It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the 10-inch tablet market was done for, with all interest and excitement shifting to smaller, but equally capable 7 or 8-inch tablets instead. It also seemed like 15-inch notebook computers were done for a couple of years ago, then Apple launched the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. In a similar vein, last week Apple introduced the iPad Air.

A significant re-imagining of the original 9.7-inch iPad, the Air breathes new life into the platform. Much like the rMBP, the iPad Air borrows a lot of the learnings from its more popular ultraportable counterpart. I don’t know that it will curb enthusiasm over the iPad mini, particularly now that the new mini shares the same hardware platform (including display), but it levels the playing field between the two models.

Trying to summarize what makes the iPad Air special quickly turns into a list of the things Apple likes to have with any evolution of an existing product: it’s smaller, lighter and faster with absolutely no tradeoffs made in the process. The iPad Air feels like a true successor to the iPad 2. If we look at a table charting the progression of physical specs that argument seems even more credible:

iPad Dimensions/Weight Comparison
  iPad iPad 2 iPad 3 iPad 4 iPad Air
Height 243 mm 241 mm 241 mm 241 mm 240 mm
Width 190 mm 186 mm 186 mm 186 mm 170 mm
Thickness 13.4 mm 8.8 mm 9.4 mm 9.4 mm 7.5 mm
Weight 680 g 601 g 650 g 650 g 469 g

The iPad Air shrinks all dimensions compared to its predecessors, and in some cases does so quite substantially. The best example I have is actually this shot of the iPad 4 resting on top of the iPad Air:


iPad 4 (top) vs. iPad Air (bottom)

The overhang measures nearly an inch, yet the iPad Air features the same 9.7-inch display as its predecessor. Lower power components inside helped reduce the need for a huge battery. The iPad Air moves back down to a more reasonable sized battery (32.4Wh), compared to the downright notebook-sized 42Wh battery from the 3rd and 4th generation iPads. The Air still has a bigger battery than the iPad 2, but the device is still lighter. The smaller battery frees up a lot of internal volume, which allowed Apple to compress the big iPad without shrinking display size.

The visual tradeoff was the same as what we saw with the iPad mini: the iPad Air forgoes a uniform bezel around its display for an uneven design. There’s a rather thick bezel at the top and the bottom, and a narrower bezel along the left and right edges. The whole thing now looks like a bigger iPad mini, rather than a completely unrelated device.


From top to bottom: iPad mini, iPad Air, iPad 2, iPad 4

The thinner bezel around the left/right edges doesn’t pose a problem for using the device. Just as with the iPad mini, Apple does a good job of rejecting your thumbs while they’re resting on the edges of the capacitive display. Sometimes it’s a bit too good of a job as it’ll reject the beginnings of my thumb placement if I'm trying to casually swipe between web pages in mobile Safari, but for the most part it’s seamless and well done. Despite the thinner bezels, you can still use the iPad Air just like you would any prior iPad.

The weight of the iPad Air does its name justice. Without any covers attached the iPad Air weighs an even pound. Even the LTE version tips the scales at just 1.05 lbs. I weighed my LTE review sample at 474 grams, that’s still a lot compared to a 7 or 8-inch tablet, but compared to the 3rd and 4th gen iPads it’s a huge improvement.

The iPad was never light enough for me to comfortably hold in my hands, suspended above my face while lying in bed or on the couch for long periods of time. The iPad 2 got close, but the 3rd and 4th generation iPads reset the scale completely. That’s actually one reason why I liked the iPad mini and Nexus 7 so much, they were far more comfortable to hold.

The iPad Air gets incredibly close. Sans case, the iPad Air is light enough that I can comfortably hold it above me (with two hands) for a while without my wrists getting tired. I still prefer propping the iPad up against something but I think 1 pound may be the crossover point for me personally. With a Smart Cover attached the Air is still passable, it’s only with the Smart Case that I feel like the combination gets a bit too heavy to hold without resting against something for extended use.

