Apple iPad Air review: This older tablet is still a winner

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Apple iPad Air

(Part #: MD785LL/A) Released: Nov 1, 2013
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4.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

4.5 stars 37 user reviews

The Good The iPad Air delivers solid performance and battery life in an attractive and impossibly thin-and-light package. The front-facing camera delivers excellent FaceTime capabilities and the Retina Display is top-notch.

The Bad No Touch ID fingerprint scanner, meaning you’ll have to type in a passcode with every unlock and a password with every purchase.

The Bottom Line Imbued with first class design and aesthetics, within the full-size tablet universe, the iPad Air is second only to its newer sibling, the Air 2.

8.6 Overall
  • Design 10.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 9.0
CNET Editors' Choice Oct '13

Review update: Summer 2015

At its Worldwide Developers Conference in June 2015, Apple introduced the next edition of its mobile operating system, iOS 9, which heralds some important changes to come for the iPad portfolio. Significantly, iOS 9 will bring to the iPad Air split-screen multitasking, allowing users to view two apps on the same screen (other existing iPad models will not support this feature).

The Air, Air 2, Mini 2 and Mini 3 will support the operating system's new picture-in-picture functionality. And yes, these are features that have been around for quite a while on competitors' tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy line and Microsoft's Surface.

Apple also announced that iOS 9 will support using a portion of the screen as a digital trackpad, which would ostensibly make it easier to edit and move items around on the iPad. (Note that some have predicted that ForceTouch, introduced on the latest Apple laptops, could also show up on the next iPad.)

For now, iOS 9 is available only to developers; the company will open the beta version to the public in July in advance of a general release later this fall. In the meantime, you can read more about how iOS 9 could transform the future of the iPad.

Meanwhile, anyone considering buying an original iPad Air (or any other iPad models) should note that Apple will almost certainly initiate some combination of an iPad line update and a price drop on earlier models in October 2015. Whether that update includes an iPad Air 3, iPad Mini 4 and/or a rumored big-screen iPad Pro remains to be seen.

Editors' note: The thinner, lighter and faster iPad Air 2 was released in October 2014, but Apple kept the original 2013 iPad Air, reviewed here, in its lineup at a reduced price.


It was a long time before Apple delivered unto us a proper redesign of the iPad. The original, boxy, first-gen tablet lived for about 11 months, replaced in 2011 by a far slinkier version. The tapered design language survived, more or less unchanged, for a further 2.5 years -- a lifetime in the consumer electronics world. That period was punctuated by two updates, bringing faster chips and a better display, but it's a full refresh we were all waiting for, something to make the good ol' iPad look and feel truly new.

This was it: the iPad Air. With this, the fifth generation of the iPad line, Apple delivered a proper exterior redesign, crafting a substantially thinner and lighter tablet that finally eliminates the chunky bezels handed down since the first generation -- at least on the left and right. But, despite this significant exterior reduction, the iPad Air maintained the battery life of its predecessor and offered significantly better performance.

The Air was a tangible upgrade over the previous, fourth-generation iPad, no longer in production and so banished to the annals of history. The new iPad slots right in where its predecessor left off, priced at $499 for a lowly 16GB, $599 for 32GB, $699 for 64GB, and $799 for the maximum 128GB configuration. Cellular models -- with LTE and support for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon in the US -- cost an additional $130 beyond the above prices.

So, yes, it's still very much the premium-priced choice, just as it's always been. However, the market continues to shift, offering more and increasingly sophisticated alternatives at far cheaper prices, tablets like the Kindle Fire HDX and Google Nexus 10. That, plus strong competition from within Apple's own ranks with the upcoming iPad Mini with Retina Display, means the iPad Air has to be better than ever. Thankfully, it is.

View full gallery (14 Photos)
From left: The original iPad Mini, iPad Air, and fourth-generation iPad Josh Miller/CNET

Design

The iPad Mini introduced a fresh new design, taking cues from the iPod Touch to create a high-end tablet in an impossibly slender form factor. You could think of the iPad Air as a 20 percent scaled-up version of the Mini, as the two tablets feature near-identical styling details, the bigger one differing only by having more speaker holes on the bottom (80 vs. 56 on the Mini).

