When you think about it, there aren’t many categories of gadget which benefit as much from being slim and lightweight as tablets do. After all, nobody wants to kick back and spend some quality time with a boat anchor. So the trimmer the tablet, the more inviting the prospect of cradling it in your hands for extended periods as you watch video, read e-books, peruse the Web and do all the other things which tablets excel at.
Which makes it all the more weird that Apple — a company which just loves to make new things thinner and lighter than old things — hasn’t had much of a track record of doing that with the Pad.
To date, its skinniest full-sized tablet was 2011′s iPad 2, which was .34 of an inch thick and weighed 1.33 pounds. But the “new iPad” which it unveiled in March of 2012 was .37 inch thick and weighed 1.44 pounds, making it the rare Apple device which was actually a skosh portlier than its predecessor. And the slight update to that model which followed in September of that year stuck to those specs.
Starting this Friday, Apple finally has a new big-boy iPad that’s strikingly more portable than the one before it. The screen is still the familiar 9.7-incher. But now it’s part of a device that’s .29 of an inch thick (20 percent thinner than before), and weighs only one pound (28 percent lighter). Adding to the generally diminutive feeling, the tablet is also about 11 percent narrower than before. You only have to hold it for a millisecond or two to understand why the company decided to call it the iPad Air.
With the Air, Apple is following its typical pricing strategy: Instead of listening to people who think it should sell cheaper products, it’s offering better ones at the same prices as before. Like every previous full-sized iPad, the new one starts at $499 for a model (clad in a “space gray” or silver-colored aluminum case) with 16GB of storage and Wi-Fi; it maxes out at $929 fully loaded with 128GB of space and LTE wireless networking. But Apple’s media event also included news for folks on tighter tablet-buying budgets — most notably the announcement of the iPad Mini With Retina Display, which will arrive on an unspecified day “later in November.” That one’s essentially the same device as the Air with the same specs and same industrial design, except that the digits in its screen dimensions are flipped: The display is 7.9 inches instead of 9.7 inches. Its starting price is $399.
Apple is keeping two earlier models on the market, too. Last fall’s iPad Mini, with a low-resolution screen but the same basic industrial design as the Air and Retina Mini — which also bears a strong familial resemblance to the iPhone 5s — is now $299, down from $329. And the venerable iPad 2 remains in the lineup at $399, although I think that nearly anyone with $399 to spend on an iPad will be happier with the faster, higher-resolution, more-capable-all-around Retina iPad Mini.
Meanwhile, at least some of the people who would have opted for the portability of the iPad Mini in the past should be swayed by the Air, which Apple says is the lightest full-sized tablet in the world. Depending on your definition of “full-sized,” it may lose that title on November 7, when Amazon releases its 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX; at just 13.2 ounces, the HDX almost feels as if it’s hollow, like a chocolate Easter bunny.
Still, whether it’s a record-holder or not, the iPad Air is such a featherweight that it changes the experience of using Apple’s tablet. (I tried a unit provided by Apple with built-in Verizon 4G LTE, adding .05 of a pound to the package; no, I didn’t notice it.)
To steal the phrase that Jeff Bezos used to describe Amazon’s original Kindle e-reader, you want a tablet to disappear in your hands. And there’s so much less of the Air that it comes closer to doing that than any previous full-sized iPad, letting you focus on the app you’re using rather than the device you’re holding. You can even support it in one hand, at least for a bit, without giving yourself a sore wrist. It’s just plain more approachable.
The Air sports the same screen as the old model, so it’s obvious what Apple shrunk to squeeze it into the narrower case: the borders. As with both variants of the iPad Mini, the bezels along the left- and right-hand sides of the display (when held in portrait orientation) are now slender rails. At first, that made me nervous — I worried that my palms would intrude on the screen real estate, covering vital information and possibly even triggering features which I didn’t intend to trigger. In reality, that wasn’t an issue, in part because iOS is designed to reject such accidental input.
The bezel reduction also has a major side benefit. Depending on the size of your hands, it can be much easier to reach all the keys on the on-screen keyboard as you clutch the Air in portrait mode. I typed quickly and accurately with both thumbs, a little as if it were the world’s largest BlackBerry.
