iPad Air review
Welcome to our iPad Air review. Our iPad Air review includes: everything you need to know about Apple's iPad Air tablet, the iPad Air's specs, features and physical design and build quality, speed tests, price and buying options. We also answer two questions: should you upgrade from the iPad 3 or iPad 4 to the iPad Air? And should you buy the iPad Air or the iPad 4?
You can say many things about the iPad Air, Apple's fifth-generation iPad tablet, but not that it's more of the same. After three iPads in a row that were physically near-identical, Apple has come up with a tablet that attempts to redefine the category. And, a few reservations aside, the iPad Air is a stunning success.
iPad Air review: The basics
Let's begin with the essentials - skip ahead to the next section if you know the basics.
The iPad Air is the fifth and (as of 23rd April 2014) latest in Apple's line of full-size iPad tablet computers, all of which have 9.7in screens (measured diagonally). Of these, only the iPad Air and the iPad 2 are currently available to buy; the iPad 1, iPad 3 and iPad 4 have all been discontinued. (Apple also makes two smaller iPad mini tablets, the iPad mini 1 and iPad mini 2 with Retina display.) If you'd like to see how the iPad has evolved, here's a video comparing all five full-size iPad models:
iPad Air review: Interface
The iPad Air runs Apple's own operating system software, iOS, and if you buy one today it will have the latest version of iOS, iOS 7, pre-installed. (In future Apple will release new versions of iOS, and this will be made available as an optional update you can install easily.) Apple is the only company that makes tablets that run iOS. Almost all rival tablets will run either Google's Android operating system (here are some thoughts on iOS vs Android) or Microsoft's Windows 8 or Windows RT.
On top of iOS 7 and its basic functions, the iPad Air comes with a number of Apple's apps pre-installed - and while you can download alternative apps to perform their functions, the originals cannot be removed from your device unless you are willing to jailbreak it. Some people have mixed feelings about this.
The pre-installed Apple apps include: Mail, FaceTime (for free video calls), Contacts, Music, Videos, Camera, Photos, Calendar, Clock, Notes, the Safari web browser, Game Center (which manages high scores, achievements and multi-player gaming) and Reminders. You can therefore use your iPad Air for emailing, browsing the internet, playing music, placing FaceTime video calls and making notes pretty much 'out of the box' - just a little setup is required, and obviously you'll need to download or sync any music you want to listen to.
iOS 7 includes a number of accessibility features and interface tweak options. The one shown above is a popular feature that allows you to access the functions of the hardware buttons from the touchscreen - very handy if the Home button or power button stops working, an experience which lots of iPhone users have suffered. The iPad Air seems less prone to this fault, so far.
Beyond this, however, you can download and install additional apps from the App Store - which is itself accessed via a pre-installed app. Here you can choose from almost a million apps and games, a few more by Apple but the vast majority by third-party developers, for a variety of prices. Most are under a fiver; many are free. (See also: best free iPad games.)
iOS 7 runs smoothly and responsively on the iPad Air - as we'd expect, given that it's the newest generation of hardware running the newest generation of OS software. The iPad Air has a powerful processor that can handle day-to-day computing activities with ease, and indeed copes happily with advanced games and apps.
Apple's mobile devices are historically considered to offer a superior interface and user experience to many rival products, thanks in part to the way Apple designs both hardware and operating system software alongside one another (and maintains strict control over even third-party software) to ensure that all work together smoothly. You should see very little slowdown or jittery interface behaviour.
That isn't to say that the iPad Air is immune to brief freezes on occasion, however; we've noticed a touch of sluggishness from time to time, usually when we've been playing a game for a while and the tablet has heated up. It would be wrong to suggest that the user experience is perfect - but it's very, very slick nonetheless.
iPad Air review: Which rival tablets are worth considering?
Returning to the iPad Air's rivals, here's a selection of some of the most obvious and/or appealing:
- Google Nexus 7: A highly popular alternative that runs Google Android. See Google Nexus 7 vs iPad comparison review.
- Google Nexus 10: Ditto, albeit with a larger screen. The numbers indicate the screen size, in inches.
- Tesco Hudl: Very much a budget alternative, with a far lower price tag than the iPad Air, but more limited features and performance. Probably the most appealing of the cheap tablets. See Should I buy an iPad, or a Tesco Hudl?
