Introduction and design
The original iPad Air told us all we needed to know about Apple’s changed approach to tablets – with a 43% thinner bezel and a 28% lighter body than the iPads that came before it, the Air champions the ‘easier to live with’ ideal.
Although the iPad Air’s successor, the iPad Air 2, has now been out for a while it doesn’t mean the original iPad Air isn’t worth considering if you’re after a tablet, especially since the price has dropped now that there’s a newer Air on the block.
The original iPad Air took many of its design cues from the iPad mini 2. It’s got the same smooth back design, thinner bezel and more attractive speakers at the bottom of the slate for more of a family likeness with the cut-down tablet from Apple’s stables.
While the Air is a clear copy of that smaller device I’m not going to hold it against Apple, as the mini already had a stunning design, and the Air takes that design ethos and brings it to the big leagues. It’s a design Apple stuck with for the iPad Air 2, for the most part, so it must be good.
It also has machined buttons that don’t feel loose if you shake the device, adding to the premium feel.
On top of the improved design the Air also got Apple’s A7 chip, bringing with it 64-bit processing power and heaps of battery-saving features to keep your tablet going even longer in day-to-day use. That’s also been superseded, by the A8X chip in the Air 2 and the A9X in the iPad Pro, but you still get a decent slug of power here.
And the greatest thing about the iPad range in my eyes is the price – Apple originally started the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model at the same cost as its rivals, and while that outlay does spiral up as capacity and connectivity increase, for an Apple device to not charge an (unnecessary) premium is something I’m really happy to see.
Even better, since the arrival of the iPad Air 2 prices for the original iPad Air have fallen.
You’re looking at a price range of £319 – £459 ($399 – $579 or AU$499 – AU$709), going from the 16GB version (Wi-Fi only) to the 32GB cellular option.
Apple has discontinued the 64GB version of the iPad Air, so if you’re after a larger-capacity slate you’ll want to invest in the iPad Air 2.
You could also scour the internet for a second-hand iPad Air 64GB model. With the launch of the iPad Air 2 many people have put their perfectly good original iPad Airs up for sale, so with a bit of careful shopping you could net yourself a bargain.
Apple has lobbed in a lot of useful free software, as well as bringing a more refined experience with iOS 8 and now iOS 9, and you can see that it’s put a lot of effort into making the iPad Air a tablet that’s still relevant in the market, even if it’s now getting on a bit in tablet terms.
On that latter point, if you’re thinking about buying the iPad Air right now it would be remiss of us not to point out that the iPad Air 2 offers a number of enhancements over this model.
What’s more, the iPad Air 3 could be right around the corner if reports are to be believed, which would likely see the iPad Air dropped from the range altogether, with the iPad Air 2 slotting in as the entry-level 10-incher.
It may not seem particularly future-proof from a certain perspective, then, but I’d wager that the iPad Air will remain a solid, and well-supported, runner throughout 2016 and beyond.
The keynote for the launch of the iPad Air talked a lot about Apple’s dominance in terms of tablet usage, but since then a large number of users are starting to warm to the idea of an Android model as their main device.
Samsung is currently the big name in Android, with its Galaxy Tab S line offering an improved screen and better ergonomics for those preferring the Android experience in a tablet. Google’s Nexus 9 is another to have impressed with its performance and UI.
It’s worth noting that the 16GB option of the iPad Air is nigh-on useless as a purchase if you’re thinking of pulling in all the free apps Apple is slinging your way; this was an issue when the Retina display landed on the iPad 3, and has only got worse as more HD apps from developers have been slipped onto the App Store.
The fact that the original iPad Air now only comes in 16GB and 32GB configurations may make you reconsider your purchase if you’re looking at storing a large number of photos, music, videos and apps.
Even so, the iPad Air remains a tempting purchase on paper – but how does it perform in the hand when subjected to rigorous daily use?
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The iPad Air is an odd device when you pick it up for the first time. When you hear all the numbers being bandied about you’d understandably assume that you’d experience something that was almost ghost-like in the hand, a tablet that could almost get blown away.
And I’m absolutely not disputing that – the iPad Air remains one of the most balanced tablets on the market even now, with great precision going into the engineering throughout.
However, if you’ve touched an iPad mini (pick a number, any number), or just haven’t held an older iPad for a while (and, going by the reaction of some people we tested with, even some that had) you won’t feel as much of a difference as you might be expecting.
It’s only with the significantly slimmer iPad Air 2 that a tangible gap between the feel of the old and tablets was really established, even though it was the iPad Air that really carried the look of Apple’s full-sized tablet range to the next level.
