When the first iPad arrived, many people didn’t know what it was for, even if they knew they wanted one. Now, Apple has a different challenge: to persuade customers that they really need the new, updated model. So, should you buy the iPad Air?
This is the first substantial change to the hardware’s design since March 2011 when the iPad 2 arrived. Subsequent models (there have been two) have followed the same pleasing shape – sloping edges on the back, wide black or white bezel on the front. The third and fourth-generation iPads have been heavier than the iPad 2 because they featured a gorgeous, high-resolution Retina display and needed a bigger, heavier battery to push all those extra pixels around.
So the first thing you notice about the iPad Air is the gadget’s new design. It’s been updated to match the iPad mini, released a year ago. This means boxier corners and a back cover coloured to match the front bezel. It’s an altogether snazzier look, with a chrome Apple logo in the middle of the lighter coloured iPad, previously called white, now silver, while a black logo sits in the middle of the darker one, called Space Grey.
The biggest design change is on the front of the iPad Air, with its much narrower bezel. Most tablets have wide frames round the screen, for good reason. On a touchscreen it’s important to ensure that the user’s thumb doesn’t accidentally rest on the screen as it’s being held – an accidental thumb press is registered by the touchscreen and gets in the way. Unless you’re Apple.
One of the most underrated features on the iPad mini was thumb rejection – software clever enough to know to ignore an errant thumb and focus on the other touches. It’s a brilliant solution which allows for thinner side bezels and therefore narrower tablets. The feature is included in all iPads, large and small, with recent software.
And now it’s been used to slim down the iPad Air. This has made the new slimmer bezels possible, though it does mean that last year’s covers and cases won’t fit the new model, but that’s the only downside. The new tablet’s size is one of its triumphs. It makes it feel more comfortable in the hand.
That’s also because the iPad Air is much slimmer from front to back than the last iPad, or even the iPad 2. This is the thinnest full-size iPad yet. And even that’s not the real reason the design is improved. It’s now much lighter. It weighs 478g instead of last-season’s 662g.
This is the real killer improvement.
A tablet needs to be portable, to be light enough for you to want to take it everywhere. Just as the MacBook Air was the most lightweight, thin-profiled laptop on the market when it launched, so the new iPad justifies borrowing the Air moniker for this super-light piece of kit.
Of course, that’s not the only upgrade on the new iPad. It now has the same processor as the iPhone 5s. This seemed ludicrously over-powered for a phone (though who’s complaining?) and is certainly more than fast enough here.
It means that the things you’re used to doing on an iPad happen more quickly now. The whole thing just feels faster. And it means that as more complex and demanding apps are devised (and you can bet they are in development now), the iPad Air and its smaller sibling the iPad mini with Retina display will be able to handle them with ease.
Apple’s key advantage is that it makes the hardware and software, so they can work together flawlessly. So the new iOS 7 operating system dovetails with the iPad in every way, down to the matching of iPad case colours to the system palette.
It’s a finely detailed OS – look no further than Messages which enables iDevice users to share unlimited messages. When you’ve pressed send, the text plonks itself into a speech balloon. When your interlocutor is replying, the screen shows they’re crafting their words with the distinctive bubbles of a thought balloon. Or FaceTime Audio, which enables voice calls between iPhone, iPod and iPad using a data connection. Effectively it means you can have free phone calls if you’re not busting your data limit. Not only is this a beautifully executed feature, it’s a real bonus if you find yourself in a network blackspot but there’s wi-fi around.
Like the iPhone 5s, the iPad Air has a motion co-processor which reports on movement. Fitness apps will take advantage of this soon, but for now it means that the iPad knows if you’re driving or walking. If you’re using the iPad to give you directions, it knows to re-route you to walking instructions when you get out of the car.
What’s missing? Rumour had it that the iPad might have the delectably enjoyable Touch ID fingerprint sensor of the iPhone 5s, which would have been nice.
The five-megapixel rear camera is unchanged, though as noted elsewhere, do you really want a big, flat slab of glass and aluminium as your main snapper? An uprated camera may not be a pressing priority.
This iPad is the biggest upgrade since the arrival of the Retina display on the third-generation iPad in spring 2012 – though it remains the same price, from £399 for the 16GB wi-fi only version.
Its spiffy new styling may be enough to persuade you to upgrade. The faster processor is cool and will become more useful as more apps arrive.
But above all, this is the super-light iPad, the most portable iPad, the most powerful iPad. Tablets are expected from rivals like Google in the next months, but for now Apple is in the lead again.