, notably without the Touch ID fingerprint authentication feature introduced in the iPhone 5s. Like most prior iPads, the glass front comes with your choice of a white or black bezel, this time paired with either a bright silver or gunmetal-like “Space Gray” aluminum chassis, respectively. The metal edge around the screen is gloss-polished on an angle, a jewelry-like process called chamfering.
Just like prior iPads, the Air’s top edge includes a 3.5mm headphone port, a tiny pill-shaped microphone hole, and a larger pill-shaped Sleep/Wake button. Separate pill-shaped, chamfered volume buttons and a circular two-position switch are found on its right side, rather than the iPhone’s traditional left, while dot-shaped speaker ventilation holes are on both sides of a Lightning port on the bottom.
The back is made almost entirely from matte metal, interrupted by a glass camera lens at the top, a reflective Apple logo in the middle, and an iPad name mark on the bottom alongside tiny regulatory information. You won’t find a camera-assisting LED flash or additional microphone hole immediately next to the camera, but a second pill-shaped hole centered below the one on the top edge serves as an echo-canceling second microphone, a familiar iPhone feature that’s new to iPads.
Apple continues to sell the iPad Air in Wi-Fi-only and Wi-Fi + Cellular versions. The former is $130 less expensive at each of four storage capacities ($499/16GB, $599/32GB, $699/64GB, $799/128GB), while the latter ($629/16GB, $729/32GB, $829/64GB, $929/128GB) adds a collection of globally-compatible GSM, CDMA, and LTE antennas for use on cellular data networks. This year, there’s only one cellular iPad Air across carriers rather than separate cellular models for different carriers, so they vary only in the nano-SIM card that comes pre-installed. You can easily tell a cellular iPad Air apart from the Wi-Fi-only version by the presence of a large plastic antenna compartment on the top edge; it’s bright white on the silver iPad Air, and jet black on the Space Gray iPad Air, matching the color of the glass bezel. A nano-SIM tray is found on the bottom right corner of the cellular iPad Air when viewed from the front, and absent on the Wi-Fi-only version.
As of the date of release, the iPad Air ships with iOS 7.0.3, a bug-fixed update to the September 2013 release of Apple’s iOS 7 operating system, reviewed here. Without diving into details, iOS 7 completely changed the look of iOS’s user interface, eliminating shadowed and detailed graphics in favor of flat colors, gradients, translucency effects, and heavy-handed animations. Public response to iOS 7 has been polarized: some users have refused to install it because of its looks, and others have embraced the numerous other improvements Apple made along with the visual tweaks. One of those improvements is full support for the new 64-bit A7 processor found in the iPhone 5s, iPad Air, and upcoming Retina display-equipped iPad mini, a change that can’t be seen but results in faster app performance.
iOS 7 was released for the iPad before it was completely stable, and even today exhibits occasional crashes of the built-in applications and less than completely smooth animations, amongst other small issues. During our testing of the iPad Air, we continued to note instabilities in Safari, ambiguities in the battery meter, and other hiccups in performance. While we expect that a much-improved version 7.1 will address the problems (and possibly introduce new functionality), Apple has set no timetable for such a release. Until then, the issues will be annoying but not enough to scare most people away from enjoying their iPads.
One major software asset of the iPad Air goes beyond iOS 7. Over the past two months, Apple make its previously $5-$10 iLife and iWork applications free with the purchase of all new iOS devices. As a result, the latest versions of the photo editor iPhoto, video editor iMovie, music production suite GarageBand, word processor Pages, spreadsheet app Numbers, and presentation creator Keynote can all be downloaded at no charge when you’re setting up the iPad Air. While many users have expressed disappointment over significant iOS 7-inspired changes Apple made to these apps, the fact that they’re free at least offsets the criticism, and gives every iPad Air user a nice initial set of tools for creating and editing content.
Changes, Detailed: The iPad Air’s New Body + Packaging
As much as we’d prefer not to focus on numbers and physical traits in our reviews, the iPad Air story is best understood in your choice of two ways: relative to the iPad mini, or relative to last year’s fourth-generation iPad. If you know what the iPad mini looks like, the iPad Air looks exactly the same, only taller and wider. Should the mini have escaped your notice, you’ll find that the Air’s less profoundly tapered edges look and feel noticeably different than full-sized iPads.
Whereas the original iPad mini measures 7.87” tall by 5.3” wide with a depth of 0.28”, the iPad Air measures 9.4” tall by 6.6” wide with a depth of 0.29” — virtually imperceptible added thickness, but a markedly larger footprint. The mini is still so comparatively small that nearly its entire body fits within the area of the iPad Air’s screen, however, Apple has kept their ports and controls nearly identical in size. For instance, the polished chamfered edges look the same between models, the Air’s Home Button has shrunk just a little from past iPads to match the mini’s smaller-sized control, and even the edge-mounted buttons and switch look the same. The Air has more holes on the bottom to ventilate its speakers — 40 holes per Air speaker versus 28 on the mini, for trivia fans — but that’s the sort of seriously minor difference we’re talking about here. Apple even reduced the sizes of the front and rear camera lenses to bring the Air and mini into conformity, a point discussed further later in this review.
