Apple single-handedly created what we know to be the tablet category. Before the iPhone was even a darling of the world, Steve Jobs had a vision to create a tablet computer. Of course, as we all know now, Jobs decided to put what would eventually become the iPad on hold to launch the iPhone first.
But Apple proved them wrong. Bolstered by thousands of tablet-optimized apps (and iPhone apps that scaled up), the iPad has gone on to become the poster child for the “post-PC” era, a move away from the traditional desktop and laptop PC towards an instant-on, mobile one.
Introduced last fall, the iPad Air is the latest version of Apple’s flagship tablet. With so much competition from Android and Windows, is the iPad Air still the king of all tablets? Read on for my full review.
Everyone uses their devices differently. For the purpose of this review, it’s a good idea for you to understand how I use tablets. I’m a firm believer in using multiple devices. I have a laptop for all my productivity and work, and a smartphone to keep me connected while I’m on the go.
For me, my iPad is my media consuming device. Very rarely do I use it to create content. The most “creating” I’ll do is respond to emails and send off tweets. Maybe edit a picture or two with Snapseed or Photoshop Express and upload it to Instagram or Facebook.
I use my iPad every day. I consider it my “in-between” device. I use it to watch YouTube videos in between TV commercials. I use it to keep up on Twitter and Facebook. I use it to read articles I’ve saved for later from throughout the day. I also use it to play and try out the latest games going viral.
In short, I use it for light work (emails), mostly for reading online content and digital books, and for playing some games. Basically, I use an iPad the way it’s advertised: for a little of everything, but nothing really hardcore.
|Product Name||Galaxy Tab S 10.5||iPad Air||Xperia Z2 Tablet|
|Weight||16.47 Oz||16.54 Oz||15.49 Oz|
|Size (Diagonal, Inches)||10.5″||9.7″||10.1″|
|Processor Name||Samsung Exynos 5 Octa 5420
|Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 APQ8074AB
|Operating System (OS)||Android 4.4.2||iOS 7.1.2||Android 4.4.2|
|Memory Card Type||MicroSD
(128 GB max)
(64 GB max)
|Built-In Storage||32 GB||16,32,64,128 GB||16 GB|
|Megapixels||8 MP||5 MP||8.1 MP|
|Megapixels||2.1 MP||1.2 MP||2.2 MP|
|Battery Capacity (mAh)||7900 mAh||8820 mAh||6000 mAh|
Design (Very good)
When it comes to product design, Apple is the king. Jony Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design, is one of the best, if not the best in the tech industry. Apple products are well-regarded for their attention to detail and use of premium materials. (Yes, even the iPhone 5c’s polycarbonate feels great because it has a steel-reinforced internal structure.)
The iPad Air continues that tradition of excellent premium design. After three generations of more or less the same industrial design, the iPad Air branches off with a design that puts it in line with the iPad mini’s (2012) design language. The edges and corners are rounder, and the front panel now sports a diamond-cut chamfer that wraps all the way around. It’s difficult to call the iPad Air anything other than beautiful.
But the biggest change is how the iPad Air feels. As its name suggests, the iPad Air is super light — only 1 pound. It’s 28 percent lighter, 20 percent thinner and takes up 24 percent less volume than the iPad 4. That’s a remarkable reduction. The difference between the iPad Air and the iPad 4 is night and day. Holding the iPad 3/4 cramped for long periods cramped my arm. But because the iPad Air is so darn light, I was able to comfortably hold the iPad Air in one hand for long periods without worrying about arm fatigue.
On the front, there’s a 1.2-megapixel FaceTime camera capable of 720p HD video recording above the screen and the home button below the screen. And on the rear is an 8-megapixel iSight camera that can record 1080p HD video.
Up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack, and on the right side of the iPad Air is a switch (can be set to mute volume or lock display orientation) and two pill-shaped volume buttons.
Compared to the previous iPads, the speakers have now moved from the lower rear to the bottom of the device. The micro-perforated speaker holes now flank the tiny Lightning port. This is great because the sound is now distributed better and, while they’re still not front-facing, music is a lot more audible projecting out of the side and not away from you.
The iPad Air is available in two colors: Silver (white) and Space Gray. I recommend going with the Silver model as I’ve found the scratches and nicks to the chamfer tend to be less noticeable on silver than it is on black anodized aluminum.
And of course, inside of the box, you’ll get your USB brick, USB to Lightning charging cable and some paperwork and Apple stickers. Yay!
Display (Near perfect)
Like the last two generations (iPad 3 and iPad 4), the iPad Air has the same 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS display with 264 pixels per inch. It was a beautiful display back in 2012 when the iPad 3 was released and it still looks as good as ever. Everything is wonderfully sharp.
Because the iPad Air has thinner bezels, the already large screen looks even larger. But make no mistake, the screen size didn’t change.
