The iPad Air

There are so many millions of iPad users that no simple explanation can cover all use cases. But my take, since last year, has been that the full-size iPad is best seen as an alternative to a laptop, and the iPad Mini as a supplement to a laptop.

But the tremendous weight reduction in the iPad Air complicates this equation. A year ago, a new iPad 4 weighed 1.4 pounds (650 grams); an 11-inch MacBook Air weighs 2.38 pounds (1,080 grams). There’s something about the fact that last year’s iPad 4 was quite a bit more than half the weight of a MacBook Air, and this year’s iPad Air (1.0 pound / 469 grams) is quite a bit less than half the weight of a MacBook Air. For one thing, it makes the iPad Air seem more reasonable as a supplement to a MacBook (filling the role I had previously thought best served by the iPad Mini). And on the flip side, for those who really care about traveling light, it makes the iPad Air far more compelling as a replacement for traveling with a MacBook at all. For those whose software needs are such that they can truly go iOS-only, the new iPad Air is a compelling option as an alternative to a Mac or PC laptop. Even if you pack along a hardware keyboard peripheral, you can easily stay under 2 pounds total weight with an iPad Air as a travel computer. The iPad Air makes an iPad 3/4 feel heavy; it makes an 11-inch MacBook Air feel like an anchor.

So I’m envisioning two types of people:

  1. Those who still need or merely want to carry a MacBook with them when they travel, but who also want to carry an iPad.

  2. Those whose portable computing needs can — all, or even just most, of the time — be met by an iPad.

I think it’s worth considering the iPad Air from both perspectives.

iPad Air as Supplement to a MacBook (Where by ‘MacBook’, I Really Mean Any PC or Mac Laptop)

Last year the decision regarding which iPad to buy was pretty easy. If you were in group 1, you should have bought an iPad Mini. Group 2, an iPad 4.

Me, personally, I’m still in group 1 — when I’m traveling, I need a MacBook of some sort to work efficiently. Part of it is as simple as having a hardware keyboard, but if that were all, I could easily solve the problem with a hardware keyboard for the iPad. But it’s also about software — BBEdit, MarsEdit, a web browser that can open several dozen tabs at a time without breaking a sweat, custom scripts and services that I’ve written for myself over the years — these things make me far more efficient on a Mac than I am while working on any iOS device. Carrying around an iPad Mini for the last year as a secondary travel device has been great — to me an iPad is worth carrying as a secondary device just for reading and use as a cellular hotspot alone.

I like to travel light, and the Mini just made sense as the iPad for me.

Now that the iPad Air is merely 0.3 pounds (137 grams) heavier than a retina iPad Mini, though, it just isn’t that much extra weight to worry about. The weight difference still might matter in terms of what it feels like to hold it in your hands for prolonged periods, but not in terms of travel weight.

It’s also the case that most of the time, I’m at home, not traveling. I use my iPad daily, generally first thing in the morning, and then again late at night. I use it for reading and flagging emails and tweets with potential content I might post to Daring Fireball. For me, the iPad, on a day-to-day basis, is largely a triage device for news and links, and the device I turn to for long-form reading I didn’t find time for during the workday. Having spent the last week using the new iPad Air instead of my old iPad Mini, it’s been a win in every regard but one. First things first: good god almighty did I miss having a retina display on my daily iPad. I don’t regret switching to the non-retina Mini for a year, but that display is just gross once your eyes get accustomed to retina quality. The extra weight of the iPad Air (compared to my Mini), while holding it one-handed1 standing in the kitchen making coffee in the morning, or sitting on the couch watching the World Series at night? Practically negligible. Looking at the specs, you can see that the iPad Air is now closer in weight to the iPad Mini than to the iPad 3/4, and in my experience, it feels that way in actual use, too.

The one and only catch for me is typing. I’ve never typed much on any iPad. And then over the past year with my Mini, I grew attached to typing with my thumbs, iPhone-style. This is more comfortable now with the Air than on previous full-size iPads (with their significantly wider bezels along the sides while in portrait orientation), but it’s still not as comfortable as on the Mini. For people who type with all ten fingers on their iPads, surely the 9.7-inch models are better than the Mini. But for me, as an iPad thumb-typist, the Mini makes it easier to type.

The bottom line, though, is that for anyone who sees an iPad as a supplemental device, the iPad Air is a very compelling alternative to the iPad Mini. It’s so much lighter than the iPad 3/4, both as something to carry when traveling and to hold while using, that it significantly diminishes the iPad Mini’s primary distinguishing feature. For anyone who has spent the last year thinking, Well, I would like something lighter, sure, but I’m not crazy about the idea of such a small display, because I want to use my iPad for things where a bigger display is better, like watching movies, reading magazines and comic books, and touch-typing in landscape orientation — the iPad Air is the device for you.

For me, personally, with my primary uses of the iPad being reading web pages, Twitter, email, and books,2 the larger display of the Air doesn’t have as much appeal. I think I’m going to hold out and buy a new iPad Mini for myself. But it’s a damn close call.

The iPad Air as a Primary Portable Computer

Here, I can’t write from personal experience. As stated above, I still want a MacBook of some sort for working while traveling, and I think I will for years to come. But most people don’t. Most of you, reading this, might. But most people in general don’t.

They have no need for the extra performance of a laptop, and they are hindered — not helped — by the extra complexity. Performance matters, but the iPad has always been fast enough for many people, and with each passing year it becomes fast enough for more people.

The A7 in the iPad Air is a huge upgrade performance-wise over previous iPads. More importantly, and more intriguingly, it brings the iPad Air into line with late-model Mac and PC laptops.

