iPad Air Australian Review: Big Is Beautiful Again

Remember when the original iPad debuted in the hands of Steve Jobs, and he bold-facedly called it an incredibly thin and light device? Imagine what he’d say if he could see what his 9.7-inch roll-of-the-dice became just five short years later. Behold: the iPad Air. You’ve come a long way, baby.

What Is It?

The big iPad with a facelift and a personal trainer.

The iPad continues to support the same 9.7-inch Retina Display, but the guts have changed somewhat from the last model. Peel that beautiful panel back and you’ll find a dual-core, 1.3GHz Apple A7 chip, a quad-core GPU, 1GB of RAM and your choice of between 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB storage options.

That new CPU chip means the whole experience has gone 64-bit, and as we explained in our iPhone 5s review, the ARMv8 architecture that the new A7 chip runs on allows for the 64-bit upgrade, and in the long run it allows for more RAM to be addressed under the hood. We’re talking like 4GB of RAM, which is 4x more than the iPhone 5s has right now for example, but that’s not the most immediate benefit. The new 64-bit upgrade will mean that the A7 chip will be able to process computations and numbers faster than ever, so that complex tasks are dealt with faster.

While that might not mean much to a normal person, it means good stuff in the long run for faster apps and speedy task completion.

What’s Good?

To say simply that the new iPad is thinner and lighter than ever before would be an understatement, and frankly do the device, and the work that has clearly gone into making it so good, a disservice.

To understand just how thin and light Apple has made the traditional 9.7-inch tablet, you must first look at where it came from. The original iPad weighed an unsightly 730 grams, and rocked itself gently to sleep on your tabletop thanks to a curved back.

Needless to say, the bezel between the edge of the tablet and the screen was massive, and viewing content was hampered by the bulk of the thing. The iPad 2 came along, and flattened out the experience from a physical hardware perspective. The edges became sharper, as did the screen and the obnoxious bezel was shrunk down to what felt like half its original size. It still weighed enough to give you a decent smack in the face if you fell asleep with it on your chest, packing an 607 gram wallop.

That’s how things stayed for two years through the ridiculously-named “New iPad” and the Fourth-Generation iPad. The problem with the latter is that it was rushed out less than a year after the “New iPad”, making buyers dissatisfied with the fact that they’d dropped $1000 on a tablet that should have had more.

The iPad game was a little sour by that point. The iPad mini was doing great business as Apple’s first entry into the smaller tablet game, but still something was missing. A change was required to the formula to wow people again. Enter iPad Air: a device that's twice as fast as the closest generation from a hardware perspective (read on for more), which weighs in at just 469 grams. The 9.7-inch iPad Air now weighs only 157 grams more than its 7.9-inch iPad mini counterpart. That's super-impressive. Compare the Air to the original iPad, and they barely look like they are made by the same manufacturer, let alone in the same family of products.

This thing is insanely light and thin for a 9.7-inch tablet. It appears that Apple set out on a mission to make sure that this thing wouldn’t referred to as “the big iPad” ever again. It looks a lot like the iPad Mini these days, what with its chamfered edges, matte finish and thin bezel, and we rather like that.

We decided to check out just how thin the unit was, and placed it next to the First-Generation iPad Mini and the new iPhone 5s and found that it's roughly 1mm thinner than the iPhone, but about the same thicker than the iPad Mini. Regardless, that's super-impressive.

Compared to the iPad Mini:

Compared to the iPhone 5s:

The new A7 chip in the iPad Air blitzed our benchmarks, coming in at 2685 in the multi-core tests. To put that in perspective, it's faster than the late-2009 Mac Mini running the Intel Core 2 Duo processor, in a body that's thinner than the iPhone 5s. It beats the pants of the 4th Generation iPad, which clocked in a score of just over 1400 in the same tests. All that with just 1GB of RAM is pretty impressive. Now all we need to do is put Mac OS X on it and it'll be perfect (we do jokes, you know).

Elsewhere, the iPad Air still packs in the same pleasant experience you'd find on the previous generation's products. You've still got a killer Retina display, on which iOS 7 looks amazing, a decent camera for taking photos (while looking like an idiot) and a fast user experience thanks to great hardware in a lighter package than ever.

The return of 4G for the iPad is welcomed, and the new cases in iOS 7-esque colours are great.

What's Bad?

Despite the fact that Apple baked the super-fast 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard into its new Airport Extreme routers, its flagship products are coming out without support for it. The iPad Air is no exception, packing in 802.11a/b/g/n support, but no ac.

The Air includes MIMO (Multiple-In, Multiple-Out) technology where dual-Wi-Fi antennas are used to boost pull-through speeds, but it's still not going to placate serious network junkies who want the latest and greatest tech in their iPad.

There's also no Touch ID in the new tablet, despite being present in the new super-thin iPhone 5s. Put simply, it’s a touch-activated fingerprint reader cleverly hidden underneath the home button, and it's nowhere to be found on the new iPad Air. We were really excited when the fingerprint security gadget came to the new iPhone, and thought it could give way to new profiles in iOS which we've been waiting for.

What it could have meant for iDevices in the future, especially the iPad is the ability to leverage the Touch ID verification on the iTunes Store to seamlessly switch accounts on a shared tablet.

Lots of families, couples and flatmates share devices these days, especially the iPad. What if, rather than signing out of an iTunes account and signing into another one, the login was fluid, meaning that when you buy an app you touch your registered finger to the device and it matches it to a user, billing the account and setting the permissions on the device accordingly.

It would work for securely managing users too, so when one person tried to open an app purchased by a friend, a setting could be enacted to scan the fingerprint of the purchaser or user so that data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Touch ID, if leveraged properly, has the potential to solve shared device headaches while it keeps our iPhone data safe in the meantime.

Should You Buy It?

If you've ever been put off owning a big tablet because of the size, the iPad Air goes a long way to circumventing your concerns. It's lighter and easier to wield than ever, but still gives you the bright and beautiful 9.7-inch screen that defines this product family.

You can now finally compare the iPad mini and iPad Air against each other on weight which is a huge achievement for the designers at Cupertino.

There's never been a better time to consider a big new tablet in your life with the iPad Air. It surpasses its competitors and even blows its predecessors out of the water.

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