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A Grounded Evaluation Of The iPad Air
Date: Nov 25, 2013
Author: Paul Lilly
Introduction and Specifications
So much has changed in the tablet market since Apple starting shipping its first iPad around three and a half years ago. Prior to the original iPad, the tablet category didn't really exist, not like it does today. Apple wasn't the first to market with a tablet -- not by a long shot -- but Steve Jobs and the gang were the first to release a tablet that people actually wanted, and bought. And bought, and bought, and bought. There was no competing with the iPad in the early days, not when Google's hardware partners insisted on charging the same premium for Android tablets as Apple was for its iPad.

It took some time, but Android tablet makers eventually figured out that in order to compete with the iPad, they had to undercut it on price, even if it meant releasing a smaller sized slate. Amazon took the lead with its Kindle Fire line, and Google offered up a blueprint of its own with its Nexus family. Fast forward to today and Apple no longer dominates the tablet market to the same extent it did in 2010.

However, based on available data from market research firms like IDC, the iPad is still the single most popular tablet family around, though the gap is closing quickly, making this latest release arguably the most important iPad launch since the original. Having now proven there's a substantial market for tablets, the challenge Apple now faces is maintaining its lead and coming up with new features to keep its customers mesmerized.

Enter the iPad Air. This is Apple's fifth generation iPad and the true successor to the iPad 3, whereas the iPad 4 was mostly a speed bump and lacked the fanfare associated with most of Apple's product launches. It also marks the first real redesign of the tablet's form factor to some extent. It's significantly thinner than the previous iPad, noticeably lighter, and sports a reduced bezel that more closely resembles that of the iPad mini. It's such a drastic change in feel that Apple chose to dub this version the iPad Air. It seems Apple always chooses a standout feature to rally behind -- upgraded cameras, high-resolution (Retina) display, Siri -- and this time around it's the physical dimensions garnering all the attention.

First, here's our quick video walk-through, then we'll get to the finer details...

Apple iPad Air (fifth generation) Specifications
Specifications & Features
  • Apple iOS 7
  • 1.3-1.4GHz dual-core A7 processor (64-bit); M7 motion coprocessor
  • PowerVR G6430 quad-core graphics
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 16GB/32GB/64GB/128GB storage
  • Optional 4G LTE radio
  • Dual-band 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi; MIMO
  • Front FaceTime (VGA) and rear (5MP) iSight cameras
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 9.7-Inch 2048x1536 Retina display (IPS)
  • Capacitive Multi-Touch
  • Non-replaceable 32.4W-hour Lithium-Polymer battery
  • Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi-, watching video, or listening to music; Up to 9 hours using cellular data network
  • Charging via power adapter or USB to computer system
  • 3.5mm audio jack; dual microphones
  • Three-axis gyro; accelerometer; ambient light sensor
  • Access to Apple App Store
  • Digital Compass
  • 9.4 (H) x 6.6 (W) x 0.29 (D) inches
  • 1 pound (Wi-Fi); 1.05 pounds (Wi-Fi + 4G)

Apple didn't just create a thinner iPad, it also equipped its newest tablet with an upgraded processor, the same chip that's found in the iPhone 5S, and the company is making a big deal about it being a 64-bit part, perhaps too big a deal. Other than that, however, we're a little underwhelmed with the spec sheet. It's nice to see dual-band Wi-Fi with multiple antennas on there, but we'd be more stoked if Apple opted for a quad-core chip and/or 2GB of RAM. Maybe we're a bit jaded after several years of product releases with whiz-bang upgrades, or maybe Apple is running thin on ideas, all the while refusing to cave on its position of leaving out USB connectivity and expandable storage (microSD card slot).

One of the things we're glad to see unchanged is the price. Yet again, iPad Air pricing starts at $499 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model and goes up from there depending on capacity and whether or not you want 4G LTE connectivity. Apple deserves some kudos for continually upgrading its iPad line while avoiding the temptation to charge extra throughout five generations of tablets.

It's also interesting to note that housed inside the iPad Air is a 32.4Wh battery, which is considerably smaller compared to the 42.5Wh battery in the previous generation iPad. This is the primary reason why Apple was able to shave so much weight and bulk off the tablet, but don't sweat the smaller battery, we've been getting just as much run time out of the iPad Air as its predecessors (more on that later).

Even though the spec sheet doesn't slap you across the face and scream, "Hey, look at me, I'm frigging awesome!," is there enough here to warrant an upgrade? Let's have a closer look...
Design and User Interface
One point of criticism surrounding the iPad Air is that Apple essentially used the same hardware found in the iPhone 5S and shoved it in a bigger package. That's a fair assessment, though it also underscores the ever growing expectations of Apple's consumers with each new tablet release. It also begs the question of whether or not an iPad needs to be drastically different than a modern generation smartphone.

