Review update: Fall 2015
On September 9, 2015, Apple expanded its iPad portfolio with the debut of the iPad Pro -- a super-sized, productivity-focused tablet equipped with a powerful A9x chip and support for some potentially game-changing accessories. Starting at $799 for the 32GB model, the iPad Pro will be available in November, with an optional keyboard ($169) and stylus, the Apple Pencil ($99).
The company also announced (and made immediately available) the $399 iPad Mini 4 which features an 8-megapixel rear camera, 2GB of RAM, and the same processor as the iPad Air 2. In addition, Apple lowered the price on the Mini 2, which now starts at $269, but kept the original iPad Air and iPad Air 2 at their 2014 price points (starting at $399 and $499, respectively). The iPad Mini 3 was discontinued, joining the original iPad Mini, which was scrapped from the line months earlier.
The latest version of the Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 9, became available as a free download on September 16. It adds important changes for the iPad portfolio, including picture-in-picture video and "slide over" support, which allows one-third of the screen to pull in a second app, both of which are supported by the original iPad Air. Only the Air 2, Mini 4 and upcoming iPad Pro have hardware advanced for the new operating system's full split-screen multi-tasking feature, however.
Editors' note: This review has been updated from the version that was originally published on October 29, 2013.
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
|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|
Apple iPad Air
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
Asus Transformer Pad TF701T
Microsoft Surface 2
Maximum black level
Maximum contrast ratio
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.
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.
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
|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
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
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.
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.