Review: Apple iPad Air

Apple iPad Air sets a new standard for what a full size tablet should be (November 3rd, 2013)

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: From $499

The Good


  • - Stunning, thin, light design
    - Cutting-edge processor and graphics performance
    - iOS 7 a beautiful and powerful complement to hardware
    - Outstanding built-in and free iWork, iLife apps
    - Retina display remains superb

The Bad


  • - Relatively high up-front price
    - No Wi-Fi 802.11ac support
    - No Touch ID sensor

Although there were numerous accurate leaks ahead of the iPad launch, Apple managed to surprise with its latest 9.7-inch Retina display-equipped iPad. Not only did it get a new name, the iPad Air, it is a dramatically thinner and lighter than ever before. Although Apple's overall market share is declining as a percentage, the still-expanding tablet segment and the ongoing popularity of the iPad has ensured that Apple continues to sell more iPads than ever. Despite the challenge posed by cheaper white box Android tablets, along with those from its major competitors including Samsung and Google, Apple has continued with a proven strategy of making premium hardware and selling them at premium prices. But is the best tablet experience on the market worth the price of admission when you can get a similar experience for less?

Design and construction

The design and construction of the iPad Air is very reminiscent of the iPad mini, which means that it is both extremely rigid and functional, yet, is beautifully sculpted at the same. It features Apple's trademark blend of aluminum and glass, with typical attention paid to aspects like the chamfered leading edges, which both looks stunning, but is also makes the iPad Air more comfortable to hold. The narrower bezels are made possible by new thumb rejection technology introduced when the iPad mini debuted, helping to reduce the overall footprint of the device, while reducing its weight. Like the iPad mini, stereo speakers are located in grills at the bottom of the iPad Air, flanking the Lightning port, while dual-mics are positioned at the opposite end. The only notable omission is the Touch ID sensor from the iPhone 5s, although this may have been due strictly to limited parts availability at the time of launch as it is such new technology.





In terms of its dimensions, the iPad Air has a depth of just 0.29-inches (7.5 mm), which makes it 20 percent thinner than the previous iPad, which measures 0.34-inches (8.8 mm) thick. The reduction in it is overall footprint sees the iPad Air shed 132g, taking it down to just to just 469g, which equates to a significant 28 percent weight reduction over the previous model as well. An iFixit teardown shows that Apple has achieved this through numerous means including through the use of a smaller battery, as well as size reductions in numerous other components like a new display array that is substantially thinner than before as you can see from the Apple infographic above. Yet, the weight is evenly distributed ensuring that holding it one-handed in either landscape or portrait mode is much more comfortable.

iPad Air compared with iPad 4



iPad Air is substantially narrower than the iPad 4



Tapered iPad 4 edges on left belie overall thinner iPad Air on right



iPad Air on top has thicker leading edge, but is more comfortable



From an end-user perspective, it amounts to a transformational experience. A lot of iPad mini buyers bought Apple's smaller 7.9-inch iPad mini simply because it was thinner, lighter and easier to hold than the larger 9.7-inch iPad. Many were prepared to even forgo the Retina display to achieve it, including this reviewer. Having the option to buy into a full size tablet for the additional screen real estate, without having to pay a substantial weight penalty is sure to make would-be iPad mini with Retina display buyers reconsider their choice moving forward. Apple is likely to sell millions of both models, but the iPad Air makes a very compelling case for switching back to the larger display, as ultimately, it gives you additional possibilities when it comes to productivity and creativity apps.






Display

Although the 9.7-inch iPad Air Retina display continues with the same 2048x1536 resolution as the previous generation, the iFixit teardown reveals that it is a new display part (in some models at least) supplied by LG. As mentioned above, the overall display assembly is 20 percent thinner than on the previous iPad, but the iFixit teardown also reveals that the new display is not bonded to the glass panel as previously. While this will make replacing units with broken display glass easier to repair (perhaps the one concession made to ease of reparability) it reintroduces a smaller gap between the display panel and the glass that Apple had previously eliminated. We have preference for a zero gap construction, as it can maximise image and text clarity by reducing glare, but in this instance, overall image fidelity remains excellent.



What is noticeable, however, is that the new display in the iPad Air produces clearer whites than the previous Retina display panel. The previous Retina display has a slightly yellower or off-white tint when the two displays are viewed side-by-side. Beyond that, is harder to notice any apparent differences to the naked eye, with its 264ppi pixel density helping to ensure that text looks crisp, with video and other content including games look simply stunning. It will be interesting to see whether the higher 326ppi of the forthcoming iPad mini with Retina display is noticeably sharper, but as it stands, it is very hard to fault the display on the iPad Air. It makes working and playing with the iPad Air an absolute pleasure as colors appear vibrant but natural, while display brightness is even and contrast is excellent.




