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REVIEW: Apple's new iPad Air

People try the new Apple iPad Air at the Apple Store on Nov. 1, 2013 in New York City. GETTY IMAGES/Spencer Platt

Three and a half years after the very first iPad hit the market, Apple has released its 5th generation of the device – dubbed the iPad Air. It’s lighter, thinner and faster than previous models, but is it really vastly improved or is this simply Apple’s marketing machine at work. Read on to find out.

While the iPad Air looks similar to other generations of iPads, this latest model is an actual redesign. On closer inspection you’ll see it has borrowed the “squared off” form factor of the iPad Mini, giving it a slightly different feel when you pick it up.

ipad air

The outer bezel (the frame which surrounds the beautiful Retina display) has shrunk down in size a by a whopping 43 per cent. This simple change not only changes the look, but the profile as well. Many people will now be able to fit the iPad in one hand, instead of holding it like a book with two. It’s also thinner. Apple managed to reduce the thickness by 20 per cent bringing it down to 7.5 millimetres (not that the old iPads were that thick).

ipad air - bezel

What really stands out here is the weight. I never really thought the iPad was a hefty tablet, not after using other devices such as Microsoft’s Surface, but once you pick up the Air you’ll notice right away just how light it is. It’s called Air for a reason. It weighs just one pound. That’s 0.4 pounds less than the 4th generation iPad. It really is a wow moment when you first pick it up. The change is really noticeable and probably one of my favourite features of this device.

Looks may be important for some but what’s really important here is performance. Apple continually bumps up the specs on iPads, increasing its abilities to act more and more like a laptop, and the iPad Air is no different.

Inside you’ll find Apple’s latest 64-bit A7 chip, the same one found inside the iPhone 5s. Apple says you can expect to see up to twice the CPU performance of the 4th gen iPad and up to twice the graphical performance. Of course those numbers look good on paper but will you really notice it when you start using it? That depends on what you use the device for.

Over the past week I used the iPad Air extensively, often performing the same tasks on both the Air and the 4th generation model just to see how they compare. For simple tasks such as launching email or Safari, users won’t see much difference. Simple apps launch at the same speed and perform equally well on both devices. It’s not until you get into more intensive apps that you really begin to notice the difference.

A prime example would be the graphically intensive game Infinity Blade III. As soon as you launch the game on both devices you’ll see the iPad Air’s horsepower begin to shine. The game loaded on the iPad Air in 12 seconds. The 4th generation iPad took 21 seconds to load the same game. With a really keen eye you’ll also notice slight graphical differences, with the iPad Air showing slightly more detail in water reflections and clouds.

It’s important to note Infinity Blade III is a game that was built specifically with the 64-bit A7 chip in mind. It was designed to take advantage of the new chip. Most apps you launch won’t take advantage of the new hardware just yet.

Another example is Apple iLife ad iWorks apps, which have been overhauled to take advantage of the A7 chip. These apps are more responsive on the iPad Air, and some even have more features when used on devices with the new 64-bit chip. While GarageBand, Apple’s music creator app launches at the same speed on both the Air and the previous iPad, users with an iPad Air will be able to add up to 32 audio tracks for a single song. This feature is only available for iOS devices with the latest 64-bit A7 chip (or laptops). Slowly but surely more developers will take advantage of the new hardware, but it will take some time.

The new M7 Motion processor, which was added to the iPhone 5s, is also present. This chip handles motion data and not only reduces strain on the A7 chip, it also helps preserve battery life by turning off certain features depending on what you are doing on your tablet. For example your iPad Air won’t search for Wi-FI networks if it is traveling at high speeds in a vehicle. Once again, there will be more uses for this in the future once developers get a full grasp on the capabilities.

Apple made a few other upgrades worthy of mentioning. A second microphone has been added to help improve audio capture. Not only is this handy during FaceTime chats, but it also helps Siri better understand what you say.

ipad air dual mic

Wi-Fi has also been improved. While the iPad Air unfortunately doesn’t support 802.11ac, it does feature MIMO (multiple input multiple output). Basically instead of having one wi-Fi antennae, there are now two which will boost Wi-Fi speeds. I found this to be try in most cases. I downloaded the same apps on the same network on both the iPad Air and the 4th gen iPad and quite often found apps downloaded quicker on the newer model. That being said there are many variables when it comes to download speeds on a network.

I personally don’t like taking pictures on my iPad, but for those who do, you’ll be happy to note the rear 5 MP camera now has larger pixels on the sensor, resulting in higher quality images. The front camera, most often used for FaceTime chats, can now shoot 1080p HD video rather than just 720p, which makes a difference.

Finally let’s address the battery. Apple says you should get 10 hours worth of juice before needing to plug in the iPad Air and I can confirm that is the case. I never ran into any battery issues. There was always plenty of power. It really is impressive when you think of the improvements Apple made with a smaller form factor and a smaller battery.

So where does the iPad Air fall short? There are a couple of areas.

The first is the noticeable absence of a feature many loved on the iPhone 5s – the Touch ID sensor. The fingerprint scanner which lets you unlock your device and authorize app purchases using only your fingerprint was a handy thing to have on the iPhone 5s. The question is why didn’t Apple add it to the latest iPad? Some will be disappointed that it isn’t included.

The second issue is the new form factor. A slimmer, thinner model means your old iPad cases won’t fit anymore. Can you guess where I’m going here? Yup, time for a new case. New case means shelling out more money on top of the pricey investment you’ve already made to purchase the tablet.

ipad air - case don't fit

Conclusion:

Overall, I have to say the iPad Air is an impressive device. This is the best iPad Apple has to offer at this point (we’ll see how it compares to the iPad Mini with Retina when it’s released later this month). It’s not the cheapest tablet on the market but it is one of the best.

Should you upgrade?

It really comes down to what you use your iPad for. If you are simply surfing the web and sending email then you probably won’t take advantage of what this new device has to offer. You may want to wait another generation. However, if you plan on using your device for productivity and for high end games then there is no better iPad than the iPad Air.

The Good

  • Great new form factor
  • Extremely light
  • Fast new processor with incredible performance

The Bad

  • No Touch ID sensor
  • You’ll need to buy yet another new case