Look and feel
Apple’s last 9.7-inch iPad was far too clunky, but the iPad Air is beautifully slim and light enough to comfortably clutch for long periods. It still looks gorgeous too.
Ease of Use
The dreaded iTunes aside, the iPad is easy to set up and use, with a slick and simple interface that’s received a much-needed bit of jazz in iOS 7.
From the glorious Retina display to the smart FaceTime and iSight cameras, there’s tons of value packed away in here – especially now that iLife and iWork are free to download.
Apple’s new A7 chip is the first 64-bit portable processor, and in normal speak that means it’s blooming fast. Graphical performance is also stunning.
We managed around nine hours of battery life when streaming video, and a solid five to six hours when gaming, both on full brightness. That’s some of the best performance seen on a tablet this size.
Review by Sunetra Chakravati,11/7/2013 1:12:47 PM
Ease of use
Light and slender build;
Zippy A7 processor;
Sleek new iOS 7;
Great battery life
Good ol’ iTunes;
Still no memory card slot
You may think that the humble iPad needs no real introduction, with even technophobes well aware of Apple’s iconic and game-changing tablet. However, Apple complicated matters a little with the introduction of the iPad mini last year, while refusing to give its full-sized 9.7-inch versions sensible names. We started off with the iPad and iPad 2 – so far, all good – but then we had the New iPad, and then the plain ol’ iPad, which was actually the fourth version.
Now Apple has unleashed two new tablets, the iPad mini with Retina display (essentially the iPad mini 2) and the iPad Air, which is the latest full-sized 9.7-inch version. The iPad 5, if you will. Rocking an all-new slimline design, Apple’s smart upgraded A7 processor and of course iOS 7, it’s certainly an enticing prospect – albeit a pricey one as usual. But is it worth a punt for Apple newbies and existing owners?
Design: Slim fast
Here at Mobile Choice Towers we find ourselves using the original iPad mini more than the iPad 4, as it’s much more portable and friendly to our puny biceps. The last 9.7-inch iPad was a heavy mother, smashing the scales at 652g, while the near-1cm-thick frame wasn’t exactly comfortable to clutch. Contrast with the Sony Xperia Tablet Z’s slender 6.9-inch body, and it’s no competition which one we’d rather lug around.
Thankfully Apple appears to have listened to critics, so the latest 9.7-incher, the iPad Air, is significantly thinner and lighter. From the moment you slip it from the pristine (as usual) packaging, you can tell it's much more comfortable to clutch and operate - and after half an hour of play time, our biceps weren’t aching like they did with the iPad 4. It’s still not quite as comfortable to hold as the mini, as you can’t fit your hand across the entire back, but it’s a vast improvement.
Looks-wise the iPad Air doesn’t break any trends, and rightly so. You get the same glorious glossy borders surrounding that beautiful Retina display, although they are impressively slimmer to size down the overall dimensions. Don’t worry about your thumbs straying onto the screen either, as Apple’s smart display tech cancels out any accidental nudges. Above the screen is the tiny FaceTime camera, while below you’ll find the usual round home button. No fingerprint scanner sadly, unlike the iPhone 5s, but to be honest it’s no big miss here. Fast access is essential on a smartphone, which you’ll unlock hundreds of times a day (if you’re like us), but on a tablet that shouldn’t be an issue.
Flipping the iPad Air over reveals the same sleek silver backing (a charcoal model is also available), and the grease-magnet Apple logo. Speakers have moved to the bottom of the tablet, similar to the latest iPhones, but all other buttons and ports remain unchanged over the last iPad. If you’re plush enough to afford the cellular model, you’ll find a SIM card slot on the bottom left edge (and the iPad Air is 4G LTE compatible with all networks). As usual, you’ll need a stabby pin thing (bundled) to get the damn thing open.
OS: iOS 7 heaven
We weren’t massive fans of iOS 6, which seemed to introduce as many irritations as great new features, and did next to nothing to improve the ageing interface. Thankfully Apple has finally given iOS a lick of paint, and the seventh version is an attractive and much-needed refresh. Not only have the icons and backgrounds been jazzed up, but you now have an Android-style Control Centre (accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen) which gives easy access to media controls and feature toggles, plus a new and improved Notification Centre. Not to mention a smarter Siri, which checks more sources (including Wikipedia and Twitter) when you ask a question.
