A Grounded Evaluation Of The iPad Air

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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