Review: Apple's fifth-generation iPad Air

Posted:
in iPad edited January 2014
When Apple announced the iPad Air, the company said that words alone wouldn't do it justice -- users had to feel its latest tablet to truly appreciate the difference. As it turns out, they were right.

iPad Air


The iPad Air is Apple's fifth-generation full-size tablet. It features the same 9.7-inch Retina display found on the previous third- and fourth-generation models, sports a significantly thinner and lighter design than its predecessors.

Apple achieved this in part by reducing the bezel on the sides of the display, giving the full-size tablet a more svelte look and feel. It's the same design that has made Apple's iPad mini such a wild success.

The pricing on the iPad Air is the same as it's always been for Apple's full-size tablets. The entry-level, Wi-Fi-only model offers 16-gigabytes of storage, with capacities doubling for $100 extra, up to 128 gigabytes. Models with cellular radios and GPS come with a $130 premium.

The iPad Air also comes in two color options: a "space gray," aluminum back with a black front, and a "silver" model with white front. For our review, we tested both the white and space gray models in 32-gigabyte capacities.

iPad Air

Design

Externally, a lot has changed from the second, third and fourth iPad iterations. Gone is the steeply-tapered rear chassis, replaced by a design with a substantially flat back that runs into gently rounded edges. Up front, chamfered bevels surround the cover glass.

The iPad Air is a joy to hold. It's light, thin and the construction just feels fantastic.

iPad Air


Of course, anyone who's used an iPad mini already knows this, as the new iPad Air is basically just a bigger version of Apple's wildly successful 7.9-inch tablet. But for those who prefer the bigger 9.7-inch display on the full-size iPad, the changes will be welcome.

Apple shaved nearly a half-pound off of its previous-generation iPad, and it shows. While the old iPad became noticeably heavy to us after prolonged use, this one just feels svelte, earning its "Air" moniker.

iPad Air
From top: iPad mini, iPad Air, 3rd generation iPad.


The iPad Air comes in at just one pound for the Wi-Fi model, while the cellular capable version with GPS adds on 0.05-pound. That compares to 1.44 pounds and 1.46 pounds for the fourth-generation tablet.

Picking up the iPad Air with one hand, and the iPad mini in another, the difference in weight is negligible. With the Retina iPad mini coming later this month, the only material difference between the 9.7-inch and 7.9-inch tablets is screen size.

iPad Air
iPad volume buttons and mute switch. From top: iPad mini, iPad Air, 3rd generation iPad.


The most noticeable visual change from legacy iPads are the bezels. Compared to the fourth-gen iPad, Apple lopped off nearly half of the space sitting on each side of the display. Top and bottom bezels retain similar widths, but Apple is somewhat limited there due to the home button and front-facing camera substructures.

Trimming the bezel on the iPad offers benefits beyond reduced weight. With a smaller bezel, the amount of distance needed for a user's thumbs to travel to reach items on the screen has been reduced. This is a particularly welcome change when using the iPad's onscreen virtual keyboard in portrait mode.

Since the third-generation iPad, Apple's 9.7-inch tablets have come with a 2,048-by-1,536 pixel Retina display, and the Air is no different. While the new device is not upping the screen resolution ante, it can be argued that the first Retina iPad was ahead of its time, so a spec bump was not entirely necessary. Color rendition is accurate, contrast is good and viewing angles are top-notch.

iPad Air
iPad Air (left) with iPad mini.


Perhaps the only new bit of tech used in the Air's screen has to do with user input. Apple appears to have brought over the iPad mini's efficient GF2 thin-film touch sensor, which results in an overall decrease in power consumption.

Also redesigned are Apple's Smart Cover and Smart Case accessories. The Smart Cover is now only available in polyurethane, with the leather option restricted to just the Smart Case.

iPad Air
iPad Air (left) with 3rd generation iPad.


