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Slimming down, speeding up: is Apple's iPad Air the tablet to beat?

Slimming down, speeding up: is Apple's iPad Air the tablet to beat?

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Until today, the iPad hadn't changed much over the past two and a half years. It got a little faster, a little thicker, and its display a little sharper, but they were all piecemeal improvements on the same iPad design. But today Apple changed that. It drastically shrunk down the 9.7-inch iPad, trimming off bezel, cutting out weight, and slimming its body to something far closer to the exceptionally small iPad mini: a change so notable that Apple is now calling it the iPad Air. It's an enticing new tablet — but as Apple slowly improved the iPad, so too did its competitors improve their own tablets. Is the iPad Air still the best large tablet out there?


The iPad Air design is drastically smaller

On the Android side of the tracks, there are three big players to watch for: Google with the Nexus 10, Samsung with the Note 10.1, and Amazon with the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX. For those looking for portability, there's almost no question on what to choose. The iPad Air is tinier in just about every dimensions, which should make toting around a tablet with a larger screen all that much easier. Apple's tablet is also likely to have the best build quality of the pack, being made out of solid pieces of aluminum, rather than plastic like its competitors.

The iPad Air certainly isn't the perfect tablet though. While it's hard to find fault with its display, the iPad's pixel density still falls short of the top Android competition around it. That won't be something the average viewer will find fault with, but the iPad — which once was the sharpest tablet around — remains far from holding that title anymore. The only major tablet of its size class that it can trounce in that area is the Surface 2, which is thicker and heavier than Apple's tablet as well.

But Apple has a new competitor on Windows now: Nokia's Lumia 2520. It has the makings of a strong performer, comes in a number of stylish colors, and appears to live up to Nokia's excellent build quality. Like with the Surface though, the iPad Air shows it up in quite a few areas, including size and display resolution. But the Lumia 2520 includes one big addition: built-in LTE for the same price as the Wi-Fi-only iPad. Apple is still charging over $100 more for an LTE-enabled version of its flagship tablet — a large price hike for anyone interested in going mobile.

Apple's closest competitors stand out more than ever

And though Apple hasn't changed how the iPad works all that much over the years, most of its competitors have begun adding something a little bit different to their tablets. The Kindle Fire HDX includes built-in customer service over video chat, the Note 10.1 is built around stylus use, the Surface 2 can act a little more like a laptop, and the Lumia 2520 is distinctly targeting mobile. While none of those features are necessarily a must-have, it does mean that Apple's competitors are really starting to set themselves apart in meaningful — and non-gimmicky — ways.

But as always, it's hard to ignore Apple's vibrant ecosystem of tablet apps — something that none of its competitors can live up to, especially now that both iLife and iWork are included for free. Google is just starting to better promote tablet apps, and Microsoft has positioned its app store front and center, but both still have quite a ways to go. If Apple's competitors can't catch your interest through their more distinctive features, there's a good chance that the iPad Air will become the next tablet to beat.