Apple iPad Air review: Thin, light and fast, but expensive

Apple iPad Air review: Thin, light and fast, but expensive

Summary: Apple's large-format tablet is thinner, lighter and faster than ever, and delivers good battery life. We'd like to see the biometric home button and a wi-fi upgrade as soon as possible, but it's still a high-quality, if premium-priced, device.

SHARE:
TOPICS: iPad, Apple, Reviews, Tablets
84
  • Editors' rating:
    8.5
  • User rating:
    5.9
  • RRP:
    £615.83

Pros

  • Thin and light
  • Classy design
  • Fast 64-bit A7/M7 platform
  • Excellent LTE frequency band support
  • Good battery life

Cons

  • No Touch ID
  • No 802.11ac wi-fi or NFC
  • Expensive, especially when accessorised for maximum business productivity

Apple's fifth-generation 9.7-inch iPad, the iPad Air, is a more svelte and speedier tablet than its iPad 4 predecessor. Prices range from £399 (inc. VAT, £332.50 ex. VAT) for the entry-level 16GB wi-fi-only model to £739 (inc. VAT, £615.83 ex. VAT) for the top-end 128GB Wi-Fi-plus-LTE configuration reviewed here.

Both the third- and fourth-generation iPads are now discontinued, leaving the 2011-vintage iPad 2 as the ultimate 9.7-inch entry-level device, which now sells for £329 (inc. VAT, £274.17 ex. VAT) for 16GB/wi-fi-only or £429 (inc. VAT, £357.50 ex. VAT) for 16GB/wi-fi-plus-3G. Meanwhile, the forthcoming 7.9-inch iPad mini with Retina display sells for between £319 (inc. VAT, £265.83 ex. VAT) and £659 (inc. VAT, £549.17 ex. VAT), with the original (non-Retina) model forming the entry level at £249 (inc. VAT, £207.50 ex. VAT)-£349 (inc. VAT, £290.83 ex. VAT).

For many consumers, the new Retina iPad mini may be the iPad Air's biggest rival, but business users will mostly be looking at the larger 10-inch form factor, along with keyboard docks and other productivity-boosting accessories. One significant competitor could be Microsoft's recently revamped Surface 2, a 10.6-inch Windows RT 8.1-based Wi-Fi-only tablet that costs £359 (inc. VAT, £299.17 ex. VAT) for 32GB or £439 (inc. VAT, £365.83 ex. VAT) for 64GB. Also worthy of note, so long as the screen is large enough, is Amazon's new 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX, which starts at £329 (inc. VAT, £274.17 ex. VAT) for a 16GB/wi-fi-only model rising to £479 (inc. VAT, £399.17 ex. VAT) for a 64GB/wi-fi-plus-LTE model). See below for more on the iPad Air's competition.

ipad-air-thumb
The iPad Air is 20 percent thinner, 8.9 percent slimmer and 28 percent lighter than the iPad 4. It's based on a 64-bit platform comprising the A7 SoC and M7 motion coprocessor. (Image: Apple)

Design

As far as design goes, the name says it all: the new iPad Air, its name echoing the MacBook line, is significantly thinner and lighter than the previous-generation iPad 4. Specifically, it's 20 percent thinner (7.5mm versus 9.4mm) and 28 percent lighter (469g versus 652g for wi-fi only, 478g versus 662g for wi-fi-plus-LTE). It's also 8.9 percent slimmer (169.5mm versus 186mm), thanks to thinner bezels flanking the 9.7in. Retina screen, which retains its 2,048-by-1,536-pixel resolution for an unchanged pixel density of 264ppi. Because you're likely to have your thumb on the screen when holding the narrow-bezeled iPad Air in portrait mode, a new algorithm distinguishes between this and an intentional touchscreen interaction.

ipad-air-bezel
A new 'thumb-rejection' algortithm prevents the iPad Air interpreting this grip as a touchscreen interaction. (Image: Apple)

Apple was able to slim down the iPad Air for two main reasons, according to analysts IHS iSuppli: the display itself is some 19 percent thinner (1.8mm versus 2.23mm), while the battery — always a significant proportion of a tablet's bulk and weight — is smaller (32.9Wh versus 43Wh in the previous generation). According to iSuppli, Apple managed to cut the battery capacity, despite the use of the more powerful 64-bit A7 processor, thanks to a reduction in the number of LEDs for screen backlighting (36 versus 84). Image quality, incidentally, does not seem to suffer from the reduced LED count.

