Apple iPad Air 1 full review

Update, 12th April 2016: Apple has discontinued the iPad Air 1, replacing it with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. (The iPad Air 2 is still on sale.) For the latest advice on which iPad to buy, see our updated iPad buying guide for 2016.

Welcome to our updated iPad Air 1 review, in which we look again at the first iPad Air after more than a year of regular use and see how it compares to other tablets available in 2015. We gave it a glowing recommendation back in October 2013; does it still stand up to the competition? Is it a better deal than the new (but £80 costlier at equivalent storage values) iPad Air 2? Which is the best iPad to buy in February 2015?

Our updated iPad Air 1 review includes: everything you need to know about Apple's iPad Air 1 tablet, the iPad Air 1's specs, features and physical design and build quality, speed tests, price and buying options. We also offer buying advice: if you're currently running an older iPad 3 or iPad 4, is this newer iPad worth the money to upgrade? And how does it compare for features, specs, design, build quality and value for money with the other iPads currently available (the iPad Air 2 and the iPad mini 1, iPad mini 2 and iPad mini 3) and tablets by other companies?

You can say many things about the iPad Air 1, 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 came up with a tablet that attempted to redefine the category. And, a few reservations aside, the iPad Air was a stunning success. But is it still a success? 

(If you'd like to watch the iPad Air 1 in action rather than reading about it, take a look at our video review of Apple's iPad Air 1 above. For more Macworld video reviews and tutorials, visit our YouTube channel.)

See also: our updated iPad buying guide 2016 

Read next: Best cheap iPad deals UKHow to set up a new iPad How to speed up a slow iPad | iPad reviews

Sections in this review:

The basics
Interface and software
Size and weight
Build quality
Screen quality
Processor speed tests
Graphics performance
Battery life
Audio quality
Docks, ports and connections
Wireless performance
Tech specs
Buying advice

iPad Air review

iPad Air 1 review: The basics

Let's begin with the essentials - skip ahead to the next section if you know the basics.

The iPad Air 1 was the fifth in Apple's line of full-size iPad tablet computers, all of which have 9.7in screens (measured diagonally); a sixth full-size iPad, the iPad Air 2, launched a year after the iPad Air 1 and offered the same screen dimensions.

Of these, only the iPad Air 1 and the iPad Air 2 are currently available to buy; the iPad 1, iPad 2, iPad 3 and iPad 4 have all been discontinued.

(Apple also sells three smaller iPad mini tablets, the helpfully named iPad mini 1, iPad mini 2 and iPad mini 3.)

If you'd like to see how the iPad has evolved, here's a video comparing the first five full-size iPad models:

iPad Air 1 review: Interface and software

The iPad Air 1 runs Apple's own operating system software, iOS, and if you buy one today it will have the latest version of iOS, iOS 8, pre-installed. (When the iPad Air 1 first launched it came with iOS 7, and if you buy a second-hand iPad Air 1 that the owner hasn't chosen to update it could still have this operating system - if that's something you're looking for, make sure to ask. If it does come with iOS 7 and you want iOS 8, it's easy and free to update, but going back to an earlier version of iOS is much harder and in most cases impossible.)

In future Apple will release new versions of iOS, and these will be made available as an free optional update you can install easily. We expect iOS 9 to be showcased in June 2015 and launched next autumn.

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 some version of Microsoft's Windows operating system.

On top of iOS 8 and its basic functions, the iPad Air 1 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 1 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.

Read: Is it possible to get a free iPad? The truth about free iPad scams

iOS 7 accessibility features on iPad Air

iOS 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. iPads, including the iPad Air 1, don't seem to be prone to this fault - and we've been tapping those buttons for 15 months now.

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.

Here are a few lists of iOS games and apps that we would recommend:

Best iPad games | Best free iPad games | Best free iPad apps

iOS 8 runs smoothly and responsively on the iPad Air 1. The iPad Air 1 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 1 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.

