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Computerized Investing > November 16, 2013
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by Wayne A. Thorp, CFA

$499 to $929

Redesigned iPad is the smallest, lightest and most powerful ever.

For me it is hard to believe that the iPad has been around for only three years. In that short time, it has set the standard for all tablets that came after it. However, after revolutionizing the industry three years ago, the iPad has seemingly gotten a little "long in the tooth," as it were. Since the introduction of the first iPad, Apple released three subsequent generations of iPad, each focused on enhancements inside the tablet, with no serious cosmetic changes. For me, at least from a hardware standpoint, the iPad wasn't even the best 10-inch tablet available—the Google Nexus 10 had taken that crown.

However, on November 1, Apple released the fifth and latest generation of the iPad—the iPad Air. The Air represents the biggest changes to the platform since the second generation, which is what I have been using. After two years, though, I decided it was time to upgrade and purchased an iPad Air the day it came out. Keep in mind that this review is from the standpoint of someone who is upgrading from the iPad 2, which lacked the Retina display.

Out of the Box

Apple borrowed the "Air" name from its slim, lightweight MacBook Air for its new iPad, and it was easy to understand why almost as soon as I took my new iPad Air out of its box. The Air reflects Apple's assertion that the biggest competition to the iPad isn't other 10-inch tablets, but rather smaller, even more portable devices, such as the iPad mini. The iPad Air is nearly a half-pound lighter than previous iPads and a third of a pound lighter than the Google Nexus 10. In fact, the iPad Air is now closer in weight to the iPad mini than it is to the fourth generation iPad.

How was Apple able to achieve this? By borrowing heavily from the iPad mini's design. This includes shrinking the size of the bezel to eight millimeters on the right and left side (when in portrait orientation). The iPad Air is also 1.9 millimeters thinner than the fourth generation iPad; it is even a hair thinner than the iPhone 5. Overall, the iPad Air with its unibody aluminum chassis is 6.6 inches wide, compared to 7.3 inches for the iPad fourth generation, is 9.4 inches tall and 0.29 inches thick (0.1 inches thinner than the iPad fourth generation).

The screen is the same 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit Multi-Touch display with 2048 by 1526 resolution at 264 pixels per inch (ppi) that has been available since the third generation iPad. However, the iPad Air uses new display technology that allows the screen to be thinner and more energy efficient. For what it's worth, Apple has moved to indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) semiconductor materials from the amorphous silicon (a-Si) compounds used in previous iPads.

Apple has once again boosted the performance of its iPad line by adding the dual-core A7 64-bit processor to the iPad Air. This is the same processor found in the iPhone 5s. However, it is a bit surprising that the iPad Air is lacking the Touch ID fingerprint sensor technology found with the iPhone 5s, especially since the A7 processor was designed specifically for Touch ID. Instead of the Touch ID, you have the familiar home button at the bottom-center of the tablet. The Air now also has the M7 motion-tracking processor.

The iPad Air has also done away with the sloping back found on previous iPads. The chamfered edges are sharper, albeit still somewhat rounded.

Another new feature of the iPad Air is its pair of stereo speakers on either side of the Lightning connector port on the bottom of the tablet (when held in portrait orientation).

Apple has done little to improve the onboard cameras of the iPad Air. The front-facing FaceTime camera still takes 1.2 megapixel photos and streams 720p video. Presumably the reason Apple has decided not to upgrade the video resolution is because of data consumption concerns. The rear-facing iSight camera still takes 5 megapixel pictures—still without a flash—with autofocus and f/2.4 aperture, and records 1080p video.

On the top right side of the iPad Air is the Silent/Screen rotation lock switch. On the silver version of the iPad Air, the black volume rocker has been replaced with two separate silver buttons. On the top right of the tablet is the on/off/sleep/wake button. A 3.5mm headphone minijack is on the top left of the iPad Air. The Lightning connector is on the bottom of the iPad Air. There are also dual microphones on each side of the tablet, which Apple says will increase noise cancellation and reduce background noise for video.

Apple offers the iPad Air in a variety of configurations—16 in all. You have two color choices: "space gray" and silver, along with storage of 16G to 128G and Wi-Fi only or Wi-Fi with cellular networking.

