Though the software isn't quite perfect yet, there's reason to believe that the rough edges will be cleaned up a bit through updates. Moreover, the software hiccups are incredibly minor compared to the Air's performance superlatives and unmatched user experience.
Much like last year's iteration, 2013's iPad Air ($499 MSRP) is a proven device with access to an extremely wide range of content. Power users may or may not find fault with certain aspects of the device, but on the whole you can expect the iPad Air to keep you entertained and interested from the moment you open the box. It may not be #1 in every single regard, but it's definitely still at the top of the tablet pile—a sure thing for any buyer.
Get ready to play some Whitney Houston.
As far as content goes, there is no better tablet on the market right now for partnerships and library access, and that's a fact. Android can't use Amazon's Instant Video without some hacky workarounds and Microsoft's Surface line has troubles of its own in the app department—such as a dearth of mobile games and tablet-specific apps. For the best results, subscribers to multiple streaming services should strongly consider the iPad Air.
Powering on your iPad for the first time will introduce you to Apple's newest mobile operating system, iOS7. Many will already be familiar with this OS, thanks to iPhones. For everyone else, just know that the new system is quite a bit different from older iOS versions, in terms of looks and functionality.
Aesthetically, iOS 7 is very minimalistic, but with some lively flourishes here and there; a physics engine makes the starry, cloudy background look surprisingly realistic—the breadth and depth change as you move the device. Because the OS is so new, app icons aren't yet standardized, meaning aesthetic properties vary from minimalistic to glossy. Most of the same OS layout controls still apply, so if you're familiar with iOS you'll still feel at home in iOS7.
Though some might bemoan the changes to the re-designed iOS, I'm optimistic. I do agree with the idea that radical changes in user interface (UI) are to be avoided if possible, but Apple was caught needing to address its competition. Though the changes iOS 7 brings to the iPad—like the control center and additions to the notification shade—are very reminiscent of features found on Android, they are useful tools to any user.
It's worth noting that not all of these improvements are up and running, though. In fact, a few features you may know from the iPhone are either absent or buggy. For instance, commands in the control center don't always work the first time you tap them, and there's a degree of gesture ambiguity (same gesture does different things in different apps). It's a bit of a work in progress, but there's no reason to believe that software updates won't polish things up soon enough.
Additionally, typing is a little strange—there's no indication about when you're using upper or lowercase letters outside of the shift key inverting color, for example. However, the same keyboard tricks in iOS6 still apply—you can split the keyboard to fit your thumbs if you like holding the tablet in a landscape orientation, but beyond that there's not much you can do to customize your keypad.
One of the best
Aspect aside, the scree of the iPad Air is something to behold. It does have some struggles in the brightness department, but the crisp screen nevertheless has some of the most accurate color performance on the market today. A 2048 x 1536 pixel screen gives the iPad Air a pixel density of 264 pixels per inch—which is more than your eye can resolve past distances of 12 inches away from your pupil.
In our labs, we measured a screen that had no trouble conforming to the Rec. 709 standard of color space, minor deviations in the blues notwithstanding. Tablets typically bomb this test badly, so a tablet that does even as well as the worst TVs is notable, and the iPad has a beautiful display.
The good results don't stop there, either. This iPad has a black level of 0.38 cd/m2 (very dark for a tablet) and a peak brightness of 439.53 cd/m2 —giving it a contrast ratio of 1157:1, which is on the wide side for tablets. On top of all that, it transitions through greyscale values near-perfectly, with a gamma slope of 2.19 and no visible errors.
If you're the type of person who wants to take this thing outside, be aware that it's very reflective. The iPad Air doesn't do much to diffuse light patterns, so expect a sharp reflection thrown back at you. This is very common for tablets, but it's still something to watch out for—try to avoid bright sources of direct light and you should be fine. The Air's screen will throw 13% of all light shone on the screen, with 7% thrown directly back at your eye.
You may ask yourself, how do I work this?
Undoubtedly the most visible change to the iPad's design is the new body—a super-thin profile and a bezel reminiscent of the iPad mini. However, it keeps the same screen real estate as its previous iteration. Mercifully, the iPad Air is not just thinner, but lighter as well (roughly 1lb.)—meaning it's easier to use for the long haul. Worried about clearing space in your bag? A screen cover will guard your display, and it will still feel like you're toting around a magazine—not a computer.