The magnetic covers still turn the display on and off, and folds up into a triangle allowing the iPad to be stood up. The covers are the same as those for the iPad mini, featuring three folding points instead of four, and a newly covered magnetic attachment piece that should prevent scratches when attaching the accessory to the iPad Air.

On the next page, details on what's inside the iPad Air, including the new A7 chip, plus final thoughts and score.

Internals

Powering the iPad Air is Apple's ARM-based A7 processor, the same system on a chip introduced with the iPhone 5s in September. The A7 is the first 64-bit chip to be used in a portable consumer device, Apple says.

Up to this point, no Retina iPad has shared a processor with the iPhone, mostly due to the larger high-resolution display's processing requirements. Previously, Apple would employ specially customized silicon based on then-current A-series SoC architecture to deal with the additional pixels. It would seem that with the A7, Apple has caught up to its high-end tablet hardware.

iPad Air
iPad Air (left) with iPhone 5s.


When Apple brought the Retina display to its tablet lineup with the third-gen iPad, a new class of processor was introduced to push the 3.1 million pixels shoehorned into its 9.7-inch screen. Dubbed the "A5X," the chip shared a clock speed identical to the vanilla A5 version used in the iPhone 4S and iPad 2, but doubled the number of on-board GPU cores to four and added an extra 512MB of RAM.

For the fourth-gen iPad, Apple used another "X" variant, the A6X, which again boosted graphics processing horsepower over the normal A6 by adding an extra GPU core and a memory subsystem that supported faster LPDDR2-1066 DRAM.

Unlike its two predecessors, the iPad Air uses the same A7 chip found in the iPhone 5s and upcoming iPad mini with Retina display, returning to the component sharing model used with the iPad 2. The A7's architecture is unchanged, but Apple gave it a slightly higher clock speed at 3.9GHz, or 100Mhz faster than the 5s.

iPad Air
Air gap between iPad Air's Retina display and cover glass.


Running the Geekbench 3 benchmarking app, the Air put in a single-core score of 1,483 and multi-core score of 2,690. This compares to the current A5 Gen. 2-powered iPad mini, which managed single- and multi-core scores of 262 and 496, respectively. As we had a third-generation iPad on hand, it too was put to the test and eked out scores of 249 and 491. A lot has changed since the A5X.

Joining the zippy A7 SoC on the iPad Air's logic board is a host of other components also borrowed from the iPhone 5s. One of the more notable inclusions is Apple's new M7 motion coprocessor. While the chip allows for the iPhone to be a more accurate and efficient fitness tracker, the iPad implementation will likely skew toward power savings since users probably won't be taking the device out on a run.

The M7 collects and processes data generated by the iPad's on-board three-axis gyroscope, accelerometer and, in the case of the Wi-Fi + Cellular version, GPS module. Instead of waking the power-hungry A7, the M7 feeds sensor information to apps even when the device is asleep. Important to the iPad, the motion coprocessor can also determine if a user is stationary, walking or driving, meaning background tasks can be shut down when not needed.

iPad Air


As for connectivity, the Air is Apple's first iPad to use multiple input and multiple output (MIMO) wireless technology that allows for multiple simultaneous Wi-Fi connections over 802.11n. The system uses multiple antennas to transmit and receive data, affording speeds up to two times faster than normal implementations.

Cameras have never been the iPad's strong suit, and that trend continues with the Air. While the rear-facing iSight camera now uses a backside illuminated sensor for better low-light performance, it's still a 5-megapixel shooter without a flash. Absent are the iPhone 5s' burst mode and 120-fps slo-mo video options, though like older models, the Air's camera supports face detection, autofocus, high dynamic range photos and video resolutions up to 1080p.

Apple gave the front-facing camera a backside illuminated sensor as well, but not much else has changed from the fourth-gen iPad, including an image resolution of 1.2-megapixels. Still, the 720p video is more than acceptable for FaceTime calls and the dual mic setup is convenient for clear audio.

iPad Air

Conclusions

It's hard to find flaws with the iPad Air. If the iPad mini's 7.9-inch screen is a little too cramped for you, and you prefer the larger display of a full-size tablet, the iPad Air is an easy recommendation.

