With a svelte redesign and a full-on spec bump, is this Apple's best full-size tablet yet? Find out in our full iPad Air review
Update: The iPad Air 2 is no longer the shiny, new kid on the tablet block, as it's been outflanked by the cunningly-named iPad Air 2, which has squeezed 18% of the thinness and yet upped the power of Apple's best slate.
However, the iPad Air still has a lot of charm at a lower price of £319; read on to find out what makes it tick.
Apple's product upgrades can be a funny beast. On paper, they can appear incremental. Eyes-on, the products can look almost identical. Hands-on, you sometimes have to pry to find exactly where the improvements are. Some changes (iMac G3 to G4, iPhone 3GS to iPhone 4) are blatant, some are refinements (iPad to iPad 2). Many, you actually have to get the product in your mitts to see for yourself. And that's definitely the case with the iPad Air (not the iPad 5, as we were expecting it to be called).
The clearest difference lies with its name - a shock to all but Jony Ive who says he's been working on the concept for years - but start using this tablet and the improvements are instantly tangible. It's lighter, thinner and more debonair than ever (providing you don't use the new one, that is).
iPad Air: Size and build
At 6.9mm Apple managed to shave almost 1.5mm (a fifth) off the iPad 4's unibody aluminium girth and almost 2cm off its width. Boasting a one pound (or 469g) heft, at the time of the original review, the iPad Air took the title of the planet's lightest full-size tablet. It's since been bettered a number of times, including a few choice cuts from Asia, but with the Air 2 retains that crown. Article continues after the video.
With its new rounded and chamfered edges, it looks like a scaled-up iPad Mini – the reduced bezel centring your eyes on the screen and making the chassis almost slim enough to hold in one hand.
Colour-matching the iPad Mini 2 , the iPad Air comes in (our favourite) Space Gray and Silver shades. The nano-SIM slot moved to the bottom right-hand-side edge of the device, which continues in the newer model.
Picking up the Air for the first time last year and using it for prolonged periods is an improved experience if you're used to older iPads (which you probably are if you're checking out this review). Where before a case of numb-arm might happen after 20 minutes use, we found ourselves reading and web surfing for much longer.
You'll notice the weight reduction immediately, especially if you use its release contemporaries: the Nokia Lumia 2520 and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 which are 146g and 78g heavier respectively. The bigger 10-inch Xperia Tablet Z fares better, weighing just 26g more at 495g.
Width-wise, the 7.5mm iPad Air trumps the Nokia 2520 at 8.7mm, the Nexus 10 at 8.9mm and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 at 8.6mm.
In short, it's simply a nicer tablet to use – taking all the best bits of the 2012 flagship iPad and refining the physical experience. it's less impressive than the Air 2, but at the price, it's still very, very effective. But, there's more than aesthetics that makes this upgrade so different.
iPad Air: Performance
The addition of the A7 chip and M7 coprocessor made the iPad Air the most powerful iPad ever, and brings it in line with the iPhone 5S's 64-bit architecture.
It's not got anywhere near the grunt of the iPad Air 2's A8X chip, which returns to making a more powerful core for the tablet, but does still power along with apps quite nicely.
Power-wise, you're not going to see the real benefit of 64-bit until app developers really start taking advantage of its potential. The same can be said of the M7 motion coprocessor. However, compared to the iPad 4, the Air renders iMovie video on-the-fly much quicker and zips around iOS 8 (which it's now been upgraded to) without any suggestion of lag.
With OpenGL ES 3.0 support, it can deliver some serious lighting and shading effects in games, too. Infinity Blade III being a case in point. We also experienced faster multi-tasking, without the need to periodically shut down apps to speed things up.
iPad Air: 4G and Wi-Fi
The iPad Air also came with some wireless improvements. MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) antennas are now packed inside the chassis, while LTE band compatibility has been expanded to cover pretty much all 4G frequencies in existence.
In a home Wi-Fi environment we didn't notice any speed increase (even with Apple's own Extreme) but found the Wi-Fi range better than the iPad 4. On EE's 4G network, download speeds remained the same – blisteringly fast (up to 50Mbp/s at times) in an area with a decent 4G connection. Standard in others.
Unlike the iPad Mini Retina, there's no storage capacity bump, and you're now limited to just the 16GB and 32GB models, with a £40 difference between the two, more if you opt for the cellular versions.
We say you're likely to need the 32GB to make room for all the apps and media you'll want and then some iCloud storage, which, for 15Gb, 25Gb and 50Gb, currently costs £14, £28 and £70 respectively per year.
iPad Air: Screen
The chassis may be 16mm narrower, but the Retina display remains the same size as the iPad 4 – 9.7 inches, 3.1 million pixels (2048x1536) with a pixel density of 264ppi. Colours are deep and vibrant, contrast is rich and text is pin-sharp. The thinner bezels draw your eyes to the screen more. Everything feels neater.
