Slimmer, lighter, and faster than last year's model, Apple's iPad Air (which starts from £399) is the best tablet for the most people. It's a fully-fledged computer which is now so thin and light that you won't even notice it's in your bag. Like every iPad before it, the Air is striving to become the magic book with eternally rewritten pages that seers and science fiction writers have predicted for millennia.
The iPad Air isn't a radical break from the iPads before it. It doesn't watch your gestures or read your fingerprint. However, its slimmer build gets it that much closer to the dream of the sheet-of-paper-thin form factor where the hardware disappears, and all that's left is magic. The Air isn't magic, of course, but when it’s loaded up with some of the many spectacular third-party apps available for iOS, it's certainly a step on the path.
Considerably smaller and lighter than any previous iPad, the Air measures 169.5 x 7.5 x 240mm (WxDxH), with a much slimmer bezel on the sides of the screen. (That doesn't affect usage, either – the iPad's touchscreen still has excellent thumb rejection.) Tuck the Air into the corner of last year's model, for instance, and the fourth-generation iPad shows 20mm of bezel off the right side. This iPad also has a flat back, not a convex one like previous models. It comes in Silver (with a white front) or Space Grey (with a black front).
At 469 grams (478 grams for the Cellular model), the Air is considerably lighter than the iPad 4, but it isn't feather-light. There are lighter large tablets – the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 weighs almost 100 grams less, for instance. But Apple’s slate is airy enough that throwing it into your bag and carrying it around all day won't faze you, when it might have with older iPads.
Otherwise, this tablet looks a lot like an iPad. Pretty much all the buttons and features are in the same place as on last year's model, although the volume rocker has been cracked into separate up and down buttons. I have mixed feelings about the bottom-ported stereo speakers. If you're listening to music with the iPad flat on a table, it's much louder than competing tablets with back-ported speakers. But if you're playing a game or video while holding the tablet in landscape mode, all of the sound pumps out of one side.
The 9.7in 2,048 x 1,536 IPS LCD touchscreen is bright, but rather reflective. At 264 ppi, it's at the limit of my ability to visually distinguish the pixels. It doesn't quite match 2,560 x 1,600 super-sharp tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, but I don't think anyone will be dissatisfied with the sharpness here.
The new MIMO antenna improves Wi-Fi reception with the right router (and yes, Apple's Airport Extreme fills the bill). With an 802.11n Meraki MR16 router connected to our corporate line, I was able to get 30-33Mbps down on the iPad Air versus only 17-18Mbps down on last year's iPad. That will make a big difference when downloading movies or large files; many high-end games are now over a gigabyte.
Both the Wi-Fi and cellular iPads pack Bluetooth 4.0, but only the cellular model includes a GPS radio.
Apple says that the iPad Air should last up to 10 hours on Wi-Fi. That's on a 32.4 Watt-hour battery compared to the previous iPad's 42 Watt-hour cell. We're currently testing battery life, and will add the results to this review when we have them.
Apple's A7 processor, running at 1.4GHz here, is the most efficient on the market, although it isn't quite the fastest. If you want a true deep dive into Apple's unique chip architecture, which ARM has said is at least six months ahead of its competitors, check out AnandTech's review of the A7. I'm going to focus more on real-life performance.
And that performance is excellent. On the iPad 2 and 3, iMovie in iOS 7 feels genuinely gummy. On the Air, it feels effortless. High-end games like Asphalt 8 and Infinity Blade III render beautifully. Augmented-reality apps update their screens in real-time. Yes, there's only 1GB of RAM on board here, but iOS doesn't tend to need a lot of RAM because it doesn't do a lot of multitasking.
We ran a range of cross-platform benchmarks and some iOS apps to illustrate how the Air compares with other top tablets. For web browsing, the combination of the A7 and Apple's Safari browser is killer: The iPad outmatched every other tablet we've tested on the Browsermark web browsing benchmark. When I say that, I'm also including the Intel Bay Trail-based Asus Transformer Book T100 – it, too, fell short of the Air.