The design of the iPad Air is, as I’ve mentioned, very impressive. Yes, it’s totally based on the iPad mini, and the smooth aluminium back is really great to feel in the hand. It’s a shame that most people feel the need to slap a cover on an iPad as soon as it’s bought – while I get the notion of protection, it hides away some cracking design.
That said, at least it keeps the fingers away from the chassis, and the iPad Air is a real magnet for prints. The back cover isn’t too bad, but the mirrored Apple logo sucks down finger oil and is loathe to give it up, even after hard scrubbing with a cloth.
It might not sound like a big deal, but it makes your premium tablet look a little unkempt right from the start.
In actual operation, though, the design of the iPad Air complements the impressive innards superbly. It’s unsurprisingly not possible to wrap your hand all the way around the edges of the Air, but then again it’s sufficiently light (and comes with the ability to disregard stray thumbs encroaching on the screen, again like the iPad mini) to not make a big difference.
The rest of the buttonry – the top-mounted power key and the silencing rocker switch and volume buttons at the side – haven’t moved far, but protrude nicely to make them very easy to hit no matter where you’re holding the device. Such user-friendliness is often sacrificed in the quest to make tablets look sleeker, so I’m happy Apple has gone the other way here.
Having since switched to the iPad Air 2, I can also say that I miss the original Air’s slider switch for either muting or locking the screen’s orientation. Yes, you can achieve the same functions using Control Center, but there’s nothing like a good dedicated button, is there?
I do have one note of criticism in terms of design for such a premium (and still expensive for its age) piece of kit: the screen has a plastic thud to it when tapped, on account of the smaller and lighter innards.
It’s most noticeable when grazed with a fingernail – although with the addition of a case the effect is lessened – and I’m surprised Apple let this go. It may be that, in making the design thinner and removing part of the inner cage the overall strength of the chassis is somewhat reduced; but then the iPad Air 2 doesn’t share the same problem, and it’s significantly more svelte.
It’s not a major issue by any means, and certainly one that you’ll only pick up on sporadically, but it’s still enough to irk at times when you’re expecting a truly premium experience.
We’re in the same boat. The architecture is there. It surely can’t be an issue of space, seeing as the technology fitted into the iPhone 5S.
Turns out Apple held it back as one of the ‘big upgrades’ for the iPad Air 2, which certainly raised a few eyebrows. Still, in my experience with the iPad Air 2 I don’t tend to use it much anyway – certainly nowhere near as much as I do on the iPhone 6S. It’s not a massively galling omission on the iPad Air, then.
The display on the iPad Air is nothing overly new – but it’s still amazing. It uses some clever tech to ensure it doesn’t drain power too heavily, which is as much to do with mitigating the overall battery pain as it is about making sure we don’t see a repeat of the ultra-warm tablets of previous years.
But in reality, things look very nice indeed, with the Retina standard already a mainstay of Apple’s larger tablet for years now.
I still think it’s a touch too reflective for watching video (and that’s something that’s been changed in the iPad Air 2). According to DisplayMate it’s not that bad, but a couple of the iPad Air’s contemporaries were found to be more impressive overall when it comes to web browsing and movie watching.
Ray Soneira of that same laboratory testing facility has found that things are actually pretty good for Apple’s tablet on that front, with less than 10% of the light hitting the screen surface actually reflecting back into your peepers.
However, Apple didn’t make the best large-screen tablet display of its generation for the iPad Air, according to DisplayMate. While the Air performs fairly well in most scenarios, it’s bested by the direct competition – namely the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9. Separate tests on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S range have since revealed that it too is better than the iPad Air in most key areas.
Credit: Republished with permission from DisplayMate Technologies
It’s clear that the iPad Air is much better than the Nexus 10, though, which is predictable given that the Nexus is a device that’s well past the end of its life.
The PPI numbers for the iPad Air may have you thinking its display isn’t as sharp as those of the competition, but in reality it makes no difference given the distance you’ll be holding it from your eyes.
There’s no doubt the iPad Air isn’t as good as the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX, which has dynamic contrast to make pictures look simply stunning on the screen. But the Air is plenty powerful enough, and won’t let you down on the display front in any way.
Credit: Republished with permission from DisplayMate Technologies
As you can see above, the iPad Air is much like the competition when it comes to flipping the tablet around in your hands – the brightness and color will quickly shift away from perfection when you begin to tilt the device.
This wasn’t a problem in most scenarios, as you’ll be the only one using the device in day-to-day use. However, if you’ve got it set up on a stand in the kitchen while cooking, for instance, it will irk a little. It’s nothing major, but I noted that the Kindle Fire HDX was superior here in that example.
