Apple iPad Air review

The iPad Air is probably the best 10-inch tablet we’ve ever used, but if you want one tablet, we recommend holding out for the iPad Mini with Retina.
The iPad Air is probably the best 10-inch tablet we’ve ever used, but if you want one tablet, we recommend holding out for the iPad Mini with Retina.
The iPad Air is probably the best 10-inch tablet we’ve ever used, but if you want one tablet, we recommend holding out for the iPad Mini with Retina.

Highs

  • Thin and light, looks great
  • Powerful 64-bit processor
  • New Wi-Fi antennas are fast
  • iOS 7 runs best on Air
  • Battery life is a solid 10 hours

Lows

  • Speakers are a step down from iPad 4
  • Camera quality has not improved
  • Not as comfortable as iPad Mini

Does an iPad really need an introduction? This is the fifth generation of the tablet that made tablets popular. The iPad Air is one of two big updates to the iPad line this year, with the smaller iPad Mini finally gaining the Retina screen fans hoped to get for a year now.

If you’re reading this review, there is probably one of a few questions roaming through your head.

  • What’s better about the iPad Air?
  • What’s worse with the iPad Air?
  • Should I finally get a tablet?
  • What about the iPad Mini?

We’ve been using the Air heavily for a few days now, and here are our best answers.

What’s better about the iPad Air?

It’s thinner and lighter: The biggest change from the iPad 2, 3, and 4 to the iPad Air is how it looks and how it feels in your hands. Its weight has been reduced from 1.3lbs (601g) to 1lb even (469g); it’s a hair thinner at 7.5mm thick compared to 8.5mm or so on older iPads. A millimeter isn’t going to blow other tablets away, no, but we do like the thinner bezel on the sides. The iPad Air has the same 9.7-inch screen as previous iPads (with a high-resolution Retina screen, like the last two iPads), but the border around that screen has been cut in half on the left and right side.

Like every iPad since the beginning of time (2010), the Air is still made out of aluminum and the power, volume, and mute buttons are in the upper right. The difference here is that the whole tablet is styled to look like the iPad Mini. The shell of it is boxier than the last generation, but still has rounded edges, making it comfortable to hold.

And it is more comfortable to hold. Previous iPads felt heavy, but the lighter weight makes it easier to hold it with one hand for longer durations. It doesn’t seem to get as hot as the iPad 3 either when playing games.

It has a 64-bit processor: The other advancement is in processing power. Apple managed to pack in the new 64-bit A7 processor and special M7 motion processor that it debuted on the iPhone 5S in September. This won’t mean much to you if you aren’t a heavy gamer or use a lot of complex apps, but in our experience, the iPad Air is a lot snappier than other iPads when it runs iOS 7. If you want to see exactly how it compares to previous iPads, you can see them all side by side in this video.

The iPad Air is a lot snappier than other iPads, and a lot more comfortable to hold.

Specs-wise, it has a 64-bit 1.4GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, a 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 pixel screen, 16 – 128GB of built-in storage (depending on what you want to pay), a 5-megapixel rear camera with an F2.4 aperture, and a 1.2-megapixel front camera,

We performed a GeekBench 3 benchmark test and the Air got about a 1475 single-core score and a 2641 multi-core score. These are just numbers, but to show how much more powerful this is than previous iPads, the iPad 4 got a 784 single and 1429 multi in this test, and we performed the benchmark on the iPad 3 and it only scored a 260 single and 350 multi. The iPad Air also outperformed the iPhone 5S by a few hundred points.

iOS 7 runs smoother: If you own any recent iPhone or iPad, then you already have iOS 7, most likely. It has some problems, but we like it. You can read more about it in our full iOS 7 review, but as we said in the specs section: it runs best on new hardware, like the Air.

Battery life is still good: No advancements have been made in the area of battery life, but despite the smaller size and faster processor, the iPad Air still gets the 10 hours iPads have always gotten. We did notice much faster battery drain when we played Infinity Blade III though.

iPad air front bottom screenMIMO Wi-Fi is faster: We noticed faster Wi-Fi loading pages than previous devices, which we think is thanks to the new MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out) Wi-Fi antenna design. This is a small improvement, but should help you keep your Wi-Fi connections.

What’s worse with the iPad Air?

