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

Its faster, lighter and thinner than any of its predecessors

Image credit: Apple

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Since the original iPad was introduced three and a half years ago, Apple has churned out five iterations of its benchmark tablet -- and said last month it has sold more than 170 million of them. The latest generation, the iPad Air, arrived Oct. 22 and improves on every aspect of what was great about those earlier iPads. (Apple even addressed the biggest concern with every post-iPad 2 version: weight.) From the iPad mini-inspired frame to the fast 64-bit A7 chip and architecture, the new iPad Air is a stunning improvement on what was already a rightfully successful tablet.

The iPad Air in Silver and White. (Image: Apple)

I've now had my iPad Air for almost a month, having picked up a 128GB unit, in Space Gray, on the day they arrived in stores. Unlike some past iPad launches, this year's rollout went smoothly. Apple stores and other retailers had ample supplies on launch day, which may have contributed to the lack of long lines usually associated with Apple hardware releases.

In my first look at the trimmer, slimmer iPad, I focused on weight and on how that has affected my use of iPads in the past. In essence, I always gravitated to the lighter device, grabbing my iPad 2 instead of the heavier, Retina-display iPad 3. What the iPad 2 lacked in display and updated architecture, it more than made up for with battery life and lighter weight. Once the iPad mini was released late last year, I ditched the iPad 3 entirely, selling it to a friend.

Lesson learned: When it comes to the iPad, lighter is better.

A game-changer

With that particular point in mind, it's clear now that my initial impressions were correct. The one-pound iPad Air is a game-changer.

Unlike last year, when the then-new iPad mini and the iPad 4 looked like distant cousins, the 2013 iPad Air and and the newest mini look like two versions (big and small) of the same tablet line. The Air, with its 9.7-in. screen, is very much a scaled-up iPad mini -- and that's a good thing. As the market for smaller tablets has exploded over the past year or so, the mini has proved to be popular. The iPad Air is only about 5 oz. heavier than the iPad mini with Retina display, only a couple of inches taller and about an inch and a half wider . That should help the Air sell well, even to customers who weren't looking for the larger-screened tablet.

In fact, the Air looks like it weighs more than it does. From the unibody aluminum frame to the chamfered edges around the glass display, the solid and high-quality construction always leaves people surprised when they pick it up. The very first comment volunteered by every person that checked out my iPad Air was about how light it is.

As with previous full-size iPads, the Air is built around the display. And what a display it is. With a resolution of 2048-x-1536 pixels, the high-resolution Retina screen packs 264 pixels per inch. (That's about a million more pixels than a traditional 1080p HDTV.) It's not as dense as the iPhone or the iPad mini Retina, but it's more than detailed enough to qualify as high resolution. The dense pixel layout makes individual dots of light difficult to discern with the human eye; the results are on-screen fonts that appear as smooth as those in a high-quality, backlit magazine -- and photos, as well as HD movies, that look fantastic.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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