When I reviewed the iPhone 5S last month, I pointed out that it beat, albeit slightly, my 2008 15-inch MacBook Pro in the Sunspider web browser benchmark. Here’s a perhaps more relevant comparison: my 11-inch MacBook Air, late 2010.

The new iPad Air outperforms that MacBook Air on both the Sunspider and Geekbench 3 benchmarks:

Geekbench 3 Benchmark (Higher Is Better)

Device Single core Multi core
iPad Air 1,476 2,673
iPhone 5S 1,413 2,561
iPad 3 263 493
iPad 4 764 1,424
MacBook Air (late 2010) 871 1,438

Sunspider 1.0.2 (Lower Times Are Better)

Device Time (ms)
iPad Air 397
iPhone 5S 416
iPad 3 1,326
iPad 4 710
MacBook Air (late 2010) 476

(According to Geekbench 3, the iPhone 5S CPU is running at 1.29 GHz and the iPad Air CPU is running at 1.39 GHz — this would account for the iPad Air’s slightly superior benchmark scores. All iOS devices were running iOS 7.0.3; the MacBook Air was running OS X Mavericks 10.9.0 and Safari 7.0.)

To me, the comparison that is most interesting is to my MacBook Air. In exactly three years, Apple has produced an iPad that outperforms a then-brand-new MacBook. Three years is a decent chunk of time in this industry, and the MacBook Air has made great strides since then, but this (a brand-new iPad Air versus a late 2010 MacBook Air) is a credible comparison. In many ways the iPad Air is not just the superior device, but clearly so — it has a retina display, the MacBook Air does not; it gets 10 hours of battery life, the MacBook Air was advertised at just 5 hours back then (and as an old and much-used device, my personal MacBook Air gets significantly less than 5 hours of battery life today).

In short, for people upgrading from a 3 or 4 year-old laptop (let alone an even older one), the iPad Air is faster, straight up. Plus it has all the other advantages the iPad has always had: weight, simplicity, app selection, and most elusively, in Steve Jobs’s own words, magic.

For anyone who doesn’t truly take advantage of the capabilities in Mac OS X (or Windows) that aren’t available in iOS, the iPad Air is a superior portable computer to a laptop in nearly every way. Smaller, lighter, simpler, more fun. And now, with the iPad Air, in many cases it’s even a faster device. Note too, the simple fact that the high-end iPad Air, with cellular networking and 128 GB of storage (the configuration I tested), costs $929 — only $70 less than the base model MacBook Air. The new iPad Air is a full-fledged competitor to laptops.

An obsession with treating “tablets” as an entirely new and separate product category is blinding some observers from what is really going on with the iPad — it is taking over a large segment of the PC industry. As iPad sales have grown, PC sales have contracted. I expect the iPad Air to accelerate both trends — the growth in iPad sales, and the contraction of the PC market.

Miscellany

Apple included both the new Smart Cover and Smart Case with my review unit.

The new Smart Cover is pretty much just an iPad Air-sized version of the iPad Mini Smart Cover from last year: the magnetic side attachment is now part of the polyurethane cover, as opposed to the iPad 3/4 Smart Cover, which had a metal side attachment. The new Air Smart Cover also has just three folding panels, as opposed to four. I like the new cover better. The metal Smart Cover attachment scratched the side of the iPad 3/4 over time, and the connection between the polyurethane and the metal tended to stretch and get loose over time. I’ve seen complaints that the iPad Mini’s three-panel cover doesn’t make for as sturdy a stand as the old four-panel one when folded over to prop up the iPad, but I’ve had no such problems.

Regarding the Smart Case: I just don’t see the point. The iPad Air certainly does snap in and out of the Smart Case rather easily (in hindsight, just how awful was that case Apple made for the original iPad?). But I don’t think most people have a good reason to protect the back of the iPad. What’s the point of buying an iPad that is so amazingly thin only to wrap it in a case that makes it so much thicker? What’s the point of obsessively preventing the aluminum back from getting scratched if you’re going to keep it wrapped in a case and never look at or touch the back of the device anyway?

And if you use your iPad in a scenario where you really do want to protect the whole thing — not just the glass but the back too — why leather? Wouldn’t polyurethane — at least as an option — make more sense for the cover that is intended to be more protective?

In terms of battery life, I found the iPad Air to be, well, an iPad. In a week of normal use and only occasional charging, it seldom fell under 50 percent. It does take a while to charge, even when using the included 12-watt power adapter. It took about an hour to go from 37 percent to 66 percent, and about 90 minutes to go from 66 percent all the way to 100. But charge it overnight and you should easily get a full day of active use or several days of casual use out of it. Starting with the original model in 2010, Apple has seemingly been unwilling to bend on a floor of 10 hours of battery life, and the iPad Air maintains this pedigree.


  1. Worth noting that not once in the past week have I encountered a single problem caused by the narrower bezel on the iPad Air. I’m not surprised, given that I never had any problems with inadvertent touches registering on the sides with the similarly proportioned bezels of the iPad Mini, but I know from the email I’ve been getting from readers that this is a concern for users upgrading from previous full-size iPads. Your mileage may vary, of course, but it seems to me that Apple has solved this problem in software. 

  2. Is anyone else surprised that the iOS version of iBooks still hasn’t been updated for iOS 7? When it didn’t appear in the App Store last week along with Apple’s other App Store apps, I sort of assumed that there must have been some sort of last-minute bug holding it up. But here we are a week later, and the one app from Apple that was most in need of an iOS 7 redesign still hasn’t gotten one. 

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