Hands on: At just 1 pound, the iPad Air is worth the weight

Trimmer, faster and noticeably lighter than its predecessor, Apple's new iPad hits the bulls-eye for portable computing

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In my limited time with the device, it's already evident that the Air addresses the main issue that kept me from enjoying the previous-generation Retina display iPads: the weight. When the iPad 3 arrived early last year, I raved about the stunning display and improved performance. But I also lamented the extra weight. What I didn't realize at the time was that it would actually affect my use of the iPad 3; over time, I used it less and less. Finally, I sold it to a friend looking for a family-friendly device.

Using the iPad Air has made me realize that as much as I loved the Retina display on the iPads 3 and 4, those extra ounces were enough to make me reach for another iOS device whenever I could. Given a choice between the iPad 3 and the iPad 2, I often grabbed my old iPad 2 without even thinking about it because of the wrist fatigue I felt during extended reading and browsing sessions. (Apple still sells the iPad 2, a 16GB model that goes for $399.) Then Apple released the iPad mini; it had all of the benefits of the iPad 2 in a lighter, easier to handle form factor.

iPad Air and iPad 2
Close-up of the iPad Air (left) and the iPad 2 (right). Until the Air was released, the iPad 2 was the thinnest full-sized iPad made by Apple. (Image: Michael deAgonia)

In retrospect, it's clear that, for my needs, portability and mobility trumped screen resolution. Given the overall reaction among new iPad Air owners, clearly I'm not alone in that view. When it comes to tablets, weight really matters -- even if it's measured in ounces.

In many ways, the iPad Air -- the way it looks, the way it feels in hand -- builds on the best parts of the iPad mini. In fact, the Air feels more like a next-generation mini than an updated iPad 4. Semantics? Maybe. But when you put the two side by side, the connection is obvious.

One of the reasons the iPad 2 has remained on sale is because Apple needed a light-weight alternative to the faster, but heavier, Retina-display iPads. With the arrival of the Air, that option is no longer necessary. Now, you can get the 9.7-in. Retina display in a lightweight form factor (and with a much faster A7 processor) for just $100 more than the iPad 2.

Though I haven't had time to conduct benchmark tests of the A7 chip on the Air -- I'll have more on that in a full review later this month -- I've used the tablet enough to know that speed isn't an issue. Apps launch quickly, transitions in iOS 7 are smooth and fluid, the Air does not get hot when taxed and battery life is very, very good. Apple says the Air will go for 10 hours between charges, and I've seen nothing yet to call that estimate into question. If anything, that might be conservative.

If you're weighing pros and cons, there are a couple of things lacking. Most obvious is the fact that the Air does not have the Touch ID fingerprint reader that's been such a standout feature of the iPhone 5S. Touch ID is my favorite habit-changing feature on that device, and on more than one occasion I've picked up the Air and held my thumb on the Home button, waiting for it to unlock.

I also hope that when iPads do ship with Touch ID, we'll also get software support for multiple users. This would be a real benefit for families or offices that share devices; with any luck, Apple will have something like it when iOS 8 arrives next year.

Neither of these, however, should stop you from considering the Air if you're in the market for a new tablet. That's true even if you're upgrading from last year's model, something I rarely recommend. The Air really is that much better than the iPad 4.

I've only had a few days with the iPad Air. But I can tell you that the 64-bit power of the A7 processor and iOS 7, in concert with the Air's weight/size ratio, iTunes/App Store ecosystem and the overall ease of use, make this a compelling device.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

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