20th Nov 2013 | 00:00
Apple lays down the gauntlet for 2014's tablets with a stunning effort
Introduction and design
Apple's new approach to tablets is to make everything easier to carry - and with a 43% thinner bezel and a 28% lighter device, the iPad Air is championing that drive.
If you haven't seen a picture yet, then imagine an iPad mini that you've just held a little closer to your face, and you're largely there with the Air.
It's got the same smooth back design, thinner bezel and more attractive speakers at the bottom of the phone to make it look like more of a family with the cut down tablet from Apple's stables.
While it's a clear copy, we're not going to get upset about that as the mini already had a stunning design, and the Air takes that message and brings it to the big leagues.
It also has machined buttons that don't feel loose when shaking, bringing up the premium feel to the device.
On top of the new design, it's also rocking Apple's A7 chip, bringing with it 64-bit processing power and reams of battery saving techniques to keep your tablet going even longer in day to day use.
And the greatest thing about the iPad range in our eyes is the price - Apple is starting the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model at the same cost as its rivals, and while that outlay does spiral up as capacity and connectivity increase, for an Apple device to not charge an (unnecessary) premium is something we're really happy to see.
We're looking at a price range of £399 - £739 ($499 - $929 or AU$598 - AU1049), starting from the 16GB version (Wi-Fi only) to the 64GB cellular option.
Add to that the fact Apple is lobbing in a lot of useful free software, as well as bringing a more refined experience with iOS 7, and you can see that it's put a lot of effort into making the iPad Air the tablet that shows it's not losing its relevancy in the market.
The keynote for the launch of the iPad Air talked a lot about Apple's dominance in terms of tablet usage, but it's no secret that a number of users are starting to warm to the idea of an Android model as their main device - the Sony Xperia Tablet Z is one of the best around at the moment, and offers expandable storage as well as a waterproof casing to trump Apple in that respect.
But Apple has countered by bringing out the same 128GB model as before, which, while pricey, gives more than ample storage for anything you want to do on the go, be it storing all the HD apps you want as well as your entire music collection and most movies too.
It's worth noting that the 16GB option is nigh-on useless as a purchase if you're thinking of pulling in all the free apps Apple is slinging your way - this was an issue when the Retina display landed on the iPad 3, and has only got worse as more HD apps from developers have been slipped onto the App Store.
However, it's still good to see options being offered when it comes to storage, as some Android devices (albeit mostly phones) are starting to eschew expandability and not really upping the internal space.
So you can see that Apple has covered its bases in nearly every area when it comes to the iPad Air - but how does it actually perform in the hand when subjected to rigorous daily use?
The iPad Air is an odd device when you pick it up for the first time. When you hear all the numbers being bandied about you'd rightly assume that you'd feel something that was almost ghost-like in the hand, a tablet that could almost get blown away.
And we're utterly not disputing that - the iPad Air is the most balanced tablet on the market, with great precision going into the engineering throughout. However, if you've touched an iPad mini or just haven't held an older iPad for a while (and with some people we tested with, even those that had) you won't feel as much of a step up as you'd be expecting.
We've added that caveat to brace you should you be excited to purchase the new iPad, as it's not something that affects the general usage in any way, with one-handed holding very easy, and something that puts the Air into a new product category.
The design of the iPad Air is, as we've mentioned, very impressive. Yes, it's totally based on the iPad mini, and the smooth aluminium back is really great to feel in the hand. It's a shame that most people feel the need to slap a cover on an iPad as soon as it's bought - while we get the notion of protection, it hides away some cracking design.
That said, at least it keeps the fingers away from the chassis, and the iPad Air is a real magnet for prints. The back cover isn't too bad, but the mirrored Apple logo sucks down finger oil and is loathe to give it back even with hard scrubbing with a cloth.
It might not sound like a big deal, but it makes your premium new tablet look a bit unkempt right from the start.
But in actual operation, the design of the iPad Air complements the impressive innards superbly. It's unsurprisingly not possible to hold your hand the entire way around the edge of the Air, but then again it's so light (and comes with the ability to disregard erroneous thumbs entering the screen, again like the iPad mini) that it doesn't really make a big difference.
