The iPad Air, released in Australia in November 2013, is thinner, much lighter and a lot faster than its predecessor, but should you buy one? We grabbed one of the first models available for some hands-on time to see how different it really is.
Thinner and lighter
Apple's fifth-generation full-size (9.7-inch) tablet is big news. It's the most significant redesign of the iconic tablet since the iPad 2. Apple's third- and fourth-generation iPads brought with them the super high-resolution "retina display", but this bumped up thickness and weight.
The iPad Air rectifies this by bringing both down once again to below iPad 2 levels. It's now 28% lighter, 20% thinner and 9% narrower than the previous model.
The iPad Air (Wi-Fi only) version weighs just 469 grams, compare to the iPad 2's 601 grams, while the now-discontinued iPads 3 and 4 weighed in at 650 grams. That 181 gram weight drop from the last model might not seem like much on paper, but you notice it in your hand. Even with the slimmer profile and thinner side bezel, it's easier to hold in one hand than the earlier iPads.
Cosmetic changes aren't the full story though. Like the recently released iPhone 5s, the iPad Air gets a major speed boost over its predecessor by using Apple's new A7 processor and M7 motion coprocessor. This is the first 64-bit chipset for mobile devices, and Apple has redeveloped its iOS 7 operating system and all of its home-grown apps as 64-bit to take advantage of it.
The new "billion-transistor" A7 is a desktop-class chip that offers serious grunt for a mobile device. The M7 coprocessor adds extra real-time data processing capabilities from the built-in accelerometer, gyroscope and compass, taking the load off the main processor. Apple claims that together, they make the iPad Air up to twice as fast as its predecessor, and all without affecting the iPad's renowned 10-hour battery life.
It's a claim that's easy to believe. The iPad Air certainly feels very sprightly, with apps launching and running almost instantly and web pages scrolling smoothly. When using computers, speed is most noticeable when you don't have it. The overall experience with the iPad Air is one of seamlessly smooth operation with no noticeable delays or judders, as long as you have a fast internet connection for apps that require it.
Inside, the iPad Air also includes an extra antenna and MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) networking technology for faster Wi-Fi (dual-band 802.11n). There are relatively minor improvements to the front and rear cameras and there are now two microphones for better sound pickup, which should benefit users of the Siri personal assistant and voice dictation.
What's missing from the iPad Air is the fingerprint ID sensor introduced with the iPhone 5s. You'll still need to type in a numeric passcode to unlock the device and to shop online. Admittedly, you probably need to unlock a phone more often than an iPad, but once you get used to it on the iPhone 5s you might miss it here.
What are the alternatives?
The iPad Air faces competition from Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1, Microsoft's Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX, and Google's Nexus tablet. But its greatest competition probably still comes from within Apple's own ranks, with the first Retina display iPad mini released shortly after the Air.
The mini starts at $479 for the 16GB Wi-Fi version, and also comes with the same lickety-split 64-bit A7 processor and M7 motion coprocessor. In fact, the iPad Air is really just a 20% bigger version of the new iPad mini. It's just a matter of how small you want your screen to be.
As with the iPhone 5s and 5c models, Apple has made its iWorks productivity apps (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) and iLife creativity apps (iPhoto, iMovie, Garageband) free to buyers of the new iPad Air and the iPad mini.
Meanwhile, the iPad 2 is being kept on by Apple to provide a low-cost entry point for those who want a basic full-sized Apple tablet – $449 for the 16GB Wi-Fi version versus $598 for the equivalent iPad Air, which ranges up to $899 for the 128GB version.
The iPad Air takes Apple's tablets into a new class of 64-bit product that narrows the gap between mobile and laptop devices. It offers significant improvements in speed and portability.
However, despite a major revamp, iOS 7 is still very much a mobile/tablet operating system and lacks several features that would take it well into the laptop computer arena, such as multiple user logins and a shared desktop for inter-program file sharing. Perhaps that will come with iOS 8. Meanwhile, the 64-bit architecture of the iPad Air has laid the groundwork for future growth.
For those who can afford it – and especially those who have an extensive investment in the Apple ecosystem of apps, music, movies, books and accessories – the iPad Air will likely be a big temptation. But if you fancy the compactness of the iPad mini with Retina Display or love the convenience of fingerprint ID, you'll be facing a tough decision.
Apple's iPad Air starts at $598