As I mentioned, the reflectivity of the iPad Air isn’t the best on the market, and might irritate lightly at times. The Nexus 10 still looks like an awful tablet, but given that Google has put it out to pasture since our initial review of the iPad Air, we can’t castigate it too much.
You can head over to the DisplayMate report to see the full findings of the tablet test, but the upshot is that while the Amazon tablet was the best in all tests – and the best the laboratory had ever seen at the time, apparently – the iPad has made some significant gains here too, offering a more power-efficient display.
Crucially, it’s larger too, meaning you’re getting more of a viewing experience – I don’t think the 8.9-inch screen of Amazon’s offering is the best for an extended movie marathon.
Of course, while this is an instructive slice of comparative data from around the time of the iPad Air’s launch, things have moved on since, and you can now get better displays from all parties concerned, including Apple – indeed, the iPad Mini 4 screen is widely held to be one of the best in the business.
Interface and performance
The iPad Air launched with iOS 7, but Apple has kept up with its update commitment by pushing iOS 8 and iOS 9 to the slate. More specifically, the Air runs the very latest software – iOS 9.2.1 – which is the same as the iPad Air 2 and iPhone 6S.
I’ll run through some of the key features and how they perform on the Air in a moment, but the main thing to know is that the iPad Air is fast. Really fast.
We’re getting to a point where describing a smartphone or tablet as quick under the finger is pointless – once you reach a certain point there’s not a lot more speed to be gained.
Even dual-core phones were more than acceptable, so why make a point of highlighting the speed of the new iPad?
Well, it’s just virtually flawless through all kinds of tasks. A millisecond faster from a finger press might not seem like much, but once you do a hundred or a thousand of them in a day, and then go back to something like the iPad 3, you’ll realise that there’s a real difference in the operation.
Our benchmarking scores saw the iPad Air narrowly eclipse the iPhone 5S, also running the 64-bit A7 chip, in terms of overall speed – which makes sense given that the Air is slightly more optimised for the larger screen but maintains the same power output.
Performance has remained pretty consistent over successive OS updates, too. Back on iOS 7 it scored 2629 in Geekbench 3’s multi-core test, then under iOS 8 you were looking at a score of 2660. Most recently, under iOS 9.2.1, I recorded an average multi-core score of 2638. Its core performance isn’t deteriorating, in other words, which is reassuring.
Like it or loathe it, iOS 7 was a real step forward for a company that desperately needed to refresh its offering in the face of stiff competition from Android, and iOS 8 and iOS 9 have further improved things along the same lines.
The flatter interface that the iPad Air has always enjoyed takes away the pointless need to pretend all apps are real-life objects just to integrate them into people’s lives – users know that pressing the colourful Photos app icon will take them to a crisply abstract photo management app, no messing.
Like most popular platforms that get upgraded, there’s been a large amount of flack coming Apple’s way since iOS 7 took a bow, with features like the parallax effect (no, there’s no way of saying that word without thinking it should be the name of a Marvel supervillain) being turned off by a number of users.
Parallax is where tilting your iPad will see your wallpaper move with the motion, giving a 3D effect on the screen. And while this was annoyingly unpredictable on the iPhone 5S, on the Air it’s much better and I wouldn’t advise you to turn it off, unlike on other Apple devices.
It doesn’t even have a huge effect on battery life, which is impressive in itself.
It’s fair to say that the troubled launch of iOS 8, which suffered from a number of bugs, also left some iPad Air owners unhappy. Now, deep into iOS 9’s life, Apple seems to have come to terms with its latest UI paradigm. It’s largely a slick and solid experience, even on the seasoned iPad Air hardware.
Part of the reason for that can probably be attributed to the iPad Air’s hardware. Apple called the iPhone 5S “the most forward-thinking smartphone in the world” when it launched, and a large part of that was down to the 64-bit A7 CPU that can also be found powering the iPad Air. It was a chip that seemed way over-powered in late 2013, and as a result it still feels up to the task today.
The rest of the interface is easy to use and makes sense for the most part. One of the bigger features of iOS 7, iOS 8 and iOS 9 is the notification bar, revealed by dragging down from the top of the screen. This gives access to updates, calendar entries and missed messages. Initially it was one of the weaker parts of the OS, as it always started on the calendar, which doesn’t often give a lot of useful information.
The ‘Missed’ section was often also sparsely populated, but from iOS 8 onwards a swipe will start you on the Today and Notifications menu, the latter of which is a condensed version of the All and Missed tabs from iOS 7. It’s a big improvement all round.