(Bear in mind that the iPad Air 2 is faster still. We compare the two iPad Air models - as well as the iPad minis - in the speed testing section of this review.)

iPad Air review

iPad Air 1 review: Size and weight

When it came out, the iPad Air 1 seemed flabbergastingly light and wondrously slim. Inevitably, things have moved on a little since then.

Set against the original iPad, the iPad 2, the third-gen 'new iPad' and the iPad 4, the iPad Air 1 stands out first and foremost for its lightness, like its half-namesake the MacBook Air.

As you can see in the tech specs below, 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. 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.

We didn't think the iPad 3 and 4 were heavy when we first tried them out; 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 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.

iPad Air review

But the iPad Air 2 has moved the goalposts, and our standards have altered once again. The Air 2 is a little over 30g lighter than the Air 1 (a cut in weight of roughly 6-7 percent, a very slight difference that isn't particularly noticeable) and slices off another 1.4mm from the thickness (a reduction in depth of nearly 19 percent, which you will notice).

For depth comparison purposes, here's what the iPad Air 1 (left) and iPad Air 2 look like alongside one another:

iPad Air 1: iPad Air 1 and iPad Air 2 side by side comparison

Going from the iPad 4 to the iPad Air felt like a huge leap in portabiity; going from the Air 1 to the Air 2 is a nice but minor improvement. And the Air 1 remains a wonderfully slim piece of gadgetry. Just be aware that the Air 1 is no longer Apple's flagship of miniaturisation (and that's without even considering the iPad minis).

iPad Air 1 review: Dimensions and weight of iPad range

While the iPad Air 1 isn't too far behind the Air 2 on portability, we do have a strong preference on another physical-design-related issue, which brings us to our next topic. This is something which is always important for ultra-slim tech products: build quality. In other words, are these devices too thin and light for their own good?

iPad Air 1 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 (we talk about the screen's picture quality, resolution and so on 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, but it undermines the overall feeling of physical quality that one expects from an iPad. And after using the iPad Air 1 for more than a year, it's not something we've got used to, or stopped finding mildly annoying.

We were keen, when the iPad Air 2 came out, to see if this issue had been tackled. And sure enough, the more compressed design of the Air 2 - in which the elements of the display have been by necessity squeezed closer together, and air pockets removed - results in a screen that is firmer to the touch.

iPad Air review

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 was wider and had more finger room to left and right; the iPad Air 2, in turn has exactly the same front plate layout as the Air 1.) 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 1 by the edge, but brief experiments with iBooks proved reassuring: the Air 1 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 was 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 1'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.

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 heavy use, although our 15-month-old model is as shiny as ever). 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. 

iPad Air review

iPad Air 1 review: Screen quality

What about the iPad Air 1's screen quality? The short answer is that it's the same as ever - which is to say, exceptional. The Retina-class screen looks the same as on previous Retina iPads - the iPad 3 and iPad 4 - boasting four times the pixel count of the original iPad's 1024 x 768. Once again we're looking at 2048 x 1536 pixels, and a pixel density of 264 ppi (pixels per inch).

In theory that's as sharp as you could ever want a screen to be, since at what Apple considers to be normal viewing distance, the average human eye won't be able to pick out individual pixels - a higher pixel density wouldn't be noticeable. But the same could be said of the previous two full-size iPads, and of the iPad mini 2. (And while the iPad 2 and first iPad mini don't have Retina displays, the screen quality on those devices is still impressive. Don't expect a massive difference.)

The iPad Air 2 has precisely the same screen resolution and pixel density as the Air 1, so don't expect any improvements in that regard if you upgrade. But the Air 2's screen is better in some other respects.

Firstly, Apple says its touchscreen functions have been finetuned to be more responsive, and we did find it subjectively quicker to the touch than its predecessor. And secondly, Apple has added an antireflective coating - and it works. Screen reflections previously observed when using an iPad under electric lighting or in sunlight are noticeably diminished and darkened.

