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

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4.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

4.5 stars 37 user reviews

The Good The iPad Air delivers more performance and comparable battery life in an attractive and impossibly thin-and-light package. An improved front-facing camera makes FaceTiming look better, and the Retina Display still looks great.

The Bad The Touch ID fingerprint scanner, introduced on the iPhone 5S, is sadly absent here, meaning you’ll still have to type in a passcode with every unlock and a password with every purchase. Starting at $499 for 16GB, it’s still expensive compared with the competition.

The Bottom Line Functionally, the iPad Air is nearly identical to last year’s model, offering only faster performance and better video chatting. But factor in design and aesthetics, and the iPad Air is on another planet. It’s the best full-size consumer tablet on the market.

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

Update, October 22, 2014: The Apple iPad Air has been replaced with the thinner, lighter and faster iPad Air 2.

The successor to the Apple iPad Air will take many of its upgrade cues from the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Like those new phones, the new iPad (and presumed new iPad Mini) will run iOS 8; almost certainly include a new A8 processor, TouchID sensor, and faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi; and -- possibly -- an NFC chip for compatibility with Apple Pay.

It will also be interesting to see if Apple keeps the 2012 iPad and 2013 (non-Retina) iPad Mini in the product line-up as the "cheaper" iPad options, or if it will swap in the 2014 models instead.

For a complete rundown of the latest rumors on the new iPad, check out our iPad Air 2 rumor roundup.

The original review of the 2013 iPad Air follows.


It's been a long time since 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've all been waiting for, something to make the good ol' iPad look and feel truly new.

And here it is: the iPad Air. With this, the fifth generation of the iPad line, Apple has 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 maintains the battery life of its predecessor and offers significantly better performance.

The Air is 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 United States -- 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

Last year's iPad Mini introduced a fresh new design, taking cues from the latest 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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