Camera

The iPad Air cameras are the same high-quality units that are incorporated into the iPad mini. This means that its FaceTime HD camera can stake 1.2-megapixel stills or shoot video or make video calls in 720p HD. The rear iSight camera is capable of shooting 5-megapixel stills and 1080p Full HD video. However, even though the iPad Air incorporates a slightly faster A7 chip that can shoot slow-motion video in the iPhone 5s, the optics in the iPad Air can't support this capability, nor has Apple built-in the capability to shoot panorama shots. While notable, it's hardly an issue in our view as it's likely that most people will largely use their iPad Air for FaceTime video calls, where it excels, and opt for their smartphone when looking to shoot high-quality video images. That said, as you can see from the unedited photos below, in good light, the iPad Air can still produce good quality photos.










Performance

The iPad Air is the very definition of a classic Apple product in that it manages to be both slimmer and lighter, while it at the same time delivering more power than ever before and while its exceptional battery life. The vaunted Apple-designed A7 64-bit chip that makes the iPhone 5s the most powerful smartphone on the market does the same for the iPad Air. In fact it so powerful, courtesy of its next-generation and 'Cyclone' architecture and ARM v8 instruction set, that Apple did not see it fit to create an 'A7X' as was widely surmised it would. This of course keeps things much simpler for developers and rationalises Apple's supply chain efforts. However, Apple has tweaked the A7 chip in the iPad Air, clocking it slightly higher at 1.4GHz in this application than the 1.3GHz clock speed of the A7 chip in the iPhone 5s.



In the cross-platform GeekBench 3 test, the 1.4GHz Apple A6X chip (with a 32-bit 'Swift' architecture and ARMv7 instruction set) in the iPad 4 achieved a single-core score of 783, while its multi-core test returned a score of 1432. The iPhone 5s, with its 1.3GHz Apple A7 chip returned a single-core score of 1406 and a multi-core score of 2541. The new iPad Air with its tweaked Apple A7 chip scored 1479 in the single-core test and achieved a score of 2687 in the multi-core test, indicating that Apple's claims of up to a two times performance boost for the iPad Air is consistent with our independent tests. As a point of comparison, we also ran some tests on our Sony Xperia Z Ultra, which is powered by a 32-bit 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core chipset with Krait 400 architecture and ARMv7 instruction set. It achieved a single-core score of 913 and a multi-core result of 2766.



What this highlights is the sheer processing power of the Apple 'Cyclone' 64-bit architecture and the advantage of running the new ARMv8 instruction set on one billion transistors. It smashes the Snapdragon 800 (featured in most current range-topping Android devices) in single-core performance, despite running at a clock speed 800MHz slower. It also explains how Apple has been able to cut back significantly on the battery size in the iPad Air (helping to significantly reduce its overall weight), while managing to nearly double the performance of the iPad Air over the previous generation. Not only is the Apple A7 chip supremely powerful, it is also exceptionally power efficient. Further, as the vast majority of mobile apps only utilize a single-core any device powered by the Apple A7 chip will scorch the opposition in everyday functions as well as in processor intensive tasks.



iPad Air Egypt HD test screenshot



In the cross-platform GPU benchmark GFXBench 2.7.2, the iPad 4 achieves an off-screen score in the T-Rex HD sequence of 17fps and off-screen score of 54fps in the Egypt HD sequence. The iPhone 5s scores 27fps in the T-Rex HD off-screen sequence while it scores 64fps in the Egypt HD off-screen sequence. The iPad Pad Air also scores 27fps in the T-Rex HD sequence and 64fps in the Egypt HD off-screen sequence, which indicates that although the CPU is clocked slightly higher than the A7 in the iPhone 5s, the clock speed of the quad-cluster PowerVR G6430 in the iPad Air is identical. The Qualcomm Adreno 330 GPU embedded in the Snapdragon 800 chipset scores 23fps in the T-Rex HD sequence and 60fps in the Egypt HD off-screen sequence. The Adreno 330 GPU is fast, but gets outgunned by new 'Rogue' architecture underpinning the PowerVR GPU in the iPad Air.