One handed use, holding the Air above my face for long periods of time is still tough to do. I always have to prop it up against something rather than hold it like I would a paperback book or magazine. Literally all other use cases however are near perfect with the iPad Air: holding it in two hands, resting it against my palm, looking down at it, suspending it in front of me, or propping it up against my chest/legs. With just a little bit of support, the iPad Air’s perceived weight quickly diminishes to what feels like nothing.

I’ll always take lighter, but the iPad Air strikes a good balance between weight and material quality. There really isn’t another tablet of this size that feels anywhere near as good.

Apple’s insistence on marrying glass and aluminum continues to work, as the iPad Air looks great. The new thinner bezel brings a modern feel to the front, continuing throughout the rest of the device. You now get the same diamond-cut chamfered edges from the iPhone 5/5s and the iPad mini, and the same subtle curve around the sides rather than the steep rake from the iPad 4.

Color options remain at two: space grey and silver. Gold isn’t an option on either the iPad Air or iPad mini with Retina Display. The Air’s space grey looks identical to the finish on the space grey iPhone 5s, although the texture of the two is appreciably different.

I’ve been obsessed with devices that convey the sort of lightweight yet high quality computing slate feel that I always imagined tablets could be. The list of devices that achieves that goal in my mind is pretty limited. The iPad mini did it, as did the 2013 Nexus 7. The iPad Air joins those two in a major way. In fact it’s the first tablet of this size to really feel right. The first iPad looked great but needed improvement on so many vectors. The second gave us a size and weight reduction but lost some of the luxury feel in the process. We know the story of numbers 3 and 4 which amounted to a set of tradeoffs in order to accommodate a Retina Display, but with the iPad Air Apple hits a balance of features, design and ergonomics that I don’t think we’ve ever seen in the iPad.

Hardware
 

iPad Specification Comparison
  Apple iPad Air Apple iPad 4 Apple iPad 3 Apple iPad 2 Apple iPad
Dimensions 240 x 170 x 7.5 mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 8.8mm 243.0 x 190.0 x 13.4mm
Display 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 IPS 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 IPS
Weight 469g (WiFi) 652g (WiFi) 652g (WiFi) 601g (WiFi) 680g (WiFi)
Processor Apple A7 (2 x Cyclone 1.4GHz, PowerVR G6430)

Apple A6X (2 x Swift, PowerVR SGX 554MP4)

Apple A5X (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX 543MP4)

1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX543MP2) 1GHz Apple A4 (1 x Cortex A8, PowerVR SGX 535)
Connectivity WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 3G WiFi , Optional 3G
Memory 1GB 1GB 1GB 512MB 256MB
Storage 16GB—128GB 16GB—128GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB
Battery 32.4Wh 42.5Wh 42.5Wh 25Wh 25Wh
Starting Price $499 - - $399 -

Like the mini, the iPad Air gets two speakers that flank the Lightning connector along the bottom edge of the tablet held in portrait mode. Speaker quality is good, especially considering how thin the device is. Lower frequencies played back at high volumes send notable vibrations through the aluminum chassis, but otherwise the sound reproduction is loud, crisp and generally high quality.


iPad 4 (top) vs. iPad Air (bottom)

In portrait mode, separation between the two speakers is great enough that you do get a stereo effect. Even lightly resting the Air against your body, blocking the speaker grills, doesn’t substantially impact sound quality. In landscape, there’s no getting around the fact that you only have speakers on one side of the device unfortunately. Speaker placement is a tough thing to get right on a tablet. Put them on the sides of a tablet and you potentially hurt portrait use. Pick the top/bottom for speaker placement and you do the same for landscape use. Given the iPad’s 4:3 aspect ratio, there’s a clear optimization for portrait mode. That combined with the plastic RF window along the top to accommodate the cellular antenna on LTE models leaves one location for the speakers.