Apple has added extra value by making the excellent iWork and iLife suite of apps free to download from the App Store. iWork includes Pages (a creative word processor that produces magazine-style pages), Keynote (a handy presentation app) and Numbers (hot spreadsheet action), while iLife includes iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand (photo, video and audio editors). We’re particular fans of the iLife suite, which are three powerful and professional editing apps that take advantage of the iPad’s hardware.
Overall, while we’re still missing bits like Android’s widgets, this latest iOS is a winner. It’s simple on the surface with some great features packed away inside, and it’s only Apple’s insistence on using iTunes for fiddling with your media that detracts from an intuitive and friendly interface.
Screen and media
Yes, as usual you’ll need to use the frustrating and completely un-intuitive iTunes to load your iPad with music and video, a process that is particularly irritating if you have different media on two or more trusted computers. Still, once you actually get your collection onto the tablet, you’ll find that there’s no better way to enjoy a movie on the go.
The iPad Air’s Retina screen is unchanged over the previous generation’s, and that’s fine with us. HD movies look truly resplendent, those crisp visuals perfectly reproduced, and the vibrant panel is perfect for editing your shots and videos, using the likes of iPhoto and iMovie. Brightness levels, contrast levels and viewing angles are also excellent. There really is little to fault here.
We were impressed by the Air’s built-in speakers, which are powerful and clear enough for enjoying music or video when you’re chilling at home. But remember, kiddies, plug in some earphones (no longer bundled, you’ll need your own) when you’re on the bus. Media streamers are also in luck, even if they’re too skint for the cellular model, as the tablet’s MIMO Wi-Fi receiver makes for smooth online video playback.
As usual, Apple has put out a number of models of the iPad Air, from a humble 16GB version starting at £399 to the mighty 128GB version. If you’re serious about carrying around your entire media collection, and downloading storage-sapping games and apps, you should opt for at least the 32GB version. After all, there’s no memory card slot for expansion.
Performance and battery life: 64-bit fun
We’ve spent far too many work hours playing with apps and games, all of which ran perfectly thanks to that crazy-powerful 64-bit A7 chip. A quick play on the likes of Infinity Blade 3 reveals the impressive graphical prowess of the iPad Air too, with HD scenes - resplendent with lens flare and shimmering water effects - rendering smoothly. That 64-bit architecture might not be tested too heavily by the current App Store offerings, but we’re looking forward to seeing some mightily impressive graphical whizzery in the coming months.
Of course, more power crammed into a slimmer body had us wondering about battery life. The fourth-generation iPad lasted an impressive seven hours on full brightness when streaming video over Wi-Fi, and we’re pleased to report that the iPad Air survived a whopping nine hours of battery life under the same conditions. Mix it up with some intensive gameplay and you’re likely to see a drop to around five to six hours, but that’s still a very respectable result. Our only issue is that the iPad takes a solid five hours to fully charge again from the mains (and forget about charging it from a computer).
Camera: 20/20 iSight
Camera-wise, you get a five-megapixel iSight camera housed on the back again, complemented by the greatly stripped-down app which eschews endless functions for simplicity - your options don’t extend far past point and shoot. And personally we don’t mind, because although the iPad Air is thinner and lighter, it’s still a bit too bulky for comfortably taking everyday shots. That’s not a criticism aimed at Apple either, but at taking photos with tablets in general. We just don’t see the point, especially as it’s so easy to snap away on your smartphone and transfer to your tablet.
If you’re up for taking some tablet shots, however, the iSight camera is one of the better efforts we’ve experienced. The f/2.4 lens sucks up plenty of light, so your scenes come out bright but thankfully not over-exposed, and that’s just as well as there’s no flash to speak of. You can shoot 1080p HD video too, again with a stripped-down interface. Zooming in and out is achieved with a quick pinch of the fingers, although the mic did clearly pick up our screen fumblings. Audio quality on the whole is excellent, unless you’re in horrendously loud environments.
The front-facing FaceTime camera lit us up nicely for selfies even in darkened environments, thanks to its upgraded lens. You can film 720p HD video, which again plays back smoothly and with good audio quality, so you can shoot a ranty YouTube clip if that’s your bag.
Apple has taken everything we disliked about the fourth-generation iPad – primarily the bulky, heavy frame and troublesome OS – and obliterated it, leaving a sleek, surprisingly portable powerhouse tablet. As long as you can afford it, the iPad Air provides a stellar movie/apps/games experience that just can’t be beaten.