The iPad Air has a sleek exterior that borrows from the iPad Mini and a new processor — and it’ll be hard to beat this holiday season.
It’s no longer revolutionary, and it’s no longer alone.
But, somehow, Apple’s newest iPad, the iPad Air, remains the finest tablet in an increasingly crowded, increasingly confusing market.
The company that began the tablet craze years ago is facing competition from all angles in 2013. The burgeoning OS in Windows 8 and so many hybrid laptops, the flood of more cost-efficient tablets and the wave of smaller tablets are all battling for attention, stealing space from the iPad in Best Buys and on Amazon — all aiming to dethrone the champ.
But you don’t mess with the iPad Air. Perhaps conscious of the growing competition, Apple has given its flagship device its first true makeover since 2011. The resulting device is easy to recommend: It’s everything you want in a tab, even if it’s less than groundbreaking.
Instead, Apple gives users exactly what they want by delivering a thin-and-light experience that oozes polish and refinement.
It starts with the ultra-sharp exterior. If you loved last year’s iPad Mini, you’ll feel right at home with the Air. Apple essentially built a larger version of the Mini with the Air, by slimming the beveling of previous iPads to achieve a sleeker framework.
The lack of heft makes the Air just a little more comfortable: An LTE-equipped Air weighs all of 1.05 pounds. Wrapped in a comfy and protective Apple Smart Case, the Air weighs 1.368 pounds, still lighter than a third-generation iPad by itself. Despite the lack of size, the Air is no less tough. It’s sturdy and not at all easy to bend.
The Air feels that much more like an electronic magazine. The Retina display, once the standard for all screens but also facing more competition this year, helps that; reading text and viewing web pages on that crystal-clear, pixel-dense screen is the same joy it was when Apple first built Retina screens into its tablets early last year.
If this is all Apple did, it would likely still be enough to keep it on top. But the iPad Air does far more, starting with the new processor powering the entire experience, the A7. The same dual-core, 64-bit A7 chip that debuted in the iPhone 5S is in the iPad Air; and initially, this seems like a disappointment. In theory, you expect something more in Apple’s flagship tablet, something a bit more powerful, with perhaps more graphical horsepower.
In practice, you won’t notice a thing. Web browsing and apps still handle as snappily as ever, even if you have a gaggle of things running in the background. Top-tier games such as Infinity Blade 3 continue to deliver. A pleasant surprise is also how quickly some of the beefier games, such as Anomaly 2, loaded, compared to previous iPads. You’ll move into and out of levels just a little bit more swiftly, and that helps make the entire gaming experience more friendly and natural. It’s hard to know what this really means for Apple gaming, but don’t rule out the possibility of more console titles being ported to the iPad.
Apple realizes the limitations of the 64 GB storage too, offering a new 128-gig model. You’ll pay a more-than-average-laptop premium here ($ 799 for the WiFi-only model and $ 929 for an LTE version), but the improved storage is intriguing, especially for those planning for a game-heavy future. I can now easily and comfortably load all the music and movies onto the iPad Air that I want and still have plenty of room left over for games such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Civilization: Revolutions.
Battery life is steady, even if it’s not mind-blowing. Apple claims the iPad Air can get you 10 hours on a charge, and that’s definitely true. Even when using Apple’s navigation for a long trip to Washington, I easily got through a day without needing to charge; and more casual usage, such as Web browsing and email checks, is no problem.
The Air’s lone shortcoming is that it lacks the fingerprint identification technology that debuted on the iPhone 5S. But I’d be hard-pressed to claim that this was some glaring omission; every other tablet you’re going to use this year lacks such tech, and I’ve never seen that tech as an absolute must-have.
The resulting tablet is as pleasant to use as they come, and it’s backed by some consistently solid software. Android has made a tremendous run over the past few years, and a plethora of both Android and Windows Mobile devices are truly intriguing this holiday season. But if there’s one consistent shortcoming on those devices, it’s the up-and-down support of operating systems.
It’s hard to know whether this Android tab or that will support Google’s latest OS, but that’s almost never a problem with iPads. iOS releases are generally consistent and stable, the lone knock on Apple being its lack of Android-like customization.
And while the Apps Store and iTunes are also battling competition from Microsoft’s stores and Google’s Marketplace, Apple’s setup continues to set the bar, managing to be intuitive and easy to use and enjoying more and more high-profile digital releases.
It all adds up to a tablet that’s quickly become my go-to this holiday season, even if it’s not quite wallet-friendly. Then again, the premium tablet market is growing pricier, so the iPad, a device with plenty of longevity, isn’t truly as expensive as it may seem. Samsung’s latest Galaxy Note 10.1, for example, will run you a whopping $ 549 with just 16 gigs of storage, $ 50 more than a comparable WiFi-only Air.
Windows’ Surface 2 RT, meanwhile, provides the stiffest competition when it comes to price, selling for only $ 449 for a 32GB version. That’s $ 150 cheaper than the comparable Air, and the Surface 2 certainly has productivity chops, too.
Still, Apple’s earned the right to charge a slight premium, especially given the massive apps ecosystem that dwarfs what Windows offers at the moment, and the iPad Air still manages to be worth every penny.
Could hybrid ultrabooks provide some level of competition? In some instances, they’re cheaper and more functional, and devices such as Sony’s Vaio Tap 11 certainly feel like tablets. Thing is, for all the power locked in hybrid ultrabooks, there are still tiny bugs the likes of which you rarely see on the iPad Air. And not a single one of those devices can match that one-pound benchmark of the iPad Air.
The rise of smaller tablets — including the second-generation, Retina-equipped iPad Mini — and phablets such as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 could provide the greatest competition to the iPad Air. But that’s more about preference than feature set.
In the end, there’s nothing on the market quite as appealing as the iPad Air, a device that still remains above the competition.