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iPad Air review: The best tablet gets better

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The iPad Air also includes the M7 coprocessor, which first debuted in the iPhone 5s. This chip allows iOS devices to monitor sensor data without waking up the full A7 processor, saving battery life. iPads are less-mobile devices than iPhones, so I’m a bit skeptical about the importance of including the M7. However, iOS 7 does take advantage of the M7 and sensor data to do things like go into low-power modes when the device isn’t being moved around; and app developers will be taking advantage of the M7’s sensor data, so I suppose it’s better to have it than to not have it.

Our preliminary tests of the iPad Air’s battery also match Apple’s claims. We set an iPad Air to play an HD video in a loop at a standard brightness and volume levels, and it lasted more than 10 hours. The fourth-generation iPad lasted about 9 hours, 15 minutes in the same test; and the (current) iPad mini about 9 hours, 30 minutes. (The iPhone 5s, on the other hand, lasted more than 11 hours—but, then, it has far fewer pixels to keep lit.)

Working hard, or hardly working?

From the moment the original iPad was released, people have debated whether these sorts of devices are capable of doing “real” work. In fact, Apple specifically released iPad versions of Pages, Keynote, and Numbers on day one in order to send the message that the company believed the iPad was not just a toy, but also a productivity tool.

Image: Apple

Sure, many iPads are used to play games or watch movies or read magazines. But they’re also used to create business documents, build websites, and compose novels. Given the power of the A7 processor, the iPad Air is roughly six times faster than that original iPad. It’s got a 64-bit processor and the kind of computing power that only a few years ago we’d have expected from a professional-level laptop.

So is the iPad Air a productivity device? Sure, if you want it to be—and if it’s got the tools to do the particular job you need it to do. In the early days of the iPad it was easy to point at the hardware and suggest that these poor li’l underpowered iPads just couldn’t do real, robust work. The A7 makes those excuses moot. But has the software caught up?

Slowly, iPad apps are appearing that provide all the tools that conventional desktop apps provided. The text-editing app Editorial, for example, comes with a set of macros and scripting support that make it a fair competitor with any Mac text editor out there. The Omni Group’s suite of iPad apps is as rich and full-featured as their Mac versions. Apple’s iWork and iLife apps are similarly impressive.

But make no mistake, we’re still in the early days, and if you rely on a certain kind of workflow that the iPad just can’t perform, then it can’t be your main system. As a writer, I’m set on the iPad (though I would lean on a Bluetooth keyboard for day-to-day use). As someone who edits a podcast every week, I’m on the fence. There are a few multitrack audio editors out there for the iPad, but how long would it take me to use my fingers to edit a podcast compared to the speed I’ve got using Logic Pro X on my MacBook Air? When my fingers and an iPad can do the job as well as a keyboard, trackpad, and Mac, then I can make the switch.

But if the iPad Air isn’t suitable as a work device, it won’t be because of its lack of computing power. It’ll be because the software just isn’t there yet, or because fundamentally a tablet and touch interface aren’t appropriate for that kind of job. Steve Jobs famously once likened iOS devices to cars and PCs to trucks. Note that he said trucks, not horse-drawn carriages: Some jobs still require trucks. But the iPad Air makes it clear that it’s a car, and a powerful one at that.

Touch ID? Nope

One feature the iPad Air doesn’t offer—but the iPhone 5s does—is the Touch ID fingerprint-sensor technology. I’ve been using the iPhone 5s since day one, and I’ve gotten to love Touch ID. I previously locked my iPhone with a four-digit passcode; now I use a more complex password, yet almost never have to type it in. But I’ve never, ever passcode-locked my iPad. The tablet is generally in my house or in another secure location, so I just haven’t felt the need.

As a result, I don’t find myself missing Touch ID on the iPad Air. It would be nice, sure. And clearly Apple is pushing users toward the direction of passcode locks: The iOS 7 setup strongly encourages users to set up a passcode lock, and iCloud Keychain is disabled entirely if your device doesn’t have one. But I don’t find the omission of Touch ID to be a major issue.

Covers and cases

With the iPad Air’s new size and shape will come a raft of new iPad accessories. Apple has started the ball rolling with its new Smart Cover and Smart Cases.

Image: Apple

Our accessories experts will be reviewing them both in detail; I’ll just say that I’ve been a big fan of the Smart Cover for a long time, and I like the new model. It’s essentially a scaled-up version of the iPad mini Smart Cover. It’s available only in polyurethane (not leather like the older iPad Smart Cover) and it attaches to the iPad via a magnetic spine covered in polyurethane instead of via a magnetic metal hinge. I don’t like this new Smart Cover as much as the old model (I loved the leather Smart Cover I got with my iPad 2), but it’s solid.

My wife never liked the Smart Cover, because she said she didn’t like the feel of the iPad’s metallic back. For people like her, there’s the Smart Case, which is basically a Smart Cover that wraps around to cover the back of the iPad. It’s made out of leather and seems to be well made, though I’m not sure I’d want to bulk up the iPad Air with a full case. That’s why I’m a Smart Cover person; obviously, your mileage (like my wife’s) may vary.

Options and buying advice

So you’ve decided you want to buy an iPad Air. Now pick your poison: There are 16 different models to choose from. Once you’ve chosen white/silver or black/gray, you’ll need to settle on storage and networking features.

Apple is offering four storage options, ranging from 16GB to 128GB. You’ll pay an extra $100 for each doubling of the storage space. These days I have a hard time recommending the 16GB model to anyone, really. I bought a 16GB iPad mini last year and almost instantly regretted it; my wife’s got a 16GB third-generation iPad and has made me swear that we’ll never buy a 16GB model again. It might be enough storage for very light use, but if you’re reading this review I suspect you are not a casual-enough user to settle for the 16GB model.

As with all previous models of iPad, Apple is offering a cellular-capable model of the iPad Air for a $130 premium over the Wi-Fi-only model. If you’re only ever going to use your iPad at home or in other places where there’s readily available Wi-Fi, this is a no-brainer. But otherwise, it’s worth seriously considering the cellular model. It supports pretty much every format of cellular service, and the SIM card slot is unlocked, you can switch carriers and even buy a prepaid SIM card when you’re roaming internationally.

There’s no contract commitment required, and carriers offer aggressively priced pay-as-you-go plans. T-Mobile in the U.S. is even offering 200MB of monthly data for free. And an iPad makes a great wireless hotspot, allowing you to connect other devices (like your laptop or an internationally roaming smartphone) via Wi-Fi. Since there’s no ongoing commitment, you’re really paying an extra $130 up front in order to have the freedom to switch on cellular data when you’re in need. If you travel with your iPad and have experienced the frustration of not being able to get online, it’s worth serious consideration.

Bottom line

The iPad was already the best large tablet out there. If it had any deficiencies, it was really in terms of weight and size, and that’s where the iPad Air shines. It’s still got a battery that will last for 10 hours, and now it’s twice as fast as it was before, opening the door for even more apps that can boost personal productivity or just entertain you that much faster.

It’s right there in the name: The iPad Air is still an iPad, but it’s lighter and thinner and twice as fast to boot. If you want a tablet you can comfortably hold with one hand, look elsewhere. Otherwise, look no further than the iPad Air.

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