The Air also supports Bluetooth 4.0. For cellular connectivity, the iPad Air is unlocked, which means you can switch carriers and even buy pre-paid SIM when roaming internationally. Apple is now using a baseband that supports 14 LTE brands, which means you can use it around the world with pretty much any carrier. For wireless connectivity, the Air also has dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi along with MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) connectivity. This means the Air is using more than one Wi-Fi antenna so it is able to send and receive data much more quickly than before.

Setup

I picked up my new iPad Air the Friday it came out. Within 10 minutes of getting it home I was connected to the AT&T network and my home Wi-Fi network, and I had used iCloud to restore all of the apps I had been using on my iPad 2. Since the iPad Air is unlocked, I didn't have to get a specific AT&T nano-SIM card. All I had to do was enter in my account information—phone number and log-in information—and the iPad Air did the rest. For such an advanced piece of technology, the ease with which I was able to get it set up was truly amazing.

Performance

As someone who upgraded from an iPad 2 to the fifth generation iPad Air, the overall user experience was a quantum leap forward.

Beginning with the form factor, the iPad Air is more portable than the previous iPads. It is impressive that Apple was able to make the iPad Air roughly one-third lighter than previous iPad models, but in the end it is "only" a half pound lighter (and if you want to get picky, less than one-half of a pound). This became evident when holding my old iPad 2 in one hand and the new iPad Air in the other. The difference was hard to tell; something that multiple colleagues confirmed. Just like with my iPad 2, my hands eventually got tired and fell asleep when holding the iPad Air with one hand, although it took longer. The dimensions and weight of the iPad Air are enough to prevent it from being a one-handed tablet. If you are looking for a tablet that is light and small enough to hold in one hand, the iPad Air isn't for you.

However, when holding the iPad Air with both hands, you are able to better appreciate the lighter weight and smaller form factor. The smaller bezels mean that you are able to thumb-type with the smaller portrait orientation on-screen keyboard. As someone who does a lot a texting on my iPhone, I found I was able to achieve pretty good typing speed with just my thumbs. However, turning the iPad to landscape, with its larger on-screen keyboard, offers a better typing experience. Similar to the iPad mini, the Air is programmed to ignore thumb touches that take place near the bezel, which means I never found myself accidentally doing something I didn't mean to do because I was "all thumbs."

While Apple touts the new A7 processor as being twice as fast as the processor found in the fourth-generation iPad, this isn't something the casual end-user is going to notice. Apps open a bit faster than they did on my iPad 2, but the difference is negligible. However, the new MIMO technology makes an appreciable difference when surfing the web. Web pages come up much more quickly with the iPad Air compared to my iPad 2 when connected to the same Wi-Fi network.

Although the iPad Air now sports stereo speakers, their functionality is limited since they are so close together. Plus, it is easy to cover up the speakers if you tend to rest your tablet on your stomach, especially if you are laying down. However, I did find the sound quality to be a bit better than it was with my iPad 2. As you'd probably expect, the bass is weak and the sound can become distorted at higher volumes.

Shrinking the iPad Air down without sacrificing performance did mean that Apple had to scale back on the materials it used. Typing on the touchscreen keyboard has a different sound and feel compared to the iPad 2—it is almost a hollow sound. The vibrations that come from typing on the screen are noticeable and there were times when I felt the need to scale back on the zeal with which I was typing. This had me looking for a Bluetooth keyboard more quickly than I probably would have otherwise. Undoubtedly, this is more of a personal perception than a true concern about the build quality of the iPad Air. It definitely is, however, a more delicate piece of technology than previous iPad models.

I did discover one unintended consequence of the iPad Air’s smaller form factor. I purchased a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard to use when I am doing extended typing such as this review. It has batteries that attach to the iPad for carrying around but you detach it from the iPad for typing, putting the tablet in a slot in the keyboard to keep it propped up. I have used a similar type of keyboard from Zagg with my iPad 2 and never had a problem with them. However, in order to accommodate the smaller bezel of the iPad Air, Bluetooth keyboards need to be shallower. This means the iPad rests closer to the keys on this Logitech keyboard. On numerous occasions I found my fingers hitting the screen while I was typing, moving the cursor and requiring frequent edits. If you are someone who prefers to pair a Bluetooth keyboard with your tablet, this is definitely something to keep in mind. While Logitech is merely conforming to the form factor Apple created for them, I am looking forward to a true keyboard case that will move the iPad away from the keys.

Battery Life

Pretty much everything on the iPad Air is thinner or lighter, so it's not surprising that the battery, too, has gone on a diet. However, that is only in terms of weight. Although the battery is smaller in size, the iPad Air still delivers more than 10 hours of battery life, namely due to the increased efficiency of the A7 processor. The M7 motion coprocessor even gets into the act with power management, putting the iPad Air in low-power mode when the sensor realizes the tablet hasn't moved in a while.

Apple has also been able to maintain battery life, even with a smaller battery, with the new screen assembly used for the iPad Air. The iPad Air now uses just 36 LEDs to light its display, down from as many as 84 in previous generations, which lowers the battery capacity needed to drive the display. Apple has also reduced the thickness of the display assembly, so it appears that the display is indeed one of the areas where Apple has been able to make the most improvement on size and weight, both in the components themselves and in the battery capacity needed to drive them.

Price

As is the Apple way, they made the iPad Air smaller and more powerful, but they didn't shrink the price. The base 16G Wi-Fi model starts at $499 and prices go up to $929 for the 128G Wi-Fi + Cellular model.

Overall

After using the iPad Air for only a week, I have little doubt that this is the best iPad Apple has made. Apple has made a product that is lighter and smaller, without compromising performance or functionality. However, when you really get down to it, what does that mean? Compared to my two-year-old iPad 2, it means quite a bit. The upgrade to the Retina display, combined with the smaller and lighter form factor, make me very glad I upgraded. Throw in the faster processor, excellent battery life and even faster network connectivity (4G LTE versus 3G on my iPad 2), and it means the iPad Air is a joy to use. Coupled with the new Logitech Bluetooth keyboard I just purchased, the iPad Air is a formidable productivity platform (I am actually writing this review on the iPad Air).

The problem some reviewers have with the iPad Air is that it isn't anything we haven't already seen from Apple. Perhaps we have come to expect too much from Apple, but some are knocking the iPad Air because it lacks anything truly innovative or new. In essence, they assert, the iPad Air is merely a larger version of the iPad mini. On some levels I agree with this. In reality, there isn't anything I can do with the iPad Air that I couldn't do on my iPad 2. It is also disappointing that the iPad Air is lacking the Touch ID fingerprint technology found with the iPhone 5s. This has led others to criticize Apple for trying to sell the iPad Air merely on the merits of its smaller form factor, while holding back new technology until next year's iPad refresh to sell more iPads.

If you don't have an iPad, or if you are using an Android or iPad 1 or 2, the iPad Air is definitely an upgrade to consider. The Air has supplanted the Google Nexus 10 as my preferred 10-inch tablet. While I am not a fan of the Android OS due to the fragmented nature of its marketplace, I enjoy the technology being put out by the likes of Samsung. With the iPad Air, though, Apple has retaken the lead—at least for the moment. But it is worth mentioning that Apple still has some catching up to do, especially in screen technology, as the Google Nexus 10 still has a higher resolution at 2560 by 1600 at 300 ppi. If you already have an iPad with the Retina display, I don't see the Air as a necessary upgrade. The performance improvements are incremental at best and don't warrant the cost of upgrading to the Air. In addition, you are better off waiting 11 months until the next iPad refresh, when it's expected that Apple will add Touch ID to the iPad.

Complicating the discussion, however, is that fact that there are tablets on the market that are even smaller and lighter, have similar performance as the iPad Air, and are considerably cheaper. Case in point is the new iPad mini with Retina display that just went on sale for $100 less than the iPad Air. So the question becomes whether you need a 10-inch tablet. For someone like me, the answer is a resounding yes, seeing how much productivity work I do with my iPad. However, if you are looking for a tablet that you can hold in one hand for reading or watching videos, you are probably better off looking elsewhere.

The bottom line is that if you are looking for a 10-inch tablet, though, the Apple iPad Air is my top choice.

Pros

  • Smaller and lighter than previous iPads
  • New A7 processor nearly twice as fast as previous model
  • Over 10 hours of battery life
  • New MIMO technology speeds up web browsing
  • 9.7-inch 2048 by 1536 Retina display

Cons

  • Still not a "one-handed" tablet
  • Missing Touch ID found with iPhone 5s
  • 5 megapixel rear-facing camera due for an upgrade
  • Smaller, cheaper tablets available with similar performance

Apple iPad Air

$499 to $929

Wayne A. Thorp, CFA is a vice president and senior financial analyst at AAII and editor of Computerized Investing. Follow him on Twitter at @WayneTAAII.


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