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Testing: Apple iPad Air as a Tablet Upgrade

By Norman Chan

Weight. Form. Speed. Those are the three areas where the iPad Air differentiates itself most from the iPad 4. Let's go over each of these attributes to see how they have affected my day-to-day use of the tablet.

I've been using the iPad Air for almost two weeks now, replacing my iPad with Retina Display (we'll just call it iPad 3) that I bought last March. We'll be going in-depth with the technical details and how it directly compares with previous iPads and the new iPad Mini with Retina Display in a future video, but I wanted to share my experience with it so far.

The iPad Air makes arguably the biggest technical jump over its predecessor of any iPad refresh; the significant reduction of weight and size a more impressive technical achievement than iPad 3's introduction of its high-resolution screen. That's coupled with the use of Apple's 64-bit A7 processor, which may be a bigger deal than even Apple hyped on stage last month. Anand has been frank about being impressed by A7's computation width (how many and what kind of instructions it can run per clock cycle) and quick access to system memory and local cache. It's future-proofing that will pay off in future apps that can make use of the speed.

Weight. Form. Speed. Those are the three areas where the iPad Air differentiates itself most from the iPad 4. Let's go over each of these attributes to see how they have affected my day-to-day use of the tablet.

With weight, Apple shaved off four tenths of a pound from the fourth-gen iPad to make the iPad Air weigh just over one pound (478 grams, or 1.05 pounds). One pound is a real sweet spot for large-screen tablets. It's a tablet weight I first experienced with Samsung's Galaxy Tab 8.9 back in 2011, and is well-suited for tablets that are big enough to distribute that weight over a large surface area. A 10-inch tablet at one pound is more comfortable to hold than a 7-inch tablet weighing the same because the mass is spread out more. Apple's engineers were able to get the iPad Air to that weight but reducing the battery size--from 42Whr in the iPad 3/4 to 32Whr. The iPad 2 had a 25Whr battery, so this is still larger/higher-capacity than that, which is needed to power the backlight for the high-res screen.

Still a pound isn't light enough that you can grip the side of the iPad Air with just one hand and hold it for more than 30 minutes without feeling strain. Like previous iPads, a one-handed grip is best complemented by resting the tablet on your lap or another surface. But for the first time, the full-size iPad is also comfortable to use if you brace the wrist of your gripping hand on a crossed-knee. Just like reading a book or newspaper on the couch. Two-handed use is consequently improved when sitting up or reclining back as well. It's still not possible to hold the iPad above your head when laying flat on your back--like when laying in bed--without the risk of it falling on your face. A pound of metal and glass falling flat on your nose or head still hurts. Believe me, I tested it.

And while the new weight comes as a impressive surprise on the first day of use, it becomes the new normal after a week. Now, when I pick up the iPad Air, I don't think "wow this feels light." Instead, the iPad 3 feels heavy.

The next big change is the size and form of the iPad. The 7.5mm thickness is nice, but it's not as big a deal as Apple's pencil commercials would have you believe. Part of this is Apple's own fault because of the way they designed the previous iPads to give the illusion of thinness. With its rounded edges, the chassis design in the iPad Air is now more akin to the iPad Mini than the iPad 3/4. The current design has a rounded edge and flatter back than previous designs, which hid the thickness using a curved backside. This design trick was most noticeable in the very first iPad, which had a thin flat edge that hid a thick curved back. If you look at street advertisements for that first iPad, you only see that flat edge and don't get a sense of the actual thickness. (To be fair, this is the same design trick the HTC One uses to hide its bulk.) I appreciate that the iPad Air's design doesn't resort to that misdirection, and the rounded edges are more comfortable to grip than the sharper ones on the iPad 2/3/4.

The narrowed design of the iPad Air is a bigger deal than the reduced thickness. There's less bezel space around the left and right sides, which made me worry that there wouldn't be enough space to place my thumb for holding the iPad. Thumb detection and touch rejection works in most cases, but not well in some apps like Kindle. In that app, the iPad could consistently register the thumb on my left hand and flip back a page.

For all the A7 chip's technical merits, the boosted speed of the iPad Air is really not noticeable. That's more a testament to how well iOS ran on the iPad 3, even thought that was running on a two-generation-old A5X processor. Flipping through app pages in the Springboard is just as smooth as before, and apps that aren't loaded in cache still take several seconds to load. iOS 7 home screen animations (which I still don't like) aren't any faster, either. A direct comparison between the iPad Air and iPad 3 shows that what's reduced is only the already short delay between when you tap an icon and when the home screen animation begins. And without doing direct comparisons, it would be difficult for me to notice any change at all in a common task like web browsing or checking email.

