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

In 2013, Apple gave the full-size iPad a makeover, with a thinner, lighter design based on the Mini's, and the same innards as in the iPhone 5S.

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Tim Stevens Xiomara Blanco
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Tim Stevens

Editor at Large / Cars

Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to videogame development. Currently he pursues interesting stories and interesting conversations in the technology and automotive spaces.

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Xiomara Blanco

Associate Editor / Reviews - Tablets and monitors

Xiomara Blanco is an associate editor for CNET Reviews. She's a Bay Area native with a knack for tech that makes life easier and more enjoyable. So, don't expect her to review printers anytime soon.

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12 min read

Editors' note (March 21, 2016): Apple has officially discontinued the original 2013 iPad Air reviewed here, but lowered the price of the iPad Air 2. On the same day, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro was also introduced.

pericles-4235_1.jpg
8.6

Apple iPad Air

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.

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).

15n0909ipadpro0.jpg
Watch this: Here's the first look at the iPad Pro
Here's the first look at the iPad Pro
2:01

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.

Apple iPad Pro made for tablet power users (pictures)

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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.

34 iOS 9 tips you should know (pictures)

See all photos

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.

gallery

Apple's iPad gets light as Air (pictures)

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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.

From left: The original iPad Mini, iPad Air, and fourth-generation iPad Josh Miller/CNET
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

Tested specApple iPad AirAmazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9Asus Transformer Pad TF701TMicrosoft Surface 2
Maximum brightness 421 cd/m2472 cd/m2383 cd/m2315 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.39 cd/m20.40 cd/m20.35 cd/m20.24 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1,079:11,180:11,094:11,313:1
Pixel density 264ppi339ppi299ppi208ppi

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.

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.

Josh Miller/CNET
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.

DeviceScreen sizeAspect ratioResolution
Apple iPad Air 9.7 inches4:32,048x1,536
Apple iPad 4 9.7 inches4:32,048x1,536
Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display 7.9 inches4:32,048x1,536
Microsoft Surface 2 10.6 inches16:91,920x1,080
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 9.1 inches16:102,560x1,600
Asus Transformer Pad TF701 10.1 inches16:102,560x1,600
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition 10.1 inches16:102,560x1,600

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.

Josh Miller/CNET
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

Sun Spyder 1.0.2 (in milliseconds)

Apple iPad Air 384Microsoft Surface 2 386Asus Transformer Pad TF701T 547Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 576
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.

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

3DMark (Unlimited)

Microsoft Surface 2 14,610Apple iPad Air 14,605Asus Transformer Pad TF701T 14,172Amazon 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 1 (GPU)

Apple iPad Air 101.8Microsoft Surface 2 90.9Asus Transformer Pad TF701T 87.9Amazon 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

Graphics Test 2 (GPU)

Apple iPad Air 68.7Microsoft Surface 2 49.8Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 48.1Asus 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

Physics Test (CPU)

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

DeviceWeightWidthHeightDepth
Apple iPad Air 1 pound (Wi-Fi); 1.05 pounds (cellular)6.6 inches9.4 inches0.29 inch
Apple iPad 4 1.44 pounds (Wi-Fi); 1.46 pounds (cellular)7.3 inches9.5 inches0.37 inch
Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display 0.68 pound (Wi-Fi); 0.69 pound (cellular)5.3 inches7.9 inches0.28 inch
Microsoft Surface 2 1.49 pounds6.8 inches10.8 inches0.35 inch
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 0.82 pounds6.2 inches9.1 inches0.31 inch
Asus Transformer Pad TF701 1.29 pounds7.1 inches10.4 inches0.35 inch
Samsung Galaxy 10.1 (2014) 1.19 pounds (Wi-Fi); 1.21 pounds (cellular)6.7 inches9.6 inches0.31 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
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

DeviceVideo 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
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
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, 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

DeviceStarting 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
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.


pericles-4235_1.jpg
8.6

Apple iPad Air

Score Breakdown

Design 10Features 8Performance 9
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