On the GFXMark benchmark, which gauges gaming performance, the A7 pulled 49 frames per second onscreen, which competes well with, but doesn't top Nvidia Tegra 4 and Qualcomm Snapdragon 800-based tablets. On the Geekbench processor benchmark, quad-core processors like Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 beat the dual-core A7, but that's to be expected. Geekbench scales more smoothly with more cores.
If you're just comparing the Air with other iPads, of course, there's no contest. I got 13 per cent higher Browsermark results than the fourth-generation iPad, and 35 per cent better than both the iPad 2 and 3. Graphics frame rates were more than double the iPad 2 and 3. A short 720p movie exported from iMovie in 41 seconds, which is 50 per cent faster than the fourth-gen iPad and three times as fast as earlier models.
iOS is still a simple grid of icons that is passionately focused on touch. Read our in-depth iOS 7 review if you want the full details on Apple’s OS.
Apple's obsession with touch has resulted in some amazing apps and new ways of doing things, including the likes of interactive textbooks. It falls flat for me in only one area, but it’s an important one – that of traditional productivity. Apple's Pages and Numbers, while now free with new Apple hardware, are just too visually oriented for a procedural thinker like me, and none of the third-party alternatives measure up to Microsoft Office on Windows tablets.
Cameras and multimedia
As you may know, I am no fan of people who take snapshots with their tablets. I think they look like idiots – but as Apple reminded me, that doesn't mean there are no good uses for tablet cameras. The iPad's 1.2-megapixel 720p front camera works well for video calls, and the 5-megapixel 1080p rear camera plays a role in scanning, shopping, and augmented reality apps. The Camera app is notoriously simple, with your options limited to HDR, Panorama, Square, or Standard. Samsung's Galaxy-device kitchen-sink camera this most certainly isn’t.
The main camera is quite sharp, with a super-quick shutter and good low light performance. It blows out bright skies, which the HDR mode didn't fix, and shutter speeds flirted with blurring moving objects on a cloudy day in my tests. But take it out of the realm of snapshots and into computer vision, and it'll be able to recognise things well, especially with an excellent, fast-focusing macro mode that excels at reading text. Video shot in 1080p ratcheted its frame rates down a bit in lower light, from 30 frames per second (fps) outdoors to 27 fps inside.
The front camera takes 1.2-megapixel still shots and records 720p video at 30 fps in good light, and a very grainy 24 fps in low light. Most notably, like all iPad cameras (but unlike, say, the Kindle Fire’s) it's designed to work with the iPad in portrait mode, and the angle and focal length are perfect for video calling in that orientation. If you hold your iPad in landscape mode, you have to angle it oddly to get your face in the picture.
The iPad Air is available in 16, 32, 64, and 128GB models, starting at £399 (for the 16GB Wi-Fi model) and adding £80 each time the storage is doubled up. The 128GB tablet has 115GB free for your files. Multimedia playback is the same here as with other Apple mobile devices. Natively, the tablet plays anything you sync over from iTunes, whether via USB cable or Wi-Fi; there are (paid) third-party apps to handle music and video formats that the integrated players don't support. You can throw your video over to a TV using a Lightning to HDMI adapter cable, or wirelessly with Apple TV.
The cellular iPad costs £100 more than the Wi-Fi model (so it starts at £499), as usual, and allows for mobile surfing along with 4G LTE support. In our LTE tests, performance was fine, although the Air didn't quite match the speeds we saw on the Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. Using the Ookla Speedtest.net app, we consistently pulled faster speeds on the S4 in both weak and strong signal areas. However, it has to be noted that in testing, signal strength mattered much more than the device used.
The iPad Air versus iPad mini
So how does the Air stack up to the refreshed iPad mini Apple launched alongside it? (The two are pictured above and below, side by side).
AOL exec Ryan Block tweeted: "Impressively light, but still very much a full-sized iPad. I think I'm sticking with the iPad Mini."
To which I tweeted back: "Y'see, I'd say, ‘impressively light, and a full-sized iPad. A lot less reason to go with the Mini.’"