Connectivity

The iPad Air comes in two main variants, one with Wi-Fi only and the other adding 4G LTE cellular connectivity. To help boost Wi-Fi speeds in the iPad Air, it has added dual channel (2.4GHz, 5GHz) support coupled with MIMO dual-antennas delivering up to twice the data transfer rates over the previous generation. It has achieved this without adding support for the latest Wi-Fi 802.11ac standard, instead continuing with 802.11ac. While you can't complain with data transfer rates of up to 150Mbps, it is still surprising that Apple hasn't switched to the faster 802.11ac standard which it is deploying across its notebook, desktop and router product lines. The Wi-Fi + Cellular model, however, continues with 4G LTE, but adds support for up to 14 different LTE bands meaning that if you travel overseas, you will be more likely to connect to more 4G LTE networks than competing devices.



Apple was one of the first companies to adopt Bluetooth 4.0 support allowing for low-power pairing with a wide range of Bluetooth 4.0 devices, while still offering support for Bluetooth 3.0 and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR devices. One less well-known fact is that Apple also incorporates Wi-Fi Direct support in all of its Lightning port-based devices. It has married this with Bluetooth 4.0 for authentication purposes to create its AirDrop file sharing standard, which currently only works as configured between similarly equipped iOS devices. It may eventually rework its AirDrop standard for sharing between Macs to also support file sharing between iOS devices, but as it stands, the two systems are not currently compatible. Further, users have long been able wirelessly sync their iOS devices without having to connect their iOS device to their Mac or PC regardless, but being able to quickly drop files from a Mac to your iOS device would still be handy.




Software

Much has been made of the unique advantage that Apple enjoys by developing both the chips that run its mobile devices as well as the operating system and its built-in apps. The iPad Air is no different in this regard; as with the iPhone 5s, iOS 7 has been recompiled to fully support its 64-bit A7 chip as have all of its standard built-in apps. It is one of the key ways in which Apple differentiates is products from its competition. The debut of the iPad Air has seen Apple ramp things on the software front to new levels with a comprehensive array of standard apps as well as the option to download all the iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) and iLife apps (iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand) for free. All of these have been completely revised for iOS 7 and gives users outstanding mobile productivity and creativity options, providing a huge value-add to the total cost of ownership equation.



We've already taken a comprehensive look at iOS 7 in a three part series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), highlighting how it is the best version of iOS yet. Although not everyone has necessarily fallen in love with the new look, most agree that a revamped UI was long overdue and that the speed and stability of iOS 7 is impressive. It's worth noting that iOS 7 for the iPad and its built-in apps are specifically tailored for the larger iPad display. This is particularly apparent in Settings as well as the Mail app, where two panes are simultaneously displayed, much like they would be on a notebook or desktop. Safari is also another beneficiary, with its multiple website tabs also working very similar to a regular Mac. It is what helps to make the iPad a device that slots in between a notebook and a smartphone, offering extra mobility while retaining many functional aspects of a notebook. When you add the many tens of thousands of apps that have also been specially designed to take advantage of the additional iPad screen real estate, the iPad still offers a significant edge over much of its competition.




Final thoughts

The Apple iPad Air has redefined the standard for a full size tablet once again. Just like the iPhone 5s, the iPad Air takes a generational leap forward in performance, except it also comes in an all-new package that is dramatically thinner and lighter. The new design is such an improvement over the previous model that is almost as though Apple has jumped two-generations ahead in one fell swoop. Add to this a beautiful new operating system in iOS 7 that continues to build on Apple's tablet OS superiority, a sensational range of built-in and free apps that are also all-new, and you have a tablet that is truly the best in class by a considerable margin.

It will be up to individual users as to which device they pick and for what reasons, but if you want the very best tablet with the very best range of tablet-specific apps, there is only once choice. The upfront cost of the iPad Air may be higher, but you also get a completely premium product that is without peer for quality integration between hardware and software. You also get the best content ecosystem on the planet in iTunes, the power of iCloud synchronisation and importantly, an outstanding customer care experience when you need help, or should you experience any issues while under warranty. This is not something that is immediately apparent when people make their tablet choice.

Apple's leading competitors tend to throw every feature and gimmick that they can at their tablets without a clear rationale for their inclusion, hoping that consumers will think that their products offer better value. It is true that other products offer a similar experience, but the overall value proposition that Apple offers extends well beyond the immediate features of each device that it sells. The Apple iPad Air, like just about all of Apple's products, is a pure distillation of the very best technology that can be effectively utilized in order to deliver a highly focused user experience. This is something that Apple users have long enjoyed and is why Apple engenders such loyalty and passion for its products in its customers.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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