Usability & iOS 7

The iPad Air remains one of the best consumer tablet experiences around. The OS and Apple’s first party applications are both extremely well suited to the tablet, and there’s a very healthy ecosystem of third party applications to fill in the gaps left by Apple.

Lately Apple has been doing wonders to limit those gaps. Both iLife and iWork suites are now free with the purchase of any new iOS 7 device, including the iPad Air. Previously each of the three iLife apps set you back $5 a piece ($15 total), while the iWork apps were priced at $10 a piece ($30 total). Apple has truly embraced its role as a devices and software company and is using the latter to help sell the former. On the one hand this is an admission that the market is growing more competitive, as tossing in free software is a great differentiator. On the other hand, freeing up iLife/iWork is a vote of confidence in Apple’s ability to continue to demand a premium for its hardware. Neither suite comes preinstalled on the iPad Air, but upon a visit to the App Store users are reminded that they can get all six of the apps for free if they should desire to. I suspect part of the reason that they’re not bundled by default is to avoid eating up space on the devices with less NAND by default.

The core iOS apps are quite approachable and easy to use. Applications like Safari and Mail make great use of the high resolution screen. Obviously the same can be said for things like Photos and iPhoto. The virtual keyboard experience is great on the large display (especially in landscape mode). Honestly, if there was a good Google Hangouts app (the Android version is much better in my experience) for iOS 7 I think I could be very comfortable and productive on the iPad Air.

I find that task switching is far better on the iPad than it is on the iPhone since multitasking gestures are supported. A four finger swipe left/right between applications or up/down to bring up the task switcher is so much quicker for me than a double tap of the physical home button. Similarly a five finger pinch to get back to the home screen from any application is significantly faster. The new iOS 7 multitasking UI feels so much more at home on the iPad’s large display as well.

My only complaint about task switching on the iPad Air is that UI frame rate will regularly drop below 30 fps during some of these transitions. The added GPU performance on the A7 doesn't seem to really impact things compared to the A6X, so I’m fairly convinced at this point that the solution to the problem will have to come in software. It’s quite reminiscent of the Retina MacBook Pro UI frame rate issues under Mountain Lion, although not nearly as bad (and I’m hoping it won’t take a year to get these ones resolved).

The release of iOS 7.0.3 addressed (at least partially) some of my concerns around the OS. As I already mentioned, stability on 64-bit platforms seems somewhat improved - at least compared to the initial release of iOS 7. The other big improvement in my mind is the ability to turn off/reduce the transition animations. The impact to usability on the iPhone 5s is huge, but it’s also pretty significant on the iPad Air. The animations themselves are pretty but I find that they get repetitive after continued use.

Memory Size & The Impact of 64-bit Applications

The iPad Air, like the iPhone 5s, ships with 1GB of LPDDR3 memory. Apple frowns upon dissection of review samples but I think it’s a safe bet that we’re not talking about a PoP (Package-on-Package) configuration but rather discrete, external DRAM here. It’s also probably a safe bet that even the iPad mini with Retina Display will ship with 1GB of memory as well.

Something I didn’t have time to address in my iPhone 5s review was the impact of 64-bit applications on memory usage. I actually ran some tests after the 5s review hit but never got the chance to share the data, so I figured now is as good a time as any to do just that.

Unlike traditional desktop OSes, iOS doesn’t support paging to disk (or in this case, NAND). Application data can either reside in memory or the associated process is terminated and has to be reloaded the next time you request it. It’s a decision likely made to both maintain user experience and limit the number of program/erase cycles on the internal NAND.

The good news is that iOS was architected to run on as little hardware as possible and as a result tends to be quite memory efficient. There are also power implications of going to larger memories. The combination of these two things has kept Apple on the conservative side of increasing memory capacity on many iDevices.

The move to a 64-bit platform however does complicate things a bit. Moving to a larger memory address space increases the size of pointers, which in turn can increase the footprint of 64-bit applications compared to their 32-bit counterparts. So although there’s clearly a performance uplift from app developers recompiling in 64-bit mode (more registers, access to new instructions), there’s also an associated memory footprint penalty. Since the iPad Air and iPhone 5s don’t feature a corresponding increase in memory capacity, I wondered if this might be a problem going forward.

To find out I monitored total platform memory usage in a couple of scenarios. Before measuring I always manually quit all open apps and performed a hard reset on the device. Note that the data below is reporting both clean and dirty memory, so it’s possible that some of the memory space could be recovered in the event that another process needed it. I hoped to minimize the impact by always working on a cleanly reset platform and only testing one app at a time.

I looked at memory usage under the following scenarios:

1) A clean boot with no additional apps open
2) Running Mobile Safari with 4 tabs open (two AnandTech.com tabs, two Apple.com tabs, all showing the same content)
3) Infinity Blade 3 (64-bit enabled) sitting at the very first scene once you start the game
4) iOS Maps in hybrid view with 3D mode enabled, with a WiFi assisted GPS lock on my physical location
5) Google Maps in the same view, under the same conditions. I threw in this one to have a 32-bit app reference point.

In general you’re looking at a 20 - 30% increase in memory footprint when dealing with an all 64-bit environment. At worst, the device’s total memory usage never exceeded 60% of what ships with the platform but these are admittedly fairly light use cases. With more apps open, including some doing work in the background, I do see relatively aggressive eviction of apps from memory. The most visible case is when Safari tabs have to be reloaded upon switching to them. Applications being evicted from memory don’t tend to be a huge problem since the A7 can reload them quickly.