Up top you’ll find a power/lock button, headphone jack, and for the first time, two microphones. Along the right side you’ll find individual volume up/down buttons, a rotation lock/mute switch and on cellular models a nano SIM card tray. All of the buttons feel clicky and high quality.


iPad 4 (top) vs. iPad Air (bottom)

Neither the iPad Air nor the new iPad mini with Retina Display feature Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor that debuted with the iPhone 5s. Both instead use the same home button as on previous iPads. The absence of Touch ID isn’t a huge issue on a tablet, especially given the vast difference in usage models between a tablet and a phone. My guess is you’re far more likely to repeatedly lock/unlock your phone than a tablet. That’s not to say that Touch ID wouldn’t be useful on the iPad Air. Not having to type in a long password to authenticate with the App Store would be nice, although I’m wondering if Apple would have to reconsider some of the timing limitations on how frequently you need to authenticate to avoid having to manually type in your password. Touch ID on the iPad Air wouldn’t necessarily be a simple port over, but my guess is it didn’t make the cut due to component availability more than anything else.

Pricing on the iPad Air hasn’t changed at all. The entry level model comes with 16GB of storage and WiFi for $499. Each capacity upgrade sets you back another $100, while adding cellular connectivity to any model drives the price up $130.

An interesting side effect of Apple’s pricing structure is that the cost for NAND upgrades actually gets pretty reasonable at the higher capacities. It’s the lower capacities that are the most expensive to upgrade (e.g. moving from 16GB to 32GB will cost you $6.25 per extra GB of storage, downright enterprise NAND pricing, but going from 64GB to 128GB costs you another $1.56 per extra GB).

Cases

The iPad Air’s new dimensions require new cases. Apple updated both of its iPad cases to support the iPad Air. First off is the new $39 Smart Cover.

Apple originally introduced the Smart Cover alongside the iPad 2. Magnets inside the iPad and inside the case attract one another and make getting in/out of the case very quick. I never really appreciated the flexibility of being able to quickly detach the Smart Cover before, but given how light the iPad Air is now I found myself taking the cover off when using the iPad for a long period of time and just quickly re-attaching it before putting the tablet down or going somewhere.


1st gen smart cover (left) vs. iPad Air smart cover (right)

The new Smart Cover moves to a 3-fold design similar to the iPad mini’s Smart Cover. The cover is now all a single piece instead of the more complicated hinge design we saw with the original Smart Cover. The magnets handle alignment incredibly well. Just bring the Smart Cover close to the left edge of the iPad Air and let physics go to work. I don’t know if the strength/size of the magnets inside the cover have changed at all, but the lighter weight of the iPad Air makes it much easier for the cover to support the weight of the iPad if you happen to pick the device up by its attached Smart Cover. It’s not as strong as the connection between a Surface and one of its covers, and you can still get the two to separate if you swing the tablet around, but it’s a far more stable connection than in any of the previous iPads.

Magnets in the opposite end of the Smart Cover are still not strong enough to prevent it from flopping down when flipped around the back of the iPad Air.

Apple also relies on the magnets inside the Smart Cover to sleep/wake the iPad Air. By default, closing the cover will put the device to sleep. Similarly, pulling the cover away from the display wakes it up.

You can still use the Smart Cover as a makeshift stand for the iPad by folding it up. The new design means the iPad stands at a wider angle than with the previous design, tilting the display further away from you when the iPad is fully upright. For desk use I like the new angle, but if you’re using your chest as a prop for the tablet it’s arguably worse. Thankfully the iPad Air is so much lighter than its predecessor that it’s still more comfortable to use lying down, even if you have to partially support the weight of the iPad with your hands.


iPad 4 + Smart Cover (left) vs. iPad Air + Smart Cover (right)

The inside surface of the Smart Cover is still made out of microfiber which attempts to help keep your display clean when closed. The outside surface is a soft touch polyurethane. Smart Covers are available in six colors. Apple sampled me a Product Red cover, which I thought was a great fit for the space grey iPad Air.

While the Smart Cover offers screen protection, Apple offers a $79 leather Smart Case that protects all surfaces of the iPad Air. The inside of the case is still microfiber, and you still get the auto lock/unlock features of the Smart Cover. The cover flap also doubles as a stand.

The new Smart Case feel great and seem to do a good job of protecting the iPad Air. The leather feels smooth and doesn’t seem to have the durability issues of the new iPhone 5s leather cases.

Getting the iPad out of the Smart Case does take a little more time as you have to pull it out of a relatively tight tub, so I wouldn’t recommend it as an option if you’re looking to constantly get in/out of the case. There is a more noticeable weight penalty from using the Smart Case as well. As I mentioned before, the iPad Air is light enough that the addition of any case can have a substantial impact on the feel.

