With the world’s media watching, Apple unveiled an iPad that’s… a bit thinner. What’s the big deal with the iPad Air? It's all about the experience.
Shortly after last month’s iPad launch event, the Macworld team got together in front of a camera and talked about our early impressions (I've embedded the clip above in case you’d like to watch a ginger man saying the phrase “for me” three or four times per minute; check out the rest of our video reviews and debates at youtube.com/macworlduk1). The chat got surprisingly spicy, and this wasn’t just because we’d invited a Windows fanboy to join us. Although I'm sure he didn't help.
We couldn’t agree, you see, on whether Apple had lived up to its… well, obligations probably isn’t the right word. But some of our number did feel that the substance of the announcements didn’t entirely justify the amount of attention they got from the world’s media.
It’s certainly true that in the grand scheme of things the launch of a new version of an extremely successful consumer electronics product doesn’t compare with, say, illegal governmental spying; and the fact that the former got as many column inches is probably not to be celebrated. But 'for me' at any rate the iPad Air in particular is a big story - at least within the odd little bubble that is tech media.
For one thing Apple was on to a good thing, and there must have been a temptation not to mess with a winning formula. But mess it did: shaving off the back and edges, downgrading the battery, and thereby turning out an iPad that is 28 percent lighter than its predecessor - a number that still can't really convey how different it feels.
It’s also, yes, potentially twice as fast thanks to its new A7 processor. But those who championed this paper victory – or complained about the lack of movement in other specs such as screen resolution or megapixellage – are missing what I think is the real purpose of upgrading.
All of our iPad Air coverage:
Measuring the experience, not the numbers
If you look at those Designed In California adverts Apple produced earlier this year, you'll be reminded that Apple always thinks of its products in terms of an experience - an appropriately Californian-sounding philosophy, but one that masks the rather more Chingford notion that it doesn't matter how nice a thing looks (or how high the numbers on its specs sheet are) if it doesn't do what it's supposed to.
And the iPad Air’s exceptional processing speed won’t affect the average user’s day-to-day experience right now, because the apps aren’t available to take advantage of it. It'll prove crucial in the months and years to come, as devs release software that exploits the A7’s muscle, but right now you're unlikely to experience a lot of difference. What it does hasn't changed.
But the weight - that's something more than a numerical upgrade, because (and apologies here for another slice of corporate new-ageism) it changes your relationship with the product. It puts the iPad Air into parts of your life that earlier iPads couldn't reach.
Then again, there's a broader point to be made here about expectations. It's a nice problem to have, admittedly, but the success of previous events means that every Apple launch is expected to blow the roof off, and anything less inevitably triggers a raft of doom-mongering opinion pieces. (Conversely, when a rival firm comes out with something that presents even a semi-coherent challenge, it's greeted like the second coming of Jesus Christ himself. We call this 'Samsung syndrome'.)
One part of this, of course, is the human hobby of knocking idols off pedestals. But another is the simple fact that any new product has to compete with its own ancestors as much as its present-day rivals. It's not enough for the iPad Air to beat the Nexus 10; it also has to make you hate your old iPad.
Will you hate your iPad 4 as soon as you pick up an Air? I doubt it. It'll make it seem heavier, that's for sure; I suppose in that sense it's a little like the Retina screen, which made the (perfectly decent) display on the iPad 2 look fuzzy in retrospect. But I'm not certain I'd recommend that iPad 4 owners upgrade just yet, unless they've got unusually tired arms - perhaps as a result of carrying around an overfilled wallet.
Still, the new tablet, as we explain in our iPad Air review, is a pretty wonderful product, and undoubtedly the best tablet out there. It just hasn’t changed the world overnight. And that, when discussing Apple at least, seems to have become the definition of success.