Review by Andrew Kameka on Wednesday November 20, 2013.
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It's amazing how much a product can change in a generation or two. While using my cousin's Apple iPad 3, all I could think about was how different it felt from the new iPad Air. The two devices are only 18 months apart, yet they don't intitaly feel as if they were made by the same company. What's even more amazing is that despite differences in touch and weight, not much separates the iPad Air from its predecessors. For many people, that may be a good thing.
Hardware and Design
Apple's latest tablet is similar to its forefathers but has the distinct changes in its outer rim and inner workings. Apple switch to angled edges with a sharp metal rim and a back metal that feels cool and undistinguished. The iPad Air also feels so different from previous iPads because it's so light. Apple brags about making its devices thinner and lighter so often that the boasts lose meaning and weight. However, the ability to scale the iPad Air down to just a single pound truly is remarkable.
For the first time, the iPad feels comfortable held with one hand for long periods of time. The tablet is decidedly smaller thanks to thinner bezels and a shape measuring just 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.29in (240 x 169.5 x 7.5mm), but the most valuable takeaway from the iPad Air's shedding is that Apple managed to deliver the best feature of the iPad Mini - lightness for comfort and portability - and still offer a large display.
Apple failed to include a Touch ID sensor in the iPad, which is disappointing but less of an important feature to me because my tablets rarely venture outside of the house, thus I typically don't use a lock screen. Still, it would have been nice to have the option to provide that added security. The tablet maintains the same clicky home button at the bottom, metallic volume keys and a mute switch along the top right, and a headphone jack at the top of the device.
The iPad Air is easily the best designed iPad yet because Apple has managed to streamline so many components to make the tablet so much slimmer and still have comfortable bezels in landscape and tolerable bezels in portrait. Sadly, Apple still hasn't fully mastered the speaker design. The speaker has two ports on each side of the Lightning port, and delivers loud, full sound that I'm able to hear from across the hall. Unfortunately, the speakers are not positioned on opposite sides of the device, so when held in landscape, you hear audio from one side. The speaker placement is fine in portrait, but it leaves something to be desired when watching video in landscape.
The iPad with Retina display introduced last year introduced a huge improvement in display quality, and Apple wisely continues that display with the iPad Air. A 9.7-inch IPS display with 2048 x 1536 resolution (264ppi) keeps the device looking sharp when viewing photos or browsing the web. Unfortunately, that resolution doesn't do as many favors for video because of its 4:3 aspect ratio. That sadly means that Netflix and YouTube will Letterbox videos and place the large black bars on top and the bottom in order for clips to scale correctly. This is nothing new because iPads have always been that way, so it's just something that users will have to learn to ignore.
Like the iPhone 5S introduced two months ago, the iPad Air has an Apple-designed A7 chip with a companion M7 motion processor. You can pretty much copy and paste my assessment from one device to another because both are incredibly fast and move well. The M7 and 64-bit architecture aspects of the processor don't mean much at the moment, but they set the processor up nicely for more things to come in the future.
As for what it can do right now, the A7 remains powerful enough to deliver fast web browsing in Safari and loading apps. I've also noticed that it does incredibly well at loading streaming video faster than any other device currently at my disposable. The one area where I noticed performance problems is actually software related. Apple's animations and transitions introduced in iOS 7 actually have an odd effect of making performance seem as if it's laboring more than it really is, so disabling those animations enables a much smoother ride.
Andrew is MobileBurn.com's managing editor. He is based in Miami, Florida.