Despite its new svelte dimensions, lighter weight and more rounded edges, the iPad Air, which comes in silver and 'space' grey, still looks and feels very, well, iPad-like. That's to say, it feels like a classy, well-built premium product. One feature that Apple didn't carry over from the new flagship iPhone 5s smartphone, which uses an otherwise almost identical hardware platform, is the fingerprint-sensing Touch ID home button: the iPad Air has a regular Home button, and still requires you to type in a passcode when you unlock the device, and when you purchase apps, music, movies and books. This is a disappointment, especially if you also have an iPhone 5s and have become used to the convenience of the biometric home button.

Other buttons and connectors are easy to find: audio-out jack and on/off-sleep/wake on the top (in portrait mode), flanking the dual microphones; silent/screen rotation lock and volume buttons top right; and the Lightning connector on the bottom, flanked by a pair of stereo speakers. The latter placement means that if you're watching a movie, for example, in landscape mode, the sound will come from one side, which isn't ideal. Most of the time, though, you'll either be using headphones or external speakers.

New Smart Covers and Smart Cases are available for the iPad Air, costing £35 (inc. VAT, £29.17 ex. VAT) and £65 (inc. VAT, £54.17 ex. VAT) respectively. Apple supplied us with a vivid green Smart Cover and a brown leather Smart Case, and we rapidly settled on the latter as the preferable option.

Features

Apart from the design changes described above, the main advance in the iPad Air is its use of the 64-bit A7 processor and M7 motion coprocessor platform, as also seen in the iPhone 5s. The A7 is a dual-core ARMv8-A SoC running at 1.4GHz (100MHz faster than the 1.3GHz iPhone 5s), with a GPU that supports OpenGL ES v3.0. According to Apple, the A7 delivers twice the processing and graphics performance of the A6X chip in the previous-generation iPad 4. As in the iPhone 5s, the A7 is supported by 1GB of RAM and a low-power M7 motion coprocessor that handles sensor data from the accelerometer, gyroscope and compass.

Dual-band 802.11n wi-fi performance is improved with the addition of a second antenna and MIMO (multiple input/multiple output) technology, doubling the theoretical throughput from 150Mbps to 300Mbps. However, Apple has yet to embrace the latest 802.11ac wi-fi standard, as seen in Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition). If you specify a mobile broadband model, you'll find increased support for LTE frequency bands (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26): we used our LTE-equipped review unit successfully with a nano-SIM from O2, commuting between London and Bedfordshire.

The front-facing 1.2-megapixel FaceTime camera delivers better low-light performance thanks to a larger sensor with bigger pixels. The videoconferencing experience is further enhanced by the addition of a second microphone that allows for background noise cancellation. The rear-facing iSight camera is a 5-megapixel unit as on the iPhone 5s, but doesn't support the latter's burst mode or slow-motion video capture capability.

As far as software is concerned, the iPad Air runs the latest iOS 7 version, with its 'flat' look, new Control Center, Air Drop functionality and more. Apple's own productivity (Pages, Numbers and Keynote) and creativity (iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand) apps are now both free and recompiled for the new 64-bit platform. Third-party developers are also busy retooling their apps, with Autodesk recently claiming that AutoCAD 360 was the first professional app to be optimised for the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display.

Performance

How much faster is the 64-bit iPad Air than its 32-bit iPad 4 predecessor? Apple claims that the iPad Air delivers twice the CPU performance of the iPad 4, and this is borne out by the GeekBench 3 test, which shows a near-2x performance boost on both the single-core and multi-core tests (1.91x and 1.9x respectively):

ipad-air-geekbench

Note that the iPhone 5s delivers slightly lower GeekBench 3 scores than the iPad Air because it runs at 1.3GHz rather than 1.4GHz.