Screen colour problems and related issues

No discussion of the iPad Air 1's Retina display would be complete without addressing an issue that a number of customers have flagged up: yellow or blue tints on the screens of their iPads. Some dissatisfied customers report that there is a yellowish area on the lefthand edge of the iPad Air's screen, while others report a blueish tint throughout the screen. Both are easier to spot when viewing white backgrounds.

Here at Macworld we've carefully tested three iPad Air 1 units and all have had good colour balance and consistent tone across the screen, so this isn't a problem that's fundamental to the product's design: hopefully this won't affect you at all. But at the same time the number of comment threads springing up addressing these two related but separate issues makes it clear that it's a genuine concern.

The first thing we'd say is that this isn't something to influence your buying decision, since the odds are against this affecting your unit and Apple will willingly replace it even if it does. But we'd stress that you shouldn't just put up with it. Some users have reported that the yellow tint disappears after waiting for a few days, and if getting to an Apple Store right away is inconvenient you might want to try this. But we'd rather get the problem fixed as soon as possible.

Go to a website with a white background, such as Google, and compare your iPad carefully against other screens you're happy with. If you think the colour balance is off, get yourself an appointment with the Geniuses at your nearest Apple Store.

iPad Air 1 review: Processor speed tests

The iPad Air 1 was a stunningly quick device at launch and remains comfortably fast enough to handle pretty much anything the App Store can throw at it. The Air 2 is faster still, but most of its speed gains remain largely theoretical for now, because the apps don't yet exist to push its ultra-powerful processor to the limit. This situation won't last forever, of course.

In the coming months and years the Air 1 will start to feel slower. More and more app developers will work to the Air 2's specs, viewing it as the state-of-the-art iPad device that hardcore mobile gamers, for instance, will all be running. (Video- and photo-editing suites also tend to be pretty demanding on mobile processors.) The iPad Air 2's greater speed makes it a far more future-proofed device than the Air 1 - as you would expect, from a product that is a full year younger.

In this section we compare the theoretical speed of the five currently available iPad models by putting them through a battery of processing-speed benchmarks. These will give you an idea of what these tablets are capable of; but as we explained above, don't assume that advantages here will necessarily translate into real-world, noticeable speed gains.

Our reviews editor, by the way, has asked us to point out that in the post-Samsung-caught-'cheating' world, the true analytical value of speed benchmarks is in any case limited - some would even argue that they don't really mean much any more, especially after nearly all of Google's hardware partners were found gaming benchmarks for Android devices. However, many readers still ask for them; and they do still have some legitimacy for comparing different devices by a single manufacturer. Namely Apple, whose name remained unsullied throughout the affair.

Comparing the full iPad range: Processing speed benchmarks

In our battery of tests the iPad Air 2 was head and shoulders ahead of the iPad Air 1 and all of the iPad mini models.

In the GeekBench 3 general-speed test, the Air 2 was extremely dominant, particularly in the multi-core tests:

  • iPad mini 1: 260 (single), 494 (multi)
  • iPad mini 2: 1374 (single core), 2484 (multi)
  • iPad mini 3: 1376 (single), 2483 (multi)
  • iPad Air 1: 1468 (single), 2658 (multi)
  • iPad Air 2: 1818 (single), 4520 (multi)

(Higher scores are better)

And in the SunSpider 1.0.2 JavaScript web browser tests (which test how quickly a device loads web pages), the Air 2 was again hugely impressive:

  • iPad mini 1: 1,503ms
  • iPad mini 2: 442ms
  • iPad mini 3: 449ms
  • iPad Air 1: 439ms
  • iPad Air 2: 287ms

(Scores in milliseconds. Lower scores are better)

These tests illustrate what Apple has claimed: that the iPad Air 2 is monstrously fast, and faster than any previous iPad by a clear margin.

