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iPad Air review

The best gets better

Let's murder a metaphor.

In June of 2010, two months after Apple had shipped the first iPad, Steve Jobs sat on stage with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the D8 conference and compared tablets and PCs to cars and trucks.

“PCs are going to be like trucks,” said Jobs. "They’re still going to be around. They’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used by like one out of x people.” Jobs predicted that the vast majority of people will eventually use tablets as a primary computing device, just like the vast majority of people drive cars. “We like to talk about the post-PC era, but when it really starts to happen I think it will be uncomfortable for a lot of people,” he said. “I think we’re embarked on that.”

Three and a half years later, the exploding tablet market has redefined the industry, but iPad sales have leveled off. Cheaper, smaller tablets from Google, Samsung, and Amazon are just as good at watching Netflix, reading books, and casually browsing the web as Apple’s slates, and the idea of a tablet as a laptop replacement seems to have faded even as PC sales have slowed. It’s as though people are holding off on replacing their aging workhorse trucks but eager to pick up a zippy little motorcycle for some cheap thrills on nights and weekends. Meanwhile, Microsoft and traditional PC manufacturers are busy trying to squeeze Windows into an ever-increasing variety of mobile form factors, much like the first SUVs were little more than reworked pickups.

And then there’s the new iPad Air. Starting at $499 and climbing to an incredible $929 for a fully loaded model with mobile broadband and 128GB of storage, the Air is a complete redesign of the familiar 9.7-inch iPad into a package that’s smaller, thinner, and lighter than ever before, with far more powerful internals and the same industry-leading 10-hour battery life. It’s also Apple’s first tablet to be released with iOS 7, the company’s complete rethinking of its mobile operating system. In a world still run by trucks, the iPad Air is the most advanced car ever built.

But is that enough to start swinging the balance in a more serious way? Are we any closer to the day when the iPad can actually replace a laptop? To commit the final crime against analogy, is this thing a bestselling family Accord or just an accessible midlife crisis Miata?

Design and hardware

Putting the Air in iPad

Visually, the iPad Air is a larger iPad mini. There’s little else to say by way of description; it’s as if Jony Ive stood in his design studio and simply pinch-zoomed the existing mini design to accommodate a larger 9.7-inch display. Even the relative proportions of the now-smaller bezels are the same as the mini — in photos without any reference to size it can be challenging to tell them apart.

That doesn’t mean the iPad Air isn’t stunning — it is. It’s nearly a half-pound lighter than the outgoing model and .07 inches thinner, and the difference is astonishing in person: you can hold it comfortably in almost any orientation or position, and it feels far more tossable and casual than any other large tablet I’ve used. Compared to the fake plastic leather of the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 or the chunky heft of the Microsoft Surface 2, the Air is in an entirely different league. There’s an element of braggadocio about the entire thing, really: anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention saw this hardware design coming a mile away, and now here it is, with hardly a real competitor in sight.

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Around the back, you’ll find the same 5-megapixel camera as the previous iPad; a slightly improved 1.2-megapixel front shooter offers better low-light performance for furtive FaceTime sessions and ill-advised late night selfies. A new dual-microphone setup offers noise cancellation for better audio while you’re recording video, and a pair of stereo speakers now flank the Lightning connector on the bottom. It’s a slight improvement over the mono speaker of previous iPads, but it’s still entirely too easy to find yourself covering the speakers when you hold the iPad Air in landscape.

The most important part of a tablet is its display, and the Air retains Apple’s excellent 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 Retina panel, which is still among the best in the industry nearly two years after first appearing on the third-generation iPad. At 264 pixels per inch, the iPad Air doesn’t match the outrageous 300-plus ppi displays of the Galaxy Note 10.1, Nexus 7, or new Retina iPad mini, but it still looks incredible, and has nearly perfect viewing angles, color reproduction, and touch response. It’s reason enough to upgrade from a first- or second-generation iPad.

Hidden behind that display is a 32.4Wh battery, a much smaller cell than the 42.5Wh pack that added weight and depth to the previous Retina iPads. But don’t let the smaller size fool you: battery life was excellent in my tests, the Air routinely plugging away for over 10 hours of use. I used the Air heavily for several days straight without worrying about a charger; I felt more comfortable about its battery life than I have about any other iPad since the iPad 2.