The iPad Air and the new Retina iPad mini look identical in many ways. They use the same processor, the same screen resolution, the same networking options, and the same camera (although we haven't tested them side-by-side since the Retina mini doesn't come out until later this month).
This means that the decision between the two comes down to form-factor preference and your budget (the iPad mini will cost you £80 less). I think the 10in form-factor is better for general purpose computing – it gives you enough room to move. I've also never loved the width of the iPad mini when held in one hand; I feel like it's weighted a little too far towards the outside, especially compared with narrower 7in tablets like the Google Nexus 7.
I think the full-size iPad is a better platform for gorgeous high-end games and HD video, and it makes Apple's productivity software more usable. But I won't disagree too vehemently if you feel otherwise – it's purely a matter of taste. (Incidentally, for a full breakdown of their respective specs, see our iPad Air versus iPad mini Retina spec comparison).
The iPad Air versus other tablets
Because of Apple's simple interface and Cupertino’s devotion to its developer community, the iPad does most of the things most people want.
That said, there are three big niches, and a few small ones, and if you fall into one of them, you might want a different tablet. Windows Bay Trail tablets like the Asus T100 will serve you better for getting work done in Microsoft Office and other PC apps. But you pay a real price in complexity, stability, and speed over the iPad. Just now, I had to shepherd my T100 through the Windows Wi-Fi troubleshooter.
If you want some assistance, Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX should be your choice. The HDX’s Mayday feature gives you live 24-hour on-demand tech support from an endless array of chipper, patient people. It's also excellent for handling media from Amazon, of course.
The iPad is also expensive, which leaves room for much less pricey tablets. The 9in Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ can get you online, surfing the web, reading books, and playing games for £129 right now. But it's nowhere near as smooth or speedy an experience as the iPad Air.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (see our spec comparison of this slate with the iPad Air here) may recruit a cult following of artists and architects who like to draw with its pressure-sensitive pen, and the Sony Xperia Tablet Z's IR blaster lets it function as a universal remote for your HDTV and Blu-ray player.
See what's happening here? Every other tablet has a specific place. The iPad is everywhere else. (For more on other slates, have a look at our best alternatives to the iPad Air article).
So, should you upgrade?
If you have an iPad 1 or 2, then yes, definitely go out and get a shiny new iPad Air. The Retina display makes the original iPads' screens look leaden, heavy-handed, and grainy. The iPad 3, meanwhile, was underpowered for its screen, and apps can really drag, plus it's still got the old 30-pin connector. The Air is a lighter experience in every way, not just physically – things finally zip around in a way they don't on the iPad 3.
If you have the last-gen iPad, then it's a tougher call. Yes, this iPad is lighter, thinner (see the above image which shows the Air stacked on top of the iPad 4), and up to twice as fast as last year’s model. But it's not like the iPad 4 is a bad tablet by any stretch – it probably does whatever you need it to do. We haven't seen any apps that really require the A7 processor yet, and iOS 7 doesn't drag on the iPad 4 like it does on earlier models. (Fourth-gen iPad owners might also want to see our spec comparison of the iPad Air versus iPad 4).
The long and short of it all is: Only buy the Air if you feel like your existing iPad is weighing you down. In any case, be sure to sell your current iPad for the best price you can get before you buy the new one.
The iPad Air isn't going to please everyone, but it'll please most people. Just as there's more than one great computer, there can be more than one great tablet: The slender iPad Air lifting its touch-centric apps up on a pedestal, the simple Kindle Fire helping everyone along, and the business-like Windows tablets shuttling their Office documents and Photoshop files.
As with the iPhone 5S, Apple is trying to make both the hardware and the OS step into the background here, so you can better enjoy the apps. The best iPad, Apple implies, is one that disappears.
Manufacturer and Model
Apple iPad Air
2,048 x 1,536 pixels
Apple iOS 7
169.5 x 7.5 x 240mm (WxDxH)
Video Camera Resolution
16GB / 32GB / 64GB / 128GB
Screen Pixels Per Inch