Apple iPad Air review: Thinner, lighter, faster, best

In case you're wondering, yes, the iPad Air does get quite warm when doing this sort of number crunching. The back of the tablet feels slightly cooler at full-tilt than its finger-toasting predecessor, but there's still plenty of heat coming off the back, reinforcement that your slinky new tablet is, indeed, working hard.

Of course, nobody cares about numbers if the experience doesn't back that up, and it does -- though perhaps not to that same degree. Apps load noticeably faster, particularly big games, where you'll be able to jump into and out of levels far more quickly. Additionally, we noticed slightly higher frame rates in some games, though that was far less prevalent. We'd anticipate this becoming a far more common thing once more titles become optimized for the 64-bit A7 CPU.


3DMark (Unlimited)

Microsoft Surface 2
14,610
Apple iPad Air
14,605
Asus Transformer Pad TF701T
14,172
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
12,858

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Graphics Test 1 (GPU)

Apple iPad Air
101.8
Microsoft Surface 2
90.9
Asus Transformer Pad TF701T
87.9
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
58.7

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Graphics Test 2 (GPU)

Apple iPad Air
68.7
Microsoft Surface 2
49.8
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
48.1
Asus Transformer Pad TF701T
47.8

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Physics Test (CPU)

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
51
Microsoft Surface 2
44.2
Asus Transformer Pad TF701T
44.1
Apple iPad Air
25.9

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Device Weight Width Height Depth
Apple iPad Air 1 pound (Wi-Fi); 1.05 pounds (cellular) 6.6 inches 9.4 inches 0.29 inch
Apple iPad 4 1.44 pounds (Wi-Fi); 1.46 pounds (cellular) 7.3 inches 9.5 inches 0.37 inch
Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display 0.68 pound (Wi-Fi); 0.69 pound (cellular) 5.3 inches 7.9 inches 0.28 inch
Microsoft Surface 2 1.49 pounds 6.8 inches 10.8 inches 0.35 inch
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 0.82 pounds 6.2 inches 9.1 inches 0.31 inch
Asus Transformer Pad TF701 1.29 pounds 7.1 inches 10.4 inches 0.35 inch
Samsung Galaxy 10.1 (2014) 1.19 pounds (Wi-Fi); 1.21 pounds (cellular) 6.7 inches 9.6 inches 0.31 inch

Web pages render more snappily, and overall responsiveness of the operating system is improved. The fourth-gen iPad remains a great performer, but the new Air takes that to a new level -- despite not suffering on battery life.

Josh Miller/CNET

Battery life

As ever, Apple promises 10 hours of battery life on the iPad Air and, as usual, the tablet more than delivers. On the far-thicker, far-heavier fourth-generation iPad we managed just over 13 hours of battery life on our standard battery rundown test. This new iPad Air managed almost exactly the same, 13 hours and 10 minutes. We were able to use this tablet for a very long time off the charger, easily getting through a full day of heavy usage. More-casual users, who use their iPads for idle Web surfing or eBay browsing, will have no problem going for days and days between charges.

Device Video battery life (in hours)
Apple iPad Air 13.2
Apple iPad fourth generation 13.1
Microsoft Surface 2 11.6
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) 6

Camera

We're still no fans of tablet photography and perhaps Apple agrees it isn't an area worthy of focus, as the (already quite competent) 5-megapixel, rear-facing camera of the iPad Air hasn't changed.

The front-facing, 1.2-megapixel FaceTime HD camera has, however, seen an upgrade, and a noticeable one. Yes, that's the same megapixel count as last year's if you're keeping score at home, but it's a new sensor with backside illumination and bigger pixels. The result is far better low-light performance, which is important if you don't want to look like you're FaceTiming from a dungeon.

Josh Miller/CNET

Connectivity

With the iPad Air, Apple has stepped up to a dual-antenna configuration for Wi-Fi. Called MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output), it theoretically doubles the maximum throughput of data able to be transmitted to or from your tablet, up to 300Mbps with a compatible router. This is far from new (Amazon's second-generation Kindle Fire offered the same last year), but its presence is certainly welcome here.