The tricky part is you don’t really need all that much more memory. Unfortunately as with any dual-channel memory architecture, you’re fairly limited in how you can increase memory capacity and still get peak performance. Apple’s only move here would be to go to 2GB, which understandably comes with both power and financial costs. The former is a bigger concern for the iPhone 5s, but on the iPad Air I would’ve expected a transition sooner rather than later.

Although things seem to have improved with iOS 7.0.3, the 64-bit builds of the OS still seem to run into stability issues more frequently than their 32-bit counterparts. I still see low memory errors associated with any crashes. It could just be that the move to 64-bit applications (and associated memory pressure) is putting more stress on iOS’ memory management routines, which in turn exposes some weaknesses. The iPad Air crashed a couple of times on me (3 times total during the past week), but no where near as much as earlier devices running iOS 7.0.1.

Battery Life Final Words
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  • jelloboy - Saturday, November 2, 2013 - link

    I've been coming here for many years. Their breakdown of products are fantastic, I always checkout what they have to say about something before picking it up. Reply
  • beggerking@yahoo.com - Saturday, November 2, 2013 - link

    Where is the nexus 5 review? Why is it not up yet? Reply
  • golem - Sunday, November 3, 2013 - link

    Why are you expecting one so soon? Most major outlets only have previews or first impressions and Anandtech's reviews usually come late anyway. Reply
  • jelloboy - Saturday, November 2, 2013 - link

    I just got my Air today, I'm upgrading from an iPad 3 and it's actually quite impressive in your hand, much more so than I thought it would be. Very comfortable and light to hold but still feels like an Apple product (which is a good thing) - very fast and the biggest thing I was worried about isn't an issue. I was worried since they cut some width off the sides that you might run into an issue of not having anyplace to rest your thumbs - however this isn't an issue at all. Since the iPad Air is a good amount lighter you don't to use as much leverage - plus I guess the software has some sort of thumb reject stuff in it - regardless it works.

    Obviously the unit is much faster than the iPad 3 - just generally usage is much more enjoyable on the Air. The iPad 3 wasn't slow, but it certainly wasn't as fast as my iPhone 5 - the Air obviously doesn't have the issue.

    So I wasn't sure if this new iPad would really be all that different, if the size and weight changes would be as dramatic as what I've read about here and other places - but I'm happy to say it really is quite an improvement.

    Also Android fanboys before you start crying, so you know I have 4 Sony Google TVs (which I love), and Nvidia Shield (which is awesome) and I've owned 3 different Android tablets over the years (Transformer TF100, Nexus 7, Transformer TF300). For the record the Android tablets are awful, terrible - slow, crappy software, lots of bugs. Meanwhile the Shield, which thinks it's a phone, actually runs very well. Anyways my point is Android has a long long long long long long way to go to be competitive in the tablet market. A long way.
    Reply
  • Gadgetmanjohn - Sunday, November 3, 2013 - link

    I'm an Apple fan, I have an iPad 1 and 3 but skipped 4 as it came out too soon after I'd purchased the 3rd gen. However, having tried the iPad air in the shop I was completely put off by the sound vibrations through the chassis. You can feel it all the way from the bottom to the top, very off putting when watching video or playing music whilst holding it. I just can't believe more people aren't talking about it, let's hope the mini doesn't suffer the same problem. Reply
  • Origin64 - Monday, November 4, 2013 - link

    You guys still pretending this is anything new? Same rectangle, different day. Reply
  • Chrispy_ - Monday, November 4, 2013 - link

    No matter how good this device may be, I can't get over the fact that iOS7 is such a blatant copy for the visual style of Android. The default wallpaper on this reminds me of several of the 4.2 JellyBean wallpapers:

    http://www.smartkeitai.com/wp-content/uploads/2012...
    http://www.smartkeitai.com/wp-content/uploads/2012...
    Reply
  • Brakken - Thursday, November 14, 2013 - link

    I was able to skin my android in iOS7 five months before iOS7 was released. Who's copying who now, huh? Huh?! Reply
  • nasqb112 - Monday, November 4, 2013 - link

    Great review (as always) as this looks like an awesome device. I want to get an opinion from the Anandtech crowd:

    I currently have a MacBook Air (2011) and a Nexus 7 and want to consolidate.

    I was thinking Surface Pro 2 or iPad Air with keyboard case (similar to the Surface keyboard blades) as I need to be productive on the device. I'd also watch movies, surf the web, game while traveling, etc.

    Can anyone offer their thoughts on iWork vs Office (particularly for spreadsheets/data analysis and presentations?). I know what Office is supposedly coming to iPad, but I'll believe it when I see it.

    So what would you choose, Surface Pro 2 or iPad Air with keyboard and why? Thanks all!
    Reply
  • tripleverbosity - Wednesday, November 13, 2013 - link

    If your biggest concern is running office I don't think the iPad Air with keyboard would be a good fit for you. Who knows when Office actually shows up for iOS and what level of functionality Microsoft will expose. As for iWork, it definitely isn't as comprehensive of an offering as Office at this point. That said, there's no way I'd buy a Surface Pro 2. If you can fit in into your budget, spend a couple hundred more and upgrade to the latest Macbook Air. It seems like you are trying to replace the laptop experience with a tablet/keyboard combo. Why not just go with a great laptop like the Air? You'll get better performance, better software capabilities, a superior keyboard and trackpad, and the best battery life out in the segment. Reply

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