The cameras on the iPad Air are acceptable in a pinch but could see improvements. But really, who's using their tablet for high-quality pictures?

It's also a mild disappointment that the iPad Air doesn't include the Touch ID fingerprint sensor Apple introduced with the iPhone 5s in September. Though, admittedly, this will be a stronger feature on the iPad for if and when Apple adds multi-user support to its iOS platform.

This is the best full-size tablet on the market today, and it easily trumps all of Apple's previous efforts to date. Anyone in the market for a tablet can buy an iPad Air with confidence. This is the new standard.

Score: 5 out of 5

image

Pros:

  • Thinner, lighter design
  • Apple's A7 chip packs in plenty of horsepower
  • Still offers 10-plus hours of battery life on one charge

Con:

  • Cameras could use improvement, but does it matter?
  • No Touch ID
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 169
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member

    The iPad 6 (Air 2) is seriously going to kill:

     

    Improved display

    8MP camera

    802.11ac

    Touch ID

    A8

     

    You'll need an excuse not to buy it.

  • Reply 2 of 169
    aaronjaaronj Posts: 1,595member

    Saying that you have to hold it in your hands to really understand is totally true.  It's just crazy.

     

    In the few days that I've my iPad Air I've already grown to love it.  It's thinner, smaller, (way) lighter, faster -- I mean, what more could you ask for?

     

    I'd give this 6 out of 5 stars. :)

  • Reply 3 of 169
    thedbathedba Posts: 472member
    When people say that you have to pick one of these up to believe it, they are not kidding.
    I got mine on launch day (32 GB WiFi white) and it's like picking up an iPad for the very first time.
    Some say that the biggest jump fpr this line, was from gen 1 to gen 2. I personally believe that the Air is as big a jump in improvement.
    Oh and the battery life on this thing is just amazing. My old third gen, given to my mom so she can Face time me from Europe, feels like one of those old gas guzzlers.
  • Reply 4 of 169
    herbapouherbapou Posts: 2,221member
    Love my new Air, i got the 64g wifi. The speed bump from the ipad3 is just incredible. I got the smart case, my new air with the case is lighter than my old ipad3 without a case.

    Btw i just sold my ipad3 32g 4g for $350, reducing the cost of the upgrade.

    A few benchmark:

    Basemark X on screen score: 13.32 fps
    Basemark X offscreen score: 15.52 fps
    GFXbench 2.7 T-REX HD off screen : 1488 (27 fps)
    GFXbench 2.7 T-REX HD on screen : 1152 (21 fps)
    GFXbench 2.7 Egypt HD off screen : 7164 (63 fps)
    GFXbench 2.7 Egypt HD on screen : 5507 (49 fps)

    I wish that Egypt HD test could be a real game, looks so nice.
  • Reply 5 of 169
    ireland wrote: »
    The iPad 6 (Air 2) is seriously going to kill:

    Improved display
    8MP camera
    802.11ac
    Touch ID
    A8

    You'll need an excuse not to buy it.

    Looks like performance is the bomb and the weight drop is desireable (especially coupled with the change to the rounded corners).
    I'm still really disappointed that the touch Id was not included in the ipad air or iPad mini... I don't know why... But I am. Although the cameras could use a better bump, I wasn't too surprised/disappointed in that... And why no AC wifi?

    Not quite compelling enough yet to upgrade from ipad3. Getting close though. I hate waiting...
  • Reply 6 of 169
    Originally Posted by NailedToTheX View Post

    And why no AC wifi?

     

    The chips don’t exist.

  • Reply 7 of 169
    esoomesoom Posts: 155member

    Nice review, just ordered mine, 32GB with a cell radio, will be a great update from my iPad 2.