However, the absence of 802.11ac is disappointing. Like the iPhone 5S, the latest iPad tops out at 802.11n. Given the lack of adoption elsewhere in Apple's lineup, it's not surprising to see ac missing here, and the relative lack of compatible routers and access points means there's little demand for it now. However, those still using their Airs a few years down the road may find themselves wishing Apple had found room for it this time around.

Josh Miller/CNET

Those who pay $130 more than the Wi-Fi-only models will have full cellular connectivity built in, including a comprehensive swath of bands and frequencies. Whether you're connecting over EDGE, HSPA+, CDMA, or LTE, the iPad Air has you covered. And, since there's just one Air model worldwide, you can change from carrier to carrier on a whim and rest assured that, regardless of where you travel, you'll be able to get connected. Assuming they have nano-SIMs available.

Finally, all iPad Air models include Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity, just like they did last year. This means you can quickly and easily connect everything from keyboards to speakers, and do so without killing your battery life.

What's in the box?

As with the previous iPad, there's not a lot inside the box -- other than the tablet itself, of course. In here you'll find a USB-to-Lightning cable, a 12W power brick, plus a few pages of legal information and a couple of Apple decals. Get the cellular version, and you'll also get a tool to open the SIM tray.

Josh Miller/CNET

Competition

The iPad Air has managed to launch in a window with relatively few 10-inch tablet launches, likely caused by others hoping to avoid comparison to Apple's slate. The Surface 2 is the main exception, freshly released and starting at $449 for the 32GB model -- $50 less than the iPad Air. It, too, is a very high-quality tablet, but one that is thicker and heavier than the Air, despite offering a lower-resolution display and (slightly) lesser battery life. Those focused on productivity will likely want to give the Surface 2 a look, if only thanks to the suite of keyboard accessories that make it one of the most typist-friendly tablets on the market, but the limited app selection for Windows RT is still a major mark against.

Device Starting price
Apple iPad Air $499/16GB
Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display $399/16GB
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 $379/16GB (with ads)
Microsoft Surface 2 $449/32GB
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) $549/16GB
Google Nexus 10 (2012) $399/16GB

On the Android side, there's Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. At $549 for 16GB, it comes in $50 higher than Apple's latest, a delta offset by the inclusion of a stylus. This makes the Note 10.1 an interesting choice for creative types who want to doodle on the go. Last year's Nexus 10 is still an interesting alternative, with a great display and priced at $399 for 16GB. But, with lots of talk of a successor looming, we're not sure it's a particularly good time to invest in a new Nexus slate.

Finally, there are the alternatives within Apple's own stable. On the 10-inch side, Apple is keeping the old iPad 2. Yes, it's getting a little long in the tooth, and at $399 for 16GB, it's priced a little too high in our book. For that money we'd much prefer to get the upcoming $399 iPad Mini with Retina Display, which should be hitting stores in a few weeks. Indeed, that new 7.9-inch Retina Display, plus inclusion of the A7 processor, could make this the most compelling alternative to the iPad Air.

(For a more detailed discussion of iPad Air alternatives, check out our in-depth story on best iPad Air alternatives .)

Josh Miller/CNET

Conclusion

If you found yourself tuning out the last few generations of iPad thanks to their extreme familiarity, it's time to get yourself dialed back in. The iPad Air is worth getting excited about. Though it brings no new functionality to the table, and we can't help being disappointed about the lack of Touch ID, the performance increase and solid battery life show that progress is still being made on the inside. It's the new exterior design, however, that really impresses. The iPad Air is thinner than any tablet this size deserves to be, and lighter, too. The old iPad always felt surprisingly hefty. This one, compellingly lithe.

However, there is one tablet that's thinner and lighter still, yet holds the promise of great performance and build quality: the upcoming iPad Mini with Retina Display. At $100 cheaper, that slate could prove the stiffest competition the full-size iPad has yet seen. Time will tell on that front (the new Mini won't ship for a few weeks), so we'll withhold judgment for now. If you're willing to consider a smaller tablet, hold off clicking "buy" for just a little while longer. If you're looking for a full-size tablet and don't mind paying a premium to get the best, this is it.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date 2 Nov 2013
  • Wireless Connectivity Bluetooth 4.0
  • Type Apple iOS
  • Weight 469 g
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