On previous iPads, the bezels surrounding the display were all of equal size. The thick, bezel, Apple said, was for our thumbs to rest on. As such, the screen was center-balanced properly, regardless of what orientation the iPad was held in.
The slimmer left and right bezels introduces a minor issue that I never had with my iPad 3: I can clearly see the LCD is beneath the glass. This is the inner geek in me being extremely picky, but the slimmer side bezels accentuate the fact that we’re looking down into a screen, as opposed to looking at a screen.
Confused? Allow me to explain. Since the iPhone 5, Apple’s smartphones have used a type of display with “in-cell” technology. In layman’s terms, the display is visibly closer to the screen because the digitizer and LCD are bonded to the glass. This is why the displays on the iPhone 5/5c/5s look so great; there’s no gap between the glass and the LCD.
The iPad Air doesn’t use a screen with in-cell technology, and that’s why it feels like you’re tapping at a piece of glass above the icons, and not like you’re tapping the icons themselves. The “flaw” is especially noticeable if you have the 3D parallax motion effects in iOS 7 turned on.
It’s a very minor complaint, and your average buyer isn’t going to lose sleep over it, but it’s an area I hope Apple will improve next time around.
As far as using the iPad Air outdoors goes, it’s just like any other device with an LCD screen. In direct sunlight, it’s next to impossible make out what’s on the screen without cranking the brightness all the way up (and even that doesn’t help most of the time). If you’re planning to bring your iPad Air to the beach, maybe consider sitting in the shade or choosing another device such as the Kindle Paperwhite, which has an e-paper display.
Performance (Super fast)
As with the iPhone 5s, Apple’s moved most of its mobile devices to the 64-bit architecture. The iPad Air is no exception. It’s powered by an A7 chip, which Apple says delivers desktop-class performance, including up to 2x more processing power (thanks to 50 percent more transistors on its die) and up to 2x higher graphics performance than the iPad 4.
In addition to the ridiculously fast CPU and CPU performance, the iPad Air also has an M7 coprocessor, which is used to track motion from the built-in accelerometer, compass and gyroscope. There are a few apps such as Nike+ Move fitness app that utilize the M7, but I didn’t spend much time testing them out, since I’m not big on fitness tracking.
For the most part, the iPad Air is able to run dozens of apps without fail. I opened, suspended, and closed tons of apps on a daily basis and I hardly ever noticed any kind of slowdown, outside of a crash or two.
Compared to my aging iPad 3, the iPad Air is a beast. Whereas my iPad 3 has serious trouble running iOS 7 properly, often exhibiting horrible slowdown and animation lag, the iPad Air just speeds along. Simple things like opening tons of tabs in Safari and compositing HDR photos quickly all benefit from the extra speed and stability of the A7 chip. It’s like they say, it’s the little things that make a product enjoyable.
Interestingly enough the iPad Air only has 1GB of RAM. Whereas competing tablets have long moved to 2GB and 3GB of RAM, Apple has resisted adding more. The switch to 64-bit architecture is telling, as apps do eat up more memory, and it’s possible that Apple will upgrade the RAM for the iPad Air 2.
Gamers will love the iPad Air, too. Graphic-intensive games such as Grand Theft Auto III and Asphalt 8: Airborne open up quickly and run with smoother framerates than on previous iPad hardware. Casual games like Plants vs. Zombies 2 and Jetpack Joyride also benefit from much faster loading times.
Using GFX Bench, we ran two benchmarks, the Manhattan test, an Open GL ES 3 test that measures a device’s 3D capabilities. The iPad Air easily crushes its closest tablet competitors.
Running the T-Rex benchmark, which measures Open GL ES 2, the Sony Xperia Z2 only narrowly edges out the iPad Air. The difference is negligible. And of course, the Galaxy Tab 10.5 is left in everybody’s dust in both benchmarks.
Next to a great display, battery life is arguably the most important feature in a tablet (or any mobile device for that matter). What good is a tablet if it gets terrible battery life? Fortunately, the iPad Air has amazing battery life — better than every major tablet out there.
According to iFixit’s teardown, the iPad Air has a smaller battery (32.9 Whr/two-cell vs. 43Whr/three cell in the iPad 4). At first glance, it sounds like battery life would decrease because it’s a smaller battery, but that’s simply not the case. Battery improvements, offloading processing to the M7 coprocessor, and iOS 7’s optimizations play big roles in helping the iPad Air maintain its 10-hour advertised battery life.
On a normal day of intensive emailing, tweeting, Facebook commenting, browsing the Internet in Chrome, watching a few YouTube videos and playing a few rounds of Two Dots, the iPad Air managed to get 10-11 hours battery life.
On days with moderate combinations of the above tasks, I sometimes saw up to 13 hours of battery life. I found myself not having to reach for the charging cable for days on really light days.