The rest of the buttonry - the top-mounted power key and the silencing rocker switch and volume buttons at the side - haven't moved far, but protrude nicely to make them very easy to hit no matter when you're holding the device - being able to find such things without looking is often sacrificed in the quest to make tablets look sleeker, so we're happy Apple has gone the other way here.
There is one note of criticism in terms of design for such a decent (and still expensive, despite costing the same as many of its peers) piece of kit: the screen has a plastic thud to it when tapping, thanks to the smaller and lighter innards.
It's most noticeable when grazed with a fingernail, although in a case the effect is lessened. We're surprised Apple let this feature go unchallenged, but it seems in making the design thinner and removing part of the inner cage the overall strength of the chassis is somewhat reduced.
It's not a major issue by any means, and certainly one that you'll only pick up on sporadically, but it's still enough to irk at times when you're expecting a truly premium experience.
We're in the same boat. The architecture is there. It surely can't be an issue of space seeing as the technology fitted into the iPhone 5S.
So what could it be? Apple surely isn't holding it back as the 'big upgrade' for the iPad Air 2, is it? That would be such an anti-climax... plus we're waiting for the bendable iPad in 2014 anyway.
The iPad Air won't be a surprise to anyone running a current iPhone or iPad, as you've already seen a lot of what iOS 7 is all about.
We'll run through some of the key features and how they perform on the Air in a moment, but the main thing to know is that the iPad Air is fast. Really fast.
We're getting to a point where describing a smartphone or tablet as quick under the finger is pointless – once you reach a certain point there's not a lot more speed to be gained.
Even dual-core phones were more than acceptable, so why make a point of highlighting the speed of the new iPad?
Well, it's just virtually flawless through all kinds of tasks. A millisecond faster from a finger press might not seem like much, but once you do a hundred or a thousand of them in a day, and then go back to something like the iPad 3, you'll realise that there's a real difference in the operation.
Our benchmarking scores saw the iPad Air narrowly eclipse the iPhone 5S, also running the 64-bit A7 chip, in terms of overall speed - which makes sense given it's slightly more optimised for the larger screen but still maintains the same power output.
Like it or loathe it, the all-new iOS 7 is still a real step forward for a company that desperately needed to refresh its offering in the face of stiff competition from Android.
The new flatter interface takes away the pointless need to pretend all apps are real-life objects just to integrate them into people's lives - users know that pressing the Photos app will take them there, no matter the result.
Like most popular platforms that get upgraded, there's been a large amount of flack coming Apple's way for iOS 7, with features like the parallax effect (no, there's no way of saying that word without thinking it should be the name of a Marvel supervillain) being turned off by a number of users.
Parallax is where tilting your iPad will see your wallpaper move with the motion, giving a 3D effect on the screen. And while this was annoyingly unpredictable on the iPhone 5S, on the Air it's much better and we wouldn't advise you turn it off, unlike on other Apple devices.
It doesn't even have a huge effect on battery life, which is impressive in itself.
The rest of the interface is easy to use and makes sense for the most part. One of the newer features of iOS 7 is the notification bar, found by dragging from the top of the tablet. This gives access to updates, calendar entries and missed messages. It's also one of the weaker parts of the OS, as it always starts on the calendar, which doesn't often give a lot of useful information.
The 'Missed' section is often also sparsely populated - we'd rather this prime space was better used by Apple.
However, there are a lot of other areas in which the Cupertino brand has made strides in terms of improving the user experience. For instance, swiping upwards with all five fingers (or double tapping the home button) will lead to the multi-tasking pane, which shows all of your apps in large thumbnails. This is an excellent interface, although perhaps a little large, and you can swiftly jump between apps or flick a thumbnail upwards to end it.
On top of that, the home screen is now updated to allow a much larger number of apps in each folder. Now you can create collections just by dragging icons on top of one another, and continue to do so almost ad nauseum. This prevents the need to make loads of folders called 'Game 1' 'Game 2' and 'Why do I have this many games that I don't play?', and allows a much less cluttered home screen.
Apple still hasn't updated its operating system to allow users to autosort their apps, meaning if you uninstall something (by long-pressing the icon until everything jiggles and then tapping the 'x') then the space won't be filled by an app from another screen. When in the edit mode you can rearrange things, but it's not the most time-efficient way of making everything look neat.