It says something that the other obvious physical differences between the Air and original mini are really small. As previously noted, there’s a second pill-shaped microphone hole on the back, roughly 0.45” below the first, used for an echo-canceling mic system. This second microphone is also being added to the Retina mini, further reducing the differences between it and the Air. Additionally, on the Wi-Fi + Cellular iPad Air, the nano-SIM card slot has shifted downwards by around 0.95” relative to the mini’s location, now coming very close to the bottom edge of the device. The plastic cellular antenna compartment is the same depth and height as the mini’s, but wider. Finally, if you’ve noted in our photos that the iPad mini appears to be darker, that’s true, but that earlier “Slate” color has been discontinued. Apple is now offering both the original and Retina mini in the same Space Gray color as the iPad Air, so they’ll all look virtually identical apart from size.
As all of the above should make clear, the people who are most likely to be impressed by the iPad Air’s size and weight aren’t iPad mini owners, but first-time iPad buyers, as well as full-sized iPad owners making a transition to the Air from an older 9.7” model. Now weighing only 1 pound (Wi-Fi-only) or 1.05 pounds (Wi-Fi + Cellular), the iPad Air has dropped nearly a third of its weight relative to the last two iPads (1.44/1.46 pounds), which were up modestly over the iPad 2 (1.33/1.35 pounds). The Air has shed only 0.1” of height and under 0.1” of thickness versus those models, but a very obvious 0.71” of width — enough to cut the side bezels to roughly half their prior size. Consequently, the iPad Air looks from the front just like a more slender 2011-2012-vintage iPad.
As small as most of the dimensional changes are relative to recent models, the differences are profoundly noticeable relative to the original iPad, which measured 9.56” tall by 7.47” wide and 0.5” thick, around 1/4” taller, 0.87” wider, and 0.21” thicker than the Air, as well as at least a half-pound heavier. If you’re one of the relatively few people who have been holding out for years to upgrade from the first model to something better, and you haven’t even considered buying an iPad mini, the iPad Air’s new chassis will knock your socks off.
Like the iPad mini, the iPad Air’s front glass feels thin, “plinking” with a tap versus the “plunk” of earlier iPads’ heavier glass. Similarly, the fancy chamfered metal edges seem to warn against tossing the Air around like a toy — unless you have it inside of a very resilient case. Just as we noted with prior-generation iPads, the iPad Air isn’t difficult to carry around, but despite initial hype to the contrary, you probably won’t want to hand-hold it for the full length of a movie or TV show; it’s still in need of lap, leg, or stand support. Picking up any full-sized iPad with one hand has always been a wrist-flexing exercise, and that hasn’t changed with the iPad Air, but it’s certainly less taxing than before. Additionally, thumb-typing in portrait mode with two hands at once is easier than any prior full-sized iPad, but the smaller iPad mini is far better-suited to this purpose, even when it’s being held with both hands as you’re walking. If you’re concerned about absolute size and weight, the mini is still the right choice, but the iPad Air is close enough to be a nice compromise.
On the packaging front, the iPad Air’s box is noticeably smaller than its immediate predecessors — at least, in width. Once again, Apple is using predominantly white cardboard boxes for both the white/silver and black/gray models, keeping the height and thickness of the package the same as before. However, like the Air itself, the box is narrower, and once the tablet is removed, you’ll realize why the packaging isn’t thinner: the 12W USB Power Adapter inside has become the only impediment to shrinking the rest of the box. Given Apple’s obsession with reducing the volume of its boxes to lower bulk package shipment costs, we’d have to imagine that it’s already working on a smaller charger.
All of the other pack-ins are predictable. Every iPad Air comes with a Lightning to USB Cable identical to ones shipped with other Apple devices, a very basic instruction card, warranty information, and two Apple logo stickers. Cellular versions of the Air generally also include a nano-SIM card and SIM tray removal tool, the latter inside the instruction packet.
One small but interesting little detail is that the side of the iPad Air box actually says “iPad Air.” While that shouldn’t be surprising, Apple never actually changed the iPad moniker on the boxes of the iPad 2, the “new iPad,” or the “iPad with Retina display,” a point we found curious given its marketing of those devices. We’d guess this means that the iPad Air name will be in use for some time to come.
A7 + M7 Processors: Real-World iOS 7 + App Performance
Ever since 2010, Apple has largely avoided engaging in number games with its rivals. Rather than treating iPads as computers with conspicuously advertised clock speeds or differing quantities of RAM, Apple merely describes the iPads’ processors as “A4,” “A5,” “A5X,” “A6X,” and “A7,” occasionally calling out a processor’s number of cores (“single-core,” “dual-core,” “quad-core”) and similar improvements in their graphics features. So after Apple noted that the 64-bit A7 processor found inside the iPhone 5s was also inside the iPad Air, it left others to figure out the specifics — namely how similar the processors actually were, how much RAM was inside, and what the iPad Air’s A7 could do that the iPhone 5s’s could not. Notably, this task will need to be repeated for the Retina iPad mini when it’s released later this month.
