Final Words

Two weeks ago I had all but written off the bigger iPad. It was too bulky and just no where near as portable as the iPad mini. Once the latter gets a Retina Display and equal hardware across the board, why would anyone consider the bigger model?

The iPad Air changed my perspective on all of that. It really does modernize the big iPad. While I suspect there are still going to be a lot of users who prefer the smaller form factor of the iPad mini with Retina Display, I do feel like there are those users who will continue to appreciate all of the benefits that go along with having a larger display. Text is easier to read, particularly on desktop versions of websites. Photos and videos are larger and thus more engaging as well. In the past there was this complex matrix of tradeoffs that you had to make between iPad and iPad mini. This generation, Apple does away with all of that.

All you need to do is pick your screen size. If you prefer the 9.7-inch form factor of the original iPad, the Air gets you as close as possible to a mini without giving up that display size.

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

The name does the product justice in this case. In two hands or lightly propped up against something (palm, legs, chest), the iPad Air feels incredibly light - the weight just seems to disappear. The larger chassis doesn’t feel very dense at all. The in-hand feel of the device is really unlike any other iPad. It feels like a lightweight slate, rather than a heavy computing device. This is the iPad that Apple likely wanted to launch on day 1, it just took a bit over three years to get here.

Build and material quality are of course excellent. The iPad Air borrows much of the design language from the iPad mini, and makes the transition to a larger display quite nicely. The Air ends up looking a lot more modern than its predecessor.

Despite making the transition to a thinner touch and display stack, the iPad Air’s display is every bit as good as previous Retina Display iterations. Color accuracy remains best in class, delivering an out of box display experience that’s better than most systems, even at substantially higher price points. The only thing that the iPad Air leaves me wanting on the display front is a lower reflectance stack. Laminating the cover glass to the LCD panel is something that Apple does on both the iPhone and iMac, it’s time that the same feature is brought down to the iPad.

Apple’s decision to unify silicon across the iPhone 5s, iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display is an interesting one, but ultimately it doesn’t come with any real tradeoffs for iPad owners. Apple’s own 64-bit Cyclone cores are incredibly powerful, even more so than I originally expected when I reviewed the iPhone 5s. Apple seems to have built a bigger, higher performance CPU architecture than any other ARM player, including ARM itself. The design isn’t perfect, but it’s a completely different caliber performer than anything else it competes against. As such, Apple was completely justified in putting the A7 in both the iPhone 5s and the iPad Air. If anything, I’d argue that it might be overkill for the 5s given the device’s smaller battery, but my sensibilities soon get the best of me and remind me that more performance on tap is never a bad thing.

On the GPU front, Apple does increase performance over the iPad 4 as well - despite having a narrower memory bus. The increase in performance ranges from 40 - 70% depending on workload. I suspect we’re beginning to see some of the limits of 28nm here as Apple would’ve traditionally gone for an even larger GPU.

Despite having a smaller/thinner/lighter battery, battery life improves across the board compared to the 3rd and 4th generation iPads. Battery life in our web browsing, video playback and gaming workloads is better than either of the previous two iPads. Only the iPad 2,4 was able to deliver better battery life, but nothing with a Retina Display can match the iPad.

Cellular integration remains awesome on the iPad Air. With a single SKU covering 34 countries and no network operator lock, at least for those devices sold in the US, the LTE iPad Air is amazingly flexible from a network portability standpoint.

Improvements around the edges are nice as well. The inclusion of a second microphone can improve FaceTime HD calls in noisy environments, and faster WiFi is a nice addition.

My only complaints are limited to iOS 7, memory size and pricing. It’s clear that even on the fastest hardware Apple has to offer, iOS 7 isn’t always super smooth (particularly when using multitasking gestures to switch between apps) on an ultra high resolution device. The move to a 64-bit OS and applications makes a lot of sense, but with no corresponding increase in DRAM size Apple creates additional memory pressure on all of the A7 enabled devices. Finally, I’d love to see Apple update the default iPad configurations. Although 16GB is fine for a device that’s not going to be storing a ton of photos/videos locally, it would really be nice to get at least 32GB on the entry level iPad. The first complaint I suspect will be addressed over time. The second is a reality we just have to live with unfortunately, and the third won’t change until market dynamics force it to.