The new Control Center is something worth highlighting too - drag up from the bottom of the screen and you can control music, brightness, turn on Wi-Fi and loads more. We would have thought that most people know all about this feature, but the number of iOS 7 users who get their minds blown when we show them that this exists means it's worth highlighting.
There are tonnes of nuances to Apples UI that we'd like to laud here, but we invite you to go and use it for yourself, as despite there being no tutorial, there's very little here that the novice user won't be able to pick up.
We would like to give a special mention to the 'five finger pinch' if you've not used it before on previous iPads. Make sure it's enabled in Settings->General, and then simply pinch in with four or five fingers in any app to return to the home screen. You'll be doing it on your phone before you know it, such is its simplicity.
Contacts, messaging and Facetime
The iPad Air is a fine device for a number of things - but you might not necessarily think that calling is one of them. But with the addition of Facetime Audio, and the improved Facetime HD camera, this is a great device for when you're marooned in a hotel room and desperate to say goodnight to your child / cat / favourite potato.
The camera on the front of the iPad, a 1.2MP option, shows your whole face very nicely, with a detailed level of sharpness. Of course, it depends on your internet connection as to whether this detail is transmitted to the person on the other end of the call, but it's a great way to keep in touch with other iUsers.
And with Facetime Audio now an option, you can have free voice calls with other enabled users thanks to VOIP technology. Once in the app you can set up your favourite people as instant contacts to call - and helpfully they can also be set to call through voice or video by default.
While there aren't that many other ways to talk to people over the iPad Air, the Contacts app is still obviously on board, giving access to all the people you've spoken to and saved over the years. However, be careful when adding accounts, as you'll likely have a few on there and it's very easy to have information from Exchange, Gmail, Hotmail and iCloud all jostling for position in your list, as well as those from Facebook too.
It's not as easy as on Android to change these though, as you'll need to jump into the external Settings app once more to check the right boxes. However, when this is done things are nice and simple, showing the friends you've saved as well as their Facebook picture (or other that you've tagged) if you've linked the accounts.
However, here's an issue we're not sure why Apple hasn't fixed as yet: contact linking is nigh-on impossible unless you drill right down through the editing menu. You can pull all manner of social network account info into a contact card, but when adding the names in you're not going to link to the right person unless you're exact with your spelling.
It's confusing as to why your contact lists aren't pulled from Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and more when you're trying to perform this task, but it's very diffucult to tag people together, which is irritating when you want pictures to go alongside each name.
While it can be hard to find the people you want (or at least have all the social networks linked) messaging on the iPad is a much better experience. There's iMessage and the decent inbuilt email app on offer as standard, and the variety of other chat apps you can download is mind blowing.
iMessage remains a slightly confusing app in that it can pull in information on your phone number and email addresses and use these to connect to other users - however, this isn't always accurate when you're trying to share details and can result in people trying to contact you in the wrong way. It's better than it is on the iPhone, which has texting to worry about too, but it's never the most reliable system to set up in our eyes.
Thankfully, the Mail app is a lot better, with a wide and expansive view that makes full use of the screen size. You get a decent column down one side to see all your missives, and a gentle swipe across allows you to move or edit the mail or send it to the trash can.
On top of that, emails are grouped together nicely when in conversation flow, email folders are easy to use and you can have all your messages in one inbox, even with a variety of accounts being used.
We also like the VIP setting, allowing you to tag only your boss and colleagues, so you know when to panic should you see a mail arriving there.
The Apple keyboard on the iPad Air is an odd experience. Not because it's inaccurate or poor to use - far from it, we found that we could get up quite a speed thanks to the larger keys - but because of that strange plastic thud when you strike the screen each time. It's most off-putting, and lacks the quiet rigidity the early (and much weightier) iPads used to offer.
However, we do like the keyboard, as it's easy to split and move, which is great for both portrait and landscape use - it's nothing Earth-shattering, but it's features like this that open up the scope of the iPad so much.
The internet browser on the iPad Air needs to be impressive, as otherwise one of the key functions for this device is really negated. While you might not be seeing much of an upgrade over older iPads in terms of functionality, the speed in overall use of the device is definitely something to be lauded.
