The iPad Air improves on its predecessor in every respect – and it’s still worth searching out in 2016
The iPad Air has been superseded by three new models – the iPad Air 2, the iPad Pro and the iPad Pro 9.7 since it first came out in 2014, and Apple no longer sells it on its website. That doesn’t mean that you should ignore it completely, though.
The iPad Air 2, iPad Pro and Pro 9.7 are superior devices, but the original iPad Air is still no slouch, and if you can get hold of it secondhand for a good saving over a new device, it’s still a very capable tablet.
Importantly, it’s still on Apple’s roster for software updates. The next big overhaul is iOS 10, which is due to roll out on 13th September, and it brings with it a whole host of updates and improvements to everything from the lockscreen to the Maps and Photos apps.
Even Siri gets an overhaul with the added ability for app developers to hook into the voice-powered personal assistant. Soon, iPad Air owners will be able to command Siri to search Spotify for their favourite band’s music.
It’s important to know, however, that not every improvement in iOS 10, and for that matter future updates, will be available to the iPad Air. One such update is Split View, a feature first introduced in iOS 9 alongside the iPad Pro, that allows two apps to be displayed alongside each other at the same time when the tablet is held in portrait mode. Although the feature was supported as far back as the iPad Air 2, the original iPad Air missed out, and that continues to be the case in iOS 10.
Apple iPad Air: Design
Apple has gone back to the drawing board for the iPad Air – the full-sized, 9.7in iPad is a dead ringer for its little brother, the iPad mini. It has the same chamfered metal edges around the glass front; those edges are now more aggressively rounded than on the iPad 4; and discrete volume buttons have replaced the rocker switch of old. In our view it’s a marginally more attractive device, especially in the moody Space Grey livery (it also comes in silver), but there’s not much in it.
The headline is the reduced weight and size of the iPad Air. At 469g, the Wi-Fi iPad Air is a significant 28% lighter than the equivalent iPad 4, and it’s thinner and narrower across its waist. Hold each in succession and you notice the difference immediately.
In isolation, the weight reduction is less noticeable, but the slightly more compact dimensions make a material difference to the way you handle the Air. It’s now possible for people with large hands to stretch their fingers across the back and grip the iPad in one hand. This isn’t something we’d recommend you do for any length of time, but it gives you an extra option.
For the most part, you’ll grip it by the edge, with a thumb resting on the narrower bezel. This isn’t as much of a bind as you’d think: while reading a book in the Kindle app, for instance, you can rest a thumb in the margin without anything untoward happening, and the same goes for the browser. In our time with the tablet so far, the Air’s narrow bezels haven’t proved a problem.
Apple iPad Air: Battery life and performance
In realising the new design, Apple has reduced the capacity of the battery by 23%: it drops from a huge 43Wh to 33Wh. Yet remarkably, this hasn’t had a negative impact on longevity. In our looping video test, with the screen calibrated to a brightness of 120cd/m2 and flight mode activated, the Air lasted 12hrs 55mins – 43 minutes longer than its predecessor.
Clearly, the Air is a much more efficient tablet. According to Apple this is due in part to the low-power M7 processor, which takes over the role of handling data from the tablet’s various motion sensors (the accelerometer, the gyroscope and the compass).
A pleasant side effect of having a smaller battery is that the iPad takes less time to charge. Using the supplied AC adapter, the Air charged from 0% to 100% in around four hours. In the same time span, the iPad 4 hit only 80%. This may be a result of the more potent charger, too: the adapter bundled with the Air delivers DC current at 2.4A, compared to the 2A of the previous effort.
Performance, too, has seen a significant boost, with the same dual-core, 64-bit, 1.4GHz A7 CPU as the iPhone 5s on board. In every benchmark we ran, this helped the iPad Air stretch out a significant lead on the iPad 4, which is no slouch. It’s also faster than every Android tablet we’ve tested recently (you can find comparative results in the table below).
In real-world terms, that means swift load times for apps, slick menu and web-page scrolling and sumptuous graphics in games. In Asphalt 8: Airborne, one of the most demanding games around, there’s a slightly smoother frame rate than on the iPad 4, and the particle effects and high-resolution textures are stunning.
Apple iPad Air: Display, cameras, audio and wireless
The component that hasn’t seen any change is the display, which is an IPS unit with a resolution of 1,536 x 2,048 and a pixel density of 264ppi. We measured the maximum brightness at 410cd/m2 and the contrast ratio at 1,000:1. Eyeballing it next to the previous model, it looks identical, with rich colours and an ever-so-slightly compressed dark-end to the colour spectrum.
The cameras are similar to before, at least in terms of resolution. The rear snapper is a 5-megapixel affair, capable of capturing 1080p video, and the front-facing unit takes 1.2-megapixel shots and 720p video. There is one small difference to note, however: the front camera has a larger sensor, and thus larger pixels, which results in less noisy video and selfies. We’re talking minor stuff here, though.
On the audio side of things, there’s a bigger change: the single, rear-firing speaker has been replaced with stereo speakers on the bottom edge. Both volume and sound quality have improved, thanks to the slightly more full-bodied sound generated by the Air’s drivers.
The final update, which is another marginal but worthwhile one, is a bump to the tablet’s wireless capabilities. The move from a single internal antenna to two boosts the theoretical speed over 2.4GHz and 5GHz connections from 150Mbits/sec to 300Mbits/sec.
In the real world, you’ll not notice much difference, certainly not for internet connections and downloads, since your broadband speed will most likely prove the bottleneck. We measured the two iPads using the online service at www.speedtest.net, and at up to 20 metres away from the router across an open-plan office, each iPad achieved precisely the same download speed – around 30Mbits/sec in all locations.
Removing the broadband bottleneck and testing pure wireless speed resulted in a notable advantage in favour of the iPad Air, however: it achieved a peak transfer rate of 116Mbits/sec, with the iPad 4 achieving 69Mbits/sec.
Apple iPad Air: Verdict
Since Apple retired the iPad Air, the newer iPad Air 2 and iPad Pro 9.7 would seem the logical choice. But if you’re looking to get a quality larger tablet on the cheap, it may still be worth considering an iPad Air.
Why? Well, you’ll find plenty of iPad Airs going for a good price second-hand since it’s been superseded, and if you can cop a bargain it may do everything you need. It’s still a fairly powerful tablet, even by today’s standards, and the huge array of great apps and third-party accessories mean that it’s useful everywhere from the sofa to the professional music studio.
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