Naturally, when holding the Air, your thumb will be closer to the display, possibly pressing it, so Apple has integrated an algorithm that rejects digits if it deems they are resting on the screen. It's clever and works in practice.
The screen quality beats the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 hands down, with the Korean brand’s tablet only mustering a pixel density of 149ppi on its 800 x 1280 display. It also beats Sony’s Xperia Tablet Z (which has a pixel density of 224ppi on a 1,920 x 1,200 panel), while the new Nokia Lumia 2520’s screen comes in last with a ppi of just 218.
It's still sharper than a lot of the others on the market, but competitors like the Galaxy Tab S have come in to start stripping past the screen performance Apple has prided itself on for so long.
iPad Air: Features
Let's start with the omissions. Well, one feature we thought would be a dead-cert: Touch ID. Why Apple neglected to integrate this new tech (which has actually got us using security for the first time) isn't clear. As a flagship tablet that almost mimics the flagship iPhone for features, we're a little frustrated not to see it. Not angry, just disappointed - but it's on the iPad Air 2, if you're desperate.
On the flip-side, the iPad Air comes with iWork and iLife for iOS 8 completely free. All Apple's apps have been built from the ground up for the new devices, and it shows – with more powerful editing tools taking advantage of the hardware bump and everything feeling a lot slicker. Rather than being pre-installed, you download them, gratis, after setting up the iPad Air for the first time.
iPad Air: Camera
Another mystery with this update is why Apple didn't upgrade the rear-facing 5MP camera to the excellent 8MP optics found in the iPhone 5S. It was pretty much the best thing about the 5S upgrade and the lack of it means no slo-mo video capture but the same low-light photography issues as before. You can now capture in HDR, though - and again, the better camera is found on the Air 2. It's almost like Apple wanted a reason to make you buy the newer model...
While we agree that taking photos on an iPad is cumbersome, have you SEEN how many people do so? Perhaps Apple wants to reduce that amount by offering a much better iPhone experience. 1080p video recording remains and, because of the A7 chip, can now benefit from a 3x zoom and automatic video stabilisation, which works well.
Mercifully, the front-facing camera has been upgraded to FaceTime HD, which is excellent. The improved backside illumination sensor, bigger pixels and dual-mics make FaceTiming (either on Wi-Fi or over 3/4G) a clear, bright experience. It captures video in 720p and stills at 1.2MP.
iPad Air: Battery
Apple quotes 10 hours of web-surfing, video watching and music listening on one charge, with nine hours web surfing on a mobile data network. In our testing, we found it didn't quite stretch this far in any situation but mimicked that of the iPad 4 – around seven hours when web surfing and eight hours of movies. To achieve the latter, you'll need the brightness set to around 75% and all wireless connectivity switched off.
We did notice an improvement in standby – hardly any drain after a couple of days – which we assume is helped by a combination of the M7 coprocessor switching high-energy functions off as soon as it detects the lack of use, and the more-efficient A7 chip
iPad Air: Verdict
Pitching the iPad Air against its competitors is quite easy – it was the best looking, premium, and app-happy tablet on the market last year. The cosmetic design changes are an unequivocal improvement, and the weight reduction proved a genuine benefit for everyday use.
We'd hoped for a better camera (more for the slo-mo video) and Touch ID tech, but the 64-bit processor improvements mean it'll cope with anything you throw at it for some time. The battery seems to have improved a touch, too.
If you can justify a 4G contract, then plump for that.
Web speeds were, at times, faster than our home broadband connection. The 33 free apps, many of which used to cost a few quid and now includes Pages, Numbers and Keynote, is also a welcome addition.
But is it worth upgrading from an older iPad? For those without a Retina screen, yes – you won't believe how you coped without it. For those who do a heavy chunk of tablet-based FaceTime, then the HD upgrade makes a real difference. For those who carry theirs around all day, then yes – you'll really notice the slimmed-down size and weight.
Of course, there's the iPad Air 2 out there, and myriad other tablets that promise the world and sometimes deliver. The £80 reduction in price is good, but if you can afford to spend a little more cash the iPad Air 2 certainly has a better, more vivid screen, is lighter and more powerful.
As ever, the model you go for will depend on the price. Paying £459 for the top-end Wi-Fi + 4G version seems a bit pricey, but not terrible.
However, it was our favourite tablet and still pleases today thanks to the price drop and iOS 8 upgrade. Still, make sure you check out the Air 2 if you're curious, and the iPad Mini 2 still presents a strong use case thanks to being smaller with all the same power.
iPad Air release date: 1 November 2013
iPad Air price:
Wi-Fi only: £319 (16GB), £359 (32GB)
Wi-Fi + 4G: £419 (16GB), £459 (32GB)