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The secret to that great battery life is Apple’s new A7 processor, the same 64-bit chip found in the iPhone 5S and the new iPad mini with Retina display. The A7 plays at both ends of the spectrum: in addition to being thrifty with power, it’s also ridiculously fast. Apple claims the Air is up to twice as fast as the old model, and it’s borne out in day-to-day use. Apps open nearly instantly, games like Infinity Blade 3 are utterly smooth, and Safari loads webpages faster than ever. The entire thing feels like it has power to spare, although very few current iPad apps can actually use that power. But the A7 is now used in all of Apple’s high-end iOS devices, and it seems certain developers will find a way to take advantage of the extra muscle.

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Lastly, Apple’s also tweaked the design of its iconic Smart Covers, the clever folding screen-protectors that attach to the iPad with magnets. As you’d expect, the Air’s Smart Covers are now much more like the iPad mini’s, with a three-panel design instead of four. I found this to be a big step backwards — the cover was far less stable when folded up and used as a stand for the Air, and vigorous typing was usually enough to collapse the whole thing.

The only thing missing from Apple’s parts catalog is the TouchID sensor that recently debuted on the iPhone 5S, and I didn’t find myself missing it too much — I don’t unlock my iPad nearly as much as my phone, and TouchID doesn’t have a lot of other uses right now. That may change in the future, but it’s certainly not a factor right now.

Overall, however, the iPad Air represents a nearly ideal manifestation of what a large tablet can and should be. But while the Air’s hardware is close to perfect, the software isn’t quite up to the same standard.

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Software

Big-screen iOS

The Air runs iOS 7, Apple’s visual redesign of its mobile operating system. If you’ve been using 7 on an iPhone or older iPad, there are no surprises here — everything is exactly the same, and the interface is fluid and responsive in a way Android still hasn’t matched. Apple’s selection of iPad-optimized apps continues to be unparalleled, with over 475,000 to choose from. It’s Apple’s biggest advantage, and one the company is justified in boasting about; a great iPad app like Traktor DJ really can make PCs feel ancient.

To get you started with some great iPad apps, Apple’s made its entire iWork and iLife suites available for free when you buy a new Air. That’s a total of six apps — Pages, Numbers, Keynote, GarageBand, iPhoto, and iMovie — all of which have been tweaked for iOS 7 and now work better with their Mac counterparts over iCloud.

It’s an interesting mix: the iWork apps like Pages and Numbers allow an iPad to serve fairly basic computing needs out of the box, while the superlative iLife apps like GarageBand and iMovie are a showcase for just how powerful the iPad can be. I wouldn’t reach for an iPad to start a word processing or spreadsheet project, but Apple’s smart to reinforce that the platform is complete enough to do such things if you’re willing to accept the limitations.

The work of refining iOS 7 for the iPad has yet to be done

But iOS 7 itself has never felt as complete on the iPad as it has on the iPhone. Interface elements that add depth and life to the smaller screen don’t all scale elegantly to the Air’s bigger display; animations that already feel too slow on the iPhone can feel downright clumsy when they’re happening at 9.7 inches. The new app switcher isn’t particularly useful in landscape mode, and some of the multitasking gestures don’t feel as intuitive anymore. The popover menu elements used throughout iPad apps lack any depth at all, making them hard to distinguish.

The iBooks app hasn’t been updated for iOS 7, so it’s like Forstall’s Lost Island of fake wood textures and sepia-toned controls. The video player feels a little bit buggier and crashier than before. The concepts and ideas behind iOS 7 have begun to grow on me, but the work of refining them specifically for the iPad has yet to be done. And that Safari icon is still terrible.

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Call it the College FreshMan test: Can you go to school with just an iPad Yet?

There’s still clearly so much left unexplored about the iPad and what it can do — all that boasting about iPad-optimized apps gets a little less meaningful when it’s clear that even Apple hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about how certain things should be tailored to the iPad instead of the iPhone.

Shouldn’t Siri be a different experience here? Shouldn’t the camera app offer some tangible benefit to the growing number of people who insist on taking photos with their tablets? Why is the notification system still so goofy, and why does multitasking feel so jumpy? I would kill for Apple to rip the app-snapping feature from Windows 8 just so I could keep Twitter or a chat session open while I browse the web; add in that feature and I might seriously start thinking about replacing my laptop.