We tested GPU performance using Futuremark's iOS/Android 3DMark Unlimited test — specifically the Ice Storm benchmark, which generates overall, graphics and physics scores. Here, the overall iPad Air advantage is 1.4x, with a marked discrepancy between the graphics (1.69x) and physics (0.97x) scores:

ipad-air-ice-storm

Testers have been puzzled by the parity between the iPad Air/iPhone 5s and iPad 4/iPhone 5 in the largely CPU-bound physics test, which prompted Futuremark to investigate further. It turns out that the A7 processor's performance in this test is limited by the way complex data structures are stored in memory: non-sequential data structures with memory dependencies, as used in the Ice Storm physics test, mean that the A7 is no faster than the iPad 4's A6X chip or the iPhone 5's A6. When Futuremark retested the A7-powered iPhone 5s with a custom build of 3DMark Unlimited using optimised data structures, the result was a 17 percent performance improvement over the A6-powered iPhone 5.

Battery life

We estimated the iPad Air's battery life by measuring the power consumption of the fully-charged device under idle and load conditions (running Microsoft's Fishbowl HTML5 test) at three different screen brightness levels (25%, 50% and 100%). Dividing the resulting average wattages into the lithium-polymer battery's 32.9Wh capacity gives a figure for the expected battery life (Wh/W=h).

ipad-air-battery
Idle = idling at the home screen; Load = running Microsoft's Fishbowl HTML5 benchmark continuously; 25%, 50%, 100% = screen brightness settings.

The iPad Air's power consumption ranges between 1W and 10W, when idling with screen brightness at 25 percent (1W) and running the Fishbowl test over Wi-Fi continuously with screen brightness at 100 percent (10W). That translates to battery life estimates of between 32 hours and 3.3 hours. With automatic screen brightness enabled and the tablet running a mixture of workloads and idling, Apple's claim of 10-hour battery life seems perfectly reasonable.

Conclusion

The iPad Air is thinner, slimmer, lighter and faster than its predecessor for the same 10-hour battery life. The iOS ecosystem also provides plenty of software choice — Apple currently claims 475,000 iPad apps on its App Store, although optimisation for the new 64-bit platform will take time. Having said that, you'll have to pay handsomely for all this Apple goodness — especially if you add the sort of accessories that business users will require in order to make the tablet versatile enough to do real work on the move.

Take a 32GB/wi-fi iPad Air, which will cost you £479 (inc. VAT). Add a £65 Smart Case (or a £35 Smart Cover if you're budgeting) and a £59 Apple Wireless Keyboard, and you're looking at £603. By comparison, Microsoft's Windows RT 8.1-based Surface 2 costs £359 (inc. VAT) for the 32GB model while a Type Cover 2 costs £109.99 (or £99.99 if you go for a Touch Cover 2), which comes to £468.99 — £134 less. Amazon's 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX, which costs £369 for a 32GB/wi-fi model, comes in at a similar figure once kitted out with a case/stand and a Bluetooth keyboard. These and other larger-format tablets such as Samsung's digitizer-equipped Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 and Google's soon-to-be updated Nexus 10 are compared in the table on the following page.

Specifications

General
Dimensions (W x H x D) 169.5x75x240 mm
Weight 478 g
OS & software
Software included iOS 7
Processor & memory
Clock speed 1.4 GHz
Processor model Apple A7
RAM 1024 MB
Display
Display technology LCD touch-screen (passive matrix)
Display size 9.7 in
Native resolution 1536x2048 pixels
Connections
Ports Lightning, audio-out
Networks
2.xG GPRS, EDGE
3.xG UMTS, HSPA, HSPA+, CMDA2000 EV-DO
Wireless
Wi-Fi 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n
Short range Bluetooth 4.0
GPS technology
Antenna built in
GPS receiver yes, with GLONASS support
Input devices
Navigation button/wheel Yes
Touchscreen Yes
Camera
2nd camera front
Flash Yes
Main camera rear
2nd camera resolution 1.2 megapixels
Main camera resolution 5 megapixels
Power
Removable battery No
Claimed battery life 10 h
Number of batteries 1
Miscellaneous
Accessories AC adapter, optional Smart Covers and Smart Cases, Lightning Adapters, Wireless Keyboard
Solid-state drive
Capacity 128 GB
Expand

Prices

Price
Price GBP 615.83

Topics: iPad, Apple, Reviews, Tablets

About

Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

84 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Way Overrated

    4.0

    Apple must have missed to invite to the 16:9 party a few years ago. Everything is HD widescreen content now, get with it already.

    No truly new innovative features. iPad is coasting along and being carried by marketing. Without modern features like NFC, Apple devices are missing an entire category of apps.