Unboxing the iPad Air doesn't yield any immediate surprises. As with previous versions, Apples includes various paperwork and warranty information, a pair of Apple stickers, USB sync/charge cable, and a power adapter. We still wish Apple would bundle in a pair of headphones, especially considering this is a content consumption device, and a microfiber cloth to safely clear debris and fingerprints from the display.

Apple sells a host of accessories in its online and retail stores, and you can find additional items designed for the iPad Air at third-party e-tailers and retailers like Amazon and Best Buy. For us, a screen protector and case are always first on the list of supplementary items to buy.

Apple reduced the thickness of the side bezels to look more like they do on the iPad mini, and while that means your thumbs are more prone to accidentally touch the display, we didn't find that to be a problem during testing. It gives the iPad Air a sleeker look and is an acceptable tradeoff for an overall thinner and lighter device.

The display is still 9.7 inches with a "Retina" class 2048x1536 resolution (264 pixels per inch). It's a brilliant panel that's brightly lit and crisp with excellent viewing angles. The competition has caught up with Apple in terms of display quality, though on its own, the panel remains a high point in the iPad's design.

Getting back to the bezel for a moment, we mentioned that our thumbs never interfered with the onscreen action. Part of the reason for that is because Apple implemented a touch-rejection algorithm that's supposed to let the iPad Air know when you're just resting your digits on the display. Simply put, it works.

Apple continues to be infatuated with a unibody design and aluminum back, and so are we, though we wish the backside wasn't so prone to scratching. If you don't want to tuck your iPad Air in a case for safe keeping, screen protector companies like Zagg and Bodyguardz sell full body kits to help you avoid nicking up the tablet. Screen protector solutions won't help much if you drop the slate, but it will ward off the effects of daily wear and tear, specifically from picking it up and putting it down on hard surfaces.

You have to hold the iPad Air to fully appreciate how much bulk Apple was able to remove, which works out to an impressive 24 percent reduction in overall volume. The iPad measures a scant 7.5mm thin and can literally hide behind a No. 2 pencil, as Apple demonstrates in one of its advertisements. Perhaps most importantly, the iPad only weighs a pound (1.05 pounds for the Wi-Fi + Cellular model), down from 1.44 pounds in the previous generation, making it feasible to use the device with one hand just like you would a 7-inch or 8-inch tablet, with fatigue.

Though it's a lot thinner and lighter, the iPad Air feels every bit as sturdy as previous models, while adding a touch of elegance thanks to the much hyped chamfered edges (which disappear as soon as you slap a case around the tablet). There's no flex and you won't find any chintzy parts on or around the iPad Air.

Another subtle touch to the latest iPad is the addition of stereo speakers that now flank the Lightning connector on the bottom portion. It's an upgrade in audio quality versus the mono speaker in previous iPads, but we're still crossing our fingers for front-facing speakers in a future model.

Apple rolled out its iOS 7 software update at the same time as the iPad Air. Visually, iOS 7 brings a flattened look to Apple's mobile ecosystem. The goal was to make iOS easier to use, and certainly navigating the interface is mostly intuitive, though Apple doesn't hold the user's hand as much as it did in previous versions.

There are plenty of new features, too. Smarter multitasking is part of the package, and when you double-tap the home button, you can scroll through a list of open applications and either tap on one to be thrust back into it, or swipe it upwards to close it down.

Two of our favorite new features are the universal search (just swipe down and the search bar comes up, saving you time from having to swipe all the back to the main screen and left one more time), and the Control Center, which you bring up by swiping up from any screen. Inside the Control Center are knobs and dials for Wi-Fi, Airplane mode, media player controls, screen brightness, and more.
Performance: CPU and Web Browsing

In the following tests, we will take a look at how the Apple iPad Air compares to other tablets by running a few common benchmarks to evaluate CPU and web browsing performance.

CPU testing
iOS and Android CPU testing

The Linpack test has a tendency to post wildly inconsistent results, so the way we handle that is by running it over a dozen times, and then taking an average of three consistent runs after that, discarding any scores that jump way out of the norm. In this case, the iPad Air's dual-core A7 processor combined with 1GB of RAM posted a score of around 321, coming out ahead of all the other tablets we pitted it against.

SunSpider is a bit more accurate, and there the iPad Air shows off excellent web browsing and JavaScript performance. Subjectively, the iPad Air felt more responsive than the iPad 3 with less lag. Pages load fast and respond the way you would expect, though by limiting the iPad Air's RAM to just 1GB, tabs will sometimes need to reload if you open a handful of them. We'd really like to see Apple double up the amount of RAM in its flagship tablet.

