Review: The iPad Air

I’m no stranger to the iPad. I’ve had the original, the iPad 2, the iPad with Retina display and the iPad mini.

Over the years and through the generational changes, I’ve used my iPads for the same core set of tasks:

  • Reading
  • Surfing
  • Email management
  • Note-taking and light writing
  • Games

When the iPad mini came out last year, I jumped on it, excited to be able to do these things with something I could put in a coat pocket. In fact, I closed my iPad mini review this way:

With the iPad mini, Apple has come up with something that’s as full-featured as the larger product, in a smaller package for less money. It’s a win all the way around. I won’t be going back to the larger iPad.

A year later, I’m typing this on an iPad Air, having sold my iPad mini months ago. So, what happened?

In short, while the iPad mini’s small size made it very portable, I found myself not using it nearly as much as my previous tablets. While I thought I could deal with the non-Retina display, over time I came to dislike it more and more.

My biggest problem with the iPad mini, however, was the keyboard. While many enjoy the thumb-typing that the mini affords, I find it uncomfortable at best.

Between not wanting to read on the iPad mini and not wanting to write with it, the thing just sat in my backpack most of the time.

When I ended up selling my iPad mini a couple of months ago, I was willing to wait to see what Apple had up its sleeve for this holiday season. I’m not disappointed I skipped the iPad 4.

Hardware & Software

In his review of the iPad mini, John Gruber writes:

Last year’s iPad 4 and Mini were two very different iPads. This year’s new Air and Mini are simply two sizes of the same iPad.

I cannot emphasize this point enough. After three days of extensive use of the Mini (a review unit on loan from Apple), it works and feels exactly like the iPad Air. Everything about it is of equivalent or identical quality: the display, the cameras (front and back), the performance, the battery life.

He’s totally right. Read the other way, the iPad Air is a big iPad mini. The case with its flat back and rounded edges, discrete volume buttons and dual speakers is identical to the iPad mini.

Of course, all of the small details are outweighed by the fact that the iPad Air is a good bit smaller than the iPad 4.

The old iPad clocked in at 1.44 pounds, with the Air weighing an even pound. As a result, it’s much more comfortable to use while holding and is far less noticeable in a bag. It’s seven-tenths of an inch narrower, conforming to the iPad mini’s design with thin bezels down the side.

This image of my iPad Air sitting atop my wife’s iPad 4 really shows the difference between the two models:

All of this adds up to something larger than just numbers. When picking up my wife’s iPad 4, I’m now surprised by how much the thing weighs. In a way that only Apple can, it’s managed to make its year-old product look and feel … gross.

Battery life and LTE performance are great. Under the hood, the iPad Air sports the same A7/M7 lineup as the iPhone 5S, and the thing just screams. Apps open almost instantly, games are smooth and multi-tasking is fast.

The only things that appear to be slow are iOS 7’s transitions. While toggling the “Reduce Motion” in Settings can help some things, it can’t solve the core issues.

As many other reviewers have noted, the OS just doesn’t feel finished on the iPad. From the very first iPad, Apple’s struggled to scale iOS’ interface up to the larger screen, and 7 does very little to fix that. Things like Siri, Notification Center and Control Center feel hilariously large on the iPad Air, and icons still re-arrange slightly based on orientation. Don’t even get me started on how dumb folders look on this thing:

There have been reports of the iPhone 5S crashing out on the multitasking screen, and while I haven’t seen the issue on my iPhone 5, it is present on my iPad. Perhaps Apple’s new 64-bit code still has some rough edges.

That’s not to say iOS 7 on the iPad is bad. Everything works and it enjoys feature parity with the iPhone’s version, which is more than what could be said about Android on tablets for years, but iOS 7 lacks a certain amount of polish on the tablet.

The Smart Cover

Alongside the original iPad, Apple shipped a full-backed case that left a lot to be desired. With the iPad 2, the company introduced its Smart Covers, screen protectors that clipped on magnetically and could be folded over to form a stand.

While the iPad 2, 3 and 4 were compatible with the original, four-panel design, the iPad mini’s Smart Cover used a three-panel design, due to the tablet’s smaller screen and frame.

With the iPad Air, Apple’s brought this design to its full-sized Smart Covers, and the result isn’t great.

The new cover doesn’t have any points of overlap, and the iPad Air can come detached if typed on too hard. In the vertical orientation, the tablet feels secure, but I’ve had it tumble over backwards on more than one occasion while using it in bed.

In short, the new Smart Cover is a step backwards.

The Name

At Macworld 2008, Steve Jobs introduce the MacBook Air.

The name, Jobs explained, was derived from a simple fact: the MacBook Air was the world’s thinnest notebook. Jobs took pride in the fact that the MacBook Air — at it’s thickest point — was thinner than the next-best thing, the Sony TZ series of notebooks.

While the iPad 3 and 4 were thick and heavy compared to the iPad 2, the Nexus 7 and other Android tablets have been shaving weight and thickness with almost every release. With the iPad Air however, Apple’s almost showing off, moving the bar seemingly out of reach once again.

While the Air name is about weight this time around, too, I think there’s more to it than that. With last year’s non-Retina, sorta-underpowered iPad mini being a runaway hit, this year’s Retina, same-specs-as-the-big-iPad iPad mini is going to sell like hotcakes.

Last year, the iPad and iPad mini were drastically different; this year, Apple’s selling two of the same iPad — just at different sizes. I don’t think Apple views one model as the flagship anymore, but a new name and new chassis is bound to catch the attention of shoppers.

In Conclusion

I was recently prescribed my first pair of reading glasses. They aren’t particularly strong, but they affect my vision just enough to prevent the headaches I was getting after spending more than a few minutes on my MacBook Air or while reading a book. I can see at night just fine and can drive without them, but working is much less unpleasant now.

With the iPad Air, Apple’s 9.7-inch tablet is lightweight, powerful and comfortable to hold. While none of these complaints would have seemed valid two years ago, the iPad mini showed the world there was a better way to build a tablet, and those of us who still enjoy the larger screen size of Apple’s original iPad get to benefit from those advances.

The iPad Air is like my glasses. It’s not changing the world or fixing anything that was massively wrong, but it does help with the headaches that full-sized iPad owners used to deal with. I’m enjoying mine immensely, and it’s hard to imagine what we’ll be complaining about in two years when it comes to the iPad Air.