What it doesn't show, however, is what difference this speed boost will make in day-to-day life right now. And the truth is that, for the time being, it won't change much. The iPad mini 1 is the only currently available iPad that we would ever describe as slow-feeling across a realistic mixture of apps and tasks - and even that feels perfectly slick and fast if you confine your activities to email, web browsing and light games.

iPad Air review

iPad Air 1 review: Graphics performance

The iPad Air 1 is highly capable at graphical processing: the interface looks and feels supremely smooth, whether twisting around 3D renders or playing graphically demanding games, such as Infinity Blade 3.

Infinity Blade 3

To see how the iPad Air compares to the graphical chops of other Apple tablets, we put the iPad Airs (and the iPad minis) through the GFXBench graphical benchmark. The iPad Air 2 was a long way ahead, but the Air 1 is no mug:

Manhattan onscreen test:

  • iPad mini 1: n/a
  • iPad mini 2: 8.9fps
  • iPad mini 3: 8.9fps
  • iPad Air 1: 9.0fps
  • iPad Air 2: 24.6fps

T-Rex onscreen test:

  • iPad mini 1: 6.5fps
  • iPad mini 2: 22.7fps
  • iPad mini 3: 22.7fps
  • iPad Air 1: 23.0fps
  • iPad Air 2: 52.0fps

(Tests performed using GFXBench 3.0 app. All devices running iOS 8.1. Scores in frames per second; higher scores are better.)

Our experience is that the iPad Air 1 is still perfectly capable at gaming, and you won't see anything like the speed gains shown in these tests in real-world gaming - not yet, anyway. As we explained in the processing-speed testing section, you should regard the iPad Air 2's superior speed as a future-proofing benefit for the time being.

iPad Air 1 review: Cameras

iPad Air review: camera detail

As far as the cameras are concerned, the iPad Air 1 has a full-HD-capable main camera on the back (like the older iPad 4, which also takes 5 megapixel still pictures). The iPad Air 2 sees a bump to 8Mp on its rear-facing camera.

What does this translate to in real-world testing? For a start, the pictures shot by the iPad Air 2 are bigger, in the sense that they are made up of more pixels; you can therefore expect to zoom into the Air 2's photos more closely while maintaining a decent picture quality.

For everyday, decently lit photos the differences between Air 1 and Air 2 are reasonably minor, but as you can see in these shots of Macworld's editor in chief, zooming in reveals blurrier fidelity around the eyebrows:

iPad Air 1 review: iPad Air 1 and iPad Air 2 camera comparison

Shots taken in low light are better at highlighting the difference in quality (although, as you can see, neither are great in the dark - neither iPad has a flash):

iPad Air 1 review: iPad Air 1 and iPad Air 2 camera comparison

The iPad Air 1's front-facing camera is a 720p video model for FaceTime and Skype. This can take 1.2 megapixel stills. It doesn't get slo-mo video, whereas the iPad Air 2 does get this feature.

Both iPad Air 1 and iPad Air 2 get the new time-lapse feature, though.

Video shot with the iPad Air's rear-facing camera was decent quality. Here's a sample video we shot from the roof of Macworld Towers with the iPad Air 1:

iPad Air 1 review: Battery life

Apple reduced the size of the battery from 42.5Wh (in the old iPad 4) to 32.4Wh - presumably to reduce weight and physical size. Yet Apple claims that overall battery life is roughly the same, at its favoured figure of 10 hours of web browsing or video.

How does Apple maintain battery life while using a smaller battery? The new Apple A7 processor may be improving efficiency - that's the same chip found in the iPhone 5s, and (as in that device) is accompanied by the M7 motion processor. The main processor's clock speed is not quoted - that's Apple policy. But Apple claimed that the iPad Air is around twice as quick - both in terms of overall processing speed and in graphical tasks - as the iPad 4.

One thing we can say at this point is that the iPad Air doesn't seem to overheat as much as its predecessors while charging (and particularly while charging and running processor-intensive apps at the same time). We set up an iPad 3 and the iPad Air side-by-side, both charging up and playing Infinity Blade 3. The iPad Air 1 was warm after 10 or 15 minutes, but in the same time the iPad 3 had worked up a good heat that was starting to get uncomfortable to the touch. This will be a relief to many.