Tested spec Apple iPad Air Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Asus Transformer Pad TF701T Microsoft Surface 2
Maximum brightness 421 cd/m2 472 cd/m2 383 cd/m2 315 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.39 cd/m2 0.40 cd/m2 0.35 cd/m2 0.24 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1,079:1 1,180:1 1,094:1 1,313:1
Pixel density 264ppi 339ppi 299ppi 208ppi

Impressively, though, the iPad Air isn't 20 percent thicker than the Mini. In fact, at 7.5mm, it's only 0.3mm deeper -- a massive 1.9mm thinner than the previous full-size iPad. Despite that, the tablet feels just as sturdy and rigid as before, not flexing a bit even under rather aggressive attempts at twisting.

View full gallery (14 Photos)
Josh Miller/CNET

It's light, too, weighing just 1 pound in Wi-Fi-only guise. That's 0.4 pound lighter than the previous generation and 0.3 pound heavier than the Mini. In other words, the iPad Air's weight is actually closer to the Mini than to its fourth-gen predecessor. Indeed, pick up an Air and you'll be reminded of the first time you held a Mini. It's a "wow" moment.

We were big fans of the Mini last year, and we're big fans of how the Air looks and feels now. The more rounded profile and chamfered edges give it a modern presence, while the new shape means the buttons and toggle switch situated around the upper-right corner are much easier to find than before.

View full gallery (14 Photos)
Josh Miller/CNET

Stereo speakers flank the Lightning connector on the bottom, placement that makes them far less likely to be obscured by your hand than the previous-gen iPad's famously mediocre single output. They're also far louder. However, we can't help but wish Apple had positioned the left channel speaker on the top, to allow for proper stereo separation when held in portrait orientation while watching a movie. As it is, you'll hear everything on the right.

Our only other design complaint is the missing Touch ID. This is Apple's term for the fingerprint scanner built into the Home button on the iPhone 5S. It allows you to unlock your device without typing in a numeric code, also making iTunes purchases password-free and, therefore, infinitely less annoying.

Device Screen size Aspect ratio Resolution
Apple iPad Air 9.7 inches 4:3 2,048x1,536
Apple iPad 4 9.7 inches 4:3 2,048x1,536
Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display 7.9 inches 4:3 2,048x1,536
Microsoft Surface 2 10.6 inches 16:9 1,920x1,080
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 9.1 inches 16:10 2,560x1,600
Asus Transformer Pad TF701 10.1 inches 16:10 2,560x1,600
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition 10.1 inches 16:10 2,560x1,600

The goal of Touch ID is to make unlocking your phone so easy that everyone enables proper security. Most iPhone 5S users will agree that it succeeds in that regard, so much so that many will find themselves trying to unlock the iPad Air by holding a finger on the Home button and waiting impatiently. That, of course, doesn't work. We appreciate that most iPads rarely leave the home, so security is less of a concern, but the convenience of not having to type in your iTunes password with every app download is more than enough to leave you longing for Touch ID here. It is a frustrating omission, reminiscent of Siri's initial iPhone 4S exclusivity. Future iPad generations will surely make this right, perhaps beginning with an iPad Pro .

View full gallery (14 Photos)
Josh Miller/CNET

A7 power

When the fourth-generation iPad rolled out, it contained a custom version of the iPhone 5's A6 processor called the A6X, offering far greater performance than the phone's version. For the new generation, Apple seemingly decided to leave X off, and so what we have here is the same dual-core, 64-bit A7 CPU found in the iPhone 5S. Disappointed? Don't be. The iPad Air is ridiculously fast. Interestingly, it's slightly faster even than the latest iPhone, which also has the same amount of RAM (1GB). Apple seemingly turned the wick up a bit here, with Geekbench indicating a processor speed of 1.39GHz, versus the 1.29GHz on the iPhone 5S.

We coached the iPad Air through some of our favorite benchmarks, along with a fourth-gen iPad running the most recent version of iOS (7.0.3). The results were quite compelling. In Sun Spyder 1.0.2, the Air blasted through in 385ms average; the fastest of the four tablets we tested. (The iPhone 5S scored 417ms.) Geekbench 2 was similarly improved, 1,797 versus 2,382 (higher is better here), and on Geekbench 3 the gap widened, 1,429 vs. 2,688. In fact, the iPad Air's single-core score of 1,475 is higher than the dual-core score of the fourth-generation iPad.

Sun Spyder 1.0.2 (in milliseconds)

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance

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.

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