  • Reply 8 of 169
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by NailedToTheX View Post



    I'm still really disappointed that the touch Id was not included in the ipad air or iPad mini... I don't know why.

     

    I would have literally bet a million dollars the iPhone 5s was the only device to get Touch ID this year. And I don't think it's to keep the iPhone 5s at the top of the pile like Gruber suggested in his bollox 'forward looking' comment. I think the 2 reasons why the 5s was the only device getting Touch ID this year was: 1. product clarity, in terms of the product, the customer and marketing, and 2. to give Apple 1 year to test Touch ID in the marketplace before adding it to all of their products. Could you imagine the catastrophic failure it would be if after 6 months in the real world Touch ID started failing? Apple would have to recall every new iDevice sold over that period.

     

    And the bonus for Apple is this time next year, when they feel comfortable with Touch ID they can start slapping it on all new high end iOS devices.

  • Reply 9 of 169
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by herbapou View Post



    Love my new Air, i got the 64g wifi. The speed bump from the ipad3 is just incredible. I got the smart case, my new air with the case is lighter than my old ipad3 without a case.

     

    Indeed. Thanks to my little investigation recently I eventually found out yesterday it's 619 grams v 652 grams (or 662 for iPad 4). That's the Air with leather Smart Case, just to be doubly-clear.

  • Reply 10 of 169
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by drew0020 View Post



    The Air is nice but let's be honest the iOS7 is choppy on this device. The multitasking still sucks and again is choppy, the lack of 2 apps side by side is again a major short coming and 1GB of ram is a huge disservice. I can barely get 5 tabs on Safari without a refresh.



    I realize if this was Microsoft people would be up in arms and rightfully so, but because it's Apple things are acceptable as always. The fact that 16GB is still priced at $499 which is woefully inadequate these days makes

    me laugh even more.



    I'm sure the apologists will bash this post but I don't expect much from Appleijsider these days (I feel like they are paid Apple shills).

     

    Why do I not believe you own an Air.

  • Reply 11 of 169
    This feels like a completely different device that my previous iPad 3. That's a good thing, not a bad thing. It's also smokin' fast. I'm missing the TouchID (whudda thunk it!?!) from my iPhone on this device. Other than that little niggle, it's about damn near perfect.
  • Reply 12 of 169
    Originally Posted by drew0020 View Post

    The Air is nice but let's be honest the iOS7 is choppy on this device. The multitasking still sucks and again is choppy, the lack of 2 apps side by side is again a major short coming and 1GB of ram is a huge disservice. I can barely get 5 tabs on Safari without a refresh.



    I realize if this was Microsoft people would be up in arms and rightfully so, but because it's Apple things are acceptable as always. The fact that 16GB is still priced at $499 which is woefully inadequate these days makes

    me laugh even more.



    I'm sure the apologists will bash this post but I don't expect much from Appleijsider these days (I feel like they are paid Apple shills).

     

    Let’s be honest: not a single word in this post is the truth. Shut up and go away.

  • Reply 13 of 169
    drew0020 wrote: »
    The Air is nice but let's be honest the iOS7 is choppy on this device. The multitasking still sucks and again is choppy, the lack of 2 apps side by side is again a major short coming and 1GB of ram is a huge disservice. I can barely get 5 tabs on Safari without a refresh.

    I realize if this was Microsoft people would be up in arms and rightfully so, but because it's Apple things are acceptable as always. The fact that 16GB is still priced at $499 which is woefully inadequate these days makes
    me laugh even more.

    I'm sure the apologists will bash this post but I don't expect much from Appleijsider these days (I feel like they are paid Apple shills).

    LOL. "Let's be honest" and "I'm a long time Apple fan, but" is usually followed by something dishonest. The iPad Air is the fastest iOS device ever made, and the OS is tightly integrated with the hardware in a way Windows and Android users can only dream about. That's the truth. Anyone who wants to verify it can visit an Apple Store and see for themselves.
  • Reply 14 of 169
    herbapouherbapou Posts: 2,221member
    drew0020 wrote: »
    The Air is nice but let's be honest the iOS7 is choppy on this device. The multitasking still sucks and again is choppy, the lack of 2 apps side by side is again a major short coming and 1GB of ram is a huge disservice. I can barely get 5 tabs on Safari without a refresh.