- Amazon Kindle Fire HD: The Kindle Fire adds general tablet functionality to Amazon's popular Kindle line of ebook readers, although it remains a more limited device than the iPad. Amazon’s huge library of downloadable content - not least its ebooks - adds to the plus points. Tends to be more of a rival to the iPad minis. See iPad mini vs Kindle Fire HD 8.9 tablet comparison review
- Microsoft Surface Pro 2: Microsoft's belated take on the tablet concept. See Microsoft Surface Pro review and 10 things we hate about Microsoft’s Surface Windows 8 Pro
- Sony Xperia Tablet Z
- Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0: See Spec showdown: Apple iPad Air vs Samsung Galaxy Note, Sony Tablet Z
- Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1
While the iPad Air (and the other iPads) all run Apple's iOS operating system software (as we discuss above, at present they will come with the most recent version, iOS 7, preinstalled), most of the above run various versions of Google's Android software - although in some cases this has been heavily customised by the hardware manufacturer. The most obvious exception is Microsoft's Surface lineup, which is based on Windows.
As well as these tablets by rival companies, the iPad Air also faces competition from the other iPads. Along with the iPad Air, the iPads currently available are the iPad 4 (usually just called iPad with Retina display), the iPad mini (or iPad mini 1) and the iPad mini 2 (often called iPad mini with Retina display). If you're wondering which iPad to buy, here's our advice on that front:
The current iPad line-up, as of April 2014
And last of all, it's still possible to buy older tablets, including the iPad 1, iPad 2 and iPad 3, if you buy second-hand or from Apple refurbished store. Here's a little advice for that area: Guide to purchasing older Apple products.
iPad Air review: Tech specs
The iPad Air comes in a variety of 'flavours' or configurations. You can choose from two colour schemes ('Space Grey', which is grey on the back and black on the front, and 'Silver', which is silver on the back and white on the front), four storage capacities (16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB) and the option of upgrading the basic Wi-Fi model with 3G/cellular on top.
Here are the iPad Air's basic specs:
- A7 processor chip with 64bit architecture and M7 motion coprocessor
- 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit MultiTouch Retina display with IPS technology, 2048x1536 resolution at 264 pixels per inch (ppi) and fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
- Rear-facing 'iSight' Camera: 5Mp photos; 1080p HD video recording; Autofocus; Face detection; Video stabilisation; Backside illumination; Five-element lens; Hybrid IR filter; f/2.4 aperture; 3x video zoom; Tap to focus video or still images; Tap to control exposure for video or still images; Photo and video geotagging; HDR photos
- Front-facing FaceTime HD Camera: 1.2Mp photos; 720p HD video; FaceTime video calling over Wi-Fi or a mobile network; Face detection; Backside illumination; Tap to control exposure for video or still images; Photo and video geotagging
- Built-in 32.4-watt-hour rechargeable lithium-polymer battery
- Lightning charging and syncing port and cable
- 3.5-mm stereo headphone mini-jack
- Built-in speakers
- Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n); dual channel (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and MIMO; Bluetooth 4.0
- Optional cellular connectivity: UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26)
- Three-axis gyro
- Ambient light sensor
- Digital compass
- Audio frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz
- Audio formats supported: AAC (8 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (from iTunes Store), HE-AAC, MP3 (8 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3, 4, Audible Enhanced Audio, AAX and AAX+), Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV
- User-configurable maximum volume limit
- Siri voice assistant
- Height: 240 mm (9.4 inches)
- Width: 169.5 mm (6.6 inches)
- Depth: 7.5 mm (0.29 inches)
- Weight: 469g (Wi-Fi model), 478g (Wi-Fi plus cellular model)
Specs from Apple's UK website
And here are the iPad Air's dimensions and weight, compared with the rest of the iPad line-up
The iPad Air is state of the art - at the time of writing, at any rate - but you'll be able to match many of its specs at a similar or lower price with rival tablets. This is generally the case with Apple products. Apple is less interested in chasing the highest possible specs than in achieving an optimal user experience.
Nevertheless, if you're looking for the absolute best tablet in one particular area, the iPad Air might not be the device for you. On screen resolution, for instance, the iPad Air offers 2048x1536 pixels, at a pixel density of 264ppi (pixels per inch). But the Google Nexus 10 2 offers 2560x1600 on a 10.1in screen, which makes for around a 299ppi pixel density.
(Mind you, the Air is rated as a Retina display, and in principle it's sharp enough to fool the human eye, so whether you need a higher pixel density is debatable.)