However, there are a lot of other areas in which the Cupertino brand has made strides in terms of improving the user experience with iOS 7, iOS 8 and iOS 9.
For instance, swiping upwards with all five fingers (or double-tapping the home button) will lead to the multi-tasking pane, which shows all of your apps in large thumbnails. This is an excellent interface, although perhaps a little wasteful of the iPad’s screen real estate, and you can swiftly jump between apps or flick a thumbnail upwards to end it.
On top of that, the home screen is now updated to allow a much larger number of apps in each folder. Now you can create collections just by dragging icons on top of one another, and continue to do so almost ad nauseum. This prevents the need to make loads of folders called ‘Game 1′ ‘Game 2′ and ‘Why do I have this many games that I don’t play?’, and allows a much less cluttered home screen.
Apple still hasn’t updated its operating system to allow users to auto-sort their apps, meaning if you uninstall something (by long-pressing the icon until everything jiggles and then tapping the ‘x’) then the space won’t be filled by an app from another screen. Annoying. When in the edit mode you can rearrange things, but it’s not the most time-efficient way of making everything look neat.
Control Center is something worth highlighting too: drag up from the bottom of the screen and you can control music, brightness, turn on Wi-Fi and loads more. I would have thought that most people know all about this feature, but the number of iOS 7, iOS 8 and iOS 9 users who get their minds blown when I show them that this exists means it’s probably worth highlighting.
One little bugbear I’ve had since Control Center was introduced: why don’t iPad users get the calculator widget that iPhone users do? I don’t see how it’s any less called for on a tablet, particularly if you use your iPad for productivity tasks, as Apple seems increasingly keen for you to do.
Regardless, it’s well worth upgrading the iPad Air to iOS 9, for Siri improvements, additions to Apple Maps, such as public transport directions, a better keyboard, a News app and more.
Perhaps most excitingly for iPad Air owners iOS 9 adds true multitasking, with two new modes. Slide Out lets a second app slide in from the left of the screen, giving it around a third of the display to play with, while Picture-in-Picture puts a little window in the corner of the screen, which can be dragged around and resized and is ideal for playing videos in while continuing to do other things.
Meanwhile, smaller upgrades to iOS 9 itself continue to add features ranging from the cool to the massively useful, from hundreds of new emojis in iOS 9.1 to the ability to email very large large files in iOS 9.2.
There are tonnes of nuances to Apples UI that I’d like to laud here, but I invite you to go and use it for yourself, as despite there being no tutorial, there’s very little here that the novice user won’t be able to pick up.
I would like to give a special mention to the ‘five finger pinch’ if you’ve not used it before on previous iPads. Make sure it’s enabled in Settings > General, and then simply pinch in with four or five fingers in any app to return to the home screen. You’ll be trying to do it on your phone before you know it, such is its simplicity.
Contacts, messaging and Facetime
The iPad Air is a fine device for a number of things, but you might not necessarily think that calling is one of them. But with the addition of Facetime Audio, and the improved Facetime HD camera, this is a great device for when you’re marooned in a hotel room and desperate to say goodnight to your child / cat / favourite potato.
The camera on the front of the iPad Air, a 1.2MP option, shows your whole face very nicely, with a detailed level of sharpness. Of course, it depends on your internet connection as to whether this detail is transmitted to the person on the other end of the call, but it’s a great way to keep in touch with other iUsers.
And with Facetime Audio now an option, you can have free voice calls with other enabled users thanks to VoIP technology. Once in the app you can set up your favourite people as instant contacts to call – and helpfully they can also be set to call through voice or video by default.
The 1.2MP camera of the iPad Air is good enough that Apple didn’t see the need to replace it on the iPad Air 2, which features the same front-facing snapper.
While there aren’t that many other ways to talk to people over the iPad Air, the Contacts app is still obviously on board, giving access to all the people you’ve spoken to and saved over the years.
However, be careful when adding accounts, as you’ll likely have a few on there and it’s very easy to have information from Exchange, Gmail, Hotmail and iCloud all jostling for position in your list, as well as those from Facebook too.
It’s not as easy as on Android to change these though, as you’ll need to jump into the external Settings app once more to check the right boxes. However, when this is done things are nice and simple, showing the friends you’ve saved as well as their Facebook picture (or other that you’ve tagged) if you’ve linked the accounts.
However, there’s an issue Apple hasn’t fixed as yet, and we can’t understand why not: contact linking is nigh-on impossible unless you drill right down through the editing menu. You can pull all manner of social network account info into a contact card, but when adding the names in you’re not going to link to the right person unless you’re exact with your spelling.