Both of the first party case options work really well. The only thing that Apple doesn’t make for the iPad is a case that incorporates a keyboard, although I’m not sure that iOS is in dire need of a physical keyboard either. I can definitely appreciate a convertible/2-in-1, but I’m just not sure iOS is the right platform for such a thing.

 

An Update on Apple’s A7: It's Better Than I Thought
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  • sna2 - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    wrong.

    Most flash sticks are eMMC and they operate at 100MB/s to 200MB/s which needs usb3.
    Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Read speeds can easily exceed 100MB/s because reading from NAND is much faster than writing to it. Write speeds of 32GB or smaller flash devices can barely hit 40MB/s because the NAND itself can't write faster, and it's the write speeds that matter when syncing. Even if we're dealing with a full blown SATA SSD the write performance for 32GB models is around 40MB/s. Performance does scale with capacity so a 64GB or 128GB model will be faster but we are still far away from data rates over 100MB/s. Reply
  • fokka - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    this, so much. i'm always astounded when people bring up that they wanna see (e.g.) usb3 in their next mobile device. as if there are any current devices scratching on the 30MB-mark which would be totally possible with usb2, if manufacturers wouldn't insist on implementing bargain-bin nand and even shittier usb-controllers. Reply
  • FCsean - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    It would be stupid of them to put thunderbolt cables for iOS devices since more than half of the owners don't own a mac. USB 3.0 would be the way to go but not everyone has USB 3.0 so they're not yet wasting their money in manufacturing USB 3.0 cables since it's a lot more expensive to manufacture. I think it's two times more expensive. Reply
  • darkcrayon - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Not only that, but am I the only one who rarely syncs large amounts of data at a time anymore with an iPad? Most of the sync is done wirelessly in small amounts over time. The only time I need a full many gig sync is when I upgrade devices or (extremely rarely) need to do a full wipe. Faster syncing would be nice but it's just not the daily process it used to be. Reply
  • Sushisamurai - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    ...yeah.... I don't know about u guys, but is wireless sync all the time now, either comp to iPad or iPad OTA with iCloud, wiping my device q3-6 months. I have no issues with restoring a full 32GB, and it's pretty quick... Down speeds of 10MB/s wifi, 40MB/s LTE (OTA for both), but if I were to sync via comp, a HDD to NAND is pretty abysmal speeds. Not to mention, if it was TB/USB3 u're going to have a thickness increase, and I'd rather not. Inductive charging, if u recall, is a slow, inefficient form of charging. I'd rather have my full 2A going into my iPad versuses drawing the same 12W but giving me the equivalent of 6W wirelessly. NFC and tablets? Okayyyyyyyy there. Reply
  • petersellers - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Doubly stupid considering that thunderbolt runs on PCI express lanes and PCI express is not present in any of these devices Reply
  • ekotan - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    You can't have Thunderbolt without a corresponding Intel chipset, so forget about it on any ARM tablet. Also, the NAND used by these devices is so slow that having Thunderbolt would be utterly pointless. Most can't even saturate USB 2.0, never mind USB 3.0. Only the most recent Apple mobile devices have NAND fast enough to saturate USB 2.0. Reply
  • abazigal - Saturday, November 02, 2013 - link

    I restored my 5s recently (coming from a 32gb 4s). The whole process took 1-2 minutes at most. Just plug in and click a button. Likewise, few people are so fastidious as to back up their devices via iTunes manually every day. The time savings from going thunderbolt is so minimal that unless your life somehow revolves around restoring thousands of these devices every day, I don't feel the benefits are worth the added cost. Reply
  • iSayuSay - Sunday, November 03, 2013 - link

    And how Thunderbolt sync would help? Did you realize how much is the transfer rate from NAND flash in the iPad/iPhone? No more than 16MB/s, it's not SSD per say. It's a slow internal memory it becomes bottleneck. So as long as Apple do not change those (I doubt it will ever for the next 5 years), there's no point of porting Lightning to Thunderbolt or even USB 3.0 .. Ever. Reply

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