When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010, I’ll admit that I was skeptical. But after a year of intriguing apps appearing from iOS developers and the release of the iPad 2 — lighter, thinner, and faster than the original — I decided to get one for myself.
My patience paid off, because not only is Apple still supporting the iPad 2 with iOS 7, they’re still selling it two years later! In some ways, the iPad 2 was superior to its third- and fourth-generation offerings. Despite lacking a Retina display, the iPad 2 was lighter, thinner, and cooler. I tried a friend’s third-generation iPad and was unimpressed with the heat and heft. But while the iPad 2 was the lightest full-size iPad available, it was still heavier than I would have liked, and I was never a fan of its low-resolution screen. Apple had addressed the second problem while exacerbating the first.
Apparently I wasn’t alone, because not only did Apple keep the iPad 2 around, the non-Retina iPad mini, itself a miniaturized iPad 2, was a smash hit. The iPad mini ended up being my wife’s first iPad. For her, like many people, speed and screen resolution are secondary to portability.
Apple paid attention, and with the iPad Air, the company has pulled off a remarkable feat of engineering: making it 0.05 inches (1.3 mm) thinner than the iPad 2, almost a third lighter (469 versus 662 grams) than the fourth-generation iPad, and 0.63 inches (16.2 mm) skinnier than any previous full-size iPad while maintaining a 9.7-inch Retina display — with no sacrifice in battery life. Users seem to appreciate Apple’s little miracle, since T-Mobile and AT&T are selling them in droves.
The iPad Air is the iPad I’ve been waiting for. But Apple complicated the decision with an embarrassment of riches. Later this month, it will release a second-generation iPad mini with Retina display. Unlike the original, this iPad mini isn’t made from leftovers — it features the same powerful A7 chip that powers the iPad Air. On the flip side, it’s also 0.05 pounds (23 grams) heavier, 0.01 inches (0.3 mm) thicker, and $70 more expensive than the original iPad mini, bringing it closer to the iPad Air’s weight and price.
The similarities have paralyzed some of Apple’s customers. Most folks already know if they’re going to buy one of the new iPads, the question is, “Which one?” Apple has narrowed the gap between the two devices. The iPad Air is only 0.3 pounds (138 grams) heavier than the upcoming iPad mini, and both are 0.3 inches (7.5 mm) thick. Is the extra screen size worth $100 and slightly more size and weight? I too had this dilemma, and after a few days with the iPad Air, I’d like to help you make your decision as well.
How Light Is Light? -- Among the numerous iPad Air reviews, no one can agree on just how heavy — or light — the iPad Air is. Sure, we all agree on the objective weight of a hair over 1 pound (469 grams), but how does that affect the way we use the device? After all, there’s a big difference between a 1-pound boot and a 1-pound wristwatch.
The simplest answer is that it feels heavier than the first-generation iPad mini, but much lighter than any previous full-size iPad. But you probably already guessed that.
Picking up the iPad Air is notably easier than the iPad 2. I can easily grab it with one hand and be off. I could do that with the iPad 2, but the weight always caused me to ask if I wanted to bring the iPad with me wherever. Often, that answer was “no,” but with the iPad Air, I’m finding myself saying “yes” more often.
For grabbing and going, the iPad Air is light as a feather. Where I start to feel the heft is when I hold it unsupported for extended periods. Nevertheless, I find myself being able to hold on for much longer than I did with my iPad 2. As a test, I tried out the iPad version of the game Grand Theft Auto III. With the iPad 2, I could hold it for only a few minutes before my RSI-hampered wrists began to give out. But with the iPad Air, I was able to complete a few missions before needing a break — about 20 to 30 minutes.
For bedtime reading, where I prop my elbows on the bed and the iPad on my chest, the difference is night and day. The iPad Air feels more like a magazine and less like a dinner plate. While I barely tolerated the iPad 2’s weight while reading in bed, the iPad Air doesn’t bother me at all. And when it’s time to put it on the nightstand and drift off to sleep, I can put it away with one hand easily, whereas setting aside the iPad 2 was often a clumsy, two-handed affair.
What About Typing? -- One of the biggest distinctions between the full-size iPad and the iPad mini is typing style. If you’re a thumb typist, like MacStories’ Federico Viticci, the iPad mini is superior due to its lighter weight and 1.37 inches (34.8 mm) less width. But, if you prefer landscape orientation, a full-size iPad is better for the larger keyboard space.
That basic distinction remains unchanged with the new models. But, with the iPad Air, Apple has moved toward the iPad mini’s design. The iPad Air is now 0.64 inches (16.2 mm) skinnier than its predecessors, meaning that portrait typing is much improved over the original design (the below picture demonstrates the decreased width, with the iPad 2 on bottom and the iPad Air on top). I wouldn’t want to type an entire article in portrait orientation on the iPad Air, but it’s fine for email, text messages, and Internet searches.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the iPad Air is the thinner side bezels. It not only makes typing in portrait orientation easier, but it makes it easier to prop in my lap in landscape orientation, to pick up, and to hold.
Content Creation vs. Content Consumption -- Since the dawn of the iPad in 2010, a silly debate keeps emerging: is the iPad a content creation device or a content consumption device? Let me make something clear: the iPad is both. For that matter, so is the iPhone, a fact which no one ever seems to bring up. On either device, I can take and edit photos, write text, compose music, edit video, watch movies, and read books. The only pure content consumption device Apple makes is the Apple TV.
But, having cleared that up, I think most customers buy the iPad with consumption in mind, so let’s start there. The iPad you choose depends on the type of media you enjoy on it. Either screen size is fine for video. The iPad Air’s larger screen is better for viewing, but the iPad mini’s size and weight make it easier to hold throughout a two-hour movie.
For readers, the choice comes down to what you like to read. The new iPad mini will have the same 2048-by-1536 resolution screen as the larger Air, which actually makes for a theoretically sharper screen, since it will pack in 62 more pixels per inch (PPI). In practice, I’m not sure you’ll notice. If you prefer novels, I think the iPad mini will be the way to go, due to the higher PPI (326) screen and smaller size. But if what you read is heavy on images, like magazines and comics, then I’d recommend the iPad Air. Comic books on the iPad Air’s display are fantastic.
I think gamers will be better off with an iPad mini, because it’ll be easier to hold for extended periods, and the smaller screen will mean that onscreen controls won’t demand as much thumb stretching. But, when iOS 7’s promised MFi game controllers start to hit the market, they may tip the scales toward the iPad Air’s larger screen.
Music lovers will be thrilled by this overlooked tidbit: the iPad Air features stereo speakers — it’s the first full-size iPad to have them. While I’m no audiophile, they sound fantastic. I fired up Lorde’s hit song, “Royals,” and I could hear hints of the rich bass in the song’s opening notes. While nowhere near as deep as my Sony MDR-V6 headphones, it sounded better than the tinny speakers in my MacBook Pro.
For those who not only consume, but produce, content on their iPads, the lighter weight, sleeker profile, and fast A7 processor are wins all around. If you were already productive on the iPad, the iPad Air can only be an improvement.
For me, the limitations of the iPad for getting things done haven’t been hardware, but software. The iPad 2’s A5 chip was more than powerful enough for writing text, Web browsing, and light image editing. No amount of CPU power, of course, is going to magically install a full-featured SVN client or Nisus Writer Pro on my iPad — though it might make the developers more likely to create them. While the iPad has some innovative apps like Pythonista for automation and Editorial for writing, software remains the iPad’s productivity weak point.
I’m with John Gruber on this — until the iPad has tools with the power of the two-decade-old BBEdit, it can’t be my primary work machine. Not to mention that for many office workers, a workstation is a no-go without spreadsheet software as powerful as Microsoft Excel. Sure, Numbers is nice on the iPad, but it’s no Excel. Nor is Documents to Go, though it tries hard. Spreadsheets may not be important to you, but corporate America runs on Excel, and millions of people depend on it to make a living. Yes, it’s old, it’s ugly, and it’s a pain to use, but it has capabilities that no other spreadsheet application can match.
That being said, it’s not impossible for me to work on the iPad. As I write this, I’ve spent a whole day working with the iPad Air from my couch. I browsed headlines, sent and read email, posted a link to ExtraBITS, and even wrote the first draft of this review in Nebulous Notes (see “Nebulous Notes for iOS Makes Markdown Easy,” 25 January 2013). And yes, I probably need to switch over to Editorial, but I already had the necessary macros set up in Nebulous Notes.
The Smart Cover -- I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the latest Smart Cover, which I purchased for $39. Unlike earlier iterations, it’s available only in polyurethane plastic. If you want leather, you’ll have to shell out $79 for the Smart Case, which I’m not a fan of. Yes, it protects the iPad’s rear panel whereas the Smart Cover does not, but it’s as expensive as nicer, and more functional, keyboard cases. Plus, it’s harder to remove than the Smart Cover.
You might be disappointed to learn that the iPad Air Smart Cover borrows the design of the iPad mini Smart Cover. Four panels have been reduced to three, and the metal hinge has been replaced with plastic. While it makes the Smart Cover feel cheaper than its predecessors, in practice it’s an improvement. While the old Smart Cover added a surprising amount of weight, the new Smart Cover is lighter and thinner, and thus less intrusive. The metal hinge scratched the side of my iPad 2 — an annoyance the new plastic hinge should alleviate. The new three-panel design provides sharper angles when folded into a triangle, which makes it easier to type on the iPad while it rests in my lap.
I recommend the iPad Air Smart Cover. It’s less obtrusive than before, reduces screen smudges, and — at last — comes in black polyurethane. The black Smart Cover looks especially nice with the space gray rear panel.
Airing the Finale -- The iPad Air is the best full-size iPad to date. Unlike the two previous iPad updates, which I found uninspiring apart from the Retina display, it fixes most common complaints. This is the iPad many of us have been waiting for.
As a bonus, despite apparently brisk sales, there are still plenty in stock. The new iPad mini, by Apple CEO Tim Cook’s own admission (see “Apple Q4 2013 Results See Lower Profits Again,” 28 October 2013), will have constrained supplies and incredibly high demand — something to bear in mind if you want to purchase one as a holiday gift.
If you’ve decided on an iPad Air, you might be asking, “But which one to get?” Personally, I went with the 32 GB Wi-Fi model in space gray. Storage capacity is an intensely personal choice, but if you’re unsure, 32 GB is a safe bet. Even with my heavy usage, I rarely find myself bumping against the limit. But if you’re like TidBITS senior editor Jeff Carlson and plan to use your iPad for heavy photo and video work, then 128 GB might not be a bad investment.
Is LTE worth it? If you’re on the fence, this is the year to drop the extra $129. T-Mobile is offering 200 MB of data per month — for the life of the iPad. Reports indicate that you only have to pay $10 for a SIM card. Nor do you have to purchase a T-Mobile-specific iPad, as all models come unlocked. If I had gone this route, I would have bought a Verizon iPad and picked up a T-Mobile SIM card for the free data. However, I don’t leave the house enough to justify the expense, and my iPhone plan includes tethering if I need it. However, another point to consider is that the iPad Air can last up to 24 hours as an LTE hotspot.
Ultimately, you can’t go wrong, since all the new iPad models are fantastic updates to Apple’s market-changing tablet. (Just don’t bother with an iPad 2 at this point in time.) As with the MacBook, it comes down to your screen-size preference. It’s not hard to see why Tim Cook thinks it’ll be an iPad Christmas — Apple has outdone itself this time.