Depending on whom you ask, Apple’s introduction of the 1.3GHz A7 processor was either a huge deal or a small but welcome change for the iPhone 5s. People in the “huge deal” camp pointed to the iPhone 5s’s dramatic benchmarking jumps over the 1.3GHz A6 in the iPhone 5, the inherent advantages of 64-bit processing relative to the A6’s 32-bit processor, and the shift of accelerometer and motion tracking to a dedicated M7 motion co-processor. This camp will likely be excited to see that the jump from the fourth-generation iPad’s 1.4GHz A6X to iPad Air’s 1.4GHz A7 nearly mirrors the iPhone’s: whereas the iPhone 5s leaped a full 2X from a Geekbench 3 multi-core score of 1269 to 2560, the iPad Air jumps 1.89X from 1423 to 2693. It’s not quite as big of a leap in percentage terms, but the Air’s raw number is higher, which is great if you like big numbers.
Snarky as that might sound, other people — including us —are less concerned with theoretical improvements than practical ones; the same engine that’s insanely powerful in a motorcycle won’t fare as well in a car or truck. To that point, while the iPad Air’s 1.4GHz A7 scored 5% higher than the iPhone 5s’s 1.3GHz A7 in raw benchmarks, the iPad’s screen has over four times as many pixels to fill as the iPhone’s, which means that a similar processor has to work harder to keep things moving smoothly on the iPad. This is why Apple previously went with upgraded A5X/A6X processors for Retina iPads, giving them an extra computer-like edge over pocket-sized iPhones. Extra RAM typically helps, too, but the iPad Air has the same 1GB of RAM as the iPhone 5s, a point that we expect will cause some consternation with game developers.
For the reasons explained above, we weren’t surprised to find that screen and photo rotation animations that stuttered on the fourth iPad are smoother on the iPad Air, but they’re still not quite as quick as on the iPhone 5s. Similarly, games such as Vector Unit’s impressive 3-D jetski-racing game Riptide GP2 perform at faster frame rates on the iPad Air than on the fourth iPad, but they’re not as smooth as on the iPhone 5s.
As we noted in our iPhone 5s review, Epic’s Infinity Blade III was supposedly specifically optimized for the A7, but looked virtually identical between the iPhone 5 and 5s. It has nearly the same issue between the fourth iPad and the iPad Air. If you look very closely at characters’ armor in screenshots, you can see small differences in their reflections, but when the games are in motion, you can barely tell them apart. More than a month after the iPhone 5s’s release, there’s still a conspicuous lack of software to really demonstrate the A7’s superiority, and the iPad Air suffers from the same issue. On a more positive note, the iPad Air’s A7 doesn’t get as warm to the touch as the last iPad’s A6X; we only noticed a small increase in the otherwise cool rear shell’s temperature during taxing games such as Infinity Blade III, and if you’re playing games like this, your hands are as likely to warm the iPad as the A7.
That said, there are some concrete examples of the A7’s improved performance if you know where to look for them. For instance, importing 50 photos using Apple’s Lightning to SD Card Reader takes 15 seconds rather than 25 on the prior iPad, and using iPhoto to prepare five photos for Facebook sharing is almost instantaneous on the iPad Air while requiring 10 or more seconds on the fourth iPad. Rendering out an edited movie in iMovie goes faster on the iPad Air than on its predecessor, too. Similarly, third-party apps such as Algoriddim’s djay 2 have already been updated for the iPad Air, adding the A7-specific Harmonic Match key detection/matching feature that was previously exclusive to the iPhone 5s. History suggests that we’ll see more of these examples over time, but for now, there are scattered small but welcome improvements without a single huge “wow” demonstration of the new hardware’s capabilities.
As a footnote, the iPad Air’s A7 is bundled with an M7 coprocessor, which is capable of frequently measuring accelerometer, compass, and gyroscope data without demanding the A7’s resources. On the iPhone 5s, M7 was touted as a way to improve fitness apps, turn-by-turn walking navigation, and even battery life, reducing wireless activity when the device hasn’t been moved for some period of time.
Apple provides no examples of what M7 does inside the iPad Air, save for giving users “a better experience” based on the device’s movement. We didn’t see any obvious benefit when testing the iPad Air with Apple’s Maps as a GPS device for turn-by-turn navigation; note that as before, only Wi-Fi + Cellular iPads contain GPS hardware, and the enhanced battery drain was still fairly obvious. Unless someone’s planning to develop an iPad Air-specific armband — please, no —or new apps are released to exploit M7, you can expect the coprocessor’s real-world impact on your iPad experience to be minimal.
iPad Air I/O: The Screen, Cameras, Microphones, Speakers + Ports
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 2048×1536 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 1280×720 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.
iPad Air: Real-World Battery And Wireless Test Results + Cellular Plans
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.
iPad Air: Lightning Connector/Accessories, Bluetooth + Apple TV
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 1024×768 images it’s sending to the TV, or downsample 2048×1536 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.
iPad Air: A Few Words on Capacities And Pricing
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.
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.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Inc.
Model: iPad Air
Price: $499-$799 Wi-Fi / $629-$929 Cellular/LTE