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Thin, light, and blazing fast, the iPad Air is a big step forward

If you've been thinking of upgrading or buying your first iPad, now is the time

Last updated: November 05, 2013 02:30 PM

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UPDATE: battery life. Our labs have finished more testing, and found that battery life for the iPad Air is a bit better than that of the former model, the 4th-generation iPad. In our tests, the Wi-Fi version of the iPad Air got 13.5 hours of battery life, compared to 12.9 hours on the prior model. And the battery on the 4G Air lasted 12.9 hours, slightly more than an hour longer than the 4th-generation 4G iPad (11.7 hours).  

The Apple iPad Air went on sale in stores today, and that might have you thinking: Is it time for a new iPad? We bought one this morning to help you answer that question. Our conclusion: It’s a worthwhile upgrade, our preliminary tests show.

In fact, the iPad Air ($500, Wi-Fi, 16GB) is just about the ideal tablet. It's as thin and light as it can be, practically speaking. It sets the speed bar as high as any other tablet or phone. And the display remains tops.

The look and feel

"Air" is the right word to describe this tablet. Like its namesake laptop, the MacBook Air, the iPad Air is super thin and light. If you've used the iPad or any other larger tablet for any period of time, you’ll notice the difference right away.

The Air weighs just a pound, compared to the 1.5 pounds of older models. It's just 0.3 inches thick, while the fourth-generation iPad measures 0.37 inches. Apple even managed to make the Air a half-inch narrower by trimming the bezels on the display—without affecting the 9.7-inch screen size.

The display

The iPad Air’s display looks as impressive as that of the fourth-generation iPad. Colors appear realistic and natural. It's one of the brightest displays available, and easy to read in daylight. And the viewing angle is extremely wide in portrait and landscape orientations.

Performance

With the new A7 processor, the iPad Air was faster than you probably need a tablet to be—twice as fast, in fact, as the fourth-generation iPad. That's always a good thing, since new apps are sure to come that will take better advantage of all that power.

Compared to the fourth-generation model, the Ice Storm Extreme graphics benchmark ran 50 percent faster overall and the picture looked much smoother in our tests. Apple says it does all this without sacrificing battery power; we're already testing battery life on the iPad Air and will let you know the results soon.

As for Wi-Fi, Apple says the two antennas built into the iPad Air help push wireless performance to twice as fast as the fourth-generation model. In our tests, Wi-Fi was 38 percent faster.

Find the best model for your needs and budget with our tablet buying guide and Ratings.  


Sound

This is the first 9.7-inch iPad to have stereo speakers (the iPad mini already has them). The speakers are too close together to make the stereo effect distinguishable. Sound is also brighter, which brings out the treble, so there are more highs and less bass than in the fourth-generation iPad. It's also not as loud as the older model.

That said, sound is still good on the iPad Air. But if you’re looking for a better audio experience, you'll want to add a set of headphones or wireless speakers.

Covers and cases

Apple also introduced a new cover to go with the iPad Air (older ones don't fit), and a more protective case. The new Smart Cover ($39) doesn’t have the metal hinges previous covers did, but it still attaches magnetically. It has only three folds instead of four, but folds over the same way as before to create a stand.

The cover we bought didn't sit flat on the tablet at first. It should flatten out with use, though, and it didn't keep the iPad from automatically turning off as it should. It was easy to slip the tablet into the magnetic iPad Air Smart Case ($79), which protects the back as well as the display. But it was a bit difficult to remove the iPad Air from the case.

Bottom line

If you've been on the fence about buying your first iPad, the iPad Air brings just about everything you'd want to the table. It's the lightest 9.7-inch or larger tablet we've tested (though a few come close) and among the thinnest. It's one of very few with an excellent display. A quibble: There's still no built-in memory-card slot or USB port, although accessories are available if you want to add those externally.

If you just bought a fourth-generation iPad, you should be fine sticking with it. Users of third-generation iPads might also be fine, although that model and older ones aren't compatible with some of the features of iOS 7, Apple's newest mobile OS. Owners of first- or second-generation iPads, without the Retina display, would certainly benefit by upgrading.

—Donna Tapellini and Dean Gallea

   

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