The iPad Air 1 isn't immune to hot operation, however. Our testing of the graphically advanced puzzle game The Room 2 saw it heat up a bit. But in three months of use we've never found the iPad Air 1 unpleasantly or painfully hot, and previous iPads have been known to do this.

iPad Air review

If 10 hours doesn't sound much and you're looking for further improvements in this area, we're sorry to tell you that the more expensive but upgraded iPad Air 2 again offers much the same battery life as its predecessor.

Then again, under the circumstances, perhaps simply achieving the same battery life is an achievement. Physically, the iPad Air 2 has a smaller battery than the iPad Air 1 for obvious reasons: it's nearly 20 percent thinner, as we discussed earlier. But the Air 2's battery unit is clearly more efficient. Both iPad Air models have roughly the same battery life, of about 10 hours of 'normal' use.

iPad Air 1 review: Audio quality

Our audiophile colleague Andrew Harrison tested out the iPad Air 1's speakers, and wasn't impressed.

"The new iPad now has a tiny pair of speakers to play in stereo, against the former single mono speaker," he writes.

"It's almost as loud as iPad 3 at full volume but has a quacky coloration as well as sounding rougher, more sandpapery. There also seems less treble extension which reduces clarity."

Whether audio quality is a key priority in a tablet is debatable, of course. Improved speakers have cropped up in some Apple followers' iPad 6 wish lists, but it may be easier to buy a wireless speaker for the occasions when you want to enjoy music on the iPad Air.

iPad Air 1 review: Docks, ports and connections

The iPad Air 1 has the now-familiar layout of iPad buttons: Lightning port central at the bottom, volume buttons and screen lock (or volume mute) on the right, On/Off (or sleep/power) button on the top-right, and a headphone jack at the top left.

iPad Air review

As expected, the iPad Air 1 features the now-standard Lightning port for charging and syncing. To either side you can see the iPad Air's speakers

iPad Air Lightning connector

What is visible is an additional pin hole on top, for a new second microphone that should enable improved reduction of ambient noise, as found on the iPhone and various MacBook models now.

iPad Air review

iPad Air review

The iPad Air 1's volume up and down, and the orientation/mute button - again, no surprises here

iPad Air 1 review: Wireless performance

Wi-Fi performance looks to be improved, now that the iPad Air has a dual-antennae setup to allow multiple in/multiple out (MIMO) connectivity. However, the iPad Air is still using the older 802.11n standard rather than the latest (and even quicker) 11ac that's been rolled out to the MacBook Air, iMac, MacBook Pro with Retina display and Mac Pro.

iPad Air review

Unlike the iPhone 5s and the iPad Air 2, the iPad Air 1 hasn't got the Touch ID fingerprint sensor

More LTE networks are supported, and we were told the iPad Air supports more LTE bands than any other tablet; this is specified to cover at least EE and Vodafone's 4G services in the UK at the moment.

iPad Air 1 review: Tech specs

The iPad Air 1 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 1'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
  • Microphone
  • 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
  • Accelerometer
  • 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

The iPad Air 1 is a pretty advanced piece of kit 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 1 might not be the device for you. On screen resolution, for instance, the iPad Air 1 offers 2048x1536 pixels, at a pixel density of 264ppi or pixels per inch. (The iPad Air 2 has the same resolution and pixel density, so upgrading won't improve your experience in that regard.) 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 1 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 1 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 1's cameras has been impressive, as we will discuss in greater detail later in this review.

What people love about the iPad Air 1 | What people hate about the iPad Air 1

iPad Air 1 review: Buying advice - is the iPad Air 1 the right tablet for you?

So now you know all about the iPad Air 1, its features, design and build quality. But is the right iPad for you? In these final few sections we will compare the device with the other iPads that you may already own, or be thinking of buying, and help you decide if you should buy the iPad Air 1.