On the camera front, indeed, the Nexus 10 2 again beats the iPad Air for numbers, with 8Mp and 2.1Mp cameras to the Air's 5Mp and 1.2Mp (rear- and front-facing). But our experience with the iPad Air's cameras has been impressive, as we will discuss in greater detail later in this review.
iPad Air review: An exceptionally thin and light tablet computer
Set against the original iPad, the iPad 2, the third-gen 'new iPad' and the iPad 4, the Apple iPad Air stands out first and foremost for its lightness. Like its half-namesake the MacBook Air, the iPad Air seems flabbergastingly light when you first pick it up.
As you can see in the specs above, the iPad Air weighs just 469g for the Wi-Fi-only model, or 478g for the iPad Air with the cellular 3G/4G option added. And it's only 7.5 mm thick.
How much thinner and lighter is that, exactly? The iPad Air sees a 22 percent weight cut from the iPad 2, and about 28 percent from the iPad 3 and 4 (which have heavier batteries to power their Retina displays). A percentage weight reduction in the twenties sounds significant but hardly earth-shattering, yet the difference somehow feels a lot more - it's like the iPad Air has crossed a threshold, and is now simply Light Enough. It's like the iPad mini in that respect.
Apologies for banging on about the weight factor, but we're not so much interested in the numerical, gram-for-gram decrease as in the effect on your everyday experience. That's why I described it as Light Enough - it's light enough, that is, to change the way you use your iPad. This seemingly minor weight cut makes all the difference. The iPad Air is a one-handed device, a portable computing device that really is portable in a way that seemed impossible a few years ago.
Having used the iPad Air every day for three months, with an iPad 3 and an iPad 4 knocking around in the background, we now acknowledge that our standards have been altered. We didn't think the iPad 3 and 4 were heavy; but they feel heavy now. That seems obvious, but it bears repeating: as with the Retina display, you won't realise you need a slimmer iPad until you try one out.
The iPad Air still isn't the lightest handheld computing device around - achieving that while offering the same versatile computing experience would be impossible - but the Air is light enough to be a realistic contender in fields where the iPad 4's weight counted against it. The Air is a trim little e-reader that you can happily tote in one hand for long chapters at a time, challenging Kindles and iPad minis as reading devices. It’s a gaming handheld that doesn't weigh down a rucksack noticeably. It's a coffee-table browser that you can pick up absent-mindedly, and a note-taker and presentation device that doesn’t make your briefcase feel like it’s been filled with rocks.
But is it too light for a device with a 9.7in screen? That brings us to our next topic...
iPad Air review: build quality
As well as being a featherweight, the Air is remarkably slender for a 9.7in tablet: it's only 7.5mm thick. We were therefore more than a little concerned about the issue of robustness. In fact, the Air feels solid enough to set our minds at rest concerning 'snapping accidents'.
One issue we had, however, was with the iPad Air's screen (which we talk about in more detail later). This may simply be down to having less heft behind it, but when you tap or press the screen, it definitely seems to 'flex' more than the screens on the iPad 3 and iPad 4. The result is that the screen feels light and plasticky, rather than the solid glass feeling on the older devices. We found this particularly noticeable on the game Infinity Blade 3, where you frequently have to tap quickly to defeat enemies, but typing also shows up this issue. It's not a major problem, however.
The iPad Air's chassis has the same construction style as the iPad mini, constructed with a thinner bezel along the left and right sides when held in vertical, or portrait, mode. (The iPad 4 is wider and has more finger room to left and right.) It's therefore difficult to pick the Air up one-handed without touching the screen.
We were slightly concerned about accidentally brushing our fingertips against the screen while holding the iPad Air by the edge, but brief experiments with iBooks proved reassuring: the iPad Air appeared to intelligently ignore touchscreen input near the edges. Apple confirmed that the iPad Air is equipped with thumb rejection technology to handle this. It's the first full-size iPad to feature this, but the first iPad mini was similarly equipped.
If you've got big hands, you may be able to span the iPad Air's back with one hand - it's only 170mm wide. Holding the tablet in this way reminds you just how light the Air is, helped by the reduced thickness: just 7.5 mm, compared with the previous model’s 9.3 mm. (For a summary of the key differences between the iPad 4 and iPad Air, see 'What's the difference between iPad 4 and iPad Air?' on the next page.)
The 'chamfered' edge around the iPad Air is smarter and more distinct than on older models, with a pleasant shine (that may, admittedly, dull with use). The button layout is familiar - although the volume rocker has been replaced with separate volume up and down - and there’s an additional pin hole on top for a second microphone.
On the second page of our iPad Air review: Processor speed and graphics tests, battery life, screen quality, graphics, cameras, wireless and our expert verdict.