The iPad Air is the most significant upgrade to the 9.7-inch iPad in its history. It’s lighter, more portable, more usable and faster than any previous iPad. It doesn’t fundamentally change what you can do with a tablet, but if you’re in the market for one the iPad Air really is the best iPad to date. Competition is definitely more stiff among the smaller tablets thanks to the Nexus 7, but in the nearly 10-inch tablet space it seems like Apple is going to continue to enjoy a great position there.

Usability, iOS 7 and the Impact of 64-bit Applications
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  • Krysto - Friday, November 1, 2013 - link

    Why would the aspect ratio matter in calculating the surface area?
  • thunng8 - Friday, November 1, 2013 - link

    Of course aspect ratio affects area

    Take an extreme example a tablet of length 25cm and width of 1cm. Surface area is 25cm^2. Diagonal is still 25cm. ( to be more precise 25.02cm).
  • gnx - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    As I mentioned, I find both a 7.9 inch ipad mini and galaxy note 8.0 (which is really closer to iPad Mini) both too cramped and small, as I use the table for foremost as a document reader on the go. And just to add, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 was 1280:800, thus 16:10, making even overall space closer to an iPad.

    Finally, for practically reasons, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 was nice, since because it's height in portrait mode was almost identical to an iPad 2/3/4, just narrower in breath, I could chose from most iPad accessories such as any carrying cases, pouches, bluetooth keyboard, etc.
  • yoshi1080 - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    I still love my iPad 3, but I'm thinking about upgrading. I do a lot of stuff on it and sometimes I wish it'd be faster. The iPad Air should be around 3–4x faster, right?

    Two of the most demanding tasks where I wish my iPad was faster are photo and video editing. I've already read that iMovie is supposed to be really fast on the iPad Air, so that's a clear advantage. My iPad's speed is sufficient for JPEG editing, but RAW processing (with PiRAWnha) is practically unusable. Processing RAW photos on my iPad would be my dream because photo editing on it is just so much more fun than on my iMac with the dreadfully slow Aperture – I'd be happy with getting 90% of the quality, but RAW is mandatory for me.

    Up until now I thought the iPad Air would be much better suited for PiRAWnha. But now Anand writes about the RAM bottleneck due to the 64bit architecture and this makes me wonder: On the original iPad, the app often complained about too little available RAM and eventually crashed. I feel like the 1GB RAM on the iPad 3 is the reasonable minimum – would the Air be a disappointment in that regard? On the other hand, Adobe is working on bringing Lightroom and those smart DNGs to the iPad, and the beta version has even been shown running on an old iPad 2.
  • darkcrayon - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    Apps just don't need as much RAM as we think they do, especially mobile versions. Sometimes I'm surprised what can still run just fine on an iPad 2 (also helps of course that only one foreground app needs to run at a time). The Air should be 4 times faster than the iPad 3- should be no contest, especially in CPU.
  • Death666Angel - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    Well, using one app at a time is fine, but browsing the web with a few tabs open and then switching to one or two other apps gets Apple device quickly ejecting stuff from RAM, where my Nexus devices are still having the pages loaded. :)
  • fteoath64 - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    Thanks for the detailed review!. As I suspected the A7 behavior would have been rather different to wring out more performance out for the iPad as compared to the iphone. As you stated in the power consumption measurements, it seems the A7 is rather power hungry and only aggressive power management gets the battery life it needs. I am sure, it would be waiting for the TSMC 20nm process node as it seems this chip is just at the brink of 28nm as it is today. In making, the battery last so long without negatively impacting user performance, Apple has done a great job to achieve the balance using software. From the power draw alone, I figured out why it was clocked at such speeds instead of 1.6Ghz or 1.8Ghz. It cannot afford the power budget associated with it!.
  • iwod - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    Sk Hynix Just announced a 6Gb LPDDR3. A Maximum of 3GB when 4 of them Stacked, Interesting isn't it?
    How about 2 Channel use? 1.5GB of Memory? May be a big company / customer would like / require this ?
    While I hope Apple will give us 2GB in next generation. The reality may very well be we get 1.5GB of memory only.
  • bigup - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    is the 1GB RAM really a deal breaker? sold my ipad 3 to buy the iPad Air but now having seconds thoughts - what do you think?
  • darkcrayon - Thursday, October 31, 2013 - link

    It's not a deal breaker. You could argue in 2 years it would be better with more, but you're already the type of person that sells their less than 2 year old iPad for the latest, so... ;)

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