Commitment to excellent battery life is something Apple has always taken very seriously with the iPad, and the iPad Air is no exception to the rule. No other tablet comes close.
Camera (Good enough)
It used to be a major faux pas to whip out a tablet to take a picture or record a video in public. If you’re in that boat, you’ve probably been mocked (likely without your awareness).
But lately, there has been a shift in behavior, no doubt, fueled by Apple’s latest “What will your verse be?” advertisement push.
There’s a saying in the photography world: the best camera is the one you have on you. Whatever that may be. And that’s what the iPad Air’s camera is. It’s the camera that’s most convenient to fire up and shoot with — for a lot of people.
The 5-megapixel iSight camera is capable of recording 1080p Full HD video and the 1.2-megapixel front camera is great for FaceTiming in 720p HD video. Although the iSight camera is still 5-megapixels (same as the iPad 3 and iPad 4), the photos are slightly sharper in well-lit situations, with a little more contrast and less image noise when viewed at full resolution.
Low-light performance isn’t quite on par with the 8-megapixel camera in the iPhone 5s. Not sure why, but in my testing, colors were more accurate from the iPad Air, but image noise was actually worse than the iPad 3 and iPhone 5. In the above comparison, you can see the undesirable image noise in the black table in the middle photo from the iPad Air.
For what it’s worth, I think the iPad Air’s camera does a better job than most Android smartphones. (The LG G3 is one of the newer exceptions.)
One thing I wish the iPad Air had to supplement its camera is an LED flash. I know, it probably overkill, but it would be useful the way it is on an iPhone, whether that’s for illuminating photos or being used as a flashlight. Who knows, maybe in the iPad Air 2?
iOS 7 / App Store (Great)
When it was made available for download last fall, iOS 7 felt completely new. Apple revamped the entire mobile operating system to make it colorful and vibrant. The result was the stripping of almost all of the skeuomorphic design and elements that graced previous iOS versions, in favor of flatter icons, thinner fonts, translucency, animated folders, 3D wallpaper parallax effects, and a brighter color palette.
I’ll admit, I didn’t like iOS 7 at first, but once I figured out how to turn off all of the flashy animations and reduce some of the transparency, iOS 7 started to grow on me. Even the bigger, rounder, bubblier icons became acceptable with time.
On iPad Air, iOS 7 shines. The super thin tablet was designed to work seamlessly with iOS 7. The thinness of the iPad Air complementing the new “lightness” of iOS 7. Just imagining iOS 6 and its skeuomorphic icons and apps on the svelte iPad Air gives me chills. It would have clashed horribly.
To date, there are over 1.2 million apps in the App Store, and of those apps, over 500,000 are iPad-optimized — apps designed specifically to take advantage of the larger screen. And as of June 2014, 75 billion apps have been downloaded since the App Store launched in July 2008. Those numbers are mind-blowing.
Hands-down, Apple has the largest, and if I may, the best selection of tablet apps. That’s something that matters a great deal to people. Tablet-optimized apps allow you to do more and see more. It’s a native experience. You just won’t have the same kind of bountiful access to tablet apps on Android or Windows.
Although I’m the type of user to use the iPad Air (or any tablet) for media consumption and not productivity, that doesn’t mean the iPad Air is not a good work machine. Now that Microsoft Office is finally on iPad, the the tablet is a very functional business device. Pair it with a Bluetooth keyboard like the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard (pictured below) and it’s a bonafide pseudo-laptop.
Without question, the iPad Air is Apple’s best full-sized (9.7-inch) iPad ever. With every generation, Apple has iterated its tablet without fail, slimming it down, improving its display, increasing its CPU and GPU performance. The list goes on and on. The iPad Air is a tablet that doesn’t compromise on design, battery life or performance.
The big question now is: should you buy an iPad Air?
If you already own the iPad 4, then I would suggest no. The iPad 4 is still a very powerful tablet that gets 10 hours of battery life and runs iOS 7 and the vast collection of iOS apps perfectly fine. If you’ve got an iPad 3, iPad 2, or even an original iPad, then yes, the iPad Air is an excellent tablet to upgrade to. (Give your old one to your parents or a sibling.)
But above all, only buy an iPad Air if for these two reason: 1) you prefer premium design and/or 2) you’re already heavily invested in the iOS ecosystem.
And remember, the iPad Air may not benefit greatly from the 64-bit architecture today, but it will tomorrow. iOS 8 has a list of new features including Handoff, Continuity, HealthKit, HomeKit, and more that will take full advantage of the iPad Air’s untapped processing power.
If Google services is more important to you or you just like the flexibility of Android, there are tons of great Android tablets in the 10-inch range including the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.2 and Sony Xperia Z2,
And if you absolutely need a keyboard or have to run “real” Windows apps, consider the Surface Pro 3 instead.
Ultimately, if you just want a general tablet that will probably still be good in two years, you really can’t go wrong with the iPad Air.