The lightning connector cable remains a godsend for charging and sharing content between your computer and tablet—it doesn't matter which way you insert the business end of the connector. Should you prefer to handle sharing through the other means, the iPad Air can make use of its wireless card, bluetooth 4.0 antenna, or optional cellular bands. There are plenty of apps available to you as well, allowing you to use your device as a social media platform if you wish, like so:
If you peeked at the spec sheet, you may wonder just why on Earth Apple decided to keep hardware that—well—isn't all that much better than last generation. Simply put, it's because the iPad Air does more with less. By that I mean, it uses less juice to do the same tasks. Unfortunately, resource-intensive apps will slow the tablet down as a result.
That said, the new A7 processor with M7 coprocessor is surprisingly good for using so little power. The marriage of this chip and the somewhat trim specs are a boon to battery life—meaning more reading, more video, more games on a single charge. As an added plus, the tablet charges surprisingly quickly in comparison to the previous two generations of iPad. On the downside, this thwarted my plans to quote The Sandlot while discussing charge times.
This year, Apple imbued its flagship tablet with only 1GB of RAM, a liquid crystal display with a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels (like last year's), and a smaller battery. So why is this still considered a top-tier tablet? The formula worked before, and it will work again. Last year's customers may not need to upgrade, but new buyers have plenty to look forward to here—the Air is impressive, with only extremely minor trouble with the occasional 64-bit app reported by some users (think 3D-rendered games). Such problems are hardly limited to this device, though I haven't run into any issues with this yet.
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.
Not many people remember this, but the iPad was not the first tablet. In fact, tablet PCs were tried in the late 90s with resistive displays, and were treated much like traditional computers. Not that there's anything wrong with that (the line of Surface tablets is proof of this), but media-based computers with a touch control scheme are a completely different animal, and pose different problems to user interface than traditional desktop computers. Namely—the tablets we see today rely almost solely on a completely different mode of interaction than a cursor and physical input device.
So why does that matter? Tablets force traditional content (movies, text, games) into your hands. This is a challenge, obviously, because not all the content you enjoy on a tablet is meant for tablets. The challenge? Your device must change the content's size. Though software can handle many of these problems fairly well nowadays, that wasn't always the case.
Since then, services like Netflix, YouTube, etc. have made video consumption not only much easier, but far more common. Because of this, Android and Windows-based tablets shifted to a wildly different set of aspect ratios, eventually settling near the Euclidian ideal 8:5 "golden ratio" to effectively display a large range of content in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Using a combination of layout choices and user-reactive design, these tablets are able to make the most of their screen real-estate without being too cumbersome to reach necessary controls—a problem tablet developers are still figuring out. These differently-aspected screens can display web content fairly well, and video content is kept with minimal wasted screen area or dramatic rescaling. Yet the difficulty of comfortably interacting with tablets by hand remains a challenge.
Apple has instead stuck with a 3:4 aspect ratio with its iPad—the same aspect used by letter paper. When the first iPad originally launched, it was largely used for surfing the web, so the 3:4 ratio was a logical choice—it fit print material very well, and high-res video content wasn't as ubiquitous back then. Nowadays, this aspect ratio poses a problem: Though easy to control, the iPad isn't ideal for video content; it's still fantastic for reading and websites, but watching video is a bit of a sore spot because the effective screen area is cut by 11.6 square inches (unless you cut the edges off your video content).
There are arguments against changing this from a developer's standpoint: namely that changing screen sizes leads to unnecessary fragmentation. For a long time, this was a horrible problem in the Android universe, and that's definitely something that Apple was very smart to avoid altogether. However, now that screen and resolution standards are many years out from holding to a 4:3 aspect ratio, do you bite the bullet and make the change? Signs point to no.
Close enough but not too far
If you've ever used an iPad before, you'll be delighted to know that the iPad Air builds on the performance of the previous iPads. The color accuracy is roughly the same (it's hard to improve upon near-top marks), and the contrast and greyscale performance is probably the best I've ever seen. Though the peak brightness isn't as high as the Nexus 7's, the Air has extremely accurate transitions from black to white—meaning no detail gets lost in shadows or gradients. That might seem like it shouldn't be a big deal, but tablets consistently struggle in that regard.