It’s confusing as to why your contact lists aren’t pulled from Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and more when you’re trying to perform this task, but it’s very difficult to tag people together, which is irritating when you want pictures to go alongside each name.
While it can be hard to find the people you want (or at least have all the social networks linked) messaging on the iPad is a much better experience. There’s iMessage and the decent inbuilt email app on offer as standard, and the variety of other chat apps you can download is mind blowing.
iMessage remains a slightly confusing app in that it can pull in information on your phone number and email addresses and use these to connect to other users – however, this isn’t always accurate when you’re trying to share details and can result in people trying to contact you in the wrong way. It’s better than it is on the iPhone, which has texting to worry about too, but it’s never the most reliable system to set up in my eyes.
Thankfully, the Mail app is a lot better, with a wide and expansive view that makes full use of the screen size. It’s one of the best-optimized Apple apps for the larger iPad screen. You get a decent column down one side to see all your missives, and a gentle swipe across allows you to move or edit the mail or send it to the trash can.
On top of that, emails are grouped together nicely when in conversation flow, email folders are easy to use and you can have all your messages in one inbox, even with a variety of accounts being used.
I also like the VIP setting, which enables you to tag only your boss and colleagues, so you know to panic should you see a mail arriving there.
Of course, it should be pointed out that a number of third-party apps have taken email to the next level in recent times, such as Boxer and the revamped Outlook. Apple would do well to improve Mail along similar lines – and we’re still not 100 per cent happy with the app’s sluggish Gmail integration. Still, as a basic email app that makes full use of the iPad Air’s display, we have few major complaints.
The Apple keyboard on the iPad Air is an odd experience. Not because it’s inaccurate or poor to use – far from it, I found that we could get up quite a speed thanks to the larger keys – but because of that strange plastic thud when you strike the screen each time. It’s most off-putting, especially compared with the quiet rigidity the early (and subsequent) iPads offer.
However, I do like the keyboard, as it’s easy to split and move, which is great for both portrait and landscape use – it’s nothing Earth-shattering, but it’s features like this that open up the scope of the iPad so much.
If you don’t get on with it then that’s not such a problem any more either, as iOS 8 introduced support for third-party keyboards, and with iOS 8.3 and beyond you’re treated to Apple’s new range of emojis. As already mentioned, iOS 9.1 introduced a whole stack of the things. How exciting is that? Thumbs-up/ O-face/ aubergine, that’s how.
The internet browser on the iPad Air needs to be impressive, as otherwise one of the key functions for this device is really negated. While you might not be seeing much of an upgrade over older iPads in terms of functionality, the speed in overall use of the device is definitely something to be lauded.
The main difference over the iPad 3 / iPad 4 (out of the box) is that iOS 7 and onwards makes everything a little cleaner and less obtrusive. The URL bar now dynamically retreats like it does on the iPhone range, giving you almost the full 9.7-inch screen to wallow in web content.
The bar is actually chock-full of functionality in the same way as its Android counterpart, although there’s perhaps a spot more relevance to everything that’s run with the Air. For instance, the reading mode is just a simple icon of text lines in the URL bar, allowing you to easily switch to a more text-friendly mode.
It’s a little irritating that you can’t sync this with Pocket, as although you might be fine using the ‘Saved for Later’ function of Safari on the iPad, if you’re not using an iPhone as your smartphone then there’s no central repository for all the articles you want to read later.
At least you can save a web article to Pocket through the Share menu now, which you didn’t used to be able to do (Apple has upped its third-party app support game considerably from iOS 7 onwards).
In reality, all these reading modes don’t mean much when you’ve got such a speedy and responsive browser. At the time of its launch, Apple touted the fact the iPad Air was one of the first tablets to use MIMO wireless connectivity, (although many on the market, Samsung Galaxy Tab S included, now do the same thing) allowing for a stronger and faster Wi-Fi connection.
In reality this means that you can wander further from the router and still get access to the internet when you’ve decided against shelling out for the cellular version of the iPad.
The text looks supremely clear on this larger screen, which might have the same resolution as previous iterations of the iPad but in side by side comparisons looks a little clearer and brighter. It’s no surprise that Apple would make strides in this area, although text wrapping when zoomed in could still do with some work.
However, the internet browser on the iPad Air is one to be rather respected, as it does what it needs to do with considerable aplomb. Whether you want to see a list of shared links from Twitter (which is a rather underrated feature, drawing only the tweets from your friends that contain links) or save articles to check out when you don’t have connectivity, there’s little Safari on the iPad can’t do.
If you’re in a family home with a number of Apple devices then you can easily share links using AirDrop, and this will be useful for those that hate doing the same over messaging or Facebook – although with iMessage, it’s hardly a chore.
