Editors note: Technology moves fast, so in order to stay ahead of the curve, I’ve reviewed the next generation iPad a year early.
Refinement. That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of the new iPad Air, Apple’s latest and greatest tablet offering. While the original iPad Air set a new precedent for thin and light design, the new iPad Air refines that innovation, making for a faster, more powerful, and most importantly, more enjoyable experience. So that leaves us with the age old question- after six generations, can the iPad finally become the go-to device for day to day computing, or is it still necessary to hold on to a laptop for those more specialized tasks? Read on to find out.
Looking at the new iPad Air, it’s hard to tell it apart from the previous generation. It has the same thin design that debuted back in 2012 with the original iPad mini. I would go as far as saying that the design of the new iPad Air really feels timeless. Every time I pick up the device, it feels just as fresh and exciting as the first time I saw it. I was given the white and silver model to review, and it’s a great fit. White devices seem to compliment the design of iOS well, although I can’t complain about the appearance of the space gray model either. Both varieties look extremely sharp.
The weight of the new iPad Air is also unchanged, coming in at just 1 pound. I’ve said this before, but the point is worth stressing. This is an extremely light tablet. You won’t notice the weight at all if you throw the iPad in a bag for travel. There’s a reason Apple continues to use the ‘Air’ moniker.
Taking a virtual tour around the device, you’ll find the familiar Lightning port on the bottom edge of the iPad, with speakers flanking either side. Right above it, you’ll find the only noticeable physical change on the exterior of the device, a Touch ID sensor, the first on an iPad. More on this later. Moving up the side, we’ll find the volume buttons as well as the mute switch, and on the back, an improved, 8MP iSight shooter, the same as the one that debuted on the iPhone 5c. As expected, photos from the camera look great, and are much improved over the previous generation iPad Air’s 5MP camera. With a larger aperture and sapphire lens coating, low light photos are sharper and more vivid, and daytime shots look even better.
Left: Original iPad Air. Right: The new iPad Air
Of course, the new iPad Air also contains the familiar 2048x1536 retina display we’ve seen on the original iPad Air, 4th generation iPad, and 3rd generation iPad, where it made its debut. Colors still pop. Text still looks pin-sharp. The iPad’s display still remains the industry leader, even as other tablets like the Nexus 10 best it in resolution and pixel density.
The new iPad Air is perhaps Apple’s first true no compromise tablet. Looking back at previous iPads, I think this is finally the iPad Apple always wanted to make. It shares all of the iPhone’s high end features like Touch ID and the A8 chip, yet is still thin, light, and most of all, affordable.
The new A8 chip is a screamer. It provides noticeable and needed performance gains for the new iPad Air. A 64-bit chip like its predecessor, the A8 takes full advantage of the latest in low power technologies, sipping power, while still flying through not only basic, but complex and intensive tasks like rendering a movie in iMovie or exporting a song in GarageBand. While I never though the original iPad Air was slow in any way, the A8 chip really is like going from an iPhone 3G to a 3GS. Not only do apps open faster, animations seem more fluid, the UI feels more responsive, and web pages load quicker.
Even with all these performance gains, Apple has been able to maintain the same, legendary 10 hours of battery life they pioneered with the first iPad. In my tests, I found that Apple under promised and over delivered. I haven’t found myself needing to plug in my iPad more than once a week, even with daily usage in Mail, Safari, the occasional video, and games like Infinity Blade. Part of the iPad’s remarkable battery life comes from how power efficient it is. Along with the A8 chip, Apple has included the new M8 co-processor as well, which handles motion related tasks. While it’ll likely be some time yet before apps start taking advantage of the new ‘M’ chips, which debuted originally in the iPhone 5s, Apple says that the M8 co-processor is even more accurate and responsive than the M7, and manages power with even more precision.
Of course, the new iPad Air, like other iOS devices, is well connected, now with 802.11ac support, Bluetooth 4.0, and an LTE option.
Like previous models, the new iPad Air comes in 16, 32, 64, and 128GB varieties. Some have questioned why Apple keeps selling the 16GB model, the same storage capacity the original iPad shipped with in 2010. This hasn’t been an issue for me. With the continual improvements to iCloud stability and support, I’ve been able to move to the cloud, and haven’t run out of space on any of my devices.
Software and Touch ID
When Touch ID debuted last year in the iPhone 5s, Apple promised that it had made the most “forward thinking” phone ever. Today, it’s clear in what direction they were heading. With the new iPad Air, Apple has brought Touch ID to tablets for the first time. If you’re like me, you lock and unlock your device dozens of times every day, and the inclusion of Touch ID saves me the hassle of having to enter my passcode every time. The hardware is only as good as the software though, right? Fortunately, the engineers at Apple have put in the time to make sure Touch ID is accurate and fast. I actually have to try to make Touch ID fail, it’s that good. Apple has clearly made changes to the software to make it better than ever.
The new iPad Air ships with iOS 8, an update to iOS that has been critically acclaimed as being faster, more stable, and more feature rich than iOS 7. iOS 7 marked the transition from “classic” iOS, if you will, to the new, fresh design aesthetic of iOS 7. While the software was initially met with some criticism, looking back, I think it’s safe to say most of that criticism was unfounded. With iOS 8, Apple has dramatically improved the speed and stability of the operating system, addressing many of the bugs reported by developers over the last several months. In my time with the new iPad Air, I’ve yet to have the software stutter, crash, or lag. There’s nothing bad to say about it.
Apple also does a great job of integrating iOS with the hardware of the iPad for a truly seamless experience. iOS 8 comes with a plethora of built in apps, as well as a dozen more free apps from Apple available in the App Store for productivity, entertainment, creativity, and more.
Competitors still haven’t been able to match the software ecosystem of the iPad. It really does “just work”. Take, for example, the updated Camera app on the new iPad Air. Thanks to the new camera optics, Apple has been able to bring over both the revolutionary slow-mo mode that debuted in the iPhone 5s, as well as burst mode, which lets you rapidly take a series of photos to capture action moments. The iPad’s new camera features make it easy for anyone to take great looking photos and videos in any situation. I haven’t touched my point and shoot camera in recent years, thanks to the innovations Apple has added in the camera app.
The same great design. A better camera. Touch ID. The A8 chip. These are all great additions to the iPad, but should you buy it? If you’re coming from an iPad 4 or older, the decision is a no brainer. The numerous enhancements Apple has made to both the software and hardware make the purchase a must-have. If you own an original iPad Air, however, the decision becomes a little more difficult. Casual iPad users might not appreciate the new features that much, but if you use your iPad every day, or for work, I still think it’s a must have upgrade. From entertainment, to productivity, to reading books, the new iPad Air delivers. And that’s what I want out of a tablet.