The lack of meaningful change to the fundamental experience of using an iPad is perhaps why Apple hasn’t actually demoed an iPad at an event since June of 2012 — in fact, the company has never put an iPad running iOS 7 on stage.

It feels like Apple’s lead over the tablet competition is so massive that the company is simply letting the iPad’s core strengths and superlative hardware sell themselves instead of aggressively pushing it into new use cases and scenarios. Let’s call it the College Freshman Test: until Junior and Sally can head off to State with an iPad Air instead of a MacBook Air, it’s going to take a lot more work to evolve the iPad into a true primary computing device.

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“There are a thousand nos for every yes.”

That line was prominently displayed to audiences at Apple’s June developer conference and the iPad Air event, during a video about the company’s values and commitment to design. “If everyone is busy making everything,” the video asks, “how can anyone perfect anything?”

These lines are both a deep statement of Apple’s purpose and mission and an easy shot at Samsung, which has never said no to any half-baked product idea. But they also reveal an Apple that now thinks its primary task is to refine and enhance — an instinct that’s in tension with the idea of the iPad as a replacement for traditional PCs. That mission requires invention and exploration and risky bets that may not pay off, but the iPad Air instead puts its money on sure winners: thinner size, more power, longer battery life.

These qualities are terrifically important, and not to be understated: the iPad Air is the best large tablet ever made, and its only real competition will be the forthcoming Retina iPad mini, which will offer the same experience in a smaller form factor for a lower price. If you have anything older than the fourth-generation iPad, the upgrade to the Air will be worth it. I’m certainly going to buy one. (I would advise fourth-gen owners to wait a year; the performance boost of the Air won’t be all that noticeable yet, and I’m betting next year’s model will add the TouchID sensor.)

But if you’re waiting around to see if tablets are for you, or you just want a supplement to your laptop, you should look at the Retina Mini or perhaps another great small tablet like the Nexus 7. You’ll spend less money to do most of the same things you’ll do on the Air.

But I don’t think most people can fully replace their PCs with an iPad Air. Not just yet. The potential is there, just off in the distance and over the next hill, but we won’t get there until iOS sheds the culture of no and embraces the fundamental truth about cars: they’re about freedom. They’re about personality and expression and waking up early to stare down the sunrise on the coast with a heart full of possibility and the means to achieve it.

Cars are about yes.

Photography by Michael Shane

“There are a thousand nos for every yes.”

That line was prominently displayed to audiences at Apple’s June developer conference and the iPad Air event, during a video about the company’s values and commitment to design. “If everyone is busy making everything,” the video asks, “how can anyone perfect anything?”

These lines are both a deep statement of Apple’s purpose and mission and an easy shot at Samsung, which has never said no to any half-baked product idea. But they also reveal an Apple that now thinks its primary task is to refine and enhance — an instinct that’s in tension with the idea of the iPad as a replacement for traditional PCs. That mission requires invention and exploration and risky bets that may not pay off, but the iPad Air instead puts its money on sure winners: thinner size, more power, longer battery life.

These qualities are terrifically important, and not to be understated: the iPad Air is the best large tablet ever made, and its only real competition will be the forthcoming Retina iPad mini, which will offer the same experience in a smaller form factor for a lower price. If you have anything older than the fourth-generation iPad, the upgrade to the Air will be worth it. I’m certainly going to buy one. (I would advise fourth-gen owners to wait a year; the performance boost of the Air won’t be all that noticeable yet, and I’m betting next year’s model will add the TouchID sensor.)

But if you’re waiting around to see if tablets are for you, or you just want a supplement to your laptop, you should look at the Retina Mini or perhaps another great small tablet like the Nexus 7. You’ll spend less money to do most of the same things you’ll do on the Air.

But I don’t think most people can fully replace their PCs with an iPad Air. Not just yet. The potential is there, just off in the distance and over the next hill, but we won’t get there until iOS sheds the culture of no and embraces the fundamental truth about cars: they’re about freedom. They’re about personality and expression and waking up early to stare down the sunrise on the coast with a heart full of possibility and the means to achieve it.

Cars are about yes.

Photography by Michael Shane

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