A Grounded Evaluation Of The iPad Air

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.

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