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 iPad Air also features a much improved graphics core; Apple says it delivers up to twice the performance of previous generations. There is a noticeable improvement to details and fluidity in games that have been updated to take advantage of the new hardware; even games that haven't been updated run more smoothly than ever.

The iPad Air now sports the same M7 coprocessor introduced in the iPhone 5S; the M7 enables the tablet to capture and track motion data. While this technology is best utilized in fitness apps, applications like Maps can also use it to determine whether you're walking, running or driving, and to deliver the right information to you based on that data.

As with the previous models, the Air features two cameras, one facing front and the other facing rear. The front-facing camera -- Apple calls it the FaceTime HD camera -- can take 1.2MP photos and record at 720p resolution. The rear-facing camera -- the iSight camera -- takes 5MP photos and records video at 1080p. There are a variety of nifty tricks built into iOS 7 -- improved stabilization, face detection, tap-to-focus and pinch-to-zoom -- but Apple doesn't outfit its tablets with the best cameras. Those are saved for the iPhone 5S.

The result: images and videos taken in brightly-lit areas look fine, but I would avoid using either of these cameras in low-light situations. What they are well suited for, however, is FaceTime video conferencing. For that, they work wonderfully (except in low-light situations, when the video can get grainy).

Finally, the iPad Air is equipped with a 3.5mm headphone jack, built-in speakers (which sound pretty good for a device like this), dual microphones, Bluetooth 4.0 and a battery that Apple says lasts nine to 10 hours, depending on how the iPad is used. I've consistently found that the iPad lasts more than 10 hours, meaning Apple's estimates are conservative.

To test the Air's battery life, I combined all three extended 1080p versions of the Lord of the Rings films into one long 54GB movie lasting 12 hours and six minutes. With the screen brightness set to 50%, Do Not Disturb on, and with WiFi disabled, not only did it play right through the entire 12-hour movie, but still had 33% battery life left over at the end.

Final thoughts

Three years ago, I described the original iPad as computing's next leap forward, making technology available for people who may have dismissed laptops and desktops as too complicated to understand and use. To me, that was the real magic of the iPad: It changed our notion of computing and put the digital age within easier grasp of just about anyone who wanted access to it. It's the computer that no one would regard as a computer.

New iPads
The redesigned iPad Air (left) now looks just like a larger version of its smaller sibling, the new iPad mini Retina (right). (Image: Apple)

The iPad Air, in combination with a well-stocked App Store, takes the paradigm a step further by offering "desktop class" hardware in the lightest, slimmest full-sized tablet Apple has ever made. That's a potent combination, resulting in an intimate and immersive experience that's not possible when hunched over a laptop or desktop keyboard. The iPad's form factor has already opened up all sorts of use cases that go far beyond that of traditional computers. (The two-minute video Apple execs showed off when the Air was unveiled make the case better than I.)

The only thing that stops me from calling this iPad the ultimate personal computer is the lack of a TouchID fingerprint scanner, like the one found on the iPhone 5S. TouchID is one of those features that, once you get used to it, you don't ever want to go back. I use it constantly on my iPhone 5S and I'd like to see it on the iPad lineup as well.

That aside, the iPad Air doesn't just feel like another new iPad Apple -- it feels like an entirely new class of iPad. From its performance to its look to how it feels in hand, the iPad Air offers the very best experience from a tablet with a large display.

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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