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Sunday, November 03, 2013, 04:15 pm PT (07:15 pm ET)

Review: Apple's fifth-generation iPad Air

When Apple announced the iPad Air, the company said that words alone wouldn't do it justice — users had to feel its latest tablet to truly appreciate the difference. As it turns out, they were right.

iPad Air


The iPad Air is Apple's fifth-generation full-size tablet. It features the same 9.7-inch Retina display found on the previous third- and fourth-generation models, sports a significantly thinner and lighter design than its predecessors.

Apple achieved this in part by reducing the bezel on the sides of the display, giving the full-size tablet a more svelte look and feel. It's the same design that has made Apple's iPad mini such a wild success.

The pricing on the iPad Air is the same as it's always been for Apple's full-size tablets. The entry-level, Wi-Fi-only model offers 16-gigabytes of storage, with capacities doubling for $100 extra, up to 128 gigabytes. Models with cellular radios and GPS come with a $130 premium.

The iPad Air also comes in two color options: a "space gray," aluminum back with a black front, and a "silver" model with white front. For our review, we tested both the white and space gray models in 32-gigabyte capacities.

iPad Air


Design



Externally, a lot has changed from the second, third and fourth iPad iterations. Gone is the steeply-tapered rear chassis, replaced by a design with a substantially flat back that runs into gently rounded edges. Up front, chamfered bevels surround the cover glass.

The iPad Air is a joy to hold. It's light, thin and the construction just feels fantastic.

iPad Air


Of course, anyone who's used an iPad mini already knows this, as the new iPad Air is basically just a bigger version of Apple's wildly successful 7.9-inch tablet. But for those who prefer the bigger 9.7-inch display on the full-size iPad, the changes will be welcome.

Apple shaved nearly a half-pound off of its previous-generation iPad, and it shows. While the old iPad became noticeably heavy to us after prolonged use, this one just feels svelte, earning its "Air" moniker.

iPad Air

From top: iPad mini, iPad Air, 3rd generation iPad.


The iPad Air comes in at just one pound for the Wi-Fi model, while the cellular capable version with GPS adds on 0.05-pound. That compares to 1.44 pounds and 1.46 pounds for the fourth-generation tablet.

Picking up the iPad Air with one hand, and the iPad mini in another, the difference in weight is negligible. With the Retina iPad mini coming later this month, the only material difference between the 9.7-inch and 7.9-inch tablets is screen size.

iPad Air

iPad volume buttons and mute switch. From top: iPad mini, iPad Air, 3rd generation iPad.


The most noticeable visual change from legacy iPads are the bezels. Compared to the fourth-gen iPad, Apple lopped off nearly half of the space sitting on each side of the display. Top and bottom bezels retain similar widths, but Apple is somewhat limited there due to the home button and front-facing camera substructures.

Trimming the bezel on the iPad offers benefits beyond reduced weight. With a smaller bezel, the amount of distance needed for a user's thumbs to travel to reach items on the screen has been reduced. This is a particularly welcome change when using the iPad's onscreen virtual keyboard in portrait mode.

Since the third-generation iPad, Apple's 9.7-inch tablets have come with a 2,048-by-1,536 pixel Retina display, and the Air is no different. While the new device is not upping the screen resolution ante, it can be argued that the first Retina iPad was ahead of its time, so a spec bump was not entirely necessary. Color rendition is accurate, contrast is good and viewing angles are top-notch.

iPad Air

iPad Air (left) with iPad mini.


Perhaps the only new bit of tech used in the Air's screen has to do with user input. Apple appears to have brought over the iPad mini's efficient GF2 thin-film touch sensor, which results in an overall decrease in power consumption.

Also redesigned are Apple's Smart Cover and Smart Case accessories. The Smart Cover is now only available in polyurethane, with the leather option restricted to just the Smart Case.

iPad Air

iPad Air (left) with 3rd generation iPad.


The magnetic covers still turn the display on and off, and folds up into a triangle allowing the iPad to be stood up. The covers are the same as those for the iPad mini, featuring three folding points instead of four, and a newly covered magnetic attachment piece that should prevent scratches when attaching the accessory to the iPad Air.

On the next page, details on what's inside the iPad Air, including the new A7 chip, plus final thoughts and score.