    Some people will be suckered into buying an iPad 2 because looking straight at it there is very little difference, it thin enough already, and its $100 cheaper. Apple should be ashamed for still selling iPad 2.
    Sean Foley
    • Way Overrated

      4.0

      I have to agree. Why bother keeping the iPad 2 around. By today's standards, it's old technology.
      tm14941
      • It's used as a Point of Sale device (POS)

        Many small cafes and shops use the iPad as Point of Sale device and there's no reason to use an AIR when a the 2 does the job.

        Look at the versions of Ubuntu LTS that don't incorporate the newest features but have support...
        dragnn
      • Well, there is obviously

        still enough demand for the iPad 2. If Apple still has a big enough demand, then that's their decision to still offer it. And like old Gingerbread phones aren't current. At least the iPad 2 can still run iOS 7, most OEM Android devices are running 1 to 4 year old versions of Android, that's the biggest joke of Android. CRAPPY OS update policies.
        RichDavis1
      • They have a massive stockpile to get rid of

        They did not sell the iPad 2 as well as they thought they would so it is time to get rid of them. They have millions in their stock inventory. Pallets and pallets of them and they are willing to let the ill-informed have one for real cheap. A deal too good to be true.
        impost
    • That is how good companies market their products

      6.0

      The Camry starts at $22k for the LE version and almost $30k decked out. I'm sure the LE version has some "old" tech re-dressed to be new and shiny.
      A Gray
    • I use my iPad for more than just watching movies

      And the 4:3 screen ratio is much better when using the device in portrait mode.
      baggins_z
      • Use case

        7.0

        Think it depends on use case. I use my Surface RT as a mobile thin client and off line productivity tool with Office almost 90% of the time. I like the 16:4 for that. For reading I use my iPad Mini with the 4:3 ratio. In fact I would go so far in saying that I prefer the 4:3 for anything smaller than a 10" screen (not sure why, information consumption with that small of a screen just looks nicer to me).
        Rann Xeroxx
        • correction

          7.0

          Meant the 16:9
          Rann Xeroxx
    • Interesting

      I am not exactly sure why ZDNet has these "User Ratings" They seem to be used mostly by people to express their platform bias.

      Sean, I see you are the only user to post a rating and for that you have "flagged" 17 times. I also noticed that none of those people that have flagged you bothered to post a user rating.
      YaBaby
      • Agreed

        how about having people rate the device when they've used it.

        Oh ZDnet - How about looking at Ars technica, and Andandtech to see how a proper review is done...

        ZDnet used to be the leader, now they are the OK Magazine of tech
        dragnn
    • not a fan of 16:9 in my hands

      The screen on the Nexus was too narrow and long, it may make movies great but everything else doesn't feel right. I do a lot more than watch movies (if ever) on my tablet so catering to just that aspect ratio seems a poor choice for them.
      dragnn
    • User rating

      It appears that there is a significant disparity between the editor's rating and the user rating. The user rating says it all. Not worth the money to upgrade.
      dlangdon01
      • The user rating is from people who rated and don't own the device...

        I mean, if you're gonna lie at least put a good show about it. How about we all rate the new Ferrari one star and bitch about how it's not worth it when none of us owns one...

        /sigh
        dragnn
        • So what are we rating exactly?

          Our own posts, the post we are replying to, the post immediately above us in the thread? In any event I'm not using it.
          athynz
          • You are rating the device... Based on ownership and usage....

            It's partially ZD's fault for not making that clear and part fanboi hate.
            dragnn
      • Too many user ratings coming from anti-Apple zealots

        9.0

        An honest user rating would come from actual product owners.
        Vulpinemac
        • Actual product owners: Apple zealots

          I don't think there IS a neutral for something like this.
          -r
          r wesley edwards
          -=-
          CommonCormorant
          • Well, of course the product owners are zealots

            9.0

            what kind of fool voluntarily spends money buying something he DOESN'T like?
            baggins_z
    • 4:3 Works great for portrait mode

      I don't have an iPad but 4:3 aspect ratio is actually the main reason I am seriously considering an iPad. 16:9 is fine for watching movies (Netflix etc.) but for any reading/browing in portrait mode, I find it too narrow.
      I would also give kudos to Apple for sticking with 16:10 aspect ratio for Macbook Air and Proc (except for 11 inch air) as its much more useful for any productive work.
      rohitraghuwanshi