Here we have another strong showing for the iPad Air. What's interesting to note here is that it scored significantly higher than the iPad 4, underscoring Apple's claims that the A7 SoC is a big improvement over previous processors.

Performance: Graphics and GLBenchmark

GLBenchmark (now known as GFX Bench) is a unified 3D graphics performance benchmark suite. We use the fillrate test and the Egypt Off Screen test to measure 3D performance in frames per second.  The Off Screen test renders workloads at 1280x720 for all devices, but off-screen so Vsync and screen resolution are not limiting performance factors.

Graphics testing
iOS and Android Graphics testing

The iPad Air continues its dominating benchmark performance, crushing previous generation tablets, including the iPad 4 and iPad 3, which take up distant second and third place finishes, respectively, in GFX Bench's graphics fillrate test.

After cruising through our initial set of benchmarks going mostly unchallenged by the competition, we have our first tie, with the iPad Air posting the same 56fps as the NVIDIA SHIELD. To tie in GPU performance against a dedicated gaming handheld speaks volumes about the gaming prowess of the iPad Air.

We like running the Basemark X benchmark because it's built on top of an actual game engine, Unity 4, and features workloads modeled after real games designed for smartphones and tablets. Basemark X utilizes features like particle effects, advanced lighting effects, and post processing, giving us a good metric of real-world gaming performance.

The iPad Air topped the chart in the off-screen test, though it couldn't keep up with NVIDIA's SHIELD in the on-screen test (mostly because of the SHEILD's lower screen resolution). Still, this yet more evidence that the A7 SoC inside the iPad Air is capable of playing games and handling heavy graphics workloads.

We wrap up our graphics testing with Futuremark's cross-platform 3DMark Ice Storm benchmark. Only the iPad Air's Physics scored trailed the NVIDIA SHIELD. The iPad Air led the way with the highest Graphics and Overall Ice Storm score, far outpacing the iPad 4.

Performance: Battery Life and Camera
The iPad Air sports the same 5MP rear-facing "iSight" camera as found on the iPad 4 and a slightly improved 1.2MP front-facing "FaceTime" camera with superior low-light performance. We took a couple sample shots in in the evening under a halogen light bulb to see it was really improved, and were generally pleased with the camera's performance.

The FaceTime camera is serviceable for chatting with friends and family, and it handles low light environments fairly well, so long as there's at least some light to pull through the lens. However, don't expect to take self portraits to send to the modeling agency -- the overall quality just isn't there.

5MP iSight Camera

The 5MP "iSight" camera consists of a five-element lens, hybrid IR filter, and f/2.4 aperture. Tap-to-focus works with both videos and still images. It also supports autofocus, face detection, and backside illumination, as well as photo and video geotagging and HDR photos.

These are all the same features found on the 4th generation iPad because the camera is the same as before. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though it's a bit disappointing Apple isn't putting more emphasis on camera performance. We suppose the train of thought is that people are prone to whip out their smartphones or dedicated point-n-shoot devices to capture memories, but given that the iPad Air is so portable, why not ensure the camera can take spectacular shots for those moments that may come along while you're using the tablet?

Short and to the point, we're not overly impressed with the 5MP iSight camera. In the shots above, the top row represent HDR captures and the bottom row is with no HDR. Either way, the iPad Air shoots photos that are okay for posting to social media sites, but performance is far from great, especially in lower light situations where the grain is more noticeable. We can tolerate that on the FaceTime camera, but expect better stills out of the rear-facing lens.

Though still shots aren't anything to write home about, videos recorded in 1080p using the iSight camera are pretty solid.


Battery Life

Part of the reason why the iPad Air is so much thinner and lighter than previous models is because Apple went with a smaller capacity battery rated at 32.4Wh, down from the previous model's 42.5Wh battery. Despite the downsizing, Apple rates the overall battery life to be at least as good and in some cases even better than the iPad 4. Let's have a look at Apple's claims:

  • Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music
  • Up to 9 hours of surfing the web using cellular data network (Wi-Fi + Cellular model)

As always when it comes to battery life, your mileage will vary based on what you're doing and the settings you're using. In our testing, we found Apple's claims err on the side of conservative. With the brightness at 50 percent, we were able to stream Netflix for around 12.5 hours.

Gaming will tax the battery more heavily, though if you're a fairly light user -- check the web a little bit each, catch up on Facebook, and stream some music while you shower -- the iPad Air can go several days before needing a recharge.