The iPad Air 1's competitors

Here's a selection of some of the most obvious and/or appealing rival tablets you should consider:

  • Google Nexus 7: A highly popular alternative that runs Google Android.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 2: Microsoft's belated take on the tablet concept.
  • Sony Xperia Tablet Z
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 - as PC Advisor puts it, "one of the best Android tablets we've ever reviewed", although its screen size makes it more of a rival to the iPad mini line

While the iPad Air 1 (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 8, 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 1, the iPads currently available are the iPad Air 2, the iPad mini 1 (or just iPad mini), the iPad mini 2 and the iPad mini 3. If you're wondering which iPad to buy, here's our advice on that front:

iPad buying guide: Full iPad line up

The current iPad line-up, as of February 2015

And last of all, it's still possible to buy older tablets, including the iPad 1, iPad 2, iPad 3 and iPad 4, if you buy second-hand or from Apple refurbished store. Here's a little advice for that area: Guide to purchasing older Apple products.

Don't forget to check out our iPad buyers' guide.

iPad Air review

iPad Air 1 in space grey and black

Is it worth upgrading to the iPad Air 1 from the iPad 3 or iPad 4?

Owners of older iPads will be thinking one thing: what's the difference between the iPad 4 (and iPad 3) and the iPad Air, and is it worth upgrading from these older devices to the iPad Air?

First of all, the iPad Air 1 is a lot daintier than the iPad 3 and 4 (which physically are almost identical to one another). The iPad Air is thinner than the previous iPad, at 7.5mm compared to 9.4mm on the iPad 4. That's a reduction of 20 percent. It's also a lot lighter, seeing a drop from 652g to 469g (for the non-3G version). That's a weight loss of about 28 percent.

Processing speed and performance: The iPad Air 1 is significantly faster than the iPad 4, although exactly how much of a difference that makes in real-world use depends on which apps you're using.

The iPad Air comes with the A7 chip that features in the iPhone 5s, as well as the M7 'motion coprocessor', combining to create an Apple tablet of impressive processing power. (The A8X-equipped iPad AIr 2 is faster still.)

Apple claims the iPad Air 1 is twice as fast - in terms of both general speed and graphics - as the iPad 4, and approximately four times as quick as the iPad 3. Our testing backs these claims up; the iPad Air has the capacity, in certain circumstances, to be incredibly quick. And the iPad 4 is starting to feel a little slow in processor-intensive apps and games.

iPad 4 owners should definitely upgrade if portability is a major issue: the iPad Air 1 is a lot lighter, and you'll appreciate this when reading in bed, for instance. If you're never really conscious of the iPad 4's weight - and it isn't exactly a millstone - then you may not need the iPad Air 1, although we think it's time to start thinking about the iPad 4's future. Upgrading iPad every other generation is a sensible policy.

The iPad 3 is a different matter; it's substantially less future-proofed than the iPad Air 1 and you'll notice the difference in speed on a wider range of apps (although we'd stress that the iPad 3 is still a reasonably capable device). We would strongly recommend that iPad 3 owners should upgrade.

iPad Air review

iPad Air review

iPad Air 1 review: Launch event video

For more details about the new iPad Air, watch our video of an Apple exec demonstrating the iPad Air to us at the Apple Event on 22 October 2013. (Sorry about the annoying laughter in the background - it was a crowded and busy room!) 

How to set up a new iPad Air 1

Want to know how to unbox and set up a new iPad Air? Check out our iPad unboxing video. Many thanks to our friends at Square Group for the loan!

For more information on setting up a new iPad, take a look at our dedicated article: How to set up a new iPad.

All of our iPad Air 1 coverage:

iPad Air 1 review (all Macworld's iPad reviews)

What people love about the iPad Air | What people hate about the iPad Air

Next page: Our original preview of the iPad Air 1 (which we used to refer to as the iPad 5). Find out how many of our iPad Air predictions came true - other than the name, of course >>

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