Second take: The iPad Air sets a new benchmark for performance and style

Its faster, lighter and thinner than any of its predecessors

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The only drawback with such a high-quality display is that apps and content that weren't originally meant to be seen in high resolution look pixelated and blurry. Thankfully, most developers have updated their apps to take advantage of the Retina display, which debuted on the iPad 3 in early 2012, and Web content continues to evolve for higher resolutions.

Air and iPad
The iPad has matured in virtually every way possible since its debut in 2010. The iPad Air (shown here sitting on top of a first-generation iPad) is faster, slimmer, lighter and it has a high-resolution screen and two cameras -- neither of which the first iPad had.

Same screen size, smaller tablet

Despite the same-sized display, the iPad Air is noticeably smaller than its predecessor. Measuring 6.6 x 9.4 x .29 in., the new model boasts an enclosure that has 24% less overall volume than before. (It's also 28% lighter and 20% thinner.) The iPad Air with LTE weighs slightly more, at 1.05 lb., but that difference is negligible.

In slimming down the Air, Apple engineers narrowed the bezel around the screen -- it's most obvious when the iPad is held in portrait mode. The thicker borders of the previous generation made it easy to hold the tablet without triggering the multitouch sensors in the display; fortunately, Apple managed to tweak the iPad's software so that inadvertent screen touches are rare.

As in previous years, the iPad Air comes in any color you want -- as long as it's white or black. The white version -- Apple calls it Silver -- features a white bezel bordering the display, with shiny silver chamfered accents and a less shiny silver rear casing. The Space Gray model features black borders and darker aluminum accents. Both look sharp; both feel great in the hand.

Each model comes with one of four storage options. As before, storage doubles with each $100 increment, starting at $499 for the 16GB model and rising to $799 for the top-end 128GB model. If you require cellular connectivity, there's a Sprint/AT&T/Verizon/T-Mobile compatible model at each storage level for $129 more. (Note that the LTE models also come equipped with GPS, for more precise location awareness than the Wi-Fi-only models.)

About that Wi-Fi: This is the first iPad to sport dual antennas and support MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) technology for better wireless throughput. That's most notable on Wi-Fi access points that utilize the latest wireless standard, 802.11ac. (Apple's new Airport Extreme base station supports 802.11ac.)

What does that mean in the real world? To find out, I downloaded the popular game Infinity Blade 3 on the iPad Air and my old iPad 2. The 802.11n-capable iPad 2 is no slouch when it comes to wireless speeds (scoring 32.51Mbps download/4.10Mbps upload in my tests), but it's no iPad Air, either. The Air scored 43.05Mbps for downloads, 21.29Mbps for uploads. To download and install the 1.56GB Infinity Blade 3 took 19 minutes, 56 seconds on the iPad 2; the iPad Air managed the same feat in just eight minutes and 13 seconds.

64-bit zoom

Another plus: This is the first 64-bit tablet, utilizing the architecture Apple engineers custom-developed and shipped with the iPhone 5S. Unlike the iPhone 5S, space isn't as constrained in the iPad and so Apple engineers have clocked the A7 processor slightly higher, making the iPad Air the fastest mobile device Apple has ever shipped. Naturally, the iPad Air runs apps faster than previous iPads. But when an application has been written to take advantage of the 64-bit architecture, the real-world benefits are readily apparent; I've seen twice the performance as before when using such apps.

One app I use by Bad Robot -- it's called Action Movie FX -- allows me to add a bit more fun to my family's home movies. As a test, I recorded a 10-second video clip and added an effect at the end, timing how long each iOS device needed to output the new video. The iPad 2 took 21.58 seconds; the 2012 iPad mini took 21.33 seconds; the iPhone 5S finished it in 9.10 seconds; a new iPad mini with Retina display took 9.09 seconds; and the iPad Air finished the job in 7.53 seconds. I'm not sure whether Action Movie FX has been updated to include 64-bit support -- there's nothing in the documentation that says it has -- but the performance gains using A7-chip devices are obvious.

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