From an industrial-design standpoint, the iPad Air is a dramatic improvement on any full-sized iPad before it, but an awful lot hasn’t changed about this device. The screen resolution is still 2048-by-1536 at 264 pixels per inch; Apple dubs that a Retina display, since your eyeballs shouldn’t be able to distinguish individual pixels when you hold the tablet at a typical distance.
When the iPad got those specs 20 months ago, they were so much better than the norm that they made you do a double-take. Since then, they’ve set a standard which everybody else in the industry has rushed to meet or exceed. Amazon’s 8.9″ Kindle Fire HDX, for instance, crams 2560-by-1600 pixels into a smaller display, giving it 339 pixels per inch. But the iPad didn’t need more resolution: Unless you’re in the habit of viewing your tablet through a magnifying glass, I doubt you’ll be dissatisfied with the screen.
The battery life is the same as before, too: “up to” ten hours when browsing the Web on Wi-Fi, listening to music and/or watching videos, a claim my informal tests seemed to back up. The iPad’s real-world endurance is one of the best things about it, and it must have been a challenge for Apple’s engineers to preserve it while simultaneously downsizing the dimensions and weight.
Apple also gave the new iPad the same 5-megapixel camera on its backside as the old iPad had — O.K. by tablet standards but no match for the improved 8-megapixel model on the iPhone 5s — and a 1.2-megaixel camera on the front for FaceTime and other video-calling apps. Alas, the Air doesn’t have the Touch ID fingerprint sensor that’s the iPhone 5s’s niftiest new feature; here’s hoping it shows up on the iPad Air 2 in 2014.
One big hardware change is standard yearly operating procedure for Apple: It upgraded the iPad Air to the latest model of its own custom-designed mobile processor and says that it delivers up to double the performance of the previous model. The new chip, the A7, first showed up last month in the iPhone 5s and is based on 64-bit technology rather than the 32-bit architecture that’s otherwise normal for mobile gizmos. Apps which involve particularly serious crunching of numbers — like 3D games and video editors — should benefit, especially as their creators rewrite them to take advantage of 64-bit processing. So will ones which measure your movements, such as fitness apps — as on the iPhone 5s, the Air’s A7 is partnered with a specialized chip called the M7 which can log data from the tablet’s sensors without killing the battery.
Nobody needs to pitch a tent in front of the local Apple Store to be the first on the block with a 64-bit iPad: The real point of Apple’s speed improvements for iOS devices is about allowing developers to write ever-more ambitious apps in the future, not correcting an existing deficiency. As usual, it didn’t occur to me that my old iPad might be the least bit poky until I tried the new iPad. I did, however, notice that the Air was snappier in some instances, including when it chugged its way thorough the animated effects in iOS 7′s interface.
Another new twist that’s arriving with Apple’s new iPads is a change in app pricing, or lack thereof. Buy any new iPad — or iPhone, or iPod Touch — and you’re entitled to free copies of Apple’s iPhoto image editor, iMovie video editor, GarageBand music maker, Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet and Keynote presentation tool. They’re all good, and the company has retooled all of them for iOS 7′s streamlined interface. Rather than finding them pre-installed, you download them gratis from the App Store; it’s nice not to have to ponder whether they’re worth the few dollars apiece which Apple has been charging until now.
The company is also providing people who buy new Macs with new OS X versions of all these apps at no additional charge. The not-so-subliminal message: It thinks you should buy lots of its devices, run lots of its apps, and use everything together as a system.
In the end, though, it’s not Apple’s six newly-free apps that make the iPad Air special, or even the ones which are preinstalled, like the Safari browser and Siri. It isn’t even the new hardware, impressive though it is.
No, the iPad Air’s best feature is the 475,000 third-party offerings tailored for it in the App Store, still by far the most bountiful collection of tablet software in quantity, quality and sheer diversity, from entertainment to Web tools to education to mundane business stuff. No competing model has anything like it, which is the single biggest reason why no other full-sized model has made much of an impact on the market.
Designwise, this iPad is so much svelter that it almost feels like a new class of Apple tablet, but it remains an iPad — and for now, at least, that continues to be the most important bragging right that any tablet can claim.