Ever since March 2010 when the first ever iPad landed on store shelves, the tablet has barely deviated from its original design. From the original iPad all the way through to the 4th generation model at the tail-end of last year, it has the same front face. The shape of the back was slightly different between first and second generation, but it was the same combination of black glass and aluminum. So it’s not an exagerration to say that the 9.7″ iPad has been in need of a redesign for quite some time. It’s also no overstatement to say that the iPad Air’s look is a breath of fresh.. you know what.
On the surface, the design is very familiar already. But not because of the previous generation 9.7″ models. Thanks to the iPad mini last year, we’ve become accustomed to the shiny, diamond cut chamfers, curved edges and flat back. At just 7.5mm thick, it’s incredibly thin and has lost a considerable amount of weight since the last generation; weighing only 1 pound vs. 1.4 pounds of the last device. It’s almost like Apple went in with the sole purpose of trimming as much fat as humanly possible from the iPad, without rendering it useless or ugly.
On the front, the iPad’s bezels are much narrower, making the display much more prominent. One of Apple’s boasts when it first launched a Retina-equipped iPad was that the display “just gets out of the way” and that it leaves you with your content. Instead of noticing the technology, you were fully immersed in which ever game, video or app your were using at the time. That’s even more obvious this time around. A lot of the frame around the screen has gone, leaving you just enough room for your thumbs, and completely getting out the way.
While it’s not quite an edge-to-edge design, there’s no denying that the way the tablet’s been designed is to make you focus on one thing alone: Whatever you have on the display.
My biggest issues with my old iPad 3 were the size, weight and shape. It was a hefty tablet, and became uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time. Not just because of the weight, but also because the edges were sharp, making it impossible to sit and play Real Racing 3, or similar games requiring two-handed grip for much more than 30 mins or so. Once I got the iPad mini, I had no intention of torturing my hands in that way, and it quickly became replaced by the smaller tablet, despite the lack of a sharp display.
Those issues are almost completely eradicated by the iPad Air. There are no sharp edges, it’s lighter and is comfortable to hold. Now, I won’t pretend like it doens’t feel bulky compared to the 7.9″ mini, but it’s a huge improvement on the last generation full-size iPad.
Apple’s 9.7″ Retina iPad display has always been fantastic, and that doesn’t change with the latest model. It’s brilliant. Graphics are sharp, crisp and colors are reproduced as accurately as you can expect from any display. There’s no over-saturation, or off-white balance. And it looks just as good head on as it does lying flat on a desk, looking at it from a narrow angle. One area it – and every other iOS device screen – lacks is in daylight. Its glass surface reflects light really well, which means it can be difficult to read or see anything outdoors in bright sunlight.
Because of its size, it also makes it better equipped for some functions that the non-Retina mini has a hard time with. For me that’s chiefly reading and writing. Comics and books with small, fine text are hugely improved by the large Retina screen. Comics and iPad Air go together like peanut butter and bananas. One downside here is that it leaves you wanting to keep spending more money in the Comixology store. Typing up documents is fantastic on the larger display too, and since the iPad really only handles one task at a time, I’ve found myself being much more productive using the iPad’s display for typing up work than if I was to use an iMac.
It says a lot about a custom Apple chip when the company doesn’t make a boosted version for the iPad. With iPad 3 and 4, they got an “X” version of which ever processor was in the most recent iPhone. With iPad Air, they stuck in the same silicone as what’s in the iPhone 5s. It’s a straight up, 64-bit, A7 chip. And it’s brilliant.
Running iOS 7 on an iPad is – for the first time – enjoyable. There’s little to no lag, everything responds quickly and graphics load without any jittery-ness. I’ve put it through its paces playing Real Racing 3, Infinity Blade III and creating some “works of art” (read: scribbles) on Paper by 53. And it’s on the latter that I really noticed the difference. With any previous device, I often got some lag when I was drawing, and yet with the A7 inside the iPad Air, it was smooth and responsive.
Battery life is great too, and I’ve never had to charge the iPad more than once per day. In fact, I think I’ve only charged it 3 times since I purchased it last Friday. That’s three times in 6 days, or around once every two days. Considering I’ve been putting it through its paces on high-intensity graphics every night since then, that’s really not bad at all. I’m convinced that if all I used it for was work, and I had all the battery saving options enabled (screen brightness/motion reduction/push notifications) that I’d easily get through at least 3-4 days. Leaving it on standby doing nothing? Probably a month.
Sound quality is one area I never thought I’d end up writing about, and yet I find myself unable to avoid it. The two stereo speakers on the iPad Air are such an improvement on the single speaker found in the previous iPads. It’s loud, but it’s also very clear. Even the bass tones are getting some decent representation here. Considering how small these speakers are, it’s an impressive feat. Granted, it’s not the same as having it plugged in to a bespoke speaker system, but it’s much better than anything that’s been on an iPad before.
Another of the iPad Air’s new features is the MiMo wireless technology, which essentially allows it to use two wireless radios at once to connect to your home Wi-Fi. The result is a really quick browsing experience. I’ve never used Safari on any platform before now and been impressed by its speeds. That was until I tried it on the iPad Air. It’s stupendously quick. Some pages loaded almost as soon as I’d hit the “go” button (or hit enter), and that was when the device hadn’t been used to browse before. There was no cache/history or any stored local data at that time. It’s spoiled me that much that I now get frustrated with my iMac’s relative tardiness.
iPad Air – like many other devices – has two cameras. The rear iSight camera features a 5MP sensor and can film up to 1080p HD video. The front is a lower quality, 1.3MP camera with 720p recording. Both are perfectly suited to their functions. In fact, the 5MP camera on the rear is perhaps a little too good to be on a tablet. After all, I can’t imaging many using their iPads as their main photography device. At least, no one with any common decency. Seriously, you guys getting your iPads out in public to take photos: Stop it.
On a serious note, images are generally quite sharp, and have a surprisingly good depth of field. One area it could do with improving (although not necessary) is in lowlight. Images start to get grainy once light levels dip a little.
This is – without doubt – Apple’s finest tablet to date. Granted, that could all change when the Retina-equipped iPad mini makes its way to stores, but at this moment in time, this could just about be the best tablet on the market. It’s powerful, light, has a fantastic display and has a battery that can last all day without breaking a sweat. Not to mention, access to over 450,000 tablet-optimized apps on the App Store and iOS 7, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.
Perhaps the only negative here could be for those wanting a smaller tablet. It may be the most portable full size iPad ever made, but it’s not going to match its almost pocketable 7.9″ sibling.
If Apple doesn’t release a new design for the iPad for the next 2-3 years, I’ll be happy. The iPad Air almost perfectly blends the need for a powerful and capable device, but making it in as portable a form factor as possible.
Simply put: It’s fantastic. And it needs to be. The tablet space is heating up, and great devices from the likes of Samsung and Nokia are – for the first time I feel – offering some real competition to Apple. Not just in the specs list, but in experience, and in offering some compelling unique features and hardware design. That’s not to mention the insanelty good value Nexus 7. Apple had to respond to the rising pressure, and it’s done so. In style.