A7 is a future-proofing piece of hardware, and its architectural benefits are better felt in the more efficient use of battery. Since most app developers have to design around a performance floor of previous iPads (let's assume 3, since that was the first with Retina), there aren't yet apps that take advantage of the A7 in the iPad Air and iPhone 5S that are bogged down in the last two iPads. Graphics heavy games, like X-Com, The Walking Dead, and Infinity Blade are where iPad Air users will see the most benefit. But again, we're talking about a matter of seconds in loading time deltas.

Two notes on the screen and battery. Battery life is just as good in the Air as it was in the iPad 3, even with diminished max capacity. When using the iPad Air in the mornings and evenings for web browsing and reading, I charged it every four days when it hit 25% battery remaining. The battery also didn't get noticeably warm like it did in the iPad 3. The screen is also just as good as the last gen. My opinion is that it's still inferior to the screen on the iPhone 5/5S, which has better optical bonding. I still notice that the LCD image on the iPad looks like it's sitting under the glass, not right on it. Thinner glass or maybe the use of sapphire could improve this in the future--it's an upgrade to look forward to.

The Smart Cover is also redesigned for the iPad Air--the narrower design means you can't use the ones from the last iPads. There's also no leather option for the Smart Cover--you have to get the full body case if you want that. Like with the iPad Mini's Smart Cover, this one has a magnet on the right side that help it stick to the iPad when flipped around the back. This magnet is too weak, and never holds to the iPad on either the front or back. iPad 3/4's Smart Cover didn't have this magnet, but I avoided it flopping around the back by folding it in half and gripping it with my left hand. With the three-fold design of the iPad Air's Smart Cover, it doesn't fold well to the left like the old one did (see the photo below). I wouldn't recommend buying the Smart Cover if you can get by with a screen protector and don't need a portable stand.

iPad Air is undeniably the best full-size iPad yet. There's no question about that; few Apple products get worse when they get updated to the next generation (the AppleTV puck a notable exception). It doesn't do you any good for me to tell you how good the iPad Air is--if you're in the market to buy a new full-size iPad, it's clearly the one to get. But whether you should be in the market to buy a new iPad is the more interesting question, especially if you own and iPad 3 or 4. Here's my recommendation for approaching the iPad Air as an upgrade.

If you own an iPad 4: You should be happy with it. There's no reason to spend another $500+ on an iPad Air this year, unless you can offload your iPad 4 at almost no loss. Which is unrealistic. Amazon's Electronic Trade-In program will buy a $500 4th gen iPad for at most $265. Even if you were able to sell the iPad 4 at $100 depreciation, it's not worth $100 to "upgrade" the 4 to the Air. Unless you're made of money and $100 is a drop in the bucket.

If you own an iPad 3: This is the situation I'm in. And to be honest, I wouldn't buy the iPad Air either. The iPad 3 is still great and has retained most of its battery capacity even after 18 months. A lot of people jumped in on the iPad 3 because it was the first iPad with the high-res screen and LTE, and like me, a lot of buyers paid for the cellular and storage premiums (my 64GB LTE iPad 3 cost almost $900). Depreciation is even worse on the 3 than it is on the 4, being six months more dated and still using a 30-pin connector. So if you were to sell one to help pay for an iPad Air, you wouldn't get much back. Spending another several hundred dollars less than two years later to buy an iPad Air isn't practical. The faster app loading times aren't worth it. The more interesting way to spend that money (if you really want to buy a tablet) is on the new iPad Mini or even a Nexus 7.

If you own an iPad 2: Upgrading from the iPad 2 to the iPad Air makes sense. At two years old, battery capacity has naturally atrophied over time, and iOS 7 bogs the system down a bit. As many reviewers have pointed out, the iPad Air feels like a true successor to the iPad 2--it improves on every attribute of the 2 while the 3 and 4 had to compromise with increased heft to accommodate the then-new Retina screen. The decision you have to make here is whether you value a 9.7-inch screen and long battery life (very useful if using the iPad as an LTE hotspot) or if you'd be find with the 7.9-inch screen of the new iPad Mini, which is $100 cheaper and even lighter.

If you own an original iPad: Bravo for holding out and resisting consumerism by using a digital device for more than three years. Treat yourself to the iPad Air--it's going to blow your mind.

If you own an Android tablet: Apple is still Apple and iOS is still iOS. There are so many great new Android tablets available this year, and Android OS for tablets is actually coming into its own. The iPad Air doesn't do anything different enough for every other iPad to give you a reason to switch.