    I realize if this was Microsoft people would be up in arms and rightfully so, but because it's Apple things are acceptable as always. The fact that 16GB is still priced at $499 which is woefully inadequate these days makes
    me laugh even more.

    I'm sure the apologists will bash this post but I don't expect much from Appleijsider these days (I feel like they are paid Apple shills).

    So BS....

    But that being said for some reason AI forums crash my safari from tine to time on both the ipad and the mac. Its the only website that does that so far.
  • Reply 15 of 169
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by drew0020 View Post





    What an intelligent response. Go figure. Like I said I do not expect much from these forums because most of the posts are from Apple shills but unlike most of you I own a lot of stock so I always appreciate your blind faith in a company ha.



    I can post my receipt if that would make you feel better. I generally do not respond to such unintelligent posts but I was bored tonight image

     

    Your pants are on fire.  

  • Reply 16 of 169
    aaronjaaronj Posts: 1,595member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by drew0020 View Post





    What an intelligent response. Go figure. Like I said I do not expect much from these forums because most of the posts are from Apple shills but unlike most of you I own a lot of stock so I always appreciate your blind faith in a company ha.



    I can post my receipt if that would make you feel better. I generally do not respond to such unintelligent posts but I was bored tonight image

     

    If what you are saying is true (which I seriously doubt), then you somehow have a very strange set of problems.  There isn't anything even remotely "choppy" about how mine functions.  Not even close.  As well, I haven't read any complaints like that in any of the reviews I've read (here, Ars, Anandtech, etc.).

     

    It's odd that you, and only you from what I can tell, are seeing this problem.  Again IF what you are saying is true, then I would go back to the Apple Store, and have them look at it.  Why don't you do that, and then come back here and tell us what they said, (other than, "WTF are you talking about?!) -- go give that a try.

  • Reply 17 of 169
    drblankdrblank Posts: 3,383member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post

     

    The iPad 6 (Air 2) is seriously going to kill:

     

    Improved display

    8MP camera

    802.11ac

    Touch ID

    A8

     

    You'll need an excuse not to buy it.


    Hold your horses there Buckaroo. The iPad 6 hasn't been announced, so we have another year until they release that model..  Enjoy the one they just announced.

  • Reply 18 of 169
    drblankdrblank Posts: 3,383member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by NailedToTheX View Post





    Looks like performance is the bomb and the weight drop is desireable (especially coupled with the change to the rounded corners).

    I'm still really disappointed that the touch Id was not included in the ipad air or iPad mini... I don't know why... But I am. Although the cameras could use a better bump, I wasn't too surprised/disappointed in that... And why no AC wifi?



    Not quite compelling enough yet to upgrade from ipad3. Getting close though. I hate waiting...

    Touch iD was held back probably due to supply of the sensors. That's what holding up production of the current iPhone 5S.  I was almost going to trade up from my iPad 4, but it performs just fine, so I'm going to sit this one out, but if I had an iPad 3 or earlier, it would be a no brainer.  I'm going to stick to my every other generation to upgrade.  That way I'll see bigger improvements from update to update.

  • Reply 19 of 169

    iPad Air sells out in New York, Hong Kong, other parts of China

    http://venturebeat.com/2013/11/01/ipad-air-sells-out-in-new-york-hong-kong-other-parts-of-china/

  • Reply 20 of 169
    pmzpmz Posts: 3,433member
    drew0020 wrote: »
    The Air is nice but ... the lack of 2 apps side by side is again a major short coming

    Typical troll nonsense. It never has and never will be a big deal on tablets that actually sell.

    No one cares.
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