Final Thoughts
Performance Summary: Almost without exception, the iPad Air held a lead throughout our entire collection of benchmarks, and it proved especially fast compared to the 4th generation iPad. A good example of this was found in Futuremark's 3Dmark Ice Storm benchmark, in which the iPad Air posted a Graphics score almost three times higher than the iPad 4, and an overall score that was more than twice as high.

The numbers only tell part of the story, though. Subjectively, the iPad Air feels faster than previous generation iPads, particularly starting with the iPad 3. Web browsing is more fluid and navigating iOS 7 is smoother without any jerkiness. This is all due to the upgraded A7 System-on-Chip (SoC). It lives up to the some of the hype, though in regards to being a 64-bit processor, that's going to mean very little to end-users at this point in time.

If we were in charge of designing the iPad, one thing we would have done is equip the tablet with more RAM. Upgrading RAM is one of the cheapest ways to increase performance with some workloads, and in this case, going with 2GB (or more) instead of 1GB would allow for power surfing. By that we mean being able to open a bunch of tabs without having each one reload as you cycle through them.

Summarizing the iPad Air is tricky business. One one hand, Apple has done some great things here, most notably with the physical design. The iPad Air isn't just lighter than its predecessor, it's almost half-a-pound lighter, which is a significant reduction in weight that's both noticeable and appreciated. Wielding an iPad with one hand for an extended time was not truly feasible for most users until now, and we'd argue that's an important advancement in the evolution of tablet design since these are primarily content consumption devices. Whether it's watching a Netflix title or reading an e-book, having a lighter, thinner tablet goes a long way towards improving the user experience.

We also like that there's copious power underneath the hood. As we already knew from our time spent with the iPhone 5s, Apple's custom A7 SoC is a potent piece of silicon. It offers strong performance across the board and handles mobile gaming with aplomb. The chip is also sufficiently stocked with power to bounce around iOS 7 without hiccuping, which isn't the case with some of Apple's previous generation iPad models.

So, the iPad Air is thinner, lighter, and faster -- all good things. It's also a little underwhelming for a major upgrade. When Apple launched the iPad 4, nobody was really expecting a generational-leap at the time, so it's okay that it only featured minor enhancements compared to the iPad 3. To borrow from Intel's nomenclature, the iPad 4 would have been a "tick" on the "tick-tock" upgrade scale, whereas Apple was most definitely aiming for a "tock" with the iPad Air. To some extent, it succeeded, but we feel Apple stopped a little short. For example, with RAM being so cheap these days, why not make the leap from 1GB to 2GB? Most high-end smartphones have 2GB of RAM, so why gimp a flagship tablet at 1GB? iOS may not necessarily need more RAM in the majority of circumstances, but being able to leave more apps or tabs open in a browser would likely improve the user experience and speed app switching overall.

We're also underwhelmed by the 5MP iSight camera's performance. Granted, it's easy enough to whip out a smartphone or dedicated point-n-shoot to capture an important moment, but with all the emphasis on making the iPad Air light and portable, it doesn't make sense to equip it with a merely serviceable lens and call it a day. If you're out and about using your iPad Air and a photo-worthy opportunity presents itself, you can capture the moment on your tablet, but it's not going to be a great shot, especially if lighting conditions aren't ideal.

On top of it all, the usual complaints still apply here -- iOS is locked down pretty solid, there's too much reliance on iTunes, and you still won't find a USB port or expandable storage option. We're tired of complaining about these shortcomings, but as long as Apple keeps neglecting them, we feel compelled to keep pointing them out.

We know you're looking for a recommendation, and here's the deal. If you already own an iPad 4 or a modern Android tablet that you're content with, there's not enough here for us to say you should upgrade to the iPad Air. Wait another generation and see what Apple comes up with next, and also keep an eye on the Android camp, especially now that more manufacturers are offering high-DPI displays.

For those of you rocking an iPad 3 or otherwise in need of a newer tablet, the iPad Air makes a much stronger argument for itself, especially since it arrives at the same $499 starting price point as previous-gen products. Its thin and light form factor are major selling points in its favor, and the A7 chip inside is certainly a powerful part that won't feel old or dated for a while. Going back to what we said earlier, the iPad Air is the fastest, thinnest, and lightest iPad yet, and if that's what you're primarily interested in, you'll enjoy the iPad Air immensely.

  • Noticeably thinner and lighter
  • Fast custom chip is up to the task of gaming
  • iOS 7, if you like the new interface
  • Same long battery life as before
  • No change in price
  • 9.7-inch display is still one of the best looking around
  • Needs more RAM for power surfing
  • Underwhelming camera performance
  • iOS 7, if you don't like the new interface
  • 64-bit architecture is over hyped, for now

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