In case you missed it, Apple (AAPL) recently revealed its 5th generation iPad: the iPad air.
When the original Apple iPad was released in 2010, it had the tablet market pretty much to itself. The Apple iPad Air won’t enjoy such a luxury, though. Virtually every consumer technology company is now trying to make the best tablets. And while early attempts to match the success of the Apple iPad success failed to catch on — anyone remember BlackBerry’s (BBRY) PlayBook? — the tablet market is now extremely competitive.
Google’s (GOOG) Android operating system continues to look unstoppable, and tablets running Android knocked the Apple iOS out of top spot for tablet market share earlier this year. And while the Apple iPad is still the single best-selling tablet and AAPL the biggest tablet manufacturer, there have been other worrying signs. In Q3, Apple shipped 14.1 million iPads, up just 0.6% year-over-year. Meanwhile, rival Samsung (SSNLF) shipped 9.7 million tablets, up a whopping 123%.
So there is a lot riding on the new iPad air. Since the iPad air will be carrying Apple through the holiday season and into 2014, it must lure current iPad owners into upgrading and also entice consumers who have seen Android and Windows tablets get better and cheaper.
Because the iPad Air needs to put Apple firmly back on top of the full-sized tablet hierarchy, that requires more than the simple spec bump the previous generation received. Read our iPad Air review to see if AAPL succeeded.
iPad Air Review: Thinner, Lighter Without Sacrificing Display Size
The first thing that struck me when I unboxed the Apple iPad Air was the size. It’s simply amazing how much AAPL has shrunk the iPad Air. The photo at right shows the iPad Air on top of my original iPad.
This is the reaction AAPL was hoping for. The full-sized Apple iPad has changed little in appearance and form factor since the first one was released, so naturally any iPad Air review is all over the new svelte form factor.
By narrowing the side bezel (mimicking the form factor introduced with last year’s iPad Mini), Apple shaved three-quarters of an inch from the width of previous models. It’s slightly shorter and thinner too. And the weight has been dramatically reduced. The iPad Air Wi-Fi version comes in at exactly one pound.
The Apple tablet still retains the 4:3 aspect ratio on its 9.7-inch display, making the iPad Air an ideal casual use tablet, easy to hold in one hand. Watching an HD movie will result in some black bars, but the iPad Air’s light-weight and full-sized display makes it tough to beat for web browsing, reading, gaming and general use.
iPad Air Review: Faster, But Holds the Line on PPI
I recently wrote about the use of specs for the marketing mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. The iPad Air is a great example of how numbers can confuse.
With an Android competitor like Samsung’s latest Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet running a quad-core processor at 1.9GHz and 3GB of RAM available, an iPad Air review should show Apple’s tablet being totally outclassed. With its A7 processor, a dual-core CPU at 1.4GHz and only 1GB of system RAM, the iPad Air should be a sluggard based on numbers alone.
But relying purely on numbers is dangerous (comparing different CPUs with different architectures is like comparing apples to oranges) … and the iPad Air is 80% faster than last year’s model in benchmark testing.
The A7 chip also marks Apple’s move to 64-bit mobile processing, and the iPad Air makes full use of it when running upgraded apps. Plus, AAPL incorporated MIMO dual antenna Wi-Fi technology which significantly speeds up Wi-Fi on a network with a router that supports MIMO (most recent models do).
Between the horsepower and the improved Wi-Fi performance, the Apple iPad Air is a speed demon.
Another element of the tablet spec wars is PPI (pixels per inch). Apple’s Retina display used to be the leader, but competitors have been upping the resolution of their tablets, while AAPL held the line on Retina with the iPad Air. An Amazon (AMZN) Kindle HDX 8.9 has a 339 PPI display compared to the iPad Air’s 264 PPI. Displaymate tested flagship tablets and judged the Kindle’s as the new champ for color accuracy.
But the iPad Air display is still a beauty, and was described during the Displaymate test as having one of the three “most impressive mobile displays available.”
iPad Air Review: Specs
- 9.7 multi-touch LED backlit Retina (2048 x 1536 display) at 264 PPI
- 64-bit A7 dual-core processor at 1.4Ghz, with M7 motion co-processor
- 16/32/64/128 GB storage
- 720p FaceTime camera, 5MP iSight camera
- Dual-channel 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi with MIMO, LTE available
- 6.6-inches x 9.4-inches x 0.29-inch, 1.0 pounds
- 32.4 watt-hour lithium polymer battery rated at 10 hours
- Dual speakers, dual microphones
- Lightning connector
- Runs iOS 7
- Available in Space Gray or Silver
- Prices starting at $499
iPad Air Review: Conclusion
The competition is catching up. So if you’re hunting for the best tablets with the highest pixel density available, the most RAM or the most powerful camera … well … the iPad Air isn’t it.
But Apple has significantly stepped up its game with this device. It’s far more than a spec bump over previous generation iPads, and Apple chose to make that a statement by going with the iPad Air name. As a general use, full-sized tablet, this is now the one to beat.
Besides the beautiful design and high-quality build that AAPL is famous for, the iPad Air and iOS7 combine for a tablet experience that should satisfy just about anyone. It’s wicked fast, so light that you don’t suffer arm fatigue from holding it, the battery life is excellent and the display is bright and crisp.
In addition, the Apple app store may not be the largest any more, but it still leads in apps that are optimized for a tablet’s bigger display.
After comparing the new flagship Apple tablet to some of the best tablets in my collection — including some loaners here from Sony (SNE), Google and Microsoft (MSFT) — during the course of my iPad Air review, I kept coming back to the same conclusion. If I had to get rid of them all and pick just one tablet, the iPad Air would be the no-brainer choice as the best tablet to buy this year.
iPad Air Review Overall Rating: 9/10
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.