Because the contrast and pixel density is so high, pictures and videos will look almost like they're on a compact UHD (ultra high definition) TV. Assuming you have 20/20 vision, your retina can't resolve the difference between pixels unless your pupils are less than 10 inches from the screen—something you're unlikely to do with a tablet anyways.
For those concerned about the trim spec sheet, remember that a tablet is not merely the sum of its parts: How well it works matters a lot. It's tempting to get hung up on impressive numbers, but comparing Apples and Androids is seldom useful because they're just so inherently different. The iPad Air is a great example of this. Power users may be disappointed that the iPad doesn't push the envelope in a big way, but that's generally less important for common tasks at this point. What good is a juiced-up processor at the expense of battery life? Nobody needs a chainsaw to cut butter, after all.
Luckily, the Air's slim specs maintain acceptable battery life. Since Apple used a smaller battery this year—likely to keep that tiny, lightweight profile—the company had to rely on less overall capacity in order to retain an acceptable charge. In the end, the Air is slimmer than ever and it holds a satisfactory charge, but keeping its backlight on high hinders its performance: The Air's battery does not last nearly as long as the previous iPad's battery, for example.
Unlike most tablets, Apple's goals with the new A7 processor weren't merely to push performance: Apple wanted to do it with an absolute economy of power as well. To that end, both iPad Air and newest iPad mini were imbued with a processor that uses far less juice with the hopes that it would give battery life a boost. If our test results are any indication, Apple managed to balance both goals admirably.
That new processor isn't the most powerful, nor does it draw the least current. However, it does strike an impressive balance: It lags only a little bit behind the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 (found on the Nexus 7), which is still extremely good. This processor is no slouch even if it isn't the latest-and-greatest, and it enables you to have a nice battery performance to boot.
There are widespread reports of frame-rate issues when really taxing the tablet with graphics-heavy applications, but that's something that happens on most ARM-based tablets anyways. The truth of the matter is that you're unlikely to notice this much unless you really push this thing to the limit; casual use will be nearly flawless.
The new iPad Air isn't exactly a radical departure from the iPads of yesterday, but that's not inherently a bad thing. Sticking with a winning formula isn't exactly a recipe for disaster, and the iPad is a known quantity—you know relatively what you get when you pick one up, and the iPad Air is a continuation of the excellent line of tablets fielded by Apple.
It's hard to argue with a platform that has access to every major content streaming service out there, along with the support of one of the oldest and most stable operating systems. Still, if you're looking for something that handles video content or battery life a bit better, you can try your luck with a Nexus 10 or Surface tablet—but that comes with sacrifices in other areas. Truthfully, even if iPad sales are waning, it's still the tablet to beat because of its interface simplicity and content partnerships. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have a long way to go to catch up, and Apple's mobile platform remains the only one with access to the majority of media services.
However, I will say this: There is reason to believe that the iPad mini with retina display—slated to release later this month—could be a better bargain. The mini will cost less, but with much of the same hardware in a smaller package. It's up to you if you want to wait, but those of you looking for a smaller tablet should probably investigate the mini before springing for the Air.
In it for the long haul
By using a more efficient processor and limiting the continuous power draw of RAM by keeping the memory at 1GB, Apple has managed no small feat in battery life. Especially considering Apple clipped the battery's wings, as it were—the Cupertino computer giant shipped the iPad Air with a battery 8,827 mAh instead of the 11,560 mAh monster the 4th generation iPad had.
In our labs, the wafer-thin wonder showed us that our concerns about battery life were warranted despite the boast of lower power consumption. No matter how efficient that processor is, the iPad Air's backlight sucks down a lot of juice. With all wireless disabled and other processes closed, the iPad Air only squeaked out 7 hours, 9 minutes watching video. Perhaps due to the bright white screen, the Air was only able to read War and Peace for 6 hours and 40 minutes continuously with the same settings.
That result isn't very surprising (or inspiring), but you may be able to get a bit more life out of the battery if you turn the brightness down. You might find 300+cd/m2 in your face a little painful at night, so I'd suggest either turning on auto brightness or just dimming the screen when you can.
Meet the tester
Staff Writer, Imaging@cthomas8888
A seasoned writer and professional photographer, Chris reviews cameras, headphones, smartphones, laptops, and lenses. Educated in Political Science and Linguistics, Chris can often be found building a robot army, snowboarding, or getting ink.
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