The main difference over last year's iPad 3 / iPad 4 (out of the box) is that iOS 7 makes everything a little cleaner and less obtrusive. For instance, the URL bar won't dynamically retreat like it does on the iPhone range, but with 9.7 inches of space to play with, we can't say that we blame it too much.
The bar is actually chock-full of functionality in the same way as its Android counterpart, although there's perhaps a spot more relevance to everything that's run with the Air. For instance, the reading mode is just a simple icon of text lines in the URL bar, allowing you to easily switch to a more text-friendly mode.
It's a little irritating that you can't sync this with Pocket, as although you might be fine using the 'Saved for Later' function of Safari on the iPad, if you're not using an iPhone as your smartphone then there's no central repository for all the articles you want to read later.
At least if you copy the URL of the site you're reading the app can intelligently work out that you might want to save it to Pocket - but when you can share links over Facebook and Twitter with such ease then it doesn't seem fair that other popular apps aren't supported.
Of course this is completely subjective, and something we would have expected from Apple a few years ago. It's become more relaxed about working with partners recently, however, so perhaps the functionality will come.
In reality, all these reading modes don't mean much when you've got such a speedy and responsive browser. Apple is touting the fact the iPad Air is one of the first tablets to use MIMO wireless connectivity, allowing for a stronger and faster Wi-Fi connection. In reality this means that you can wander further from the router and still get access to the internet when you've decided against shelling out for the cellular version of the iPad.
The text looks supremely clear on this larger screen, which might have the same resolution as previous iterations of the iPad but in side by side comparisons looks a little clearer and brighter. It's no surprise that Apple would make strides in this area, although text wrapping when zoomed in could still do with some work.
However, the internet browser on the iPad Air is one to be rather respected, as it does what it needs to do with considerable aplomb. Whether you want to see a list of shared links from Twitter (which is a rather underrated feature, drawing only the tweets from your friends that contain links) or save articles to check out when you don't have connectivity, there's little the iPad can't do.
If you're in a family home with a number of Apple devices then you can easily share links using AirDrop, and this will be useful for those that hate doing the same over messaging or Facebook - although with iMessage, it's hardly a chore.
But Apple has kept things simple on both functionality and the interface on the iPad Air's internet browser, and that makes a lot of sense to us.
Camera and Video
What's better than an 8MP iSight camera on the iPhone 5S? Well, it's not what you can find on the iPad Air, that's for sure. Apple has kept the same 5MP iSight camera from previous iterations of the tablet, which does at least have half-decent backside illumination and acceptable low-light performance.
We're not sure what Apple is doing with the camera interface though - it's like a completely bare version of that seen on the iPhone 5S, with fewer options to choose from. Want to take a photo or video? That's fine. You can even take a square snap for those moments when you need a portrait pic too.
However, there's no filter option in sight, nor the ability to change to a Slo-Mo camera as we've seen on other recent Apple hardware. Given that the Air is running the necessary A7 64-bit chip to enable the enhanced video mode, we've no idea why you can't do the same here.
Even the filters would make sense, as the iPhone 5C can use these, and that's hardly as powerful a beast. This is probably the biggest criticism of the iPad Air we can throw at the new tablet from Apple, as the decision is slightly perplexing.
But in a way, that's wonderful. You might have noticed that we're hardly fans of the cameras on tablets at the best of times, and if there was one thing that we'd happily sacrifice for a thinner tablet, it's this functionality.
That Apple has put anything in there at all is testament to some clever engineering, so while the performance isn't that good (although shutter speed was very impressive as we'd expected) it's more than adequate for something that shouldn't be replacing a smartphone or dedicated camera anyway.
The iPad Air has a lofty bar to beat when it comes to media performance, as Apple is creating a rich heritage in this area. Its all-encompassing iTunes software and store are used by so many people that a device to properly output the music and video is a must.
Well, we can't fault many things on the iPad Air, not least because it ticks most of the boxes we can think of.
The audio performance of the iPad Air is hugely impressive, even with the most basic of earbuds on offer. There are plenty of other reviews out there that seem to gloss over the fact that the iPad is as much a media-centric device as anything else, and no matter how many streaming services you subscribe to, the output is always going to be limited by the hardware.