Most everything about the iPad Air is an improvement from previous models, but we do have a few complaints.

Stereo speakers are a step down: iPad Air’s stereo speakers don’t impress us. Compared to the mono speaker on the iPad 3 or 4, it’s louder, but less crisp and clear. Sound comes out flatter and tinnier on the Air’s two downward-facing speakers. It gets louder than previous models, but at the expense of clarity and depth. You can feel sound reverberate through the aluminum shell, as well. The Air still sounds as good as every other tablet we’ve tested, but it is a small step down from previous iPads and it no longer holds a distinct advantage in this area. Nexus 7 and Surface 2, for example, also perform well.

Rear camera is the same: We’ve noticed no improvements to the rear camera outside of the new iOS 7 app. It cannot do the burst shots of the iPhone 5S and many of the comparison shots we took (especially at night, as seen here) on the iPad Air are arguably worse than the iPad 3 we also tested on. The results were so identical that it’s more of a matter of preference, but the Air does not process images better than the previous two iPads, as best we can tell.

iPad air camera sampleWhere’s the fingerprint sensor? No, previous iPads didn’t have a Touch ID sensor in them, but we’re sad that Apple didn’t include this iPhone 5S innovation in its flagship tablet. Right now, it doesn’t do much, but it’s convenient and pleasant to unlock our phone and make App Store purchases by simply holding a button instead of entering a long password. We didn’t think this would bother us, but we look forward to Touch ID iPads next year.

Should I finally get a tablet?

If you haven’t bought into all this tablet stuff yet, sure, a tablet is a nice thing to have. But keep this in mind: tablets are purely a luxury item. Unless you plan to replace your PC with this, everything you can do on an iPad Air, can also be done on an iPhone (or any smartphone), and anything productive you want to do can be done more precisely on a laptop.

If you really want an iPad Air, think about how you might integrate it into your life. It’s great for watching video, checking email, playing games, and using around the house, but you’re going to have to think about how to use it beyond that. We have a lot of tablets lying around the offices here and if you took them all away, we’d survive just fine. So make sure the $500 you’d spend on an Air is worthwhile for you. There is a lot of other cool tech out there.

iPad Air or iPad Mini?

The iPad Air is probably the best 10-inch tablet we’ve ever used, but there is no competition here. If you want one tablet, hold out for the iPad Mini with Retina. Unless you have a specific need for a big screen (bad eye sight, big hands, or maybe you like GarageBand a lot?) we recommend you purchase an iPad Mini or Nexus 7 instead. However, if you do want a big screen, the iPad Air is still your go-to guy. The Nexus 10 is probably its closest competitor, which is $100 cheaper and made by Google.

iPad air back side comparison

The iPad Mini is the perfect size for a tablet. Its 8-inch screen is just big enough that you can easily use any iPad app on it (even complex ones) with ease. It’s also lighter, easier to put in a bag or pocket, and more comfortable to hold for reading.

You can buy a $300 iPad Mini now, but if you have the money, we recommend holding out for the $400 iPad Mini with Retina in November. It packs in the same pixel resolution as this full-size iPad Air, but in a smaller screen, and it has the new 64-bit A7 chip as well. Adam, from our gaming team, thinks iPad Mini 2 may usher in a new wave of games for the iPad because it’s so comfortable to hold for gaming.

Conclusion

The new iPad Air is fantastic. With the exception of its speakers, it is a clear step up from the iPad 4. Still, this iPad will live in the shadow of the iPad Mini Retina – and we’re confident saying that before we’ve even seen the new Mini. Apple’s smaller tablet is better in most ways. When we shared the new Air around, everyone loved how thin it is, but also said they don’t need such a big screen. Times have changed in the tablet world. Before the Nexus 7 (a good deal at $230) and iPad Mini made smaller tablets viable, 10-inch screens seemed okay. But now they’re too big.

Unless you have a need or want for a full-size iPad, we recommend you wait for the iPad Mini with Retina Display. It will cost $100 less and work better for you.

Highs

  • Thin and light, looks great
  • Powerful 64-bit processor
  • New Wi-Fi antennas are fast
  • iOS 7 runs best on Air
  • Battery life is a solid 10 hours

Lows

  • Speakers are a step down from iPad 4
  • Camera quality has not improved
  • Not as comfortable as iPad Mini
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