But Apple has kept things simple in terms of both functionality and the interface on the iPad Air’s internet browser, and that makes a lot of sense to me.
Camera and Video
The iPad Air’s camera was a bit of a disappointment even at the time of its release. Apple kept the same 5MP iSight camera from previous iterations of the tablet, which at least boasts half-decent backside illumination and half-way acceptable low-light performance.
I’m not sure what Apple is doing with the camera interface though – it’s like a completely bare version of that seen on the iPhone 6 or iPhone 6S, with fewer options to choose from. Want to take a photo or video? That’s fine. You can even take a square snap for those moments when you need a portrait pic too.
However, there’s no filter option in sight, nor the ability to change to a Slo-Mo camera as we’ve seen on other recent Apple hardware. Given that the Air is running the necessary A7 64-bit chip to enable the enhanced video mode, I’ve no idea why you can’t do the same here.
Even the filters would make sense, as the iPhone 5C can use these, and that’s hardly as powerful a beast. This is probably the biggest criticism of the iPad Air I could throw at the tablet at launch, as the decision is slightly perplexing.
But in a way, that’s wonderful. You might have noticed that I’m hardly a fan of the cameras on tablets at the best of times, and if there was one thing that I’d happily sacrifice for a thinner tablet, it’s this functionality. But then, the iPad Air 2 comes with a Slo-Mo function in a much skinnier frame, so the two evidently weren’t mutually exclusive.
Still, the iPad Air’s camera does the job just fine. While the performance isn’t that good (although shutter speed was impressive, as I’d expected) it’s more than adequate for something that shouldn’t be replacing a smartphone or dedicated camera anyway.
The iPad Air has a lofty bar to beat when it comes to media performance, as Apple is creating a rich heritage in this area. Its all-encompassing (if increasingly clogged) iTunes software and store are used by so many people that a device to properly output the music and video is a must.
Well, I can’t fault many things media-wise on the iPad Air, not least because it ticks most of the boxes we can think of.
The audio performance of the iPad Air is hugely impressive, even with the most basic of earbuds on offer. There are plenty of other reviews out there that seem to gloss over the fact that the iPad is as much a media-centric device as anything else, and no matter how many streaming services you subscribe to, the output is always going to be limited by the hardware.
But what Apple has done, and to be honest, always managed to do, is bring refined audio output to a system that commands a premium price.
Through a decent pair of headphones it’s possible to capture all the nuance of high-bitrate (though not High-Res) audio, and even streamed to an external speaker via Bluetooth things don’t sound as muddy and horrendous as they might on other devices.
OK, you’re not going to use your iPad as a primary music player for either Spotify or onboard tracks, but I found myself increasingly popping the tablet out on the table next to where I was working to get my fix of Cascada or Haddaway. (Please tell us: WHAT IS LOVE?)
While sonically I’m enamoured, the Music interface still feels like, as with other elements in iOS 9 for iPad, it’s designed for an iPhone and stretched up.
I get that it’s meant to be a simple way to show as many songs as possible, and appreciate the widgets on the lock screen and in the Control Center. However, can’t we have a more beautiful interface? You can either have a long list of songs with a tiny controller at the bottom, or a Now Playing screen that is surrounded by bland and unsubtle white.
What happened to the Cover Flow beauty of the first iPhone? Where did that go? It’s made even worse by the fact that finally we have a processor that can keep up with all the artwork, yet all we get is this pool of limpid uninterestingness.
It’s not a deal breaker, and it speaks volumes about the overall quality of the iPad Air that I’m so annoyed about a tiny thing. If there were bigger fish to fry, this would be glossed right over.
Another strength Apple has is its ability to display video in a really rather attractive way. Whether it’s stuff you’ve bought and downloaded directly to the device, or videos that you’ve chucked on there yourself, it all looks brilliant on the Retina display.
It’s worth noting that if you want to download in super-high quality you’re going to have to make sure you have enough space to keep it all – more on that a little later in the section.
The video player itself is a bit of a mixed bag. While anything you’ve already bought is nicely labelled and sorted, any other content you’ve lobbed on the device through iTunes can look out of place, mis-named and have a weird sorting or odd thumbnail.
You can alter all of this in the menu through iTunes, but it’s a bit of an effort for those that aren’t as au fait with the working of Apple’s media management.
Add to that the fact Apple refuses to budge on the 4:3 ratio on its iPad screens, and watching video that’s not encoded from the 1990s isn’t much fun. On top of that the file support is limited, and even those that are supposed to play have to be at a pretty specific bitrate to make it past the iTunes gatekeeper and onto your precious tablet.
