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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  • eanazag - Monday, November 04, 2013 - link

    The innovation that the Thunderbolt people are really waiting for is faster eMMC flash on the iPad. USB 3 or Thunderbolt is not going to help the fact that the flash storage is too slow to even make USB 2 sweat. I completely agree that sync and restore via iTunes is painfully slow. I would also argue that WiFi sync on 2 stream N is useless if the iPad still sports slow storage.

    If I had a request for USB 3, it would solely based on higher power specs for charging or docking. I
    Reply
  • mnbob1 - Friday, November 08, 2013 - link

    Apple has put a lot of emphasis on iCloud and backing up to iCloud. I have an iPad and an IPhone and haven't connected either to my computer for over a year. I backup to iCloud and use iTunes Match to access my music library which also gives me ad free iTunes Radio now. I store photos to iCloud because I take advantage of Photo Stream. My documents are backed up to Drop Box. Earlier this year I upgraded from an iPhone 4S to and iPhone 5. With iCloud all of my device settings were restored within a few minutes and my apps were downloaded in the background so I could still use my phone while that was happening. With iTunes Match I was able to see my entire music library of over 7,000 songs and choose what I wanted to download to my phone when I wanted to. I was able to restore my photos quickly and access my documents from Dropbox quickly. The whole process took me less than an hour initially since I don't bog my phone down with a lot of apps that I don't use and I only download the music as I use it. I trying to figure out why you guys think you need to connect up with thunderbolt or USB 3.0 when the iPad Air also has wifi with MIMO capabilities. Stop tethering your portable devices to the desktop because Apple isn't going to do thunderbolt because it would exclude Windows PC's or upgrade to USB 3.0 because the need for data going across that wire becomes less important and it becomes more of a charging port. Reply
  • IUU - Sunday, November 17, 2013 - link

    I am glad you 're feeling so comfortable having your dafa stored on other people's hds.
    I suppose you feel comfortable, storing your food in other people's refrigerators,
    writing your diaries and personal notes on other people's diaries and notebooks.(Marx and Lenin would absolutely fall in love with you).
    And all this, despite the fact that your "entire music library" is laughably small to what an average local storage could offer. Oh I get it, you do this as a future proof policy, because you somehow know
    e storage won't improve in the future, despite the fact that the known laws of nature allow for much much more than zettabytes to be stored locally.
    Like the ignorant chinese peasant, thanking his lords for offering him 200 dollars instead of 100, you thank your cloud bosses for offering you 50 instead of 25gb. Sorry, but trying to convert the data network to a feudal type traditional energy grid won't work, because it's against the ways of nature.
    This energy grid is going to die soon as well, much to the dislike of the last remaining tyrants.
    Reply
  • pojkeboy - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Ha. I love this comment. Reply
  • pdjblum - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Despite the snap 600, the nexus 7.2 is still a wonderful device for a couple of hundred less than a mini with a reasonable amount of storage, not the pittance they offer in the base model. Not sure how he can recommend a mini at all when it is hundreds more than the nexus 7.2? The Verge will do that because they shit crApples, but a so called objective, highly intelligent reviewer should have a problem with that. Reply
  • akdj - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    The Nexus 7.2 is a POS. I returned mine within 3 weeks. 475,000 optimized tablet apps in the App Store, maybe 15 in the Play store. What a joke attempting to surf on the Nex7 in portrait. Decent performance, yeah....but without apps that aren't 'blown up' phone apps, it's a joke. With the mini, you're not just buying a quality built tablet (that is obviously more powerful than the Nex7), but into an extremely active and blossoming eco-system...now $50+ in 'free' productivity and creative apps optimized for the system...and phenomenal post purchase support. Google is selling their tabs right @ the cost of the BOM. Why? They're in it for YOUR personal info...they're miners, data miners. Your information is what they make their money on, not the hardware.
    While the Nex 7.2 maybe a decent choice for some looking to save a bit of cash, if you've got the money, the iPad is THEE only way to buy into the current tablet market. Period.
    Reply
  • pdjblum - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    crApple makes their money on ignorant, entitled, insecure people who want to pay extra to feel good about themselves. Reply
  • Scannall - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Bitter much?

    Fact is, I don't mind paying more for a quality product with great service and support. With the added bonus of having apps I actually use, that have NO Android equivalents. Not to mention 16:9 form factor sucks for my tablet usage.

    I don't buy the cheapest car on the market either.
    Reply
  • jopamo - Sunday, November 03, 2013 - link

    "crApple doesn't make any money from me, yet I am equally ignorant, entitled, and insecure as the people I who claim want to pay extra to feel good about themselves."

    There. Fixed that for you. :)
    Reply
  • akdj - Monday, November 04, 2013 - link

    It's YOUR ignorance that shows---using 'crApple' and for YOU to decide folks' insecurities? I'm thinkin' you might be a bit secure---either that or you Mom said "HELL No!"....."If you want one, get a job, save some money---and buy it yourself!"
    Am I close? Certainly nailed YOUR insecurities...lol, always wonder about the ambiguity of the 'net and what these nay-sayers would actually have the Balls to say to an Apple owner in real life, face to face.
    pdjblum----Silly, Silly Boy
    Reply

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