But what Apple has done, and to be honest, always managed to do, is bring refined audio output to a system that commands a premium price.
Through a decent pair of headphones it's possible to capture all the nuance of high-bitrate audio, and even streamed to an external speaker via Bluetooth things don't sound as muddy and horrendous as they might on other devices.
OK, you're not going to use your iPad as a primary music player for either Spotify or onboard tracks, but we found ourselves increasingly popping the tablet out on the table next to where we were working to get our fix of Cascada or Haddaway. (Please tell us: WHAT IS LOVE?)
So while sonically we're enamoured, the interface still feels like, as with other elements in iOS 7 for iPad, it's designed for an iPhone and stretched up.
We get that it's meant to be a simple way to show as many songs as possible, and appreciate the widgets on the lock screen and in the Control Center. However, can't we have a more beautiful interface? You can either have a long list of songs with a tiny controller at the top, or a Now Playing screen that is surrounded by bland and unsubtle white.
What happened to the Cover Flow beauty of the first iPhone? Where did that go? It's made even worse by the fact that finally we have a processor that can keep up with all the artwork, yet all we get is this pool of limpid uninterestingness.
It's not a deal breaker, and it speaks volumes about the overall quality of the iPad Air that we're so annoyed about a tiny thing. If there were bigger fish to fry, this would be glossed right over.
We could mention that it's rather irritating to not be able to get music on and off the device without using iTunes if you're against wires, but that's an old refrain. The second Apple lifts that lid, it's going to see its share of on-device downloads plummet thanks to cheaper options elsewhere.
Another strength Apple has is its ability to display video in a really rather attractive way. Whether it's stuff you've bought and downloaded directly to the device, or videos that you've chucked on there yourself, it all looks brilliant on the Retina display.
It's worth noting that if you want to download in super-high quality you're going to make sure you have enough space to keep it all – more on that a little later in the section.
The video player itself is a bit of a mixed bag. While anything you've already bought is nicely labelled and sorted, any other content you've lobbed on the device through iTunes (again, there's no other way) can look out of place, mis-named and have a weird sorting or odd thumbnail.
You can alter all of this in the menu through iTunes, but it's a bit of an effort for those that aren't as au fait with the working of Apple's media management.
Add to that the fact Apple refuses to budge on the 4:3 ratio on its iPad screens, and watching video that's not encoded from the 1990s isn't much fun. On top of that the file support is limited, and even those that are supposed to play have to be at a pretty specific bitrate to make it past the iTunes gatekeeper and onto your precious tablet.
You can download a third party player and place much more content on that way, but unless you've got one of the good ones (FlexPlayer is a decent choice) then you can find a lot of crashing while you're trying to watch your favourite movie.
However, for support for files like AVI you'll have to use something like this – otherwise it's a time-consuming and difficult process of re-encoding your files.
We would like the mention the excellent performance of the speakers – they're incredibly powerful in a package so thin and come with a decent slug of bass too.
They're not going to replace your headphones – and nor should they, especially on public transport – but if you're alone in a hotel room and want to watch a special movie or two, then you'll get the full effect of what the actors are trying to convey.
One issue that plagues modern iPads is that of storage. If you opt for the 16GB option then you're really only allowing yourself to get half the experience, so we advise you bump that up a little bit straight away.
It's not hard to fill up double that space with apps alone – you're munching through 2-3GB of storage just by downloading Apple's free apps.
On top of that, most HD movies and apps designed for the Retina screens can fill up huge swathes of megabytes, meaning if you're not careful you'll be told you can't download some apps pretty soon after buying your shiny new iPad.
Battery life and Apps
Battery life on the iPad Air is quoted at "Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music". We would say that's actually not a bad estimate, although the drain was closer to 2% every 10 minutes in general use, which equates to around nine hours' use.
Standby time is much, much better though. We found that we could stick the iPad Air in a bag, taking it out for the commute and messing about with on the sofa at home, for at least three days before it began to get low on battery.
In fact, the only real task that killed it was connecting to our amplifier via Wi-Fi while simultaneously streaming music to the same device through Bluetooth. It's doing things like this that make you realise that this is the kind of thing that we envisaged at the turn of the century, a tablet that has the brains and connectivity to do all the tasks we could want.
In terms of connectivity, we've already mentioned the excellent Wi-Fi performance (in terms of distance from router, rather than improved speed) through the Multiple In, Multiple Out (MIMO) technology.
4G bands are now covered throughout the globe, and low power Bluetooth is also on board as well, making it an incredibly well-connected device.
Apple has thrown on reams of free software with the iPad Air (and other new iOS 7 devices too), so you now get access to the likes of Pages, Numbers, Keynote from the iWork tribe as well as iPhoto, iMovie and Garageband for free.
These are incredibly powerful tools for what is still essentially a cut-down mobile device – we can't say that we'd recommend using them regularly without a keyboard (in the case of iWork) but elements such as iPhoto and Garageband really give you the chance to express yourself fluidly.
When you consider that the iPad Air will be appearing under the Christmas tree for a few lucky (and wealthy) people, having software right out of the box (well, you do have to download it actually, and it's a fairly hefty download) is a big plus for a shiny new toy.
On top of that, we still feel the need to laud the Apple App Store for its ability to offer the best apps around. We're talking about things like BBC iPlayer and Sky Go, both of which offer improved user interfaces and allowed downloads first before the Android hop came.
The gap between Apple and Google's app portals is narrowing, but there's no doubt that users will still feel far more secure in the app experience they'll get on an Apple tablet compared to an Android one for now, and that's a big reason to purchase.
Maps should also gain something of a special mention, as while it was a PR disaster for Apple, it's slowly clawing its way back to usable thanks to constant upgrades.
It's still far from the best out there, and we'd recommend you download the excellent Google Maps as soon as possible, but we rarely find that Apple Maps is offering an inaccurate course for us to navigate down to the shops – just don't ask it to find obscure towns whose names appear in multiple places.
Hands on photos
The iPad Air is a big step forward for Apple in so many ways – not least through design and setting a precedent for the future.
It's 28% lighter and 20% thinner, taking up 24% less volume overall. We can see that Apple has really pushed the envelope when it comes to design, and the result is pretty phenomenal.
Reading the iPad 4 review, we see that the issues we came across before have largely been resolved. The design is better. The bezel is smaller. The price is palatable in comparison to the competition.
The speaker output is immensely impressive, the overall look and feel of iOS 7 more intuitive (although a long way from perfect, granted) and the general speed of operation is unsurpassed.
The range of accessories, the ecosystem and the general speed with which the iPad works, especially when it comes to the heavy lifting, is massively impressive. Nothing is a huge leap forward, more a set of constant steps towards the perfect tablet that make everything that little more slicker to use.
As we mentioned, there's very little that Apple hasn't addressed here for us to really criticise. The 16GB option of the tablet simply isn't enough storage for most to be able to get the best out of their iPad.
iOS 7 doesn't feel like a completed operating system for this advanced device, and while we're not that bothered, the absence of TouchID is strange given it was so widely expected.
The camera is no great shakes, but we wouldn't be complaining if Apple had got rid of it altogether - however, to not offer the software that's found on the iPhone 5S is odd.
And here's an odd one: the iPad Air is lighter, but it's not light. It's not got the same feel we found when we first picked up the iPad mini, or the iPhone 5, or the Sony Xperia Tablet Z. It's not too heavy or anything, but it didn't wow us the first time we held it.
Make no mistake - Apple has finally nailed the tablet with a great combination of specs, power and a decent OS.
It's a joy to hold the iPad Air. From the clever construction to the fast processor to the improved user interface, Apple has found an answer to every criticism we had of the device and then some.
The fact it's not even more expensive than its large-screen brethren is really impressive for an Apple product, and the suite of apps that are now free, coupled with the excellent App Store and premium build, make this a no brainer for anyone looking to enter the tablet market.
We'd advise that you get the largest capacity your budget can manage - although at the top end you're verging on Macbook territory, so make sure you're ready to use a tablet and think about getting an external keyboard to make full use of the extra apps you've now got.
You've seen the score, and for those keeping tabs you'll realise this is TechRadar's first five-star tablet. It's a device with almost no flaws - it's not just Apple's best tablet, it's the only tablet you should be considering this Christmas if you're keen on a larger screen.
First reviewed: November 2013