You can download a third-party player and place much more content on that way, but unless you’ve got one of the good ones (VLC is a decent choice) then you can find a lot of crashing while trying to watch your favourite movie.
However, for support for files like AVI you’ll have to use something like this – otherwise it’s a time-consuming and difficult process of re-encoding your movies.
I would like to mention the excellent performance of the speakers – they’re incredibly powerful in a package so thin and come with a decent slug of bass too. What’s more, they don’t make the whole iPad vibrate quite so alarmingly as the iPad Air 2 (the price you pay for the skinnier body, it seems).
They’re not going to replace your headphones – and nor should they, especially on public transport – but if you’re alone in a hotel room and want to watch a special interest movie or two, then you’ll get the full effect of what the… actors are trying to convey.
One issue that plagues modern iPads is that of storage. If you opt for the 16GB option then you’re really only allowing yourself to get half the experience, so I advise you bump that up straight away.
It’s not hard to fill up double that space with apps alone – you’re munching through 2-3GB of storage just by downloading Apple’s free apps already.
On top of that, most HD movies and apps designed for the Retina screens can fill up huge swathes of megabytes, meaning if you’re not careful you’ll be told you can’t download some apps pretty soon after buying your shiny new iPad.
Battery life and Apps
Battery life on the iPad Air is quoted at “Up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi, watching video, or listening to music”. I would say that’s actually not a bad estimate, although the drain was closer to 2% every 10 minutes in general use, which equates to around nine hours’ use.
Standby time is much, much better though. I found that I could stick the iPad Air in a bag, taking it out for the commute and messing about with it on the sofa at home, for at least three days before it began to get low on battery.
In fact, the only real task that killed it was connecting to an amplifier via Wi-Fi while simultaneously streaming music to the same device through Bluetooth. It’s doing things like this that make you realise that this is the kind of thing that we envisaged at the turn of the century, a tablet that has the brains and connectivity to do all the tasks we could want.
When it comes to playing games – another famously power-sapping task – I found that the iPad Air coped reasonably well. Playing Freeblade – one of the most graphically demanding games on the App Store – for 10 minutes drained 7% of the Air’s battery.
In running the techradar battery test recently, which involves running a 90-minute 720p looping video with the screen brightness cranked right up, the battery depleted by a consistent 22%. That’s just a single percentage point worse than the iPad Air 2, which was a much newer device and (obviously) a new an improved model.
It’s not as good as the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 (16%) or the Nexus 9 (18%), but again, those are newer tablets. It might be worth noting if a primary task for your tablet is watching lots of movies when you don’t have access to a charge point.
In terms of connectivity, we’ve already mentioned the excellent Wi-Fi performance (in terms of distance from router, rather than improved speed) through the Multiple In, Multiple Out (MIMO) technology.
4G bands are now covered throughout the globe, and low-power Bluetooth is also on board as well, making it an incredibly well-connected device.
Apple has thrown on reams of free software with the iPad Air (and other iOS 7, 8 and 9 devices too), so you now get access to the likes of Pages, Numbers and Keynote from the iWork tribe as well as Photos (which integrates a lot of the old iPhoto functionality), iMovie and Garageband for free.
These are incredibly powerful tools for what is still essentially a cut-down mobile device – I can’t say that I’d recommend using them regularly without a keyboard (in the case of iWork, or the newer Office for iPad) but elements such as Photos and Garageband really give you the chance to express yourself fluidly.
Having such accomplished software right out of the box (well, you do have to download much of it actually, and it’s a fairly hefty download) is a big plus for a shiny new toy, and it’s a major part of the appeal of joining Apple’s ecosystem.
On top of that, I still feel the need to laud the Apple App Store for its ability to offer the best apps around. We’re talking about things like BBC iPlayer and Sky Go, both of which offer improved user interfaces and allowed downloads first before the Android hop came.
The gap between Apple and Google’s app portals is narrowing, but there’s no doubt that users will still feel far more secure in the app experience they’ll get on an Apple tablet compared to an Android one for now, and that’s a big reason to purchase.
Maps should also gain something of a special mention, as while it was a PR disaster for Apple, it’s slowly clawing its way back to usable thanks to constant upgrades.
It’s still far from the best out there, and we’d recommend you download the excellent Google Maps as soon as possible, but we rarely find that Apple Maps is offering an inaccurate course for us to navigate down to the shops – just don’t ask it to find obscure towns whose names appear in multiple places.
iPad Air 2
The natural successor to the Air comes with more power, an even slimmer design and enhanced cameras, improving on the overall iPad experience.
Even though it sports the same screen resolution as the original Air, the iPad Air 2 has been given a boost in brightness and colour, making a marked improvement over its predecessor.
You also get the added security of Touch ID – something which is missing on the Air – although you’ll have to pay full price for all this and at the end of the day usage isn’t all that different between this and the original Air.
There’s also better storage options with 64GB and 128GB models joining the 16GB entry level Air 2 – lthough the latter is best avoided for the same reasons as I explained earlier in this review.
iPad mini 2
Like the iPad Air, the iPad Mini 2 has also been replaced twice over – by the iPad mini 3 and iPad mini 4 – which means the slate has witnessed a sizeable price drop and considering the tiny increment between the 2 and 3 it makes this mini iPad a good proposition.
If you’re sold on the iPad offering, but less so on the £319, $399, AU$499+ price tag or general size then the 7.9-inch mini 2 could well be perfect for you.
It’s got a heap of power, the same premium styling and the latest iOS software from just £219, $269, AU$369. You can get it in either 16GB or 32GB sizes (I’d recommend the larger of the two) plus there’s the option to add cellular connectivity too.
The Nexus 9 is a direct rival to the iPad Air in terms of price, design and form factor. The HTC-made tablet sports a metal chassis, 8.9-inch display, dual-core Tegra K1 processor and Android 5.0 Lollipop.
It also has more RAM (2GB vs 1GB), a better camera (8MP vs 5MP) and a lighter frame (425g vs 469g).
There are some shortcomings however, with subpar screen quality and a design which isn’t as premium, sleek or appealing as Apple’s slate.
Hands on photos
The iPad Air represents a big step forward for Apple in so many ways – not least in terms of design and setting a precedent for the future.
It’s 28% lighter and 20% thinner than the iPad 4, taking up 24% less volume overall. I can see that Apple has really pushed the envelope when it comes to design, and the result is pretty phenomenal.
It’s getting a little longer in the tooth now (check out our review of the iPad Air 2 for all the info about the sequel or the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 range if you’re on the market for an Android option) so if you’ve got the money to spare perhaps see what else is out there.
Reading back over the iPad 4 review, the issues I came across before have largely been resolved. The design is better. The bezel is smaller. The price is palatable in comparison to the competition.
The speaker output is immensely impressive, the overall look and feel of the initial iOS 7 offering was more intuitive – and it’s got even better with iOS 9 – while the general speed of operation remains decent.
The range of accessories, the ecosystem and the general speed with which the iPad works, especially when it comes to the heavy lifting, is massively impressive. Nothing is a huge leap forward, more a set of constant steps towards the perfect tablet that make everything that little bit more slick to use.
As mentioned, there’s very little that Apple hasn’t addressed here for me to really criticise. The 16GB option of the tablet simply isn’t enough storage for most to be able to get the best out of their iPad.
iOS 9 gone a long way to improving things, and feels more like a complete operating system for this advanced device, but much of it still feels like a stretched-out iPhone operating system. And while I’m not that bothered with the simplistic functionality, which is almost a plus to some, the absence of Touch ID is strange given that it was so widely expected.
The camera is no great shakes, but I wouldn’t be complaining if Apple had got rid of it altogether; however, to not offer the camera software that was found on the iPhone 5S at around the same time is odd.
And here’s an odd one: the iPad Air is lighter than older iPads, but it’s not light. It’s not got the same feel we found when we first picked up the iPad mini, or the iPhone 5, or the Sony Xperia Tablet Z. It’s not too heavy or anything, but it didn’t wow me the first time I held it.
Make no mistake: Apple finally nailed the tablet with a great combination of specs, power and a decent OS in this option.
It’s a joy to hold the iPad Air, even though it’s now the thickest option in the iPad range. From the clever construction to the perpetually capable processor to the improved user interface, Apple has found an answer to every criticism I had of the older devices, and then some.
The fact it’s not even more expensive than its large-screen brethren is really impressive for an Apple product, and the suite of apps that are now free, coupled with the excellent App Store and premium build, make this a no-brainer for anyone looking to enter the tablet market at well under the £400 mark.
I’d advise that you get the largest-capacity iPad Air your budget can manage – although now that the iPad Air is the entry-level model you no longer get the larger options, which is a shame. What’s more, with rumours of an iPad Air 3 on the horizon, the iPad Air’s days may be numbered.
But we can only review what’s in front of us, not what might be in the future. You’ve seen the score, and for those keeping tabs you’ll realise the iPad Air is techradar’s first five-star tablet. It’s a device with almost no flaws